Section Four: The After Years (part 1)

1918 (March): Stillman Dies
James Stillman and his family form the thread that stitches the Sterling and Bloss story together in many key ways. In fact, over the course of this investigation, researchers have agreed that he may have been a more interesting character to research than either Sterling or Bloss.


From top left, clockwise: John D. Rockefeller, George Cortelyou, James Stillman, and Charles Stillman

James Stillman was descended from patriots that fought in the American Revolution. On his mother Elizabeth's side, he came from the Goodrich rubber fortune. His sister was married to John D. Rockefeller’s brother, William. Charles Stillman, his father, was in cotton, real estate, a riverboat company, and Mexican silver mines.

Charles founded Brownsville, Texas, where son James was born and grew up, on ground that he literally stole from a prominent Mexican Family. Charles offered them $33,000 for land that was worth more than $240,000; and the family accepted to avoid paying legal fees to fight the land grab. Due to a legal technicality, Charles never had to pay for the land. The whole bad faith land deal contributed to the cause of the Cortina Wars in Mexico. With his ancestors' and his own fortune, it’s no wonder that James Stillman was considered one of the 100 richest men in America at the time of his death, leaving over $100 million, equivalent to over $1.4 billion today.

Charles Stillman moved from Brownsville to Hartford, Connecticut, where James attended school. Immediately after school, James went to work for one of the leading cotton commission houses, Smith & Dunning. He began working in his father’s firm at just 16 years of age. Before he was 21, he became a junior partner in his father’s cotton brokerage, Smith, Woodward & Stillman, which became Woodward & Stillman when Smith retired in 1873.

Bloss and Stillman worked together at the brokerage, and during that time it’s probable that a trainer/trainee relationship existed between them. Bloss was several years older than Stillman and would have been in the business long enough to have been somewhat knowledgeable about cotton brokerage. He would have been the logical choice to train Stillman in the trade. Thus it was only natural that James Stillman and James Bloss would have become associated.

The year 1875 was pivotal for both Stillman and Bloss. When Charles Stillman died that year, James Stillman, although only 25, became a full partner in the firm and was also thrust into the role of managing the large properties left in his father’s will.

That year was important to Bloss because he left Woodward & Stillman to form a partnership with another broker, John C. Inches. It is doubtful that Bloss and Stillman would have developed a friendship if they had gone on to a boss/employee relationship at Woodward & Stillman. It was more likely that with his departure and subsequent partnership with Inches, it was as equals and associates in the cotton business that Bloss would have introduced James Stillman to John Sterling.

Charles Stillman had a prior relationship with the firm that was to become Shearman & Sterling. It was through ventures with Shearman clients, Jay Gould and James Fisk, that Charles became a client of Field & Shearman. His name first appears in the firm’s records in 1873, though they only did a few odd jobs for him before he died in 1875.

A still-inexperienced James Stillman needed advice and legal representation. Bloss, as an easily understandable courtesy to both of his friends, would have naturally made the introduction to John Sterling. Although Sterling was only five or six years his senior, Stillman, with foreknowledge of the past relationship between his father and the firm, naturally turned to Sterling for counsel and business advice. After all, how does one pick a lawyer if not by experience or word-of-mouth? Sterling, for his part, provided both imagination and “know-how.” With his help Stillman was soon on the road to becoming one of the great bankers of the 1890’s. Indeed, Stillman was already making loans out of Woodward & Stillman as early as three years after his father’s death.

Being near the same age, in business, and having similar interests, it seems natural that Sterling, Bloos and Stillman would have become friends and business associates. However, John Garver, Sterling’s law partner, stresses that Sterling and Stillman, especially, developed a deep and extraordinarily close friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. As friends, each of the three would have had something to offer the others: Stillman had connections, money, rapidly developing financial resources; Bloss had commodities trade knowledge, contacts in business, influence in the soon-to-be Cotton Exchange, and financial world; and Sterling had legal and business knowledge, coupled with inside information on stocks and bonds. Together, they formed a very beneficial trio. For example, it was Stillman who brought William Rockefeller, his sister’s husband, to Sterling’s firm as a client. That, no doubt, led to other Rockefellers and Standard Oil becoming clients.


