“The Remarkable Rise Of Eliza Jumel,” In Harlem Heights

eliza jumel in harlem1The NY Times writes George Washington slept there, but, oh, to have been a fly on the wall of that mansion in Harlem Heights, Manhattan’s oldest surviving house, a few decades later, when Eliza Bowen moved uptown from what became Reade Street to live there with her husbands, Stephen Jumel and (again) Aaron Burr. (One at a time, of course.)

Margaret A. Oppenheimer, who has a doctorate in art history from New York University and volunteers as a docent at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, reintroduces readers to the woman who transformed herself from a poor Providence girl raised in a brothel into an elegant Upper Manhattan real estate mogul in “The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: Marriage and Money in the Early Republic” (Chicago Review Press).

The Morrises were Tories who lived there before the Revolution (curiously, there has been no outcry to rename Delancey Street and other places that memorialize British loyalists).

Washington commandeered the mansion briefly as his headquarters in 1776, but Ms. Oppenheimer focuses on the period from 1804, when Eliza and Stephen Jumel acquired the 140-acre estate (so big that slices were appropriated for the Croton Aqueduct and what became the New York Central railroad), to her death at age 90 in 1865, as well as the subsequent protracted court fight over her estate.

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Ms. Oppenheimer recounts quotidian early-19th-century New York and imaginatively fills the gaps in the biographical record of that rare woman involved in financial affairs by invoking romantic literature and the ribald gossip of the day.

Eliza Jumel was a woman “who rose from grinding poverty to enviable wealth” when women were depicted as weak and were consigned to second place. To some, she also was “a prostitute, a mother of an illegitimate son, a wife who ruthlessly defrauded her husband and perhaps even plotted his death.”

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Madame Jumel’s mansion survived, Ms. Oppenheimer writes, but her “reputation is not as well preserved as her furniture.”

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