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 Mrs Henry Lehr
(nee Elizabeth Drexel)

Lady Decies 

Giovanni Boldini -- Italian-French portrait painter
Preservation Society of Newport

The Elms Hotel

Oil on canvas 
  86 7/8 X 47 3/8 in.
Signed and dated l.r

old label on the stretcher reverse which gives the Paris mansion's (formerly hotel's) address. The label reads
"Mssr Henry Symes Lehr 59 rue des St Peris" (sic).

jpg: Preservation Society of Newport / Pragmatic Romanticist

(Click image to Step Back)

From: The Pragmatic Romanticist
b er

The attached image is a scan of a wee fridge magnet that lives in our kitchen. It's a Boldini of all things, which we saw last summer in Newport, Rhode Island. It rests in the ballroom of the Elms - on of the American castles found there.  It is quite radiant.

-- The Pragmatic Romanticist

From: Nicholas F. Warner
nw ar
(two letters)

Date: 17-18 Apr 2002 

Lady Decies was my father's godmother. And (something I think needs to go on record somewhere) is the anonymous woman in Weegee's famous photograph, "the critic". The other woman is Mrs. Kavanaugh, my great grandmother.   

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) 
New York Photographer

The Critic

 . . .[My father] . . . has many tales to tell. The New Yorker called him "a gentleman from a bygone era, a remnant of the belle époque". As I understand it, and unlike my grandmother and greatgrandmother, who did nothing other than expose their vanity and wealth, lady decies wrote several books and had many interests. 

My dad was hunkered down at the Anzio beach head when the Nazis dropped the Weegee photo as demoralizing propaganda, "This is what's going on back home" or something to that effect. He loves telling that story!  My uncle started a book about the family but it started striking a little close to home so he gave it up. . . . He is a wealth of knowledge and charm. He's also become in retirement an accomplished nature writer.. 

gotta run.

Tue, 23 Apr 2002 

I talked with my father and he relays, essentially the following:

Lady Decies maiden name was "Bessie" Elizabeth Drexel from a main line Philadelphia Society family. She married Harry Lehr (her first husband) at the urging of my Great Great Aunt Mrs. Stuyvasant Fish, she was always telling her that her shelf life was expiring and she needed to be wed. Mrs. Fish essentially ruled the social scene in Newport (You can see more about her in Cleveland Amory's "Last Resorts"). 

Their primary residence was a 17th century mansion in Paris. It had a tall wall on Rue des Saints-Pères on the left bank. My father recalls visiting her there on many occasions and being admitted by two footman in full livery who would then CARRY him across the courtyard to the front door in a chair with poles. It wasn't a far distance, but apparently this was the protocol. There were lovely gardens on the other side of the house in which he played. She spent most of her winters there in Paris and then summered in Newport. She was known, wherever she was, for entertaining. My father remembers the artist Boldini always sort of hanging around and showing up at almost all the events in Newport.  For everyone of his birthdays, she would send him a lead soldier type figurine of nobility accompanied by a biography (she was a history buff especially as it related to her social standing). My father has these figures to this day all across the mantle above the fireplace in his modest condominium and has saved many of the letters from her. 

Lady Decies wrote at least two books, both semi autobiographical histories. The first was "King Lehr and the Gilded Age" and then "Turn of the World." In "King Lehr." She utterly shocked high society by detailing her honeymoon's nuptial night in her book. 

My father describes her husband Harry as a champagne salesman, but in fact he didn't do much more than loan his name to the enterprise for which he was given $6,000 a year allowance or fee by a champagne company. He came from riches to rags and vowed to be rich again. He essentially thought people were stupid and simply needed entertainment and flattery. A modus operandi he employed successfully all his life. She had a son in her first marriage -- Jack Dahlgren (this last name needs explanation) who never earned a cent but wasn't a problem. One of his projects included photographing all the important houses in the left bank and my father woefully recalls lugging the cameras around with him. Lady Decies, being a patron of the arts, secured admittance for my father at the Académie Julian where he drew for a short stint. 

Harry and Lady Decies got stuck in Paris when World War II broke out. Harry became  despondent at the reduced social life and hung out at Harry's American bar and became a rather a sad character. There was an article in the New Yorker about this final phase of his life. During the occupation, his wife entertained high ranking German officers. Dad says she liked anyone who was prominent. This was all before we, in he United States, had chosen sides. At some point she fled Paris with her son and maids (Harry must have died by then) and arrived at my Grandmother's house at 10 East 62nd in New York where she stayed for quite a while really playing up the poor refugee thing. Dad remembers her making shocking and embarrassing pro-German statements over dinners etc.  Later, she went for the brass ring, marrying the Englishman Lord Decies. They maintained a flat in London, Paris and Newport homes. 

