Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Joseph H. Durkee, a Shipwreck, and Noblesse américaine

S.S. La Bourgogne, accessed via

As we have seen, Mary Amelia Hart and her husband Harrison Durkee had four children, Richard P.H., Elizabeth A., Augustus White, and Joseph H. Among the sons, Richard was a lawyer, Augustus was a businessman and broker in the tradition of his father, and Joseph was a broker and a gentleman of leisure. Elizabeth married Jonathan Crane late in life, and as of yet I have found no indication that any of the Durkee children produced any offspring.

The youngest child, Joseph Hart Durkee, born January 20, 1862, is of interest to us for a few different reasons, including his love of travel, his collection of rare Indian and Roman coins, his death aboard the ill-fated S.S. La Bourgogne, and his intriguing wife, Alice. During his life, his travels seem to have taken him to places such as India and Europe. He and Alice, born Alida Lebourgeois, were living in Paris for several years before his death. According to a newspaper account, Alice was from a wealthy Louisiana family of Creole descent. On July 4, 1898 Joseph was returning to Paris to join Alice on the S.S. La Bourgogne when it collided with another ship in the fog. The initial impact was felt as slight by many of the passengers, but the ship took at most an hour to sink. Quite the opposite to the Titanic, none of the passengers in first class survived, possibly because they were reassured that all was well, and many who were not already sleeping did nothing to prepare themselves. One assumes that Joseph would have been travelling first class.

In his will he bequeathed his collection of rare Indian and Roman coins, worth twenty-five thousand dollars at the time, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can view some of the coins on the museum’s website. The rest of his estate seems to have gone to his wife Alice.

What is notable about her is that she claimed to be the author of several works, including the novels Noblesse américaine and Eve victorieuse, under the nom de plume, Pierre de Coulevain, and that she was made a member of the French Academy for writing them. Noblesse américaine is about the adventures of a New York heiress in France. Her wealth and beauty are the objects of desire for the local nobility whose families are in desperate need an influx of American cash. The novel was first published in French in Paris in 1898, the year of Joseph’s death. I am currently reading the English version, American Nobility, translated by an “Alys Hallard”, possibly another pseudonym. I must say that as a writer about America in the Gilded Age, Alice/Pierre is certainly no Henry James or Edith Wharton, but she certainly engages the reader. (The Portrait of a Lady by James has always been one of my favourite novels). De Coulevain’s writings have been attributed to a French woman, Helene Favre de Coulevain, but I would say that the novel seems to reveal a familiarity with society life in both New York and Paris, which would indicate that the author is intimately acquainted with both from both sides of the Atlantic, such as an American expatriate would be. I also strongly suspect that “Alys Hallard”, the translator, is Alice Durkee herself, as the the novel seems less a translation than an original work, particularly as the humour is so fresh and seems effortlessly integral to the text. I would have to read both the English and French versions in their entirety to be a better judge. So far, I have identified two specific clues that the writer was Alice, which I believe she deliberately placed there, and they are from the same sentence of the novel. On page 23, referring to the heroine she writes, "as she came of age on the 20th of January, she had taken her ticket on the Bourgogne, which set sail on the 25th". Here, she uses her husband Joseph's birthday, and the ship upon which he died.

Perhaps she wrote the original novel in French under a pen name and had it published in Paris because she did use people she knew as models, but her ego did not allow her to stay completely anonymous, hence the clues and newspaper claims. There was a reported meeting of Mrs. Durkee and Mlle. Favre, the other reputed writer of the novel, at a reception in Paris hosted by the Countess de Tobriand, "when the affair came to a crisis". Mlle. Favre supposedly expressed her outrage at Alice's claims of authorship. I believe this may well have been staged, if it happened at all, as a way for Alice to at once reveal herself as the author and also to maintain some doubt about it. It may have also led to the sale of more of her books.

I am finding American Nobility a joy to read from a family history perspective, especially in her descriptions of the personalities and mores of her turn of the century New Yorkers and how they are perceived abroad. One imagines that her writing may be informed by her acquaintance with Joseph and his family, and that some of the details are closely inspired by them. I wonder if the following passage, in which she describes one of the heroine’s suitors, also applies to Joseph in some way: “She had a secret preference for Frank Barnett. He was handsome, distinguished, and then he talked in an agreeable way. As he was wealthy, he had never been compelled to choose any profession and his long visits to Europe had added a certain refinement to his conversation and general education. For the last three years he had been Annie’s knight. He had kept her supplied with the rarest flowers and had always reserved the best place on his mail-coach and his yacht for her. For all this, he had been repaid, at least, by very sincere friendship. The idea that Frank might some day become her husband had often occurred to her and was not at all displeasing to her either”.

Alice remains a mystery. 

[Please see my next blogpost, Alice Alida Lebourgeois Jaquet Durkee Hardy-The Continued].

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