James Morris Helfenstein

When I first started researching my book, I briefly thought I might parallel 19th century Grace Church choirmaster James Morris Helfenstein with John Maclay, the current choir director of the Choral Society of Grace Church. But Helfenstein was the choirmaster for the vested choir of men and boys, a church choir, and the Choral Society is a community choir. It’s just not the same thing in so many ways.

So I didn’t research him much. But I was at Grace Church the other week, to discuss the talk I’m going to give there on September 29th, when I saw this painting of Helfstein’s wife Lillian. There’s no date, but it has a 1940s noir vibe to it, doesn’t it? It’s also kinda sordid, a little bit Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Wait, what is that next to her under her hand? A dog or a fur … something? (Scroll down for more …)

Lillian Spyr Helfstein

The label on the painting reads: Lillian Spyr Helfstein, Mrs. James M. Helfstein, Painted by Elsie Whitmore Southwick, presented by her son, Gouverneur Morris Helfenstein.

I went back to my notes. Helfenstein took over as organist and choirmaster at Grace Church in 1894, when the Church decided they needed a musical overhaul. I felt a little bad for the existing musical director Samuel P. Warren, who’d been there for 26 years. He’d fought hard for the musical ways established under his direction, but that’s the way of the world, nothing lasts forever. Warren was out, and Helfenstein was in. Under Helfenstein’s reign a choir school was added, the music library was expanded, and music once again flourished at Grace Church.

Helfenstein was a law school graduate of Columbia, and he had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, so he was giving up a possibly lucrative career. But it looks like there was a lot of family money. Ah, a little bit of Googling and I see he was descended from a Founding Father, Gouverneur Morris (so that’s where his son’s name comes from). Maybe he didn’t need to worry about making a living and could follow his passion, church music.

He and Lillian were married on June 8, 1915, when Lillian was 24 years old and James was 50! Here’s a picture of James. It’s also not dated so I don’t know how old he is here. And …

James Morris Helfenstein

Here’s a picture of Lillian from a newspaper, a week after they were married. How sad, I just saw that Samuel P. Warren died in October that same year. James’s life continued to blossom and Samuel’s was completely and entirely over. (More below.)

Lillian Spyr Helfstein

Apparently in 1922, things between Helfenstein and Grace Church went south. In a May 1, 1922 letter to Rev. Charles L. Slattery (who had presided over James and Lillian’s wedding seven years earlier), Helfenstein writes, “From what you said at the conference and your subsequent and frequent notes it is evident that you are not satisfied with my management so I desire to place in your hand my resignation as Organist and Choirmaster of the Church.” It looks like part of the problem was Helfenstein thought the budget for music, which hadn’t been increased for many years, was inadequate. His salary is just fine he says, he is only “deeply interested in music and this School which I created …” William R. Stewart, who wrote a history of Grace Church, tried to intervene, siding with Helfenstein, but he was clearly not successful in mending the rift. Helfenstein had lasted 28 years, just a couple of years longer than Warren.

I found a few letters in the Grace Church Archives from Helfenstein’s son, Gouverneur Morris. In 1973 he donated some materials related to his father and the Church. There’s also some 1984 letters between him and Edyth McKitrick, the Church archivist at the time. Gouverneur thought a Dr. Bowie was responsible for his father’s departure, but Edyth points out to him that Bowie didn’t come to Grace Church until a year after his father left.

I would have loved to interview Gouverneur Morris Helfenstein, but it looks like he died on July 14, 2000. I wonder if he had children?

I found an informal history of the early days of the Grace Church School, written by some of the first choir boys. They had nothing but praise and affection for Helfenstein. James Morris Helfenstein died in February, 1953, and Lillian Helfenstein died in April, 1971.

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 →

8 thoughts on “James Morris Helfenstein

  1. Dear Sir,

    A friend has just forwarded your post, which I’ve read with greatest interest. You wonder about Gouverneur Morris Helfenstein:. I knew him in 1955-’56: he was a great beauty, a great snob, very rich & drove around NYC in Greta Garbo’s Rolls. He didn’t work at the time but later went into real estate. You ask about children: no, he didn’t have any because he was gay.

    You may be interested to learn that in 1947-’48 I actually lived in what had been the choir school dormitory. My mother had been hired as French & Latin teacher when in became a coeducational day school; the new headmaster, Dr. Alyson Grant, divided the top floor, the former dormitory, between a young married couple & us. As Mother remarked, the bathtub was large enough for 10 choirboys. She would go out the kitchen window & walk across the roof to her classroom below. Dr. Grant converted those 2 apartments into classrooms in 1948, when we moved to W. 11th St. Many years later (1969-’70) I myself sang in the choir as countertenor soloist.

    Truly yours,

    Andrew Sherwood

  2. This is so great, I’m sorry I never responded! Thank you so much for filling me in!! Who was the choir director when you sang in the choir?

  3. Hi Stacy,

    Great article and photographs! My mother Edythe Morris Thompson was Gov’s first cousin! They were very fond of each other and spent much time together. We are actually searching for more information ourselves since many of his records disappeared after he passed away. You do know he was a descendant, as we are of the famous Morris’s of Morrisania. i.e. Lewis Morris signer of the Declaration of Independence and Gouverneur Morris, Lewis’s half brother who wrote the Preamble to the Constitution!

    Kind Regards,

    Peter A. Wallingford

  4. I’m so sorry for not responding sooner! For some reason I haven’t been getting mail that there were comments waiting to be approved. But thank you for stopping by. Now I feel like researching the Morris family history!

    Have you visited the Grace Church Archives to look for information about your family history?

  5. Hello,
    I read with interest your article on James Morris Helfenstein. I believe he may have been a descendant of Ludwig von Helfenstein who lived in the Helfenstein castle in Germany which dates back to the Middle Ages. Do you have any evidence of this from your research?
    Judith Hart

  6. Stacy back in the 1980s I lived with a Rodger Williamson in Deerfield New Hampshire who was very close to Governor Morris helphenstine and his partner Bernardo I have a drawing of the Rolls-Royce signed by him in my possession if you’d ever like to see a copy of it his partner Bernardo from what I understand is still around Rodger passed away in the early 90s and we had the pleasure of meeting them a few times

  7. Thank you, Gerald. Do you remember Bernardo’s last name? I’m sorry for your loss of Rodger. What an interesting crowd you were a part of though.

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