Ruined Splendor

Walking down Fifth Avenue I couldn’t help noticing building after building that just looked kind of sad. You know they were once someone’s fabulous residence. I took a quick snap of one group and focused on 603, (this is between 48th and 49th streets). Then I did a search through the Times. There’s a rundown after the photograph.

Photo lost! I don’t know where it went, alas.

What I found doesn’t really get interesting until March 5, 1925, when there’s an article about a woman named Mary Desti who fights with a thief who was trying to steal shawls from her. They both fall down a flight of stairs, and he takes off and gets away. Tough lady (she was 54).

Then on April 14, 1930, there’s an article about Eleanor Hutton, granddaughter of C. W. Post, who “Elopes With Playwright; Weds Preston Sturges Over Parents’ Protest.” Preston Sturges is Mary Desti’s son! (I didn’t know he started out a playwright.)

Not one year later, on April 13, 1931 there’s an article, “MARY DESTI IS DEAD; DUNCAN BIOGRAPHER; Succumbs at 59 to Illness Which Began Soon After Death of Dancer in Nice. FATAL SHAWL WAS HER GIFT Was Visiting Isadora at Time of Last Auto Ride–Son Is Preston Sturges, Playwright.”

Turns out Mary Desti was good friends with Isadora Duncan, the famous dancer who died when her scarf got tangled in the car she was in and she was strangled to death. From Wikipedia:

“Before getting into the car, she said to a friend, Mary Desti (mother of 1940’s Hollywood writer-director Preston Sturges), and some companions, “Adieu, mes amis. Je vais — la gloire!” (“Goodbye, my friends, I am off to glory!”); however, according to the diaries of the American novelist Glenway Wescott, who was in Nice at the time and visited Duncan’s body in the morgue (his diaries are in the collection of the Beineke Library at Yale University), Desti admitted that she had lied about Duncan’s last words. Instead, she told Wescott, the dancer actually said, “Je vais — l’amour” (“I am off to love”), which Desti considered too embarrassing to go down in history as the legend’s final utterance, especially since it suggested that Duncan hoped that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a sexual assignation. Whatever her actual last words, when Falchetto drove off, Duncan’s immense handpainted silk scarf, which was a gift from Desti and was large enough to be wrapped around her body and neck and flutter out of the car, became entangled around one of the vehicle’s open-spoked wheels and rear axle. Duncan died at the scene.”

A year after Mary died, Preston and Eleanor were separated. She was his second wife, he would have four before he died.

After that all the articles are real estate articles, and soon the building, like most around it, turns commercial, a shoe store mostly, it seems.

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

2 thoughts on “Ruined Splendor

  1. Very interesting – I’m sure there are a thousand stories out there in all those old buildings. Makes you think what uninteresting lives the majority of the population leads.

  2. Yeah, I had the same reaction, there are so many stories.

    But I’ll bet that most people’s lives, while maybe not so dramatic, are still kinda interesting. People are just so … well, they’re interesting.

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