This was a project commissioned by the A Public Space literary magazine and the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the Between the Lines culture series. Mrs. Julia Grant’s opera shawl, according to entries in the Ulysses S. Grant Letters, was purchased in 1878 in Paris. This was after General Grant’s presidency but before they set up housekeeping at number 3 East 66th Street in New York City. The shawl was among the General Grant archival collection but not cataloged until it arrived at its current home at Mississippi State University. This is ironic in light of Mr. Grant’s military career in which he basically stripped the state of Mississippi of all goods and food in order to suppress the Confederate rebels - but nobody talks about that there. The shawl was found by Dr. Marszalek’s wife who helps out at the collection. Dr. Marszalek is an authority on General Grant as well as General Sherman… yet he still lives in Mississippi - more irony I suppose. The shawl is special - it is a black vest with extensive glass beading front and back. Evidently there are two alike- Mrs. Grant bought one as a gift and they were pricey… the shawl is also one of the only artifacts that are traceable to the Grant family in the collection, the rest are knickknacks and ephemera commemorating Grant, but not the real thing… Mr. Semmes, the chief archivist, suspects that Julia really went on a buying spree in Paris after her visit with the Queen of England. It did not go well and she might have needed a little pick me up. She also went to the House of Worth for ball gowns; the Queen must have been quite rude.
“I had a splendid time shopping. Mr. Worth personally directed the fitting of my costumes, and Madam Virot attended me in person for any millinery I wished, and there were no small attentions, I assure you.” -Julia Grant Also the story goes that General Grant adored Julia and gave her most of what she desired, when the money allowed. Mrs. Grant adored the General.
“The General, very unreasonably I thought, objected to my buying a lovely coral handle for my parasol, but it was all explained when he entered one day with an exquisite one in his hand and said “Now you see why I did not want you to buy one. I wanted to give it to you as a Christmas present.” -Julia Grant
Julia Grant’s Opera Shawl
After their world tour and after the two terms in the White House, in 1881 the Grants decided to settle in New York and was offered a home financed by the Generals supporters. Mrs. Grant was house proud and was happy with the brownstone that would be a center point for her family and social life.
“So I was to have a beautiful home, all my own, and how happy I was all that summer looking for a house and selecting paper, furniture , etc. After many delightful sails from Long Branch to New York to find a suitable house, we at length decided upon one situated on East Sixty–Sixth Street. It was much larger than we intended (or had the means) to buy. But it was so new and sweet and large that this quite outweighed our more prudential scruples...” -Julia Grant The Grant household had a great financial tragedy in 1884. Being a trusting man Grant unknowingly financed an elaborate Ponzi scheme developed by his son’s business partner. The Grant’s entire fortune was lost in a matter of days forcing all of the valuable artifacts documenting his life to be sold to pay off the debt the financial loss had incurred. Yet the shawl remained.
After the collapse of their finances they stayed at 3 East 66th Street as the General started his memoirs and his health declined. This strategy hatched by Mark Twain to sell the book for Grant to be able to support his family again.
“Happy, happy thought for him! How many weary hours were thus occupied, and with what earnestness he began and with what perseverance he continued to the end this writing, writing, writing for bread.” -Julia Grant Let’s walk through the house with the artifacts of his great career removed but with some ideas as to how the house might have been occupied. Julia had initially decorated elegantly enough to have it appear in The Artistic House, the Domino Magazine of her day…
The parlor was spare by Victorian standards but contained three sitting chairs that mimicked Mrs. Grant’s famously very tasteful taffeta skirts. The very quotable “A pretty gown gives the greatest peace of mind to a woman…” seems to suit these chairs
The library furniture was embroidered with battle strategies of Grants campaign and the floor carpet mapped his career in the Mexican War.
The reception room was filled with the plethora of Grant memorabilia that was a product him being the worldâ€™s most famous man in the 19th century. Not Mr. Lincoln and not Reverend Beecher, no matter what their biographers say.
The Entry hall was filled with flowers from well wishers and the upstairs floor was reinstalled to house the Grantâ€™s collection of letters in glass boxes.
General Grants bedroom is Spartan as his militarily life dictated except for artful depictions of a horse cantering around the crown of the room.
Finally in Mrs. Grantâ€™s bedroom, a room that was described as the most elegant in the house, is a glass case to carefully house the opera shawl and to watch over Mrs. Grant in her last years.
Glass cabinet for Julia Grantâ€™s opera shawl.
Grant left the 66th Street house in July of 1885 and died shortly thereafter, Julia decided to move to Washington, DC, the stage of her brilliant life as First Lady. The shawl was put in a hat box and not opened again until 2006, where it resides in the Grant Collection. We go and visit it when we want to think about beauty and graciousness and supporting a gentleman that you love dearly.
“For Thirty–seven years, I, his wife, rested and was warmed in the sunlight of his loyal love and great fame, and now, even though his beautiful flame has gone out, it is as when some faroff planet disappears from the heavens; the light of his glorious fame still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me.” The conclusion of Julia Grant’s memoir. They were both laid to rest at Grant’s Tomb, which is at Riverside Drive and West 122nd Street.