* * * 

I visited the Elms as a tourist over 10 years ago with my father. Being an art buff, I was immediately impressed by the quality of the painting and bold brushwork and colors and went for a closer look and proclaimed "Dad! it's Lady Decies!". He was as suprised as I. How it ended up in the ballroom at the Elms, we have no idea. regards,


 The Life of Lady Decies
- and Giovanni Boldini, 
the man who painted her

By: Matt Davies
of Kansas City:
matt da

(c) Copyright 2002 
Printed by permission 

Elizabeth Drexel was the daughter of Lucy Wharton and Joseph William Drexel, who was himself the son of Francis Martin Drexel, founder of the Drexel family in the United States. 

Elizabeth married John Dahlgren, son of Admiral Dahlgren, and was widowed after a short time. 

Mrs. John Vinton Dahlgren
(Lady Decies during her first marriage)

In 1901 she met and married Henry Symes (‘Harry’) Lehr, a well- known society bachelor, who served as a sort of court jester for the doyennes of New York Society at that time – Mrs. William Backhouse Astor (nee Caroline Schermerhorn), Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, and Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt (nee Alva Erskine Smith, later Mrs. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont).  On the night of their marriage, Lehr revealed to her that he did not love her and had only married her for her money.  Fearing the embarrassment that a divorce would bring to her widowed mother, Elizabeth remained in a loveless marriage with Lehr. 

Her two books, King Lehr and the Gilded Age and Turn of the World, are interesting for their numerous bits on society in the Gilded Age – including such miscellaneous topics as yachts, bridge, bedrooms, clothes, and societal problems such as “the climber.”  The first book recounts numerous stories of her youth and her marriage to Lehr.  Their lives were a constant whirlwind of social activity, entertaining and being entertained in high style in New York, Saratoga, Newport, and Europe. 

She retells the much-publicized misdeeds of Harry Lehr and his cohort in crime for many practical jokes, Mamie (Mrs. Stuyvesant) Fish.  The pages of these memoirs are filled with stories of the days of the Vanderbilts, the Belmonts, the Fishes, the Drexels, and other families of high society, including such newcomers as the ‘Tinplate King,’ Mr. William Bateman Leeds, and his wife Nancy, who became one of Elizabeth’s many friends.  (Nancy later married Prince Christopher of Greece and, upon being baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church, took the name Princess Anastasia.) 

A few years before the outbreak of World War I, the Lehrs bought a house in Paris, a 1718 hotel in the rue de Lille next to the German Embassy.  There they entertained their American and European friends and acquaintances, from British aristocrats like the Burke-Roche twins, offspring of one of the many trans-Atlantic marriages between a British title and the fortune of an American heiress, to members of the Russian Imperial family such as the Grand Duke Alexander and the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess Vladimir.  The Lehrs were in Europe when World War I broke out, and returned to America. 
In 1915 the Lehrs returned to Paris, where Elizabeth worked for the Red Cross.   The early chapters of her second book, Turn of the World, give the details of their life there during the War, including taking cover in their basement as German bombs dropped around them.  They remained in Paris after the War, where they continued entertaining.   Harry Lehr began a long decline and illness, and finally died in 1929. 

In 1931 Elizabeth was presented at Court to King George V and Queen Mary in London.  Five years later she married as her second husband John Graham Hope de la Poer Beresford, Fifth Baron Decies.  His first wife had been Helen Vivien Gould, daughter of Elizabeth’s New York friends George Jay and Edith Kingdon Gould.  Decies and Helen had married in 1911, and she had died in 1931.  In 1937, as Lady Decies, Elizabeth attended the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey, and it with a lovely description of the Coronation pageantry that she ends her second book, Turn of the World

In King Lehr and the Gilded Age, Elizabeth wrote of her own experiences with having her portrait painted, as well as the experiences of her friends Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., and Nancy Stewart Leeds when Boldini painted their portraits.  (A portrait of Mrs. Leeds as Princess Anastasia, the wife of Princess Christopher of Greece, whom she married in 1920, is reproduced in the new book Tiaras: A History of Splendor by Geoffrey C. Munn.

“We were in Paris while Mrs. Leeds had her portrait painted by Boldini.  I was often present at the sittings, which always took place at the Ritz Hotel as, much to his annoyance, she refused to be painted in the more Bohemian setting of his studio.  It was a full-length, life-size portrait, and for part of the sittings Boldini used to perch precariously on a pile of telephone books stacked one upon the other on top of the table.   Getting him successfully poised on top of them was a serious business for he was terrified of falling, and it took the united efforts of Mrs. Leeds’s two maids, whom she always kept in attendance at the sittings, her own page, who remained on duty outside the door, and one of the hotel chasseurs.  After about five minutes of suspense Boldini was generally placed to his satisfaction, and he would then turn towards his sitter, who was always convulsed with laughter while he was clambering onto his perch, with a vicious expression. . . . ‘Now, Madame, you are going to stand, while I am seated in comfort. . .’” 

