HomeCharities & FundraisersArabella Huntington: A Woman of Mystery

Arabella Huntington: A Woman of Mystery

Note: Henry Edwards Huntington is referred to in this article as “Henry” even though he was known as “Edward” to most of his family and friends.

Henry Edwards Huntington married Arabella Huntington in a service officiated by the Reverend William G. Allen at the American Church in Paris on July 16, 1913. She was the widow of Collis P. Huntington. She and Collis were married by Reverend Henry Ward Beecher in the parlor of her house on West Fifty-fourth Street in New York City on July 12, 1884. These are some of the indisputable facts historians have on the influential woman of The Huntington Library. The birth of her son Archer on March 10, 1870 is verified although his paternity is suspect.

Much of Arabella’s early life is quite honestly a bit of a mystery. She wanted it that way and had most of her personal papers destroyed on her death. Arabella Duval Yarrington was born to Richard and Catherine Yarrington, most likely, in Richmond Va. around 1850. No birth certificate has been found and she was always evasive about her age. Her parents moved from Alabama to Richmond in 1850 where her father worked as a machinist until his death in 1859. To support her five children, Catherine ran a boarding house on Main Street along the James River. It wasn’t the best area of town and these were years of Civil War. Richmond’s population burgeoned and the city became rough. There were slave auction houses, gambling parlors, makeshift hotels and brothels. Conflicting stories exist as to the type of establishment Catherine Yarrington operated.

The details are sketchy but it seems Arabella married John Worsham of NYC in 1869. She met him in Richmond where he ran several gambling houses. It is possible she also met Collis P Huntington at one of those Richmond gambling houses. Arabella’s family moved to New York with the newlyweds and the following year Arabella’s son Archer Milton Worsham was born. John Worsham, according to some stories died that year, other stories claim he returned to Richmond to his “legal” wife. It is uncertain.

Another version, attributed to Arabella’s son Archer, claims she met Collis while he stayed at the Yarrington boarding house and he took her to New York to help care for his ailing wife. They fell in love, had a child and the Worsham marriage was arranged to legitimize Archer’s birth. Until she married Collis, Arabella used the name “Bella D. Worsham” on legal documents and correspondence and the monogram “BDW” on household items. Although Collis and Archer referred to each other as father and son and they shared a strong physical resemblance, there is no evidence to support this story.

What does stand up to scrutiny is Arabella’s request for help from Collis when she was pregnant. Shelley Bennett, author of “The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age,” writes that he not only helped her but moved Arabella, her baby and her family into better living quarters. Shortly afterward Arabella bought and sold properties in the city and Collis began to seriously collect works of art. Presumably Arabella received capital from Collis to begin her own investments. She quickly mastered the worlds of real estate and high culture. She learned French and collected art.

According to Bennett, “By the time she was 27, Arabella, a single mother, owned property in her own name that today would be worth about $6.5 million.” Collis Huntington’s wife Elizabeth died of cancer in 1883 and within a few months he married Arabella and adopted her son Archer. They lived happily until his death in 1900. As Mrs. Collis Huntington, Arabella became a more public individual. Some correspondence survives between Arabella and Henry Huntington’s sisters Carrie and Elizabeth.

During the 1880s and 1890s Arabella and Collis traveled to Europe and returned with portraits by Joshua Reynolds, paintings by Vermeer, including Woman with a Lute, tapestries and other works of decorative art. Their collecting was not limited to European trips; they spent the equivalent of several million dollars in today’s money on purchases from New York art dealers. Even after his death Arabella’s acquisitions of art, real estate, decorative furnishings and jewelry continued. She was a generous benefactor to many institutions such as Harvard University, Tuskegee Institute and the New York hospital that became Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

In addition to her own investments, Arabella supported her son Archer’s projects. His first trip abroad with his mother at age 12 shaped his interest in all things Spanish. A railroad trip to Mexico a few years later with Collis and Arabella heightened this interest and led to the establishment of the Hispanic Society of America. Both parents supported his goal of building a museum and collecting Spanish art and rare books and manuscripts in Spanish. In 1908 he opened the Hispanic Society library in New York with 100,000 books, 1,000 manuscripts and paintings by Diego Rivera, El Greco and Francisco Goya. In 1909 she gifted land in NYC to Archer for a new home for the American Geographical Society.

After Collis died she traveled with Archer and his wife Helen for extended periods of time in Europe. She mourned her husband deeply and although she had doted on Archer he was not always able to comfort her. For a decade Arabella supported her husband’s interests and charities. She created memorials to Collis Huntington including donations to the medical school at Harvard University and the Collis P. Huntington Memorial Library in San Francisco. She continued to mourn Collis, dressing in black, even after she remarried.

Throughout her marriage to Collis, Arabella enjoyed a cordial relationship with the family of Henry Edwards Huntington, however by 1908 a distinct bitterness and dislike of Arabella emerged among the women in Henry’s family. As his uncle’s trustee, Henry met often with Arabella and Archer to discuss and manage the inheritance they shared. Their meetings were friendly and eventually sparked rumors of a relationship, rumors that Arabella and Henry repeatedly denied. In March 1906 Henry’s wife Mary filed for divorce, claiming desertion. Comments and letters indicate they had been hopelessly incompatible for many years.

In December 1912, Henry’s daughter-in-law Leslie wrote to his daughter Elizabeth that father was “ madly in love” with Aunt Belle. A few months later Henry applied for his first passport and in May followed Arabella to Europe. They were married in Paris, stayed a few days in the city, traveled by car to Switzerland and southern France and returned to Paris where they stayed until October.

Son Howard’s family met the newlyweds at the train station in Pasadena in November 1913 and accompanied them to their new home in San Marino. A 40-foot flag signaled they were in residence. They drove around the grounds and walked through the gardens around the house. Belle delighted in the grand vistas and Henry was overjoyed to show her through his magnificent libraries. Their common interests in collecting and art coalesced in the coming years as they amassed more and more priceless treasures.

More to follow on the collections of Henry and Arabella …

Do you have a story of historic interest for San Marino? Send comments and suggestions to historyofsanmarino@gmail.com.

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