Elizabeth Wharton Drexel

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Elizabeth Wharton Drexel
Elizabeth Drexel.jpg
Portrait of Drexel by Giovanni Boldini, 1905
Born (1868-04-22)April 22, 1868
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died June 13, 1944(1944-06-13) (aged 76)
London, England
Burial place Dahlgren Chapel, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
John Vinton Dahlgren I
(m. 1889; his death 1899)

Henry Symes Lehr
(m. 1901; his death 1929)

John Graham Beresford
(m. 1936; his death 1944)
Children Joseph Drexel Dahlgren
John Vinton Dahlgren II
Parent(s) Joseph William Drexel
Lucy Wharton

Elizabeth Wharton "Bessie" Drexel Hope de la Poer Beresford, Baroness Decies (April 22, 1868 – June 13, 1944) was an American author and Manhattan socialite.[1]


She was born on April 22, 1868 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Lucy Wharton (1841–1912) and Joseph William Drexel.[2] Joseph was the son of Francis Martin Drexel, the immigrant ancestor of the Drexel banking family in the United States.


Drexel and Lehr at their wedding, 1901

Elizabeth was an author, who published two books, "King Lehr" and the Gilded Age (1935) and Turn of the World (1937). Her first novel, published after the death of her second husband, was described as follows in Time Magazine, "A bitter, disillusioned book, 'King Lehr' is memorable for the lurid light it throws on U. S. Society of the Gilded Age, may confidently be opened as one of the most startling and scandalously intimate records of life among the wealthy yet written by one of them." It tells the story of her unhappy marriage to Lehr, which was referred to as a "tragic farce" of a 28-year marriage.[3]

As with her first book, her second, and first as Lady Decies, Turn of the World was a fascinating semi-autobiographical history of American high society during the Gay Nineties up through the first World War. Upon the book's publication, The Pittsburgh Press wrote, "The magnificent spectacle that went on behind the scenes in pre-war days of society's Gilded Age at Saratoga, Newport, New York and Paris is detailed by an insider, Elizabeth, Lady Decies, who was Miss Elizabeth Wharton Drexel interesting, amusing and sometimes revolting, as with evident nostalgia she tells of extravagant parties and fortunes spent for clothes and jewels."[4]

Personal life[edit]

Drexel's first husband, John V. Dahlgren, ca. 1897
Photograph of Drexel in 1899

First marriage[edit]

On June 29, 1889,[5] Elizabeth married John Vinton Dahlgren I (1869–1899), a graduate from Georgetown University and the son of Admiral John Adolph Dahlgren (1809–1870) at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Together, they had two sons:[6]

  • Joseph Drexel Dahlgren (1890-1891), who died as an infant
  • John Vinton Dahlgren Jr. (1892–1964), who married Helen Broderick in 1946,[7][8] was a graduate of Harvard and Georgetown.[9]

During this marriage, she made generous donations to Roman Catholic charities and to Georgetown University, including funds for the construction of Dahlgren Chapel, named for her first son.[10] The latter asked for her portrait, which was painted in 1899 by the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947). Dahlgren died August 11, 1899, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he had gone in hopes of recovering from an illness.[11]

Second marriage[edit]

In June 1901, Elizabeth married Henry Symes Lehr (1869–1929), aka Harry Lehr.[1][3] The marriage was never consummated.[12] On her wedding night, she was informed by her husband that he loathed her and could not stand the thought of touching her ever, although he wanted her to understand she was to be cordial to him in public and he might in turn occasionally call her "darling". He had, he admitted, married her for her money because poverty terrified him.[13]

In 1915, the Lehrs were in Paris, and Elizabeth worked for the Red Cross. They remained in Paris after World War I, where they bought in 1923 the Hôtel de Canvoie at 52, rue des Saints-Pères in the 7th arrondissement. Harry Lehr died on January 3, 1929 of a brain malady in Baltimore.[14]

Third marriage[edit]

On May 25, 1936,[15] she married John Beresford, 5th Baron Decies (1866–1944), a widower who had previously been married to Helen Vivien Gould (1893–1931).[16][17][18] He died on January 31, 1944.[19]

She died in 1944 at the Hotel Shelton. She was buried in the crypt below Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown University, which she and her first husband had built as a memorial to their son, Joseph Drexel Dahlgren, who died in infancy.[1]

Published works[edit]

  • "King Lehr" and the Gilded Age (1935) ISBN 1-4047-8242-7[3]
  • Turn of the World (1937) ISBN 978-1-4290-9080-3