“She was a very difficult sitter for she could never be induced to keep the same pose for five minutes; but Boldini had endless patience.  I remember that when he was painting Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt, Junior, she arrived in a different dress at ever sitting, as she could never make up her mind which one she wanted to wear in the portrait.  In the end he got tired of painting and repainting dresses of every colour, and when she appeared in pale blue satin he exclaimed, ‘This is the dress you are wearing in my portrait, whether you like it or not.  I will not paint another.  Do you think I am a designer for the fashion papers?’” 

“Boldini was a loveable creature in spite of his many eccentricities, a true Bohemian, child-like in his craving for praise.  Once he spoke sadly to me of one of his English sitters. . . ‘She was so beautiful, but I did not enjoy painting her at all.  I never knew whether she was pleased with her work or no.  Not once in all the time did she ever call, ‘Bravo Boldini; you are a great artist!’. . . I was able to assure him that she had been delighted with the portrait, which was one of his best, but she was a typical Anglo-Saxon, she had not understood his ardent Latin temperament.  Great artist as he was it was almost impossible for him to work without a running commentary of compliments.” 

“He loved music and when he was painting my portrait nothing pleased him so much as to have Harry Lehr come to the studio during the sittings and play his piano. . . When he was painting he became so completely absorbed in his work that he scarcely noticed his surroundings; I have often seen him wipe his brushes on his scanty aureole of hair, until it had streaks of every colour of the rainbow.  I think he rather gloried in being a Bohemian and in shunning society.  He never accepted any invitations to parties. . . 


    -- Decies, Elizabeth, Lady. Turn of the World.  1937. 

    -- Lehr, Elizabeth Drexel. King Lehr and the Gilded Age.  With Extracts from the Locked Diaries of Harry Lehr.  Philadelphia:  J.B. Lippincott Co., 1935. 

From: Andrew G.T. Moore II
ag tmo
Date: Thu, 16 Jan 2003

Matt Davies has the right information about Lady Decies (pronounced Deeshies). Here are some further vital statistics from both Debrett's Peerage, and Burke's Peerage, plus the New York Times. 

She married her second husband, Harry S. Lehr, in 1901.  He died on January 3, 1929.  His obituary appeared in the New York Times on January 4, 1929. You can see what appears to be their marriage portrait in 1901 

Harry and Elizabeth Drexel Lehr

She married her third husband, the fifth Lord Decies, on May 25, 1936.  He died on January 31, 1944, and she followed him soon after, in June 1944.

Since Boldini died in 1931, and painted her while she was Mrs. Lehr, it is obvious that she was not "Lady Decies" at the time the portrait was painted. Does anyone have the date of that portrait?  It must have undergone a couple of name changes.

There is another portrait of Lady Decies, which hangs in the Touro Park Inn, showing her wearing both the tiara and rope of diamonds which she was wearing when the famous Wee Gee photograph was snapped at the Metropolitan Opera.  By the way, her companion in that photo, Marie Miller (Mrs. George Washington) Kavanaugh, lived on until January 23, 1954.  Whatever happened to all those jewels they were wearing?

Fri, 28 Feb 2003 

As I previously mentioned, Lord Decies died on January 31, 1944, shortly after the famous Weegee photograph was taken of Lady Decies and Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh.  He died at his house in England, near Ascot.  Since the war was still raging, and Lady Decies was in New York, she was not there at his death or funeral.

Lady Decies died in New York City on June 13, 1944, while a "guest" of her son, Jack, at the Shelton Hotel, which no longer exists.  The New York Times gave extensive coverage to her death, funeral, and the probating of her will.  The funeral was held in the Lady Chapel at St. Patrick's Cathedral, behind the high altar.  200 people attended, including Mrs. Kavanaugh and Mrs. Orme Wilson (daughter of THE Mrs. Astor).  Lady Decies was buried in Dahlgren Chapelthe Dalhgren Chapel at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. [thumbnail].  Evidently, she and her first husband gave the chapel in memory of  their child, Joseph Drexel Dahlgren, who died young .  The Drexel's were obviously devout Catholics.  One of Lady Decies' first cousins was recently cannonized.  This explains why she spent 28 years in her loveless marriage to Harry Lehr.  One interesting note, however, there was no high ranking prelate officiating at her funeral, like the archbishop, or even a bishop.

Lady Decies' will was probated in Philadelphia.  Her estate was valued at $4 million, most of which was still in France, including her 50 room house on the Rue des Saints Peres, which the Nazis occupied as some sort of Luftwaffe training school.  However, she was able to secretly get her jewels out of France, valued then at $300,000.  She left them to her neices.

