“Today, Isobel and Margaret have only memories, but with ambition undimmed. They exist in poverty on a discarded and rotting river barge. It wouldn’t even float were it not jammed in the mud of stagnant Sherman Creek, near the Dyckman Street landing in New York.” (San Jose News, August 8, 1928)
As the summer of 1928 meandered lazily into autumn, the sensational story of two once fabulously affluent sisters, thrust into poverty, shot through newsrooms coast to coast and filtered its way like caffeine into the American psyche.
Earlier in the season, a reporter, so the tale goes, wandered down to a floating shantytown on the banks of the Harlem River, along Dyckman Street, to verify a rumor that two beautiful young women, well-heeled daughters of a former State Governor, had been discovered living amid the muddy squalor of a ramshackle, but well-established, houseboat colony on the northern end of Manhattan.
Squatters. Barely enough to eat. Destitute. Forced to work in speakeasies.
Lives gone awry, like Manhattan itself, drowning in an uncontrollable river of bootleg whiskey, gangsters and Jazz.
Appallingly, the story appeared to be true.
Living on a rotting barge, the reporter found Blueblood sisters Isobel and Margaret Stone, daughters of William Alexis Stone, the twenty-second Governor of Pennsylvania, who had died eight years earlier at the age of 73.
Described by the media of his day as the “best Governor Pennsylvania ever had,” Stone made his fortune as a coal operator and once counted himself a confidant of Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur and William McKinley.
The Stone sisters had grown up wandering the polished marble halls of Washington. Thiers’ had been a childhood of luxury and excess. As toddlers, the smiling tots were media darlings affectionately nicknamed “Pets of the White House” by the elite Washington press corps.
When William Stone passed away, his holdings were estimated at $3,000,000. But his daughters were in for a painful surprise. As the estate entered probate the sisters discovered their father had died nearly bankrupt— his fortunes reduced to practically nothing after a series of ill-advised stock speculations.
By some accounts the girls each inherited a paltry $3,000.
“We were left in the house,” said Isobel. “But we had no food. We had to go to work and we did not know what work meant, for it had never entered into our lives. We imagined that money grew on trees.” (The Evening Independent, July 21, 1928)
Isobel was 23 and Margaret, who preferred being called “Peggy,” was 25 when the reporter first encountered the sisters on the riverfront near the eastern base of Dyckman Street.
Their home, if one can call it that, was accessible only by a borrowed rowboat—one of many derelict vessels mired in the putrid river mud.
“At best, the barge is a dismal looking, ramshackle affair, outside as well as in. The furniture was left behind as not being worth moving. The kitchen stove was partially concealed and its original purpose blocked by a yellow cover. Opera scores, musical books and writing pads indicated it now was doubling as a worktable. The only suggestion of beauty was a green Spanish shawl draped over an ugly mission rocker.” (San Jose News, August 8, 1928)
Peggy, a divorcee, once married to Richard R. O’Neil, took a shift at a box factory, and, for the most part, kept to herself.
As news coverage of their quandary grew, Peggy, a bashful and languid creature, afraid of the press, often retreated to a private area of the four-room barge to avoid reporters. An artistic young thing, her sculptures provided her only solace.
She left sister Isobel to do most of the talking.
Isobel, comely and charming, seemed to relish her moment of fame, despite the ugly circumstances that cast her down to this reduced and humiliating station in life.
According to one newspaper account, “In appearance, Isobel is what most would call ‘arty’.” Her extraordinary lovely red-gold hair, her best feature, is cut a la Greenwich Village, up one side and down on the other, and she wears one heavy, old silver earring. Tall, slim and graceful, she doubtless would wear clothes stunningly, though she admits that now her wardrobe is not so dictated so much by her taste as by her finances.”(San Jose News, August 8, 1928)
Isobel said of their unusual abode, “It isn’t because we love the great out-of-doors, or are being eccentric. It’s because we get this old moss-covered barge rent-free—and when you haven’t anything in your pocketbook, that’s a big consideration.” (San Jose News, August 8, 1928)
She and Peggy, Isobel admitted, were at least partially to blame for their own misfortune. Perhaps naïve, the two aspired to support themselves as working artists. Had they simply married, or taken some easier path, their fates might have been quite different.
