The Sad Life of Alfred I. du Pont


Alfred I. du Pont with Jessie Ball

Alfred I. du Pont with
Jessie Ball

Many visitors to Alfred I. du Pont’s fabulous Nemours mansion just outside of Wilmington, DE, must think to themselves. “Wow, I sure wish I had been Alfred.”  If they knew the true details of his life, they would not want it.  Nobody would.

Alfred I. du Pont was one of the three cousins who bought the DuPont company in the early 1900s (see posting of January 14).  Born in 1864, one of five children, he grew up in Swamp Hall, a moderate, rustic mansion along the Brandywine River, close to the gunpowder mills of the original DuPont company.  There was no swamp anywhere near it—Alfred named it to ridicule the pompous names other du Ponts gave to their mansions.

Alfred always preferred the informal company of the powder mill workers to his many du Pont cousins.  When he was young, he played with the worker’s children.  As an adult, he led a worker’s music band and generally just hung out with them socially to the displeasure of his first wife, Bessie, who was one of the more uptight members of the du Pont family.  He was most proud of his reputation as the world’s best hands-on maker of gunpowder.

But early in life, he was struck by an almost unbelievable tragedy.  His mother increasingly fell into fits of depression, and when he was only 13, he saw her for the last time as she was taken away as a raving maniac to a Philadelphia mental hospital.  She died there a week later.  His father had long been an invalid from tuberculosis and died a month after her.

The family guardian for Alfred and his siblings was “Uncle Fred,” Alfred Victor du Pont, a crusty old bachelor, well-liked by all of his nieces and nephews.  He was sent to Swamp Hall to tell the five children that they were to be split up among several relatives, but they had been warned and met him at the door armed with garden tools and kitchen utensils.  They refused to go, arguing they were well cared for at Swamp Hall by the servants, and their oldest sister, Anne, had been capably acting as their mother for several years.  Uncle Fred agreed they had a point, and they were allowed to stay.

(Many years later, Uncle Fred was scandalously found dead in a St. Louis brothel.  He had died of a bullet wound in an apparent dispute over his paternity of a child of one of the staff.  The details were frantically covered up, and no one was prosecuted for the crime.)

An earlier tragedy occurred when young Alfred dove into the shallow Brandywine and broke his nose on a rock.  The injury seemed minor.  It healed itself, but permanently damaged his eustachian tubes that led to increasing deafness.  By his 40s, he was totally deaf.  This ended his active participation in music and added to his social isolation.  As an adult, he lost one eye in a hunting accident.

As a direct descendant of Eleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours (“de Nemours” literally, “of Nemours,” a small town outside of Paris, an addition to their name granted by the king to Eleuthère’s father to indicate their granted aristocracy), the founder of the family gunpowder business, Alfred was a major partner in the DuPont company, even though he was out-maneuvered in its control by his more astute cousins (see January 14 posting).  He was always wealthy by any standard, but he was never interested in business, and his money often seemed more of a burden than a pleasure.

Alfred married three times.  The first, to Bessie Gardner, a distant cousin, began well enough, but she soon turned shrewish, constantly ridiculing and criticizing him publicly, perhaps in reaction to his deafness. The main du Pont family sided with her, but Alfred’s siblings often commented in letters among themselves about her unnecessary disrespect of him and of them, and several refused to ever visit Swamp Hall again.  The marriage ended in a bitter divorce, so bitter that Alfred razed Swamp Hall to the ground, leaving no trace, just so she and their four children could not live there, and he tried force the Delaware legislature to legally change the name of one of his devoted children who was named after his grandfather, Alfred Victor.  (Not Uncle Fred.  The du Pont names are notably unoriginal, and the same ones recur over and over.)  This seemed vindictive by almost everyone and was why many of the family turned against him.

His second marriage to Alicia Maddox was not much better, although this time he was warned beforehand.  She was a beautiful divorcee, the belle of Washington, D.C. and eleven years younger than Alfred.   They were distant cousins and always had a close relationship.  At her first wedding, he stood in for her objecting father as the one giving her away.

She laughed at him when he first proposed.  He was her doting uncle, not a lover, and she told him right from the beginning their relationship could never be sexual.  But she was in financial difficulties and agreed on the condition he would respect her feelings.  He entered the marriage expecting to eventually win her affections, but that never happened.

She was enamored with France and spent much of her time there after their marriage, away from Alfred who had responsibilities in Delaware.  He built the ostentatious Nemours mansion in a style considered French by Delawareans to entice her back, but she found it a poor substitute for her Paris apartment and rarely stayed there.  He spent a huge amount of money on this unwanted gesture while his first wife and their four children struggled to live on a small stipend.  Alicia died suddenly of heart problems after thirteen years of a loveless marriage, at least on her part.  Like the unobtainable woman for many men, she remained the love of his life.

(The sturdy stone wall surrounding the Nemours mansion is nine feet high, and the top is set with upright shards of broken glass, as in the French style.  Alfred joked it was to keep out the other du Ponts.  I remember passing it with amazement on a high school visit to the University of Delaware, never dreaming I would one day live within walking distance of it.)

Finally, Alfred succeeded with his even younger third wife, Jessie Ball.  She was not related to the du Ponts and was not even high society.  She had been the 14-year-old child of the operators of a Carolina hunting lodge where Alfred used to vacation.  He confided in her over the years about his marital problems in an exchange of letters that was clearly inappropriate.  She had been working as an assistant principal at a grade school when his second wife died.  He was en route by train to meet her when he was informed of his wife’s death. He and Jessie married soon after. She was 37 and he was 57.

Most wrote off Jessie as an opportunistic gold digger, but she was levelheaded and devoted to Alfred’s well-being.  She encouraged him to try any possible cure for his deafness, and she sat beside him in many business meetings writing notes to him on what was being said.  She and her brother, who developed into a talented financier under Alfred, became indispensable allies to his businesses.

Jessie understandably did not like living in the Nemours mansion, and certainly neither did Alfred.  It was not his style, and by now he was almost at war with the other du Ponts.  Jessie and Alfred spent most of their time in Florida where his extensive land holdings in the panhandle eventually became the St. Joe Paper Company.

Alfred's Nemours carillon, dedicated to his parents.

Alfred’s Nemours carillon.

Alfred died in 1935 at age 70 at his home in Jacksonville, FL of an apparent heart attack.  He had been ill for several days and died surrounded by doctors, nurses, and family. He died at 12:22 am on Monday, April 29. His last words were, “Thank you doctors. Thank you nurses. I’ll be alright in a few days.”

He wasn’t.

Jessie and her brother continued to manage his business interests and were responsible for carrying out and extending his sketchy plans for developing the now world-famous Nemours/A. I. du Pont Pediatric Hospital complex.  Jessie even completed Alfred’s plans for a memorial carillon on the Nemours grounds dedicated to his parents, and whose bells I can often hear through my open windows on warm summer evenings.

Jessie and her brother always faced the criticism that neither of them would have amounted to anything without Alfred, but it is unlikely Alfred would have accomplished as much without them, either.  No one could deny the importance of their hard-nosed dedication and acumen in maintaining and extending his philanthropies, even if they did share in the glory.

(Alfred I. Du Pont, The Man & His Family by Joseph Frazier Wall, Oxford University Press, is the best book I have found that describes the entire early du Pont family and their history, not just Alfred. It also has a detailed family tree of the du  Ponts, a necessary reference when trying to sort them out.)

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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