  1. ^ a b c "Lady Decies, Widow of Irish Peer, Dies; Former Elizabeth Drexel of Philadelphia Was Once the Wife of Harry Lehr". The New York Times. June 14, 1944. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
  2. ^ "Mrs. J.W. Drexel Dead. Former Social Leader of Philadelphia and Mother of Mrs. Harry Lehr". The New York Times. January 26, 1912.
  3. ^ a b c "Record of the Rich". Time. August 5, 1935. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
  4. ^ "The Former Mrs. Lehr". The New York Times. 12 December 1937. Retrieved 23 February 2017.
  5. ^ "MR. DAHLGREN AND HIS BRIDE.; BEGINNING OF THEIR HONEYMOON IN A HISTORIC MARYLAND HOUSE". The New York Times. 7 July 1889. Retrieved 23 February 2017.
  6. ^ "JOHN VINTON DAHLGREN DEAD.; Son of the Admiral Passes Away at Colorado Springs". The New York Times. 12 August 1899. Retrieved 23 February 2017.
  7. ^ "JOHN V. DAHLGREN, KIN OF DREXELS, TO MARRY". The New York Times. 3 June 1946. Retrieved 23 February 2017.
  8. ^ "J. V. DAHLGREN LOSES SUIT.; Falls to Compel Uncle to Account for $70,000". The New York Times. 17 October 1914. Retrieved 23 February 2017.
  9. ^ "NUPTIALS ARE HELD FOR HELEN BRODERICK". The New York Times. 15 July 1946. Retrieved 23 February 2017.
  10. ^ "BUILT BY MRS. DAHLGREN.; Dedication of the Chapel of the Sacred Heart at Washington". The New York Times. 17 April 1893. Retrieved 23 February 2017.
  11. ^ "John Vinton Dalhgren Dead", The New York Times, August 12, 1899.
  12. ^ Vanderbilt II, Arthur T. Fortune's Children. Wm. Morrow and Co., 1989: 235-7. ISBN 0-688-07279-8
  13. ^ Wayne Craven (2009) Gilded Mansions, Norton, New York
  14. ^ "Harry S. Lehr Dies. Once Social Leader. Succumbs To A Brain Malady In Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore. Late Mrs. Astor's Adviser Noted For Daring And Originality Of His Parties. Married Mrs. J. V. Dahlgren, Heiress. Quickly Got Into Limelight. Furor Over "Monkey Dinner" Story. An Excellent Musician". The New York Times. January 4, 1929. Baltimore, January 3, 1929. Harry Symes Lehr, for many years prominent in society of New York, Newport, Baltimore and Paris, died today of a brain disorder at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he had been a patient for several weeks.
  15. ^ "Decies to Marry Mrs. Harry Lehr; Widow of New York Leader of Society to Become Bride of Irish Peer on May 23. Announcement in Paris. Bride-Elect Member of Drexel Family. Wrote Book, 'King Lehr and Gilded Age.'". The New York Times. May 12, 1936. Mrs. Henry Symes Lehr, widow of Harry Lehr, society leader in New York early in the century, will be married here on May 23 to John Graham Beresford, Lord Decies, Irish peer, according to an announcement made today.
  16. ^ "Lady Decies Dies at 38 in London. Former Helen Vivien Gould Was Principal in Brilliant International Wedding of 1911. Was Noted As Hostess. Her Entertaining Was a Feature of British Capital. Husband Is Distinguished Irish Peer". The New York Times. February 3, 1931. Retrieved 2007-11-26. Lady Decies, the former Helen Vivien Gould, daughter of the late George Jay Gould of New York, died in London this morning. She had been critically ill here for several days.
  17. ^ "Died". Time magazine. February 16, 1931. Retrieved 2009-02-04. Lady Helen Vivien Decies, 39, daughter and heiress of the late George Jay Gould, wife of John Graham Hope de la Poer Beresford, 5th Baron Decies, Boer War veteran; of jaundice and heart attack; in London.
  18. ^ "People". Time. July 27, 1942. Retrieved 2007-07-21. Heavily engraved invitations sent out by Lady Decies (formerly Elizabeth Drexel of Philadelphia) sent the British Library of Information bustling about over a point of etiquette. Said the invitation: "Lady Elizabeth Decies (the Right Honorable Elizabeth Beresford, Baroness Decies) requests the pleasure of your company," etc. But Lady Decies, pointed out the B.L.I., is merely wife of a privy councillor of the lowest rank of the peerage (John Graham Hope de la Poer Beresford, Baron Decies). is therefore a "Lady," but not a "Right Honorable." Nor can she call herself "Lady Elizabeth," nor "Elizabeth, Lady," titles proper only to the daughter of an earl or better or the widowed mother of a baron or married baronet, or the widow of a knight.
  19. ^ "Lord Decies dies in England at 77. Soldier, Sportsman, Friend of Taxpayer. Married Gould Heiress Here in 1911". The New York Times. February 2, 1944.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Media related to Elizabeth Wharton Drexel at Wikimedia Commons