Hastings has rarely been as close to the international high life as it was at the turn of the century when the actress May Yohe lived here. This weekend, May 22nd & May 23rd bewteen 1 & 5, the house she spent several years in will be on the Historical Society’s house tour. Her life is so incredibly like a romance novel that the wonderful 8-page article written for the Hastings Historian last year by Lilian and John Mullane was barely long enough to do it justice. This blog post, baldly cribbed from the Mullanes’ article, can only give you a hint of her extraordinary escapades. Join us for the house tour to find out more!
Mary Augustus Yohe was born on April 6, 1866 to a poor family in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her father, most likely of German ancestry, was an ironworker and a commissioned officer in the Civil War. Her mother, Lizzie Batcheller, was an expert seamstress and amateur singer of English-Narragansett Indian ancestry. Aided by German friends of her mother, May was sent abroad to an expensive boarding school in Dresden and then to a finishing school in Paris.
By the time she returned to Pennsylvania, at age 21, her father was dead and her mother had moved to Philadelphia. There her mother ran a successful dressmaker’s business. One of her wealthy customers was Mrs. John Drew, a successful actress and manager of the Arch Street Theater in Philadelphia. Mrs. Drew, impressed by May’s poise, beauty, imagination, and musical talent, gave her a letter of introduction to Mr. A.M. Palmer, the manager of the Union Square Theater in New York.
Palmer gave May a job as a chorus girl at $9 per week. Less than a year later, she had her first role: understudy to the lead actress in Natural Gas, a musical comedy. May’s career flourished. Four years later, in 1892, she was introduced to Henry Francis Pelham-Clinton Beresford Hope at a dinner party at Delmonico’s Restaurant. Lord Francis, though May did not know it, was heir to a British dukedom and the Hope Diamond. After dinner, May had planned to go to the Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, and Lord Francis boldly asked to accompany her.
Shortly afterward, they met again, in London. Lord Hope apparently arranged for May to be cast in the starring role of the play, Little Christopher, Jr. May’s “foghorn” contralto voice, performing “Honey, Ma Honey,” created quite a stir, and she soon became known as “Madcap May, the toast of London.”
May appears to have moved in with Lord Francis before they were married, but the service was finally held, in spite of the bitter opposition of his entire family, on November 27th, 1894. Between her shopping and his gambling, the couple led an expensive existence. In 1899, they set out on a luxury round-the-world tour. It was on this trip that the couple met Putnam Bradlee Strong, a Harvard graduate and son of a former mayor of New York City. When the trip ended, Strong kept up his friendship with Lord Francis -- and increased his attentions to May. When May came down with pneumonia in New York and Lord Francis refused to cut short his fishing trip to Florida, Strong kept bedside vigil instead. When she recovered, May was in love.
The couple fled first to San Francisco, and then continued on to Japan, where their house became the meeting place for the local smart set. Their life was no less extravagant than it had been in New York, only now May had to pick up the tab. When the money ran out, the couple returned reluctantly to the United States -- and to Hastings-on-Hudson.
By then May’s mother, Lizzie Batcheller, was living in a grand house on Villard Avenue. Built in 1880 in the Queen Anne style, the house has not only wrap-around verandah and an open turret, but also a large domed tower. It is unclear exactly who built the house, and when it came into Lizzie’s hands, but the money for it had certainly come from May. And to this house, Lizzie brought her daughter, her daughter’s lover, their Japanese maid Yodi, and their 100 pieces of luggage.
On the surface, May and Strong lived quite peacefully in Hastings. May returned to the New York stage to bring in an income. But Strong had resumed his gambling. In July of 1902, Strong suddenly disappeared with money he made by pawning some of May’s jewels (which were said to be worth $250,000). May followed Strong to London, and there was a reconciliation, followed in October by a marriage in Argentina. May vowed never to return to the United States, but when her mother died she did come back to sell her mother’s house to Oliver O. Gribben, a buyer in foreign rugs and tapestries for Macy’s and B. Altman’s.
This was the end of May Yohe’s connection with Hastings, though hardly the end of an eventful life that included at least two more marriages and a 1920s silent movie series that she starred in and promoted called The Hope Diamond Mystery. May made the most out of her brief association with the Hope Diamond, which she referred to as a “life-long association.” She did her best to further the completely unfounded “curse” surrounding it. Lord Hope sold the diamond in 1901, and it passed through several hands before it was donated by an American jeweler to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC in 1947.
May Yohe in 1926. Around her neck is a necklace with a large stone suspended from it, probably the replica of the Hope Diamond made for the 1921 movie series. May apparently enjoyed wearing the stone in public -- and letting people think it was was the real one.
2010 House Tour: Hastings' Characters and Character
Saturday May 22 & Sunday May 23 between 1PM & 5PM