1. LIVING DOWN MR. DISAPPOINT
Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.
Condé Nast’s life began rather inauspiciously, despite his glowing horoscope. For those who came into the world on March 26, 1873, it proclaimed: “The Sun was in the sign of Aries when you were born, giving you a very active and energetic nature and a great desire for rulership.”1 Naturally the prediction hadn’t taken into account his paternal grandfather’s German Methodist ministry and dour outlook on life, or his father’s belief that only suckers had to work hard to earn their fortune.
Grandfather Wilhelm Nast was known as the “patriarch of German Methodism” in the United States. He was also the owner and editor of the highly influential Cincinnati-based German-language paper called Der evangelische Apologete which he founded in 1837.* Born in Stuttgart in 1807 and orphaned at seventeen, Wilhelm arrived in the United States in 1828 after completing his university education at Tübingen, Germany.2
He was a deeply religious man who, as a Lutheran from a litany of Swabian clergymen, suffered a prolonged crisis of conscience. His first job in New York was as a teacher. Unfulfilled, Wilhelm remained a tortured spirit and began traveling in search of an answer to his dilemma. He made it as far as Ohio, where he taught at Kenyon College. There he took a Methodist class, officially converting to Methodism in 1835. That same year the Ohio Methodist Conference made him a missionary to the German population of Cincinnati—a booming city of some 38,000 souls. More than 20 percent of its population was of German origin, and it was Wilhelm’s job to convert as many of them as possible to Methodism. While he was a man of few words off the pulpit, preaching the faith as “born again” brought new meaning to Wilhelm’s life and the lives of those he served. Yet, despite Wilhelm’s finding his mission, his depressive nature and periodic crises of conscience remained with him until his dying day in May 1899.3
In his late twenties Wilhelm believed it was time to fulfill his earthly function and marry. Eventually he set his eyes, if not his heart, on twenty-year-old Margaret Eliza McDowell, who was eight years his junior and also a convert to Methodism. On June 21, 1836, Wilhelm proposed marriage, addressing a letter to his “Dear Sister.” He rather loquaciously wrote that “after long hours of prayer over the matter” it was his conclusion that he “would be much more happy and useful” if she would agree to be his partner for “life’s uneven journey.” As if that weren’t off-putting enough, Wilhelm concluded that he would need to seek permission from the elders in his ministry to marry her, as he would be traveling the Ohio circuit on behalf of German Methodism after they wed. He also begged Eliza to “ask the Lord for direction” before giving her reply.
Evidently Eliza was happy to accept his formal proposal, and the couple married on August 1, 1836. They set up house in Cincinnati, where she taught at the Worthington Seminary, despite the fact that she had little formal education herself. Initially Wilhelm would visit his young wife only once every six weeks.4 Within the first year of their marriage, Wilhelm also found the energy to set up the Apologete. At long last he was doing what he wanted: writing about his religion, converting lost souls, and preaching to unseen masses who longed to hear his message of salvation. In short order Wilhelm became Ohio’s most highly respected, Bible-thumping speaker and defender of the Methodist “evangelical truth.” Later he became president of Wallace College, a German Methodist affiliate of Baldwin University in Berea, near Cleveland. As time passed, Eliza noticed a change in him, writing to her sister that Wilhelm’s “gloominess is wearing off.”5
Or maybe Eliza was just less aware of his grim nature as their family grew. Their first son, Ernst, born in July 1838, died young of cholera. The second child, William Frederick—Condé Nast’s father—was born on June 14, 1840. He was followed by a sister, Josephine Pulte, in 1842, and another boy, Albert Julius, in 1846. The baby, Franzeska Wilhelmina, known as Fanny, completed the family in 1848. Fanny was thought to be most like her mother, with lustrous dark hair and a liking for all those beautiful adornments of life—like silver buckles and brightly colored hair ribbons—so frowned upon by the austere German Methodist community.6
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Condé’s father, William Frederick, was Eliza’s favorite. In fact William was quite the handsome charmer and dreamer. At sixteen he worked in a local bank, but he saw no future in banking. Wilhelm had already sensed that his eldest son was not safe in Methodism when he learned that his son regularly attended the theater. To Wilhelm’s mind the theater was “the moral enervation of the age” and “the most direct road to the grossest vices.”7 When William moved to New York in 1859, he wrote home that he was unhappy because he knew so few people there. Wilhelm admonished his son, writing that he hadn’t succeeded because he had “suffered too many friends” in Ohio.8 Perhaps William could devote more of his time to the ministry, his father wondered frequently. While that proved an abomination to Condé’s father, he did return to Cincinnati two years later, again job hopping in the hope of finding some treasure trove to milk.
