Belle Skinner in New York
Belle Skinner’s interest in the city of New York initially developed through her family’s eminent Holyoke silk business, William Skinner and Sons Silk Manufacturing, which maintained New York a office in the garment district. Her brother, William Cobbett Skinner’s regular trips to New York to market Skinner silk whetted Belle Skinner’s appetite for the Gilded Age attractions of a city at the baroque height of its cultural life. William and Lizzie Skinner presented their daughters, Belle and Katharine, into New York society during Belle’s college years at Vassar, with a celebration ball at the Ritz in 1887. Within ten years, Katharine had married and made her home in the city. Although Belle traveled abroad nearly every year in the 1890s, and would return to her aging parents in Holyoke for summer vacations, New York was the center of her American social life until World War I.
Before taking her own apartment in New York in 1908, Belle made regular excursions to the city to attend Broadway theatre productions and the Metropolitan Opera at its original Broadway address during Enrico Caruso’s tenure. She visited her sister Katharine and lunched with her Vassar college and University Women’s Club friends. In the 1890s, Belle often stayed at the Hotel Martinique, a luxurious Beaux Arts hotel in midtown Manhattan. Built to respond to a growing theatre and shopping district, the Hotel Martinique occupied the block between West 32nd and 33rd Streets and entertained New York’s literary celebrities and leisure class on its own stage in the Pierrot Room, and the fine restaurant, the Dutch Treat Room, home to the literary Dutch Treat Club.
When Belle moved to New York late in 1908, she was single, wealthy, and socially prominent. She had established a reputation as a gracious and generous hostess and often accompanied her brother William to business banquets and social functions. She entertained theatrical and operatic actors and musicians, foreign dignitaries, philanthropists, and Vassar alumnae in the spacious apartment she shared with her brother at 36 West 39th Street in Manhattan. She was an active member of the Metropolitan Opera Club, the Women’s University Club of New York, the Vassar Club and the France-America Society and enjoyed the company of the New York elite at restaurant meals in some of New York’s finest clubs and restaurants, such as Delmonico’s.
Belle and her brother and sister attended the 1921 France-America Society dinner to honor French Marshal Ferdinand Foch at the Art Deco landmark Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, then at its 5th Avenue address. In 1928, acclaimed author Robert Underwood Johnson remembered that he had seen her last “at the French Treatises Banquet at the Waldorf, and was in love with her beautiful character and her cheerful and engaging disposition.”[i]
In Belle’s personal world, New York was an environment where family gathered at her 39th Street residence for regular Sunday afternoon dinners prepared by her private cook. Sunday get-togethers featured many of the family faces and familiar eatables that had their origins in Wistariahurst meals of western Massachusetts with international embellishments from the diverse product availability of the Gilded Age city. As Belle grew into her natural role as hostess, she added personal touches to her dinners. Her culinary tastes increasingly favored all things French. Gateaux and bombe glacée replaced cake and ice cream when dessert was served. remembered by her nieces and nephews especially, who were the beneficiaries of her largesse. One nephew recalled the spun sugar nests with little “eggs” of ice cream—the Skinner and Kilborne children’s favorite.
[i] Wistariahurst Archives. Condolence letter to William C. Skinner from R.U. Johnson. 5/21/1928.