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From the Hilltop to the high life

  Charles Milhauser  

The Presidentís House was the first of many grand homes inhabited by Margaret Hamilton, later Lady Waterlow, whose father built the home seen here early in the 20th century. It still serves as the presidential residence.

Margaret Hamilton was three months shy of her ninth birthday when she enrolled in Cornellís Primary Department in 1858. She lived in the grandest house in Mount Vernon (today the Presidentís House), which her Irish-born father, William Hamilton, had built in 1850. William, one of the original trustees of Cornell College, sold his house and general store in 1860 and moved his family to Iowa City and then to San Francisco, where he made a fortune in banking and the Hamiltons became intimates of the moguls of California society.

Hamilton died in 1870, and two years later Margaret married the son of a ďBoston capitalist.Ē Within five weeks of their wedding, her husband had squandered her inheritance and abandoned her. Her father-in-law arranged for a divorce and took her to China. Before Prozac, an ocean voyage was thought an excellent cure for depression. After returning, she journeyed to Mount Vernon, where President King entertained her in her former home.

In 1880, Sir Sydney Waterlow, baronet and a former Lord Mayor of London, lost his wife of 34 years, the mother of his eight children. He then embarked on a world tour to assuage his grief. During his brief visit to California in the summer of 1881, he and Margaret met as guests of railroad tycoon Charles Crocker in Monterey. Something sparked between them. It would have been humiliating had she followed him to England on her own and discovered he was no longer interested in her, and social suicide if the fact became public. Her friend, Phoebe Hearst, wife of mining and publishing magnate George Hearst and the mother of William Randolph Hearst, hatched a plan: bring Margaret to London as her guest, arrange a chance meeting with Sir Sydney at one of her parties, and let Cupid take over.

Phoebe and Margaret sailed from New York on Jan. 18, 1882. On March 28, Margaret and Sir Sydney were married in the British Embassy in Paris in the presence of her mother and sister, Alice, also a Cornellian. This was the era when American heiresses sought to marry titles, and titled European aristocrats married to replenish their family's coffers. Margaret's circumstances were an anomaly. She was 32, divorced, and without a fortune. Her titled husband, to the contrary, was one of the richest and most respected men in England. She and her 59-year-old groom lived happily until his death in 1906. During a visit to the United States, they stopped in Mount Vernon.

Lady Waterlow

As Lady Waterlow, she had a mansion in London, a huge country estate in Kent, and a villa in Cannes that she named Monterey, to memorialize her first meeting with Sir Sydney. Here she entertained lavishly. The king of Sweden was a regular guest during his annual winter visits to the Riviera. Margaret was also an intimate of Queen Victoriaís daughter, Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll. The Waterlows traveled around the world, and in Tokyo they attended the first garden party ever given for Westerners by the emperor of Japan. In 1903, a hybrid tea rose, the Lady Waterlow, was named for her. Margaret died in Cannes in 1931.

Margaretís father planted Cornellís ginkgo tree. He came to Mount Vernon at the urging of his wifeís brother-in-law, Andrew Safley, who had settled there in 1842 and ran a steam-operated sawmill. Andrew was the uncle of Henrietta Safley, who married Stephen Dows. They were the grandparents of Sutherland Dows Sr., president of Cornellís board of trustees (1950Ė69), for whom Dows Hall is named.

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