Person Record

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Name Bessie Pardee Van Wickle McKee
Born 1860
Father Ario Pardee
Mother Anna Maria Robison
Notes Bessie and her first husband Augustus S. Van Wickle bought the Blithewold estate in 1894 as a 'Country Home', and moved there in 1896 with their eldest daughter, Marjorie. Augustus Van Wickle died tragically two year later, in 1898 at the age of 42, just months before his second daughter, Augustine, was born. Bessie continued on at Blithewold, marrying again, and raising her two daughters.

Bessie Pardee was born in 1860 in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, to Ario Pardee, a wealthy coal-mining magnate, and his second wife, Anna Maria Robison. The 12th of Ario Pardee's 15 children, Bessie grew up in a massive, square, Victorian mansion befitting "Hazleton's principal employer and leading citizen." The house was surrounded by spacious lawns, groves of trees, and formal gardens. Bessie's large family was very close-knit, and of the 15 children, 11 survived to adulthood. Bessie's mother, Anna Maria, played an important role in creating an atmosphere of family respect, affection, and loyalty, all strong traits in Bessie's character. The children enjoyed great material security, while being taught religious virtues by their strong Presbyterian parents. Ario Pardee insisted that his children be educated to the best of their ability, and sent all his daughters to the Graham School, a small, fashionable boarding school at 1 Fifth Avenue in New York City. It was there that Bessie developed the close friendship with her distant relative Estelle Clements that was to endure through the next sixty years. Estelle lived with Bessie from 1898 until Estelle's death in 1928.

Bessie had a lifelong passion for fine clothing that seems to have begun early in her childhood. Her letters from school reported little of her studies but were full of descriptions of dresses purchased or desired. The letters also indicate that she was suffering from headaches and recurrent eye problems. In one letter written when she was fourteen years old, she wrote, "I have had quite a good many headaches lately." Bessie would suffer from poor eyesight and severe headaches all her life.

In January 1880, on her twentieth birthday, Bessie became engaged to Augustus Van Wickle, son of another of Hazleton's coal-mining families. Bessie wrote to Augustus a few days before her wedding, "I am so anxious to see you, my darling, won't you come on the noon train? We can dine out and hunt for daisies. It will be nice to find wild ones for me to carry." (Daisies were Bessie's favorite flowers.) On September 20th, 1882, 800 guests gathered at the Pardee mansion where the house and gardens were decorated with ferns, flowers, rare plants, and hundreds of Chinese lanterns with gas lights inside them. Bessie wore a beautiful gown of ivory silk embroidered with daisies, which is preserved at Blithewold and displayed periodically. After their marriage, Augustus and Bessie settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where Augustus managed one of his father's coal companies, and it was there that their daughter Marjorie was born. They later moved to Morristown, New Jersey, and finally back to Hazleton, where they built a house on North Church Street.

Bessie and Augustus bought the Blithewold estate in 1894 and in 1896 built a fine Queen Anne-style house. They referred to Blithewold as their 'Country Home.' Only two years later, Augustus was killed in a skeet-shooting accident. Bessie was expecting their second child, and gave birth to their daughter, Augustine, in November 1898.

In 1901 Bessie married William Leander McKee at Blithewold. William McKee had been a close friend of Augustus, and the McKees enjoyed a long and happy marriage. They had no children, but Marjorie and Augustine always referred to Mr. McKee as "Father Dear." The McKees bought a townhouse on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston and continued to enjoy Blithewold every summer and often during the winter too.
After fire destroyed the original Blithewold mansion in 1906, the present house was built. Bessie spent the rest of her life developing the gardens and arboretum at Blithewold with the help of her daughters, Marjorie and Augustine, her friend Estelle Clements, and landscape architect John DeWolf.
Bessie enjoyed a reputation as a fine hostess for family and friends. Blithewold became the favorite place for gatherings large and small, "a place where the gates are open to all their friends, summer and winter." Concerts, lectures, garden tours, weddings, and parties for Christmas and Fourth of July were orchestrated by Bessie with enthusiasm and lavish attention to detail. The guest books at Blithewold are full of effusive praise: "The days at Bristol were so wonderful … I will remember my visit as golden times" and "… a fairy pageant, it was so exquisitely planned and carried out" and "such a wonderful Christmas! The house was so beautiful and the welcome so complete."