Contemporary ads for Woodward & Stillman and Bloss & Inches

It can be speculated that Bloss and Stillman did not become as close because they were, in actuality, business competitors. It might also have been Charles Stillman’s death and James’ ascendancy to partnership at Woodward & Stillman, that forced Bloss to realize his options there were limited and caused him to go out on his own and seek a partnership with Inches. Did Bloss look upon this move as beneficial or deleterious to his career? He did, after all, pass from partnership to partnership over the next 33 years of his career. Was this a natural result of success and achievement in his career, or did it indicate a career that had its ups and downs? We know that Bloss’ time with the Cotton Exchange was not without its problems. Did he come to resent Stillman for usurping his position in the Stillman firm, for throwing his career off track, or was he jealous of the close friendship that developed between Sterling and Stillman? We can only speculate.

Although Stillman later moved into the Henry Sloane mansion at 9 East 72nd Street just around the corner from Bloss and Sterling, it is the lots he purchased to the north of them on Fifth Avenue that have been a keystone in understanding both the layout and the evolution of the block of Fifth between 72nd and 73rd Streets in the early 20th Century.

Stillman, in his early 50’s at that time, had become a rich and successful man. In an era of rich and successful men, yet another mansion on the streets running east from Central Park was not a matter to attract much attention. Money was being made rapidly by many men at this time of a growing national economy. Power, however, is another matter. Power can be increased by wealth but doesn’t necessarily come with wealth unless it is sought.

Although Stillman disliked the spotlight, a trait he shared with Sterling, others recognized the power he held. He was one of three men who were said to be able to sway the financial market: J.P. Morgan, George F. Baker of the First National, and James Stillman could, between them, control a determining share of the country’s capital. In the Money Trust Investigation of 1913, the Commission estimated that the total resources of J.P. Morgan, George F. Baker, and James Stillman as contained in the banks, businesses and personal fortunes, amounted to well over $3 billion dollars, or $64 billion in today’s dollars.

Stillman held and used his power in ways both pleasant and unpleasant. When a man says nothing, nothing whatever, but instead of answering, sits there fixing you with a penetrating, immovable gaze, and all the while you know he has illimitable power either to make or break you, you grow afraid. That small, cold, elegant figure was very terrifying to some people: there were stenographers in the bank who became so panic-stricken they couldn’t even take his dictation.

He held office in 41 companies, including banks, trust companies, real estate, railroads, gas, timber, copper, warehouses and life-insurance companies, besides being President of the Second National Bank and Vice President of the Fidelity Bank, both of which were under direction of the National City Bank. In short, Stillman was a man who played Monopoly and used the real world for his playing board and pieces.

He was open-minded and was always able to estimate the lay of the land, so he became the natural rallying-point around which all conflict centered, and who people turned to for direction. He had foresight, detachment and wisdom under an appearance of nervous timidity and silence. He was loyal. Once on your side, he was there always and to the end.

There is much conjecture about why John Sterling never married, but it’s little wonder that he never married when he could see the heartbreak, divorce and scandal all around him. Howard Gould, the owner of property on the block, had a wife who cheated on him with Buffalo Bill Cody, of all people. James Stillman, Sterling’s good friend and soon-to-be owner of 9 East 72nd Street, also had wife troubles, though he was able to manage a quiet divorce. Even the previous owner of the Stillman house, Henry Sloane, was not so lucky. He went through a very public, scandalous, and bitter divorce.

Sloane was a son of one of the founders of W & J Sloane, the fine furniture and carpet emporium who counted the White House as one of its prominent clients. After graduating from Yale in 1869, Sloane joined the family business and was immediately sent to San Francisco to open a new branch. In the early 1880s, after returning to New York, he married society beauty Jessie A. Robbins, the daughter of the founder of the wholesale drug firm of Mckesson & Robbins.

The newlywed couple initially lived in a brownstone just off Fifth Avenue on West 54th Street, but in 1896 they moved to their considerably more spacious Carrère & Hastings-designed French Beaux-Arts mansion at 9 East 72nd Street. The house was completed in 1896 and Jessie threw a ball for 200 of New York's most elite in January, 1897. That night, many eyebrows were raised and whispers passed from one pearl-laden socialite to another when Mr. Sloane failed to make an appearance. Trouble, it seemed, had moved in to 9 East 72nd Street with the Sloanes.

Trouble took the form of Perry Belmont, a son of August Belmont, the American representative of the Rothschild banking family. He fell madly in love with the unhappily married Jessie. Henry, who professed undying love for his wife, tried to salvage the floundering 17-year marriage by indulging Jessie with fine homes, beautiful jewels, and costly Paris gowns. None of it was enough for Jessie; she continued to see the handsome and gallant Mr. Belmont quite openly.

