Monday, January 02, 2006

Flagler's Fortunes, Part I

Oil man, real estate developer and prodigious party-hat-wearer Henry M. Flagler was born on this day in 1830 in Hopewell, New York.

A successful grain merchant, in 1868 Flagler joined with John D. Rockefeller to establish the partnership that would become Standard Oil; Rockefeller always gave him credit for some of the key ideas that helped to launch the petroleum behemoth. By 1876, however, Flagler turned his attention to family matters, taking his tubercular wife Mary to Florida on doctor's orders. She died in 1881, and shortly thereafter Flagler married his wife's nurse, Ida Shourds, and returned to Florida to speculate in land.

In 1888, Flagler built his first Florida hotel, the 540-room Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, followed a few years later by another luxury hotel, the Royal Poinciana on Palm Beach Island. Ultimately, his strategy was to build a trans-Everglade railway, stringing together each of his lavish resorts from Jacksonville to Miami to the Keys, catering to wealthy New Yorkers.

Flagler also knew how to throw a party, and his hotels became known for their bacchanalian excesses; at some of the famous drag costume balls at the Poinciana, Flagler would lead the pack dressed as Marie Antoinette (albeit with an ever-present mustache and cigar).

Within this heady atmosphere, Ida Flagler began to break down mentally, and Flagler hesitated little before having her carted off to a New York sanitorium and taking a new mistress -- this time a classical singer and pianist, 37 years his junior, named Mary Lily Kenan. Divorce was not legal in New York in those days, however, so Flagler changed his residence and used all of his political capital (as well as some well-placed "contributions") to persuade the Florida legislature to pass a law permitting divorce on the grounds of "incurable insanity." In 1901, after providing for Ida with a settlement of $2.3 million in securities and property, Flagler married the 34-year old Kenan, giving her a wedding gift of $3 million and a palatial mansion, "Whitehall," on Lake Worth in Palm Beach.

After another decade of outrageous parties, Flagler died a few days after being knocked down a flight of marble stairs by a pair of pneumatic doors that Mary Lily had installed at Whitehall. At his funeral, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler was touted as the wealthiest woman in the U.S., with a fortune of between $60-100 million.

But that wasn't the end of the story . . .

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