“You see,” Isobel remarked, “my sister and I didn’t run true to form. We both love art and have aspired to artistic careers. We haven’t asked our rich relatives for help. So we will have to find our own way out of this poverty.” (San Jose News, August 8, 1928)
Isobel spoke of what she called “the reverse side of success”—of singing in nightclubs under assumed names. “I’ve had to face all the ugliness that as a rich girl I would have been carefully shielded from.” (San Jose News, August 8, 1928)
The appealing redhead attempted various artistic endeavors to stay afloat. She wrote poetry, sang ballads on the radio and even wrote a book of verse—which had yet to find a publisher—but all these artistic exercises earned only a pittance.
Isobel soon found herself reduced to a lounge act—singing in the same nightclubs and speakeasies that would once have considered her a VIP customer.
How far she had fallen.
“I am a lyric soprano, and my great ambition is to enter an operatic career. I made my stage debut in ‘Aphrodite’ at the Century Theatre seven years ago. Later I sang with the San Carlo Opera Company, taking the role of Siebel in ‘Faust.’” (Montreal Gazette, July 24, 1928)
“Of late I have been reduced to singing at some of the nightclubs, which I detest. If I had lots of money I would never go to a nightclub, but when one is desperate, one has no choice. I don’t drink or smoke, and that makes it more difficult when you are supposed to entertain the men who frequent these clubs. At each club where I sang, I have used a different name, and I have emptied more glasses of champagne, when no one was looking, than I can reckon.” (Montreal Gazette, July 24, 1928)
Often, life on the soggy old barge left Isobel too feeble to honor scheduled auditions.
She would sadly recall, “I have an old piano, but it is wrapped up in an old quilt, and stands out there on the barge, too rain soaked to be of any use to me, so I practice when I can at one of the music publishers downtown. This spring I had an opportunity to appear at an audition of the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company, but I had a very bad cold and was unable to go.” (Montreal Gazette, July 24, 1928)
This was not the usual rags-to-riches story the public had become accustomed to. No. This was a different type of story indeed. This was Cinderella in reverse. And readers were fascinated.
Soon the newswires were zinging with reports of the Stone sisters’ incredible plunge from the splendid ballrooms of the Governor’s mansion to the privations of a dank Harlem River barge.
The very same year Orwell moved to Paris to begin researching his classic tome, Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, the Stone sisters had descended into almost unfathomable poverty. The sociological aspects of this modern drama eventually captured the attention of readers around the globe.
For Peggy, her studies at the Julien Academy in Paris seemed but a faraway dream.
Gone too, for Isobel, were the afternoon horseback lessons under the tutelage of Max Oser in Switzerland. Her exciting years as captain of the basketball team at the Pennsylvania College for Women evaporating like the late morning mist on the Harlem.
Isobel’s outlook on her prospects were bleak, “You can take it from me that the way from the Governor’s mansion to the star’s dressing room is a long, hard road.” (San Jose News, August 8,1928)
Isobel aspired to be a Broadway sensation, or better yet, an Opera star, but she complained to one reporter of, “a run of bad luck—ill health, and that sort of thing.” (San Jose News, August 8,1928)
As news of the Stone sister’s plight reached near saturation levels, an unlikely patron, by the name of “Tex” Guinan, stepped in with relief in the form of a job offer.
Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan was a sometime actress and legendary saloonkeeper who achieved celebrity status during the Prohibition years that followed the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. During those dry years, which would run through December 5, 1933, Guinan ran a string of high-class speakeasies, including the famous 300 Club on West 54th Street.
Guinan’s venues provided nightly bootleg booze and jazz soaked soirees and catered to wealthy a clientele, including eager out of town business types, for whom she coined the phrase “butter and egg men.” Scantily clad dancers, trained to sap the cash from the wallets of their moneyed guests, pushed twenty-five dollar bottles of champagne and twenty-dollar quarts of watered down whisky. In 1926 alone, Guinan was said to have grossed some $700,000. She often greeted her more famous customers, who included George Gershwin, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino and Al Jolson, with her catchphrase, “Hello Suckers!”
Thus, it came to be that Texas Guinan, the sassy, brazen, bottle-blonde, Queen of the Night, who made millions running illegal enterprises, offered the young, shell-shocked Isobel Stone a job in July of 1928.