In desperation, Henry threatened his spouse with divorce and disgrace if she continued to see her lover. Not believing him, and trusting in her husband’s morbid fear of open scandal, Jessie continued her liaison with Belmont. The day before the January, 1897 ball, Sloane had transferred the 72nd Street house to his wife. "Then," said The New York Times, "Because of their prominence in society, the gossip started and surmises were rife on every side." In fact, Sloane had been living in a hotel on upper Fifth Avenue for some time. Social gossipers were exasperated by tight-lipped friends of the Sloane family who "absolutely declined to discuss the matter."

As the winter social season was about to start in 1898, Jessie Sloane announced that she would not be entertaining. In Fifth Avenue parlors, rumors flew. Sure enough, on December 22, The Times reported "The gossip of New York society during the last few days concerning the supposed differences of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Sloane was brought to a climax yesterday by the report that they had decided to separate." Jessie had obviously underestimated Henry's resolve. In 1899, he filed for divorce. Jessie hadn't even bothered to contest the suit or try to retain custody of her two daughters. In their intimate social circle, the Sloanes and Perry Belmont had become mockingly known as "The Triangle.”

On April 28, 1899 the Sloanes were divorced at 3:59 p.m. Included in the divorce agreement was the stipulation by the embittered Henry Sloane that Jessie could not marry in the state of New York as long as he lived. Jessie could never see her daughters until their 21st birthdays. If she saw them on the street, she was barred from speaking to them and was disallowed to even write a note to them. The two lovebirds, however, would not be stopped. At 6:30 that evening, Belmont boarded a train for Greenwich, Connecticut; half an hour later Jessie and her maid followed. By 10:00 p.m., only six hours after the divorce, they were back in New York as Mr. and Mrs. Perry Belmont. The Belmonts eventually decamped to the somewhat less hostile social environs of Washington D.C.

Although Jessie returned the 72nd Street mansion to Sloane, he never went back. Not wanting to live in the house after the divorce, he initially leased it to Joseph Pulitzer, after his home on East 55th Street was destroyed by fire.

Except for the lots he had purchased next to his friend, Sterling, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street, James Stillman’s timing could not have been better. In 1901, Sloane sold 9 East 72nd Street to Stillman. It was conveniently near to Thorne, Sterling, and Bloss who lived around the corner. Sloane then had mansion designer C. P. H. Gilbert build a graceful Beaux Arts home, completed in 1905, at 18 East 68th Street for himself and his two daughters. Sloane never remarried, and his two daughters remained with him until they married well. One tied the knot with Philadelphia traction magnate George Widener Jr. while the other married into French nobility.

Stillman’s new home at 9 E 72nd Street was more “establishment” than home. Facing a broad and sunshiny street with wooded Central Park to the east, it stands today with its exterior protected by landmark status and still large, heavily ornate, pillared from the second floor all in grey stonework and great windows. Originally, large wooden front doors surmounted by a bronze marquee led to a classically designed entrance hall that had windows overlooking a columned courtyard. The elliptically shaped staircase ascended to a 50-foot-long salon that extended across the entire front of the building. A large dining room and a conservatory filled the rear of the second floor.


Stillman Mansion

The new master of this house preferred quiet, order, regularity as became his temperament and was exact in his household arrangement to which he expected his staff to conform. He was fair and modest and for that he was respected by his friends and servants. He wasn’t so much formal as he was dignified. He liked entertaining at dinner parties with elaborate food and the best wine, but he ate little and drank less of it himself. With his children grown, and like his predecessor Sloane, wife gone by divorce, he lived in this house pretty much alone. He doted on his grandchildren.

He hardly ever spoke of the separation between his wife and himself, and it was a long time before even his friends even got the gist of what had transpired. The situation caused him great pain, but he did not discuss it. People around him, however, noticed an immediate change in him and said that he kept his emotions behind an “iron mask”.

 “I have never in my life done what I wish: I cannot now.” Already quiet and shy since youth, he began to become isolated by the responsibility that money laid upon him; yet he hated to be alone, especially at dinner. The poet Swift says “Money is liberty: but great wealth is a jailer." One should not picture Stillman as a recluse, however. When he was close to known and trusted friends, he was warmly sentimental and quite humorous. He was social in the sense that he realized the social obligations his position and power placed upon him.