Though William was one of the reception committee for President-elect Abraham Lincoln as he passed through Cincinnati on the way to his inauguration, the honor did not get him the recognition he felt was his due. Surely the new president could reward him, as the son of the publisher of the Apologete, with a consulship? In William’s eyes such a position would not fail to lead to a fast buck. Naïvely, William thought Lincoln had specifically singled out the German American community to thank. Its unswerving support in the northwestern states, supporting his abolitionist “Free State” platform, would surely make William a shoo-in for promotion.
So Condé’s grandfather pulled out all the stops, introducing William to his Kentuckian friend, Green Adams, an auditor at the Department of the Treasury. Hard on the heels of this introduction, Wilhelm wrote to the new secretary of state, William H. Seward. While no one knows for certain which, if any, of these contacts was successful on William’s behalf, the young man was nonetheless appointed American consul in Stuttgart, the city of his father’s birth.9
Such an auspicious appointment for any young man of twenty-one might have turned his head. In William’s case his head spun around and around. Eliza accompanied her son to Stuttgart with the other children, and breathlessly wrote home to her husband that William had Parisian tailors make him three suits, since German craftsmen were so very inferior. You can almost see her eyes gleam with excitement as she wrote, “One of them was a court suit, hat, and sword.” Eliza was certain that this time her charming, handsome son would succeed. He attended the opera, worked ever so hard to break into diplomatic circles, and spoke such a beautiful French with the Württemberg nobility—how could he fail? Wilhelm wrote to his son with considerable disdain: “I am tormented with the fear that it [the consulship] will be your ruin … with your notions of life.” Of course Wilhelm thought that European nobility was filled with “empty-headed, hollow-hearted courtiers” and warned his son to steer well clear of every last one of them.10
Aside from one recorded incident in March 1862 when William hired a private detective to root out a Confederate agent buying arms and courting sympathy for the seceding American states, it seems his consular duties bored him rigid. He had a generous salary of one thousand dollars annually,* but it hardly measured up to William’s personal worldview of his new station in life. “I have been introduced to the family of the King. Princes, Ministers and Chamberlains have called upon me,” William bragged in a letter to his mother.11
Extravagant presents, far beyond his means, like a silver cigar case and jewelry and gloves were sent to his family. Soon enough troubling rumors wafted back to Washington. Citizens complained that they had left money with Consul Nast in Stuttgart to send to relatives in America, but the transfers were never made. That forced Wilhelm to become personally involved in his son’s affairs: He felt he had to make good on at least one payment until William could afford to reimburse him. Then came the allegations of gambling and charging extortionate and illegal fees for his services. These were published in papers in Germany and in the United States. When the scandal hit the Cincinnati Volksblatt, the local German-language newspaper, the Nast family was publicly humiliated.
Of course William denied all charges, claiming he was the victim of blackmailers. But his father knew better; the scales had fallen from his eyes years earlier. Wilhelm feared an English-language public humiliation would follow with a congressional investigation and begged his son to return home. For once William did not argue, departing for the United States abruptly in 1864. At the end of the day there was no congressional investigation, no charge of malfeasance or corruption. The only people who suffered were William’s German creditors, who pursued the former consul for many years to come.12 Despite more get-rich-quick schemes involving railroad speculation, selling unwanted land to European immigrants for a 20 percent commission, and later buying up swampland in Florida, William’s great fortune continued to elude him.
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Yet William, for all his adolescent, pie-eyed belief that hard work was beneath him, somehow made the sound decision to marry well. While it was the ultimate blow to his father, William’s choice of bride, Esther Ariadne Benoist—a devout Roman Catholic—was inspired. If Jane Austen had advised him, her pearls might have run to a variation on the opening line of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man [not] in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a [wealthy] wife.” Such was the case in 1868 with William.
Not only did Esther possess a reputed three-hundred-thousand-dollar fortune, but she came from a fine, cultured French family. Among her ancestors were Guillaume Benoist, in the fifteenth century, a chamberlain to King Louis XI, who was known as “the Cunning” and “the Universal Spider” for his web of spies and deceit spun throughout the courts of Europe. Another was Antoine Benoist, court painter to Louis XIV. Esther’s great-great-grandfather, the Chevalier Antoine Gabriel François Benoist,* sailed originally to Canada in 1735 and served as an aide to General Montcalm in the battles against the British during the French and Indian War. Her grandfather, François Marie Benoist, was born in Canada in 1764. As an adult he worked the Indian fur trade along the Missouri River, becoming active in St. Louis cultural life after the Louisiana Purchase by the United States in 1803. François Benoist married Marie Catherine Sanguinette, who was the daughter of one of St. Louis’s foremost physicians, Dr. Auguste Condé, who was also a surgeon to the French army. Esther’s father, Louis A. Benoist, helped found the St. Louis Philharmonic Society in 1859 and opened the first private bank in St. Louis, with branches in New Orleans (Benoist & Hackney, later Benoist & Shaw) and San Francisco.13 Quite possibly William may have felt that Esther was the closest he would come to marrying royalty.
