May Van Alen Weds and Decides She is Not an American

“I have tried my best to persuade Mr. Thompson to leave New York and live in England, but so far without success,” said May Van Alen to custom officials at a hearing on October 16, 1913

May Van Alen Weds in London

Remember May Van Alen?  Continually dumping suitors and fiances, one of who committed suicide over her breaking their engagement, she was the granddaughter of the Astors and the eldest daughter of James J. Van Alen of New York and Newport Rhode Island.  In fact, the New York Times described her this way; "Miss Van Alen, as already stated, is the eldest daughter of James Van Alen.  She is a very odd, original girl, extremely clever, and with a reputation for slight eccentricity."  It goes on to say how the lives of all three Van Alen "children has not been of the happiest, not withstanding their money and their lineage."  

The article went on to remind readers of the Van Alen's mother's death shortly after giving birth to her youngest child, Sarah, and how James Van Alen took his brood overseas for an education.  In the same article, it states about May Van Alen, "She is not pretty, but is chic and dresses in a very conspicuous and Parisian manner.  She has an excited manner in talk and a fondness for saying startling things."  Not a very flattering portrait of a young society girl in America's Gilded Age.

May Van Alen finally did marry.  She married one Griswold Thompson in a private ceremony in St. George’s, Hanover Square in London, on September 24, 1913. The ceremony was conducted with the greatest level of secrecy and included a modest ten persons as guests. Never mind the fact that the wedding was actually scheduled for that coming Sunday.  Odd?  Yes.  But May Van Alen left many people in her wake, even invited guests it seems. The strict etiquette of the day, and even the much lamented relaxed etiquette of today, would more than frown on inviting one's guests to a wedding, then marrying in secrecy just days before the date one's guests have planned to attend.  Was the newspaper article their guests only notice?  Or were they sent cards or notes of explanation?

May Van Alen was one odd duck, in a small pond of wealthy socialites in America's Gilded Age.  I doubt anyone said anything public against her, though in private circles, she was probably gossiped about profusely and regularly.  
"Costumes Parisienes" Afternoon Dress for 1913

Why the secrecy and rush?  She would give no details, nor would she even give out the address in London where she's been staying, to those who wished to send gifts.  The news account says that following the private ceremony, the couple quickly left the church and headed for a tour of England.  Many speculated into the speed of the marriage and the closed-mouth handling of details for the ceremony.  The new York Times article does state that Griswold Thompson lived in England, "at one time."  It also mentioned that May's and Griswold's engagement had been announced in the Times back in June of 1913.  It gave Grisworld's bond and investment business address as "500 Fifth Avenue" in New York, and his residence as "16 East Sixtieth Street" in New York.

The Arabic was torpedoed and sunk by German u-boat U 24, on August 16, 1915

Eleven months later, Van Alen-Thompson was testifying at a hearing with custom authorities in Boston, regarding taxes due on items brought back with her to the United States on The Arabic.  According to Van Alen, she was a foreign resident and for many years had made her permanent home with her father in Northhamptonshire, England. As a result, the 25 trunks containing jewelry, furs and other fine articles, (as well as the magnificent fur and jewels worn by her maid, underneath her clothing and hidden in a belt, no less) should enter America duty free. At the conclusion of the hearing, May Van Alen begrudgingly paid the duties, although she was able to prove that some of the jewelry and wearing apparel were purchased in the United States prior to her departure from the country. Surprisingly, this was all eventually overturned on appeal! If she was a citizen of England, why all the theatrics to hide her gems, fur, etc... ? Even more surprising to me? No one has written a book or done a movie on this family. At least not a book or movie that I can find!
Surprisingly, this was all eventually overturned on appeal! If she was a citizen of England, why all the theatrics to hide her gems, fur, etc... ? Even more surprising to me? No one has written a book or done a movie on this family.  At least not one that I can find!

Remember, this series of recent blog posts on the Gilded Age in America, originally started with an article on "Miss Leary's Dinner Party" and I was curious about the guests the party was honoring.  First finding an odd article about the curious super fast marriage of Sarah Van Alen, I then stumbled onto the even more curious and baffling May Van Alen. (Above) Part of an article "Some Summer Gowns" featuring Sara Van Alen-Collier, the full column is at the bottom of this post.

On Gilded Aged Fashion and Style:

The hobble skirt below, touted as the "Latest Freak in Woman's Fashion,"caught on quickly. This style remained the height of fashion until around 1915. 

 SURE SIGN OF WOMAN’S EMANCIPATION IN THE INCREASED SIZE OF HER SHOES: Because She Swims, Walks, Plays Golf and Tennis and Works for a Living, She Can No Longer Pose as Wasp-Waisted and Tiny-Footed. So...  Larger feet caught on too, evidently!

All of these fashion articles can be found online and downloaded as PDFs from the New York Times' Archives


  1. It is obvious that this young woman had numerous problems. I too am really stunned that there has never been a movie made or book written about this colorful cast of characters.

    P.S. I tried to comment last bight, but to no avail. I really hate those "captchas". A necessary nuisance.

  2. Why wasn't Edith Wharton all over this as a writer of the era? Was it because of the mother's death after giving birth? The children were so young. The Astors were on that side of the family. So many questions surrounding this family, with May Van Alen in particular. Or, another possibility, is that maybe a lot of this was overblown at the time, but then again there was the tragic suicide of the one jilted lover and then the whole thing at customs. She did hide the jewels and a fur on the maid. Unreal!!!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts