One hundred years before Truman Capote dreamed up Holly Golightly, there was a real antebellum Holly known as Ida Mayfield. Her life from pre-Civil War America through The Gilded Ageimage-6240078-10731106 and The Great Depression is like a Francine Prose and Mary Karr mash up of The Age of Innocence and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Like Capote’s heroine, she recast herself from a simple girl with humble roots into high societyimage-6240078-10451141. Holly was, in fact, farm girl Lula Mae Barnes, you’ll recall. Ida was Ellen Walsh, the daughter of Irish peddler immigrants to Massachusetts. But then the beautifulimage-6240078-10731106 colleen ran away from home as a teen and created a story about being from a wealthy Louisiana plantation and the daughter of a judge. She became the toast of New York society in the mid-1800s, dancedimage-6240078-10731106 with the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, befriended Samuel Tilden and attended the Empress Eugenie Ballimage-6240078-10731106 in Paris. She married Benjamin Wood, the brother of the mayor of New York City and publisher of the pro-confederate New York Daily News (no relation to today’s tabloid) for which she would write editorials decades before women had the vote in this nation.

And then the fall. Aging and growing in eccentricity as well as disappointment from her husband’s heavy gambling, she was nearly mad and living in a filthy Herald Square Hotel room by the end, cash pinned to her
crinolines, important diamondsimage-6240078-10731106 stuffed in a cereal box and railroad stock certificates laying on the bathroom floor of her two-room suite. She had sold the newspaper and pulled her fortune out of banks in 1907 and now was surrounded, amidst the dust and grime, with a million dollar legacy – a fortune in the 1930s. When attorneys discovered her after 25 years of near-total solitude in this way and tried to intervene, the 93-year-old wondered how all these geniuses, who suffered in The Great Depression, knew better than she did and fought them tooth and nail, refusing to tell them where she’d hidden things. Their continued meddling, however well-intentioned, broke her heartimage-6240078-10731106 and she died not long after the first knock on her door – but not before they slashed open sofa cushions in front of her, emptied food containers and searched for more loot, with journalists along providing breathless accounts of each find for their newspapers. The most celebrated inheritance case of the early 20th century began in conjunction with a media culture of spectacular self-inventions.
But there is a golden lining to this tragic tale of sanity and 
mobilityimage-6240078-10731106 lost. A letter arrived from a great uncle of mine in England. He told of how we were directly related to Ida/Ellen but that our family had been unable to inherit upon her passing. A legacy more important than material gain had been left for me- her willfulness in a time that wasn’t known for women’s rights explains the ‘chutzpah’ in my DNA and brings to mind the socialites of today. Gotham’s contemporary gilded women who reinvent not only their own lives but help others to better themselves.

Ida Mayfield Wood/Ellen Walsh’s story speaks to the alchemical properties of the great American experiment in 
identityimage-6240078-10451141 and evolutionimage-6240078-10451141. Today’s women, self invented or born into privilege, can inhabit a multitude of roles, eccentrically compassionate ambitious philanthropists- a very modern
image-6240078-10731106 way to be part of the social elite.
-Maureen Seaberg

September 2012