Soon, Isobel found herself singing in Guinan’s club, the Salon Royal, on 310 West Fifty-eighth Street.
Guinan immediately used the job offer to garner some publicity of her own.
In a press release, Guinan announced that she had made the offer to give Isobel and her sister a chance to get back on their feet. Guinan apologized for the venue—explaining Isobel was far to great a talent to sing in mere nightclubs—however, “Tex” boasted, she had arranged for various operatic movers and shakers to sit in on the misfortunate young Blueblood’s performances.
In an interview, Guinan insisted that she was interested solely in Isobel’s “ambitions of an operatic career and had engaged her to tide over the emergency period.” (NYT’s, July 27, 1928)
Guinan also used her pulpit to chastise the Stone sister’s former social circle.
“It seems strange that with all the friends that former Governor Stone must have had that none of them has come forward to assist this gifted girl.” (NYT’s, July 27, 1928)
For while, it appeared Guinan had saved the day.
But “Tex” was no doting mother figure. She was a gangster draped in furs and pearls—her associates included Dutch Schultz, Hymie Weiss and even Al Capone. Her clubs, typically located inside hotels, doubled as brothels.
This was no position for a Governor’s daughter.
The lewd sexual expectations of drunken patrons, constantly groping her, eyes red with whiskey and smoke, pupils wild and dilated—not to mention the ever-present threat of police raids. If she was collared by the dry squads, or worse yet, arrested by vice cops in a prostitution sting, there would be no coming back.
Isobel’s nightclub experiment would prove short-lived.
Soon, she was back on her rotting hulk of wood, 41 Dyckman Street, contemplating her next move
Here, at the pinnacle of the media frenzy surrounding the Stone sister’s short lived burst of fame, their future uncertain, the below article was written:
September 24, 1928
Why the Million-Dollar Beauties Had to Live On a Barge
A Strange Trick of Fate Plunged the Blueblood Stone Sisters, Once the “Pets of the White House,” Into Poverty and—Is Bringing Them Back.
Yesterday, the lap of luxury. Today, dire poverty, and a life on a rotting, half-sunken barge. Tomorrow—?
Thus concisely might be written the history of two beautiful and talented girls, born with proverbial silver spoons in their mouths, reared with the great and the near-great of the United States, and then tossed by frantic fate into the maelstrom of life.
The girls, Isobel Stone and her sister, Margaret, are the daughters of the late W. A. Stone, millionaire governor of Pennsylvania from 1902 to 1906. No babies ever started life with more portents for good. Education, culture, money, social position—they had all of those.
Then the jokesmith who controls the tiny thread of things as they are, gave an extra little twitch, and Isobel and Margaret found themselves penniless, living on a barge, facing a terrible struggle to eke out a mere existence—their classic educations of no value, and their social position and money vanished.
When Isobel and Margaret were children and lived in Washington they were called “the pets of the White House,” because they were the favorites of President McKinley. Their father, then a Congressman from Pittsburgh, had a fortune estimated at $3,000,000 and every luxury and ingenious humanity could provide was showered into the laps of the Stone sisters.
They were educated in France and Switzerland, at the most exclusive schools, and Isobel completed her education in an American convent. They traveled, studied music and art, while Isobel cultivated her lyric soprano voice and Margaret studied sculpture. The two girls are related to Princess Murat, of Paris, and while abroad were entertained lavishly by the nobility. More than one noble suitor, including the Prince Victor von Gerstein, sought one or other of the sisters in marriage.
Then came disaster! Governor Stone died and it was discovered that his $3,000,000 estate was really much less than that. Poor investments were blamed, and the whole estate was valued at $200,000. Still this is “important money,” and one might believe the Stone sisters still well off. But it did not happen that way.
The complicated machine of jurisprudence started grinding and the Stone estate was tied up in litigation. Each of the sisters received a comparatively small sum in cash.
Isobel and “Peggy” started bravely out. Their aristocratic background gave them hope and determination. Isobel was the more fortunate of the two. She took to the stage, and had limited success with small opera companies and secured parts in several musical shows. But when her “big chance” came along, she had such a bad cold that she could not sing, so she missed out.
