Be Our Guest

by Erin Feith, Research Assistant
August 24, 2021

Souvenir postcard depicting Florham c. 1911. The mansion’s is said to have gotten its inspiration from of a wing of Hampton Court Palace.

The gates at Florham, the palatial Madison Avenue estate of Hamilton McKown and Florence Vanderbilt Twombly, began greeting guests nearly as soon as the couple took residence in 1897. Even before the opulent 110-room mansion was completed in 1899, an elaborate party was held in a large stock barn complete with “dark red draperies, heavy Turkish rugs, and a panoply of lights.” The tradition of lavish entertainment carried on to the next generation, and their daughter, Ruth, kept the good times rolling even through the Prohibition era of the 1920s and 30s.

The extensive grounds and gardens of Florham can be seen in a 1910 atlas of the area, as can be the railroad line that ushered guests to the estate.

Mrs. Twombly may have only spent two months each spring and fall at Florham, but she filled them with five formal house parties per season. Special trains brought 15 to 20 guests from NYC to a private railroad siding to enjoy a weekend on the 800-acre grounds. While replete with beluga caviar and intricate desserts, the nine-course dinners were only the appetizer for the music and dancing that followed. Guests capped off revelries at midnight with a meal of lobster and champagne. Sunday evening’s formal meal, which included a personal footman for each guest, completed the weekend’s festivities, with the hostess’s ascension of the grand staircase signaling the weekend’s party had come to a close.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Ruth Twombly later hosted her own gatherings at Florham. By 1924, she welcomed guests to a newly constructed “Playhouse” on the property. With drawing room, indoor tennis court, and heated swimming pool, the new structure lived up to its name. The scene of extravagant bashes, Playhouse parties sometimes lasted three days and could always be counted upon for drinks and dancing. While hosted during the depths of Prohibition, Ms. Twombly’s events exploited a legal loophole that allowed for the consumption of liquor purchased before ratification of the 18th amendment. She had cleverly stockpiled alcohol in 1919, and thus, she and her guests played on, with a legal drink in hand.

The year after Ruth’s death in 1954, Florham was sold at auction, bringing the festivities at Florham to a final close. However, if the tapestry-clad walls of the mansion or the wooden panels of the Playhouse could talk, the stories of Coeur à la Crème and costumed soirees would rival those of Gatsby himself.