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Beyond the Boudoir

How Richmond courtesan Arabella Huntington became the richest woman in the world.


Arabella Worsham Huntington in 1905, five years after the death of Collis B. Huntington. - THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, ART COLLECTIONS, AND BOTANICAL GARDENS

IT DOESN'T TAKE a voyeur to be tantalized by Richmond's historic period bedrooms. Downtown at the John Marshall House, the great chief justice and his wife must have had a passionate relationship: They slept in a hard-edged, four-poster bed, yet produced 10 children. And what's with those swan beds at Maymont? Was Sallie May Dooley's favorite opera "Lohengrin," or did she indulge in psycho-erotic fantasies? Back downtown, the irrepressible Maggie Walker, a widow and crippled, ensconced herself in an upstairs suite that fronted noisy Leigh Street rather than retire to a rear room — the better to monitor the comings and goings of her domain, Jackson Ward.

The most recent bedchamber to join this inventory of once intimate and now highly public spaces is the Worsham-Rockefeller room in the American galleries at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Since May 2010, when the museum unveiled its blindingly white-walled, modernistic McGlothlan Wing, many visitors have been startled to discover an impeccably installed, exquisitely ornate, Moorish-styled boudoir from 1877 — a magnificent trophy room from America's Gilded Age.

A sumptous mix of handsome materials creates a serene and seductive space in Arabella Worsham's Manhattan bedroom, now displayed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. - THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, ART COLLECTIONS, AND BOTANICAL GARDENS

But what's it doing here? The gallery label offers few clues, certainly no mention that the room was the lair of a trophy courtesan of the era, Richmonder Arabella Yarrington Worsham. We're not told that it was here — as well as in the house that once stood at 4 W. 54th St., in Manhattan — that Worsham maintained a decade-long seduction of a married man much her senior, Collis P. Huntington. He was the biggest of the "big four" of the California tycoons (along with Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins) who linked the North American coasts by rail in 1869.

When Worsham and Huntington eventually married and built a new palace farther uptown in New York, their love nest and all its contents were sold to the prim and proper founder of Standard Oil Co., John D. Rockefeller. In 1937, after the Rockefellers moved out, the family bequeathed the bedroom to the Museum of the City of New York where it was displayed until recently. But by 2010, with the room no longer serving that institution's curatorial narrative, it was given to VMFA.

So Arabella Worsham Huntington comes home, as it were. She never could have envisioned this, especially because she spent her entire adult life denying and erasing any traces of her humble beginnings in Shockoe Bottom. She'd clawed her way to the top. By 1900, one of the most mysterious women in the world had become its richest ... and was about to become wealthier still. This bedroom on the Boulevard offers a unique and titillating glimpse of Arabella's life — a double Cinderella story without parallel in American history.

ARABELLA DUVAL YARRINGTON probably was born in Richmond around 1850 (she perennially fibbed about her age and no birth record was ever found). She was one of five children of Richard and Catherine Yarrington. Her father, who was a factory machinist, died in 1859. Desperate to keep food on the table for her large family, Catherine opened a boarding house in the flood-prone vicinity below the 17th Street Farmers' Market along the canal (near where Bottom's Up Pizza is today). It hasn't been determined how respectable or tawdry an operation it was, but with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Yarrington establishment would have been a busy place because rooms were at a premium. While Richmond's population doubled during the war years, the Bottom became increasingly rough and disreputable — a throbbing stew of ethnicities, slave auction houses, makeshift hotels, gambling parlors and brothels.

In 1865, near the war's end, much of the adjacent neighborhood was burned to the ground and the town was under Union military rule. Options for Richmonders were dire. Those who could leave town did, seeking opportunities elsewhere. Merchant Lewis Ginter, who lost his wealth during the war, was among them. He moved to New York City to regain financial footing before returning to establish a tobacco empire.