Margaret, meanwhile, had been struggling with her sculpture. She managed to market a few bookends and small pieces, but the market was hard to find and the work was exacting. With her theatrical career temporarily shattered, Isobel took to writing verse. She wrote fragile little things, about star-powdered nights, limpid eyes, and love in the realm of spheres. Some of these sold and some did not.
Gradually the scanty fortunes of the sisters waned and then, one evening, a wan moon witnessed a singular sight. The two girls stood at the end of a rotting dock at the foot of Dyckman street, New York City. Around them was piled a profusion of nautical litter. The moonlight silhouetted their forms against an oily tide and sifted down into the cracks where water bugs lived out their existence in their own way.
The silence of decay hung heavy over the stretch of river before them. Behind them, tier upon tier, rose the mighty city—the heights they had stormed but not taken. Broadway shot a burst of iridescent arrows at a luminous sky. In Greenwich Village life was astir with strange doings of artistic cast.
But all these things the Stone sisters were leaving, and they did not look back. Instead, they climbed into a little rowboat, cast off, and rowed awkwardly toward a dark hulk which loomed in the middle distance. It was the wreck of the barge Nancy May, fast settling into the soft silt of the river bottom, overgrown with moss—a tangle of rotting planks and rusting iron. For the Nancy May, which they received rent free from a sympathetic engineer, was to be their home for the next few months.
Then came the struggle for existence. Margaret worked assiduously at her sculpture, and Isobel penned poems to the moon. But the money did not come in fast enough. They skimped and saved. They collected driftwood from the murky river, and were happy to see its leaping flame in an improvised fireplace aboard the barge. The fire chased the early morning mists which sank into the marrow of the two brave girls, and killed budding inhibition.
At last it became apparent that something must be done. Both girls were suffering from lack of food. It was finally decided that Isobel would try for a job. She rowed ashore and made round after round of the theatrical offices. But Broadway does not like poverty. One must be chic—smart, to “catch on.” Isobel found that life on the barge and lack of new clothes robbed her of these essentials.
But at last she interested certain night club proprietors, and obtained one job after another as hostess or singer, or both.
Now came one of the most colorful phases in the lives of the two sisters. For Isobel, used to night life as a patron of the swanky, exclusive clubs, started to work as a paid entertainer. Her singing elicited an immediate response. Large-sized tips started to flow her way, and life took on a rosier hue. But still things were not quite to the liking of this aristocratic girl, forced by circumstances to exist on the bounty of night life patrons.
Her duties as hostess were particularly irksome. “I’ve worked in nearly every night club in New York, under one name or another,” she said. “And of the whole bunch I can say a good word for only one. We girls used to drink ‘downs’ during the evening.”
A “down” is a small glass of flat ginger ale. When the ginger ale is allowed to go flat it resembles whiskey, and an impenetrable waiter serves it with proper ceremonies. Isobel frequently was complimented on her ability to drink and remain sober. The fact is that she never touches whiskey, nor does she smoke. The night club, of course, charges regular prices for “downs” and the profit goes to the proprietor. It is only one of the many night club “gags” which Isobel learned.
Nightly the high-strung and dreaming Isobel had to listen to the love-making of those who frequent night clubs. There were college boys, with no money, spending a week’s allowance on a few quarts of gin and ordering ginger ale and ice to go with it. There were out of town buyers—“butter and egg men,”—looking for companionship and entertainment. There were “misunderstood” husbands, adventurers, fortune hunters.
“They all wanted one thing,” she said. “And that thing she was unwilling to give. So I was fired from night club after night club. But Tex Guinan’s was different. She was a real friend to me, and I appreciate her help. Tex is real.”
Isobel had many troubles at the night clubs. Occasionally men would attempt to trail her home. In several instances they were successful and the situation became so acute that the girl had to seek police protection.
She appealed to the officer on the beat at the foot of Dyckman street, and he met her each morning when she returned from her night’s work, and escorted her to the end of the dock. Here she essayed the extremely difficult job of paddling the boat out to the barge. In evening dress, with high-heeled slippers, this presented a distinct problem, especially as she had only one ancient oar for the task.
Then came next to the last, and one of the most serious setbacks. The long arm of the law stretched out and encircled Miss Guinan’s night club. Isobel was frightened. The rendezvous was not closed, but she was afraid of being involved in the toils of the law, and she gave up her job.