William knew that Louis Benoist was extremely wealthy. He had seen the splendid Benoist home, Oakland House, built in 1853 near St. Louis. What William forgot was that Louis was also the father of numerous progeny.* Married three times, first to Eliza Barton, then to Esther Hackney of Virginia—who bore six children before her death, the fourth of whom was Condé’s mother—and finally to Sarah E. Wilson, who gave birth to a further nine children, Louis had fifteen little mouths to feed and keep in splendor.14 Although William’s motives were shockingly clear, Esther must have had a thirst for adventure somewhere in her nature to buck her staunch Catholic upbringing and marry the handsome “Protestant” rapscallion. Either that, or she mistakenly believed that the love of a good woman could change her man.
The proposed marriage was a terrible misfortune to the bridegroom’s parents, who believed their grandchildren would become priests or nuns. Nonetheless Wilhelm tried to keep an open mind. While visiting Esther, he wrote to his younger son, Albert, that she had lovely red hair, was “beautiful … in bearing mind and heart,” and truly, deeply in love with William.15 What he did not know was that Esther was also strong willed.
Wilhelm and Eliza were in an awkward position when the wedding invitation arrived. He did not want the Catholic community of St. Louis to think that he sanctioned the marriage, but neither did he want to hurt or disappoint the happy couple. He turned to his son Albert for advice, setting forth his fears.16 In the end Eliza remained at home, and Wilhelm attended the ceremony. The officiating priest was sensitive to the dilemma the groom’s father faced, making every concession possible, including not wearing his ceremonial robes and avoiding any “ecclesiastical feature or blessing.”17 The wedding feast was enjoyed by all, and Wilhelm was delighted with his decision.
Soon after the wedding the young couple moved to New York, where William was set up (presumably by Louis Benoist) as a stockbroker. All four of their children were born there: Louis in October 1868, Esther Ethel in May 1870, Condé Montrose on March 26, 1873, and Estelle Josephine in January 1875. Sadly, not even the love of a good woman could tamp down William’s idle dreams of wealth. A friend wrote to his father that William was “like Archimedes, who had a lever powerful enough to move the world—but could not get a fulcrum.”18 When Condé was three years old, William skedaddled back to Europe, claiming it was only there that he could make his millions. Each year there would be packages for the children, but he seldom wrote to his wife. And each year Esther’s fortune dwindled to pay property taxes and daily expenses to feed her family.
Eventually she returned home to St. Louis with her brood. Though she sold the Missouri landholdings inherited on the death of her father, soon enough her three hundred thousand dollars became two hundred thousand. She wrote to her husband, first in London, where he had made the harebrained invention of a machine to dry and bale straw, to come home. He affectionately replied that he would not return to “eat his wife’s bread.”19 She tracked him down to Paris, where he had gone to organize a stock company to manufacture paper from baled straw and manure. Again he wrote back that his process would revolutionize newsprint. Imagine…
The children attended St. Louis public schools. On weekends they visited their maternal grandfather’s home, where Condé and his brother and sisters dreamed of what might have been, while playing with their numerous cousins. It was always a sadness to Condé that he never knew Louis Benoist; his mother’s father had died in 1867, six years before he was born.
Meanwhile the Nasts were mortified by William’s flagrant abandonment of his family. His parents could not comprehend his callousness. Only his brother, Albert, was not surprised, firmly believing that William would never return. His sister Fanny called him “Mr. Disappoint.” And so the years passed, and passed again—that is, until October 1890 when Mr. Disappoint returned at last.
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Condé was seventeen. In all his father had been gone for thirteen long years. The return of the prodigal husband was so exceptional that it was reported as far away as Chicago. According to The Sandusky (Ohio) Daily Register, though the couple had been married for twenty-two years, they had lived together for only nine. “After thirteen years’ separation,” the article goes on to describe how the couple met again at the home of one of William’s relatives in Chicago. They “were reconciled and they will journey hand in hand henceforth down the highway of life.… Owing to the social prominence of the people, the affair has created [a] considerable … ripple in their home” of St. Louis.20 It did not go unnoticed by Condé or his other siblings that if their mother had not been left well provided for by her father, they would have starved.
William was a hard act to ignore, and certainly not one to follow. His son Condé had grown up with an overripe sense of right and wrong, a sense of duty, abiding admiration for his mother, and a steely will not to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Disappoint.
Copyright © 2019 by Susan Ronald