Stillman, pictured below, was considered a handsome man, with a finished quasi-foreign air, strange, brilliant brown eyes and a drooping mustache hiding the firm sensitive mouth. Orders were given and expected to be carried out as given. Like most men of means, Stillman wanted the best of everything, but without extravagance. He abhorred waste and show, as he abhorred vulgarity and notoriety. He could and did say things that hurt. He was at times unbearably harsh. Intellectually, he gave the impression that he watched the fuss around him with a touch of contempt, an attitude never popular. He was not a flatterer, and was more regular and orderly than most people would like. Yet, he was a thoughtful and generous man whether it was donating to many charities or it came to gifting a debutante a fan or bonbons; or ordering flowers to show sympathy or congratulations; or choosing quaint trifles for a friend’s special taste and books for everyone. It seemed the only form of demonstrativeness which his somewhat repressed nature permitted and no time or trouble was too great, especially when it concerned a child.

On his way to the office, Stillman would stop at a one or more of the banks that City Bank controlled; the matters he was concerned with in these visits might be large or small. After these visits, he would arrive at the City Bank around 11 a.m., where a typical day would consist of reviewing reports placed in front of him; meeting with the Vice President, then heads of departments; and making a few appointments. He didn’t see many people or keep long office hours. The fact that he didn’t see many people only contributed to his legend.

Stillman was also always grave at work, so it’s not surprising that among the ribald young men there he was sometimes referred to as “Sunny Jim.” He was patient in the pursuit of his purposes. Enemies knew that he would wait immobile, for two years, or for five years, or ten years, but at the first sign of weakness of his target, he was ready. A year after his death in 1918, National City had ballooned to billion-dollar size.

At home, he kept the chef in a cold sweat by rating the percentage of his approval on each item of the menu. Dinner was at 8 p.m. Usually he didn’t want to talk, but he always hated to eat alone. Friends and bank colleagues came on regular evenings, when business was discussed. Sterling was a guest two or three times a week and Stillman also enjoyed having younger guests at these dinners. One of these guests retained a vivid recollection of such a dinner prior to which, his father and he made a bet as to which of the two elder men, Stillman or Sterling, would break the silence and speak first!

Another story is told of two brokers meeting, one of whom had been to Egypt,

Broker One: “And whom did you see in Egypt?"

Broker Two: “Why, at the foot of the Sphinx I met James Stillman!”

Broker One: “I bet the Sphinx spoke first!”

Yet Stillman was interested in all sorts of people, provided that they did things or thought them: he liked to talk with railroad men about railroads; crystals; about paintings with artists, and with doctors about medicine. He was without bigotry: he backed a magazine with his money, yet never once did he intimate his disapproval or desire that the publication should change its policies. He was a member of an Episcopal church, yet gave generously to Roman Catholic charities.

When Stillman retired to Paris, he put his home there, and the house on 72nd Street, at the disposal of the French government during, and after, the war. For many years, the house on 72nd Street was occupied by the Lycee Francais de New York (French School of New York). It was sold at the beginning of the 21st century to new owners who may return it to residential use. As of 2009, work was still being done.

As Stillman’s lawyer, Sterling looked after his post-retirement business affairs back in America. They exchanged long cable messages almost daily, followed up by letters.

Stillman had three sons, James Jr., Ernest, and Chauncey; and two daughters, Sarah and Isabel, who married their cousins in the Rockefeller family. Sara married William G.(Jr.) and Isabel married Percy A. An indicator of the unusual esteem in which the William Rockefellers held John Sterling is that Sara and William named one of their two sons John Sterling Rockefeller, when Sterling was no blood relation, but obviously, a close family friend. The other son was named James Stillman Rockefeller after his grandfather.

Stillman was to have served on the Trustee Advisory Board for Sterling’s Yale bequest had he not died first. Instead, Sterling served as executor for Stillman’s will and as an honorary pallbearer at 68-year-old Stillman’s jam-packed funeral on March 18, 1918. So many came to pay respects that the overflow had to be turned away at the door. In a 1913 codicil to his own will, Sterling then appointed Stillman’s son, James, and son-in-law, Percy Rockefeller, to the Advisory Board. In an odd touch of irony, both men, in turn, ended up serving as honorary pallbearers for Sterling, as he had for Stillman.

Stillman’s lots next door to Sterling remained vacant until 1920, when a building was erected by Fred F. French, one of the city’s most famous developers, in the Italian Renaissance Palazzo style to mirror J.E.R Carpenter’s 1916 “907 Fifth” to the south across 72nd Street. In 1959, the building underwent what its critics call “an unfortunate remodeling.” Four stories and more apartments were added, and the building was re-surfaced into the nondescript, modern box that exists today.