Women in the Shadows
This regularly appearing column will introduce you to some of the women behind the men who are firmly cemented in historical records. The spotlight didn’t often find these women, but they played integral roles in their husbands’ success. Most of the recorded histories around the world, in America, and even family histories prior to the mid-twentieth century placed more importance on remembering men’s names and accomplishments rather than women’s, so this column shines a light on these lesser-known women.
1857 - 1946
Louise Whitfield was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1857, descended from English ancestors who had arrived in the New World in the 1600s. The Whitfield House in Guilford, Connecticut was built in 1639, less than 20 years after the Pilgrims arrived.
Louise’s father prospered in the textile industry, and she grew up in Gramercy Park where one of her playmates was Teddy Roosevelt. The family moved to an uptown New York City brownstone two blocks away from the Windsor Hotel, where Andrew, her future husband, lived. Andrew met her father first and often visited their home. He eventually met Louise, 22 years his junior, and they became friends. They often rode horses together in Central Park.
Andrew was considered one of NYC’s most eligible bachelors who was worth $20 million ($350 million in today’s currency), and still growing. His companies merged and had become the largest corporation on the planet. But Louise informed him that she had no plans to marry someone who was already successful. She wanted to help her husband succeed. Andrew informed her that he actually wanted to give his fortune away.
Louise and Andrew’s friendship blossomed, and they became engaged. But there was one obstacle in their way: his mother Margaret. She believed no woman was good enough for her “Andra,” and four years after Louise and Andrew met, they canceled their engagement but remained friends. Following a year of letter-writing, they secretly renewed their engagement even though Louise knew she would not get to marry him while his mother was alive.
Andrew’s mother Margaret died in in 1886 at the age of 77, and Andrew and Louise married five months later on April 22, 1887 in a small ceremony at her home with only 30 family and friends attending. Louise actually signed a prenuptial agreement renouncing any claims to her husband’s millions, although it allowed for a very comfortable independent annual income for her.
On their honeymoon to Great Britain, Louise introduced her husband to her friend Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra and the Oratorio Society. Louise persuaded him to finance the building of a world class concert hall in New York City. With Andrew’s financing and only three years later, Louise set the cornerstone in place for the Music Hall near Central Park that set the standard for musical achievement.
Louise and Andrew were married for 32 years and the union produced one daughter, named for Andra’s mother Margaret. Louise Whitfield described herself as the “unknown wife of a somewhat well-known businessman.” Andrew Carnegie came to the U.S. from Scotland to work as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory and worked his way up to become the richest man in the world. Louise was instrumental in advising Andrew on how he should give away the bulk of his fortune, which helped create over 2,500 libraries between 1883 and 1929 in the United States, Britain, Ireland, Canada, as well as other countries around the world. And that included the world famous Carnegie Hall.
Donna Van Cleve