But what was available to a widow with five children? Catherine Yarrington determined that her daughter Arabella, 19, who'd grown into a statuesque beauty, would become the family meal ticket. Apparently, Arabella already had bewitched railroad man Collis P. Huntington, who was already married.

Huntington, heavyset, uneducated and ruthless at business, had visited Richmond a number of times leading up to his 1869 purchase of what became Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, an eastern holding of his vast railroad empire that stretched from the city of Newport News (which he founded), to the Pacific Northwest via New Orleans, Texas and California. For decades he headed the Southern Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads.

Although Huntington neither smoked nor drank, he indulged in card games. And in Richmond he probably frequented one of the city's largest faro parlors, which was owned by John Worsham. (Faro is a card game wherein bets are placed on cards as they're removed from the top of the dealer's pack.) The parlor was located just a few blocks from Catherine Yarrington's boarding house where Arabella lived.

Arabella Worsham (shown here in a painting by Alexandre Cabanel) married Collis P. Huntington (below) after a 14-year affair with the railroad tycoon. - FINE ARTS MUSEUMS OF SAN FRANCISCO
  • Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
  • Arabella Worsham (shown here in a painting by Alexandre Cabanel) married Collis P. Huntington (below) after a 14-year affair with the railroad tycoon.

TO CALL THE unschooled Collis Huntington self-made is an understatement. He was born in 1821 on the edge of a Connecticut swamp called Poverty Hollow. One of nine children, he was farmed out to work for a neighbor before he fled to New York on his own at age 15. He soon took a job peddling watches throughout the South. Back in the state of New York by 1842, he and a brother opened a dry goods store. At 23 he married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Stoddard.

An energetic man weighing more than 200 pounds, Huntington prided himself on never being sick. He also was impatient temperamentally, so he was intrigued by the possibilities of the 1849 Gold Rush and moved to Sacramento to establish a West Coast branch of the business. The Huntingtons realized there was big money in selling camping and mining equipment to the thousands of men searching for gold. In 1855, Huntington and another local merchant, Mark Hopkins, established Huntington & Hopkins hardware. They became leading Sacramento businessmen, invested in real estate, grew interested in railroads and dove into local politics.

In 1862 the partners were joined by two other businessmen, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford, in organizing the Central Pacific railroad. They envisioned it linking the east and west coasts. Stanford visited Washington to get congressional approval and underwriting for the ambitious endeavor. After Congress agreed to pay them construction costs of $16,000 a mile over flat land and $32,000 a mile over mountains, it was Huntington's idea to redraw the western routes showing mostly rugged terrain. Government officials suspected nothing.

Collis P. Huntington - LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

"No more soul than a shark" is how the San Francisco Examiner described Huntington. "As ruthless as a crocodile."

"Scrupulously dishonest," is how another critic described him.

While Huntington was building his empire and wooing Richmonder Arabella Yarrington during his infrequent trips here, his wife, Elizabeth, by all accounts plain and retiring, lived quietly in the mansion the couple had built on New York's Park Avenue. They had no children of their own but did adopt one of her nieces.

IF 1869 WAS the year Huntington drove the final, golden rail spike linking east and west and acquired control of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, it also was the year he acquired another Virginia asset, Arabella Yarrington — and apparently her entire family.

In that year Arabella left Richmond and moved to New York City, under the cover of being married to John Worsham, the gambler. He was 45 and she was 19. They lived together under the same roof in lower Manhattan with all the Yarrington clan.

Then Worsham supposedly died after a year of marriage, leaving Arabella widowed with an infant son, Archer Worsham. But in fact, he wasn't dead. Worsham had moved back to Richmond, re-established his faro business near Shockoe Bottom and rejoined his wife, Annette, to whom he was legally betrothed the entire time.

Had Huntington masterminded the sham marriage to get Arabella established discreetly near him in New York? And was little Archer Worsham actually the railroad magnate's illegitimate son? These questions never were answered. And Arabella spent a lifetime making sure they never would be.

