If you would love to view the elegance of a French Country estate without the flight across the pond there are many wonderful options. One of the most beautiful is Nemours Mansion and Gardens in Wilmington, Delaware. The Dupont company today had its start just up the Brandywine River, now the site of Hagley Museum. The various generations used their fortunes to build highways, schools, hospital and sumptuous manors and gardens. The most famous is arguably Longwood Gardens.
The Nemours Mansion is pleasing to the modern eye. Lots of sunlight, intricate high ceilings, an artistic amount of gilding makes it elegant and warm. Despite the 77 rooms it still feels like a family home. Touring the “real” manors in Germany and France had far less impact on me because they largely lacked furnishings and personal touches. This home went straight from being a family home to a charitable institution open to the public.
Plus there is a compelling love story. Alfred married young to Bessie, a distant cousin whose forthright nature caught his eye. They had 4 children while he worked from apprentice powderman to foreman in his family’s black powder business. When the older generation decided to sell he got his two cousins to stand with him and buy the business in 1902. Alfred started going deaf but refused to admit it to anyone until a hunting accident cost him his right eye 4 years later. These two stresses were too much, and he divorced Bessie that year, causing a huge scandal.
The scandal only got bigger when he quickly married his secretary’s beautiful ex-wife and adopted her young daughter. In celebration, he built a 47,000 square foot mansion in just 18 months. But their life was not as happy as they wished. The rumors exploded into newspaper stories and libel suits, damaging relationships with family and friends. They tried and failed to have children together, adding two small headstones to the family plot. Instead, they adopted a French war orphan. Alfred was shoved off the board of the powder company after a falling out with his cousins. He invested in other businesses but lost a lot of money. At this point, he was nearly totally deaf. Things looked very bleak when he buried his second wife.
But then he found love again with Jessie Ball, a family friend and school teacher 20 years his junior. With the practical help of Jessie, and the business sense of her brother Edward he made another fortune in Florida, in real estate and newspapers. They would travel around the world together. The Great Depression spurred their charity work to greater heights. When he died Jessie helped found the pediatric hospital known today as the Nemour’s Children’s Hospital.