Carole Owens: Gilded Age rich boy who fell up the stairs


STOCKBRIDGE — Our first glimpse of Ludlow Fowler in the Berkshires is of him falling on the grand staircase at Bellefontaine. To the delight of the child in the household, Boy Foster, Fowler fell up the stairs. Boy recalled, "Ludlow was so anxious to have Daddy as a client that he drank too much during the evening. He fell all the way up the stairs on his way to bed."

Fowler, a New York City lawyer, tried to remedy the situation and restore his reputation, but Boy explained, "The next day he came down and tried to be on his best behavior, [but he had] a huge hangover." To make matters worse, Giraud Foster Sr. insisted on celebrating the new lawyer/client relationship "with a drink."

Boy remembered his first glimpses of Ludlow Fowler because in later years they became close friends. So close that Fowler was Boy's best man at his wedding.

When Giraud Sr. was in New York City, Ludlow took the staid and disapproving millionaire to a night club, and introduced him to an actress, Bea Lillie. Yet he was one of just 28 honored guests at the old man's 92nd birthday at Bellefontaine.

The Berkshire Evening Eagle reported, "November 11, 1942 — The long reception hall was banked with flowers including red, white, and yellow carnations, yellow pompoms, and bronze chrysanthemums. The hall was lit only by candles. The dining room table set for 28 had gilt d cor, solid gold candelabra with yellow and gold mums from the Bellefontaine greenhouses Ludlow Fowler of New York City was among the guests."

Who was this man who could disgrace himself at dinner, be hired as family lawyer the next day, and insinuate himself into the bosom of the family? Who was the fellow who made every social faux pas and was routinely forgiven? Who was the friend of the son and honored guest of the father?

Money was mandatory to be a part of the Gilded Age elite. The Fowlers had money. In fact, Ludlow Fowler was the model — although he resented it — for F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "The Rich Boy."

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While necessary, money was not always sufficient to be part of Gilded Age society. The Fowlers could trace their lineage back to their arrival in America in 1637. They could claim to be descendant from early magistrates named by the king in the New World. They rose high and married well into the Winthrop, Sebring, and Ludlow families — the early American elite. Fowler was born in 1887. He attended Yale and was a friend of fellow student F. Scott Fitzgerald. He straddled the generations — part of the stricter Victorians and friends to the members of the Jazz Age. Just as he was best man for Giraud Foster Jr., so he was best man at the wedding of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. He married Charlotte Winthrop Cram.

The Crams came to the New World in 1639. True, the Fowlers were waiting for them — on shore for two years — but then the Crams brought with them a coat of arms and a proud Anglo-Saxon tradition. So Fowler married well and lived well and was forgiven his sins. But what was he like?

In photographs he was lean and angular if not gaunt, and looked more like a sportsman than a lawyer. In literature, was the "The Rich Boy" a description of Fowler? According to correspondence between Fitzgerald and Fowler, it was intended to be — but critics claim it may be as much autobiography as biography.     

Anson Hunter (The Rich Boy) repeatedly fails and never finds fault — with himself, that is. Wealth dulls any striving for excellence; hard drinking causes him to lose face and the woman he loves. Is it Fowler?

In 1938 Fitzgerald wrote: "My experience as a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy's school; a poor boy in a rich man's club at Princeton was that I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works."

What did he mean? He saw the potential of the rich wasted because "money corrupts the will to excellence." And Fitzgerald condemned "the self-indulgent rich for wasting their freedom."

Fowler lived 87 years; he died in 1974. Perhaps Fowler was as Fitzgerald described him in 1926. Perhaps in the intervening almost half-century, Fowler grew and changed. Early on, however, he is frozen in time, so drunk he is falling up the stairs at Bellefontaine.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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