With no income, the girls were faced with a last staggering blow. Their barge, the Nancy May, started settling slowly into the mud of the river bottom. There was no mistaking the situation. The Nancy May was sinking. Daily she was canted more and more over on her side, and daily the stagnant water rose in her hold.
Finally Isobel saw that they must move. But where could they go? Neither girl had the slightest idea. Thus the situation stood when a reporter for a New York newspaper wandered down to the foot of Dyckman street and started investigating things aboard the barge.
A few minutes later the story of Isobel and Margaret Stone trickled through an editorial room telephone. Hardly had the type cooled in the forms of the New York paper before the story went leaping off into space, spread fanwise, and covered the country. Immediately things started to happen, and they are still happening. Offers of aid came from theatrical celebrities and from men and women who had known the Stone family in its days of affluence.
What will happen to Isobel and Margaret? No one can definitely say that. But again they are on the upgrade, and these girls, who were bounced by a mischievous fate from the lap of luxury into obscure poverty, may yet regain the heights. But this time it will be through their own talents.”
So what became of the Stone sisters?
Some, including the girls’ own family, accused the sisters of staging a public spectacle to help launch lackluster careers. A charge Isobel jokingly denied.
“I had no thought of a publicity stunt when we came to live here, but I’ll tell you frankly that if I can get any benefit out of that publicity, I am going to do so.” (The Evening Independent, July 21, 1928)
Half-bother Judge Steven Stone, who lived in Pittsburgh, told reporters that his siblings had only their “strong headedness” in pursuing artistic careers to blame for their impoverished condition.
“Any time they want to break away from this art business we will be tickled pink and will listen to them,” Judge Stone skeptically stated, before letting the reporter in on a family secret. Steven Stone offered that he had sent money to his half-sisters from time to time and knew for a fact that they had real estate holdings in Manhattan. (The Evening Independent, July 21, 1928)
Isobel, however, denied her half-brother’s charges saying they had received no financial assistance whatsoever, “Our relatives sometimes ask us to lunch at the Ritz when they come to New York, but that’s really little help when you’re starving and can’t pay your rent.” (The Evening Independent, July 21, 1928)
But had the summer on the barge been but a stunt?
On September 25, 1928, an announcement appeared in the New York Times—“Poet Who Made Home on Leaky Barge to Wed Henry Harrison, Publisher.”
The article pointedly stated that the young couple planned on making their home in an old Colonial house on Barrow Street—supposedly purchased with the spoils of a bad investment that hadn’t turned out so badly after all.
Others were more direct in voicing their suspicions.
In mid-October of 1928, Allene Summer, in her syndicated column, The Woman’s Day, wrote:
“Romance is dead in this crass workaday world, we sometime say and hear. Have you read the story about Isobel Stone, daughter of former Governor of Pennsylvania William A. Stone? Just a few weeks ago Isobel and her sister Peggy were discovered living in an abandoned barge anchored in a sedgy creek in upper New York. They claimed that they were destitute, were trying to get a foothold in their respective arts of opera and sculpting, and that this life was necessary.
The other day Miss Stone’s engagement was announced to a New York publisher, and at the same time she explained that she and her sister had quit life on the leaky barge because some supposed valueless real estate had boomed and she had exchanged it for a $30,000 house in lower New York.
Romantic enough, if true. That barge stunt did sound like two girls’ idea of a good time. Who wouldn’t like living on a barge?”
Undaunted by skeptics, Isobel told the Times, “Although my art career is still uncertain, I am hopeful now of winning back my friends and the comforts to which I was accustomed. I first met Mr. Harrison through a mutual friend, a poet, and when I submitted to Mr. Harrison my manuscript of poems under the title ‘Strange Canvases,’ one of which I wrote while living on the barge, he accepted it. Later I accepted him as my future husband.” (New York Times, September 25, 1928)
While the paper trail on Peggy appears to have gone cold, Isobel would indeed go on to marry Henry Harrison, a former editor of the Greenwich Village Quill and editor of The Grub Street Book of Verse. Together, Isobel and her husband would collaborate on a number of literary projects throughout the 1930’s.
Isobel’s last mention in the newspapers came in 1947, when she was issued a summons for walking her leashed Irish terrier, Honeybear, on the boardwalk near her Coney Island home. Again living near the water’s edge.