I love stories about rich people. They have a fairy tale aura about them, but they actually happened. I especially like those among the wealthy who are eccentric or hapless, whose foibles and follies are writ large.
Such a gem was George Jay Gould. Born in 1864, he was a son of Jay Gould, the famous robber baron who accumulated a fortune of more than $50 million. Granted, the billionaires of today, such as David and Charles Koch, make Jay Gould look like Father Christmas, but he was infamous in his day and ruined more than his fair share of people.
George Gould was a gentler version, and lacked his father’s financial acumen, so he started out with a great amount of money and died with a considerably shrunken fortune, much to the dismay of his heirs. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
George’s weakness, if one counts it a weakness, was for pretty girls. In the nineteenth century, rich men were expected to cavort with pretty girls but then to choose a wife from among the less comely, but socially more appropriate, daughters of their business associates.
George followed his heart, to put it politely, and in 1886 married an actress named Edith Kingdon, of Augustin Daly’s Theatre Company. She was said to be a woman of refined ways, clever sallies, lovable disposition and manifold charms. Although a girl from modest circumstances in Brooklyn, she was accepted by the Gould family, and together she and George had seven children.
But Edith, like George, had a weakness. Hers was sweets, and since her husband was a millionaire, she could afford to indulge herself. She was not gifted with self-restraint and it was said that the sweets put weight on her with cruel swiftness.
George, meanwhile, continued to follow his heart. In December of 1913, it led him to the theater for the New York opening night of “The Girl on the Film,” where he fell in love with a blonde beauty from Britain named Guinevere Jeanne Sinclair. She was a Gaiety Girl with a lovely smile.
Now, here’s where George was a real standout, in my estimation. Not content with the occasional secret tryst, he set Miss Sinclair up on a 29-acre estate on Manursing Island near Rye, N.Y., arrived by yacht on weekends, and fathered not one, not two, but three children by her: Jane Sinclair, George Sinclair and Guinevere Sinclair.
The relationship was clearly more than a dalliance. Some wives might have rolled their eyes and accepted a life of opulent ease as consolation, but not Edith Gould. Once a beauty, she sought to recapture her looks and win her husband back by losing weight through a program of vigorous exercise. On the Gould estate in Lakewood, N.J., George had converted an abandoned polo field into a private nine-hole golf course and there Mrs. Gould took to the links. One day in November of 1921, playing a round with George after church, she addressed the ball on the fifth tee, lofted a mighty drive and as George watched the flight of the ball, she dropped dead.
George turned to congratulate his wife and found her on the ground. After sending a caddie to the house to summon medical aid, he carried her body to nearby indoor tennis courts and attempted to revive her, but to no avail. Two doctors arrived from Lakewood and discovered that under her golfing togs Mrs. Gould had encased herself, neck to ankle, in a rubber suit, “like the wrappings of a mummy.”
Six months later, George married Guinevere at the home of a judge in Lakewood, with three witnesses; and the couple added Gould to the names of their children. But having committed the unpardonable social sin of marrying his mistress, George was obligated to leave the country. The newlyweds and their instant family quickly sailed for England, arriving there on the day the news of their wedding hit the New York papers.
In 1923, colorful to the last, George journeyed on his own to Egypt to view the tomb of Tutankhamen; when he contracted a fever there, the press ominously raised the specter of the Curse of the Pharaohs. While attempting to regain his health at a villa on the French Riviera, George died of pneumonia. He and Guinevere had been married for less than a year.
Then began the legal snit of all time. George had valued his estate at $30 million. However, after debts and taxes, there was only $5 million. George’s seven children by Edith were in no mood to share the dwindling sum with three children they had long referred to as “George’s bastards.” Instead, they shared the money with different bastards: their attorneys. When the smoke cleared, after more than four years of litigation, the lawyers had run up $2.7 million in fees and emerged beaming as the primary beneficiaries.
There was something of a happy ending for Guinevere. She was granted $1 million, and her children received a trust fund. Nor was she long a widow. In July of 1925, Guinevere married the Viscount Dunsford, George St. John Brodrick. The children took the family name of Brodrick, their third appellation in the space of three years, and this one was good for a lifetime.
Guinevere Jeanne Sinclair Brodrick, Countess of Midleton, lived at Eastwell Manor, near Ashford, Kent, and hosted lavish parties during the 1920s and ‘30s. I would have loved to have met her. She died in 1978, at the age of 84, in Switzerland.
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The photo above: Guinevere at the gate of her estate on Manursing Island.