What is known is that Arabella didn't miss a beat. She was a quick study, had a good head for business and required the finest things. The beautiful young "widow" from the South was on the move — and make. Arabella, her siblings and their ever-present mother moved into a house that Huntington owned on Lexington Avenue near Grammacy Park, within a stone's throw of such prominent families as the Morgans, Vanderbilts and Astors.

It wasn't long before Catherine Yarrington was buying additional choice residential properties in Manhattan on Huntington's dime, always turning the title over to Arabella. Mother and daughter appeared to possess limitless resources and they comported themselves as Southern ladies of immense breeding and wealth, so they encountered no problems with New York banks.

In 1877 Arabella purchased the house at 4 W. 54th St., just off Fifth Avenue, and the two vacant lots that flanked it. It was a relatively quiet and semi-suburban neighborhood. A Catholic orphanage was located a few blocks away and the St. Luke's Hospital campus provided a leafy oasis directly across the street. The hospital's continuous flow of the general population also meant that still-married Huntington could have his assignations with Arabella without notice.

Although she couldn't show it off to her high-society neighbors (railroad and shipping tycoon William Vanderbilt lived two doors away), Arabella spent a considerable sum having the place gutted to its brick shell, knocking out a wall and adding a new wing. There was sumptuous rosewood paneling, brocade-covered walls and a curved main staircase crowned by a skylight. It also boasted one of the first passenger elevators in a private New York home.

To fill the time while she awaited visits by on-the-move Huntington, Arabella immersed herself in architecture books, decorating manuals and art history tomes, and learned French. And if she avoided, or was shunned, by the neighbors (the Astors and Vanderbilts never allowed her into their tight circle), she could always redecorate and consult the best designers and art dealers. Her money was good enough for them.

Arabella extensively renovated her home at 4 W. 54th St. in New York. It was later purchased by John D. Rockefeller. - BROOKLYN MUSEUM
  • Brooklyn Museum
  • Arabella extensively renovated her home at 4 W. 54th St. in New York. It was later purchased by John D. Rockefeller.

The Moorish bedroom wouldn't have seemed garishly opulent for the late 1870s. It was the height of style for the period. The popular author Washington Irving had recently visited southern Spain and written tales of the Alhambra, which inspired many style-conscious people to redecorate their homes.

"The interior contained touches of voluptuous sensuality, [a] Moorish salon on the ground floor and the Turkish bath upstairs," historian Ron Chernow wrote in describing Arabella's house. "The sumptuous master bedroom was artistically designed in Anglo-Japanese style, with dark, ebonized woodwork, a queen-size canopied sleigh bed, and a magnificent silver and gilt chandelier. The bay window provided an intimate Turkish corner ... glimpsed through a stained-glass screen." Paintings by French artists hung on the walls.

How did Huntington like all this? Just fine. Although he once boasted that he'd never spent more than $200 a year on "personal adornment," he allowed Arabella full range. He was devoted to her.

While the house on West 54th Street was being renovated, Arabella traveled with her son, Archer, then 7. In 1877 the Austin (Texas) Statesman reported: "Mrs. B.D. Worsham, mother and son ... are in the city. ... Mrs. Worsham is a niece of Collis P. Huntington, the railroad man."

Then in 1883, after a long bout with cancer, Huntington's wife, Elizabeth, died. There is evidence that Arabella and her mother both assisted her during the illness.

After a deep relationship of 14 years, Arabella, 34, and Collis, 66, were married in the parlor at 4 W. 54th St. The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a noted New York minister (who had preached to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, and whose sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin") conducted the nuptials. Huntington probably felt quite comfortable with Beecher officiating since the minister himself had been frequently and publicly called out for having illicit affairs with women in his congregation.

"Long before I met her, Arabella was the unofficial wife of Collis P. Huntington," wrote art dealer James Henry Duveen, the man who would become the new Mrs. Huntington's influential art dealer, arbiter of taste and traveling companion during the coming years.

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