Six months later, her son, and sole heir, Jack, was engaged to marry a young woman from Baltimore.

Sat, 8 Mar 2003 

Evidently, their marriage got off to a somewhat rocky start, and ended in a total breakdown.  According to the NY Times, their marriage was initially to be held on May 23, 1936, but then there was an announcement that it was "postponed" with no reasons given.  Two days later they were married in Paris at the 7th Arrondissement Mairie (Town Hall), located at 116 rue de Grenelle, with only Lord Decies' two married daughters and their husbands attending.  A luncheon followed at Lady Decies house on the Rue des Saints Peres, known as the Hotel de Cavoye.  Thirty-five guests were present.  The house had furnishings valued at $1.5 million dollars at that time, and she had just opened an entirely redecorated addition to it.


Parenthetically, we once had a large 4th floor apartment at 76 bis Rue des Saints Peres, but I have never been able to pin down an address for the Hotel de Cavoye.  Does anyone have any idea where it was located?  Possibly, it is one of the old mansions now occupied by various institutes and schools nearer the Seine. Since the Rue des Sts. Pere is the boundary between the 6th and 7th Arrondissements (standing at the Seine with your back to it, where the Rue des Sts. Peres begins, the even numbered buildings are on the right side of the Rue des Sts. Peres in the 7th, and the odd numbered buildings are on the left side in the 6th, it is clear that she lived on the right side in the 7th).


Now things become a bit dicey.  There is a reference in the NY Times that in 1938 Lord and Lady Decies were visiting in New York, but he abruptly returned to England.  Something about passport problems.  There is no indication that he ever returned, particularly since the war broke out in 1939 between England, France and Germany.  While she could continue to live in France as an American citizen, which she evidently did until 1941, he clearly was stuck in England.

Lady Decies returned to the United States in 1941 without Lord Decies, staying with the Kavanaughs at 10 E. 62nd St., just off 5th Avenue, which has now been broken up into apartments, but is still a very elegant building in a superb neighborhood.  Obviously, it was a magnificent house. She ultimately took up residence nearby at the Plaza Hotel for some indeterminate time, and there are numerous references to her entertaining, and being entertained, at various places, including the Plaza, the Colony Club, and even the Stork Club.  There is a large picture of her in the NY Times with, I think, Nick Warner's mother or aunt, at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera in 1941, dressed in the same tiara, rope of diamonds, and ermine cape, which she later wore in the famous 1943 Wee Gee photograph with Nick's great grandmother, Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh.

Then came a blockbuster! In 1942, Lord Decies sued her for divorce in London.  The article indicates that she "opposed" the action.  Nothing more about it appears, so I guess that because of the war she was able to keep it in limbo until Lord Decies death in January 1944.  It must have been a very humiliating experience for her.

How she ended up as the "guest" of her son, Jack Dahlgren, at the Shelton Hotel, where she died in June 1944, is unclear.  Even though most of her $4 million fortune was left behind in France, she still had the lifetime income from a $1.1 million trust established for her by her father, Joseph Drexel. The Shelton was at 525 Lexington Avenue, between 49th and 48th Streets.  It opened in the 1920's as an elegant hotel for young gentlemen - the male version of the old Barbizon Hotel for women -  but after the ravages of the Depression it opened its doors to all comers.  Finally, with the war,etc. it had become rather seedy and run down by 1944.  It is now the Marriott East Side Hotel.  I've never been in there, but for Lady Decies it certainly offered the convenience of being virtually behind St. Patrick's Cathedral.

(Editor's Note - Sandra Webber, who was restoring the portrait for the Preservation Society of Newport, got me in touch with Paul Miller who is its curator. He agreed to give us a better image.)

From: Paul Miller
Curator of art, Preservation Society of Newport 
P M  i
Date: Dec 21, 2005

As you may already know, the portrait descended in the family to the Society; it was published in Elizabeth Drexel Dahlgren Lehr Decies' memoirs (KING LEHR AND THE GILDED AGE) and left, with the contents of her 52 rue des Sts. Peres house to her niece Eva Drexel Dahlgren who eventually moved with the portrait, full-time, to Newport and bequeathed the portrait to the Society. We published the work in a commemorative issue of ANTIQUES magazine in April 1995, p.607, plate 5.

Special thanks to Paul Miller, curator, for giving us the provenance and supplying a better image; Sandy Webber, the painting’s restorer, for the proper annotation, date and title; Andrew G.T. Moore II and Matt Davies for their research and filling in the history of the person; and of course thanks to Nicholas F. Warner and his dad, for really giving us that punch of immediacy and connection of who she was.


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Created 2/10/2000