Tales from the Vault #10

Marie Beale & Decatur House

This edition of Tales brings us to one of the most interesting of Kern County’s pioneer families. We have all heard of the remarkable stories about General Edward Fitzgerald Beale, Mexican/American War Hero, and friend of Kit Carson, gold smuggler, Indian Agent, and land holder. Historic Decatur HouseWe have also heard as many stories about his son Truxtun Beale. The focus of this tale is on Marie Beale, Truxtun’s wife who was just as intriguing as her husband and her father-in-law.

Born about 1881, Marie Oge married Truxtun Beale on April 23, 1903. The only witnesses present were Marie’s mother and Truxtun’s sister. Soon after the wedding they set sail for Europe aboard the S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II built in Stettin, Germany.[1] The Wilhelm II was seized April 6, 1917 by the United States Government after it entered the Great War. Some notable passengers on the same voyage were Fremont Older, the San Francisco reporter who exposed the corruption of Abe Ruef, and newspaper millionaire William Randolph Hearst.

Although Marie Beale married into one of America’s preeminent families, she too, came from a family with its own claims to historical fame. Philander Chase (December 14, 1775-September 20, 1852), founder of Kenyon College in 1824, was a great grandfather . Philander’s nephew, Salmon P. Chase, was a U.S. Senator, Governor of Ohio, U.S. Treasury Secretary (under Abraham Lincoln), and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

After Marie’s marriage to Truxtun, they moved into the historic Decatur House on Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. The Decatur House, built in 1818, was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and was home to a variety of historical figures including Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, and Edward Livingston. Edward F. Beale gained ownership of this magnificent abode in 1872 and soon remodeled it in Victorian Style.[2] Mary Beale (Truxtun’s mother) occupied the house after her husband’s death in 1893. At first, Marie and Truxtun lived part of the time in California (Tejon Ranch) and part of the time in Washington D.C. It seems, however, that her fondest moments were spent at the Decatur House. She shares those memories and its history in her book Decatur House and Its Inhabitants (1954).

Marie was the quintessential Washington socialite as she frequently entertained American Statesmen and foreign diplomats. Hers was one of two places to be in Washington D.C. She notes that “as in its first days, guests now came to only two places in La Fayette Square–the President’s Mansion and Decatur House–which somehow symbolized the completion of a long cycle.” [3] In 1938, Life magazine paid tribute to Marie Beale in the article “Life Goes to a Party with high Washington Society at Mrs. Truxtun Beale’s historic Decatur House.” The article included fourteen photographs of notable figures including the Belgian Ambassador, Mrs. Patrick J. Hurley, the Yugoslavian Minister, the German Ambassador, Lady Lindsay, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, the Rumanian Minister, and, of course, our esteemed hostess Marie Beale. The article noted that she was “one of Washington’s topflight hostesses, has been giving her post-Diplomatic Reception party ever since the War. An affair so exclusive that even guest lists do not appear, it has never before been photographed.” [4] The article goes on to note that the reception in question would quite possibly be the last, as she was looking to liquidate the estate.[5] This must of been bad news for those who attended her receptions.

Sadly, Marie Beale died in 1956 while visiting in Zurich, Switzerland. Thanks to her efforts she was able to get Decatur House to become a national shrine. It is managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Of Decatur House, Marie had this to convey and is worth quoting at length:

Like a prim dowager, Decatur House serenely overlooks the park that grew up in its front yard, preserving unchanged its original simplicity. During more than 130 years of intimate connection with the main stream of American history Decatur House has been the inner sanctum of La Fayette Square. Few houses have witnessed such a panorama of events. Here the dying Decatur suffered out his last hours. Here foreign Ministers represented the power and policies of other nations. Henry Clay struggled here for the Good Neighbor Policy and the Presidency, attaining one but not the other. The “gorgeous hussy” Peggy Eaton quarreled here with the wife of the Chief of Staff, and the astute Van Buren moved on to the White House and subsequent defeat. In this house the jurist Livingston had averted the first secession threat by South Carolina. The gaudy Gadsby lived here, the unimpeachable Dallas, and the benevolent Appleton. Two leaders of the Confederate cause, Cobb and Benjamin, walked these floors as they reached the most momentous decision of their lives, and renounced their country. After the interim of the Civil War years, a General and a President, Ulysses S. Grant, came here for friendship and counsel from General Beale, himself one of the architects of the American West, a “pioneer in the path of empire.” Through the tumultuous period that followed, Truxtun Beale preserved the historic role of Decatur House in the life of Washington. Residents of Decatur House have occupied the Presidency and Vice Presidency; they have been Cabinet members, military leaders, Congressmen; they have been foreign diplomats and American envoys to other nations; the roster includes Confederate Statesmen, a jurist and an inn-keeper. By all of them Decatur House was valued, and perhaps beloved.[6]

[1]The Bulletin, April 23, 1903.
[2]Decatur House on Lafayette Square, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-historic-decatur-house
[3] Marie Beale, Decatur House and Its Inhabitants, (Washington D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1954), 136.
[4] Life Goes to a Party,” Life, January 3, 1938, p.58.
[5] ibid.