Bessie had two grandchildren, who gave her great pleasure. They were Dee and Marjorie Shaw, the daughters of Augustine and Quincy Shaw.

The McKees' busy social life was interspersed with trips to Europe and the West Indies, and a memorable visit to Egypt in 1934. Closer to home Bessie loved to visit southern resorts like White Sulphur Springs, and enjoyed camping vacations in the woods of the Adirondacks, New Hampshire, and Canada. Many of these vacations were Pardee reunions, with dozens of Pardees gathering to enjoy outdoor activities like walking, swimming, canoeing, sleighing and horseback riding.

Bessie's love of collecting resulted in a remarkable legacy for Blithewold. She saved her fine clothing, with accessories, dating back to the 1880s; thousands of dollars were spent on the purchase of books, exquisite gold-tooled and leather-bound sets; and her eclectic collection of furniture, rugs, and paintings has graced the mansion for more than a hundred years. She collected historical documents, and her keen interest in her own family history resulted in a large collection of genealogical material tracing her roots to southern England in the early 1600s. She was a direct descendant of William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony.

By the 1930s the McKees' lavish lifestyle had strained the family finances. Anti-trust laws made it more difficult to amass great fortunes, and the introduction of income taxes in 1913 had severely impacted the ability of affluent families to retain their wealth. The McKees sold their townhouse in Boston and moved permanently to Blithewold, selling off the southernmost 35 acres of the property. Bessie died at Blithewold in 1936, just a few days after her 76th birthday, ending an era of extravagant, gracious entertainment. Bessie could never have guessed that her legacy would live on into the 21st century, thanks to her daughter Marjorie Lyon who left the entire estate for the enjoyment of the public. Bessie's granddaughter, Marjorie Shaw Jeffries, commented recently that her grandmother would have been amazed and delighted to know how much pleasure Blithewold now gives to so many people.
-----M. Whitehead, Blithewold Curator, 2017
Spouse Augustus Van Wickle, William Leander McKee,
Children Marjorie Randolph Van Wickle Lyon
Augustine Van Wickle Shaw Toland
Deceased Date 1923

Associated Records

Image of Fork, Dinner -

Fork, Dinner -

Four tined Dinner Fork, Pond Lily pattern, one of 12 dinner forks that are part of a 71 piece set of sterling silver flatware. The set consists of dinner forks, dessert or luncheon forks, knives, teaspoons, dessert spoons, and large dessert spoons. J.H. Davis & Co are the makers. The Pond Lily pattern is engraved with a stippled handle resembling water with two lilies and a three leaf clover. On the back are the initials "BP" for Bessie Pardee.

Image of Mirror, Hand -

Mirror, Hand -

Hand mirror made of bone or ivory. Has the initials "BPMcK " ( Bessie Pardee McKee) painted on back. Handle has a hole in the bottom, perhaps for hanging, mirror is beveled. Art Deco feel.

Image of Frame, Picture -

Frame, Picture -

Picture frame covered in grey linen and embroidered with daises of white, green and yellow. Daisies were a favorite flower of Bessie. This frame cover was embroidered by Marjorie Van Wickle for her mother, Bessie. A copy of a picture of Bessie is in the frame.

Image of Dress - 1878 - 1882

Dress - 1878 - 1882

Two-piece day outfit. Satin skirt, in solid cranberry / burgandy color, with coordinating paisley stripe silk jacket. Jacket colors include pink, beige, cream, and white. Bustle and ribbons are dark burgundy silk satin. Garment is both machine-and hand-stitched. Bodice is ‘princess polonaise’ style, with center front buttoned opening, contrasting fabric collar and long sleeves. The fourteen buttonholes on the right front are hand-worked. Right and left bodice fronts extend into lined, bow-trimmed overskirt panels. The unlined pleated back overskirt panel is draped to form a bustle by pleating the lower and side edges and attaching them to an interior cartridge-pleated muslin foundation. At

Image of Gown - 1910 ca

Gown - 1910 ca

One-piece, gold-beaded evening gown, with black lace inserts, ca. 1906-12. This dress is both machine-and hand-stitched. Ivory lace bodice has a gold metallic cummerbund detail at the slightly raised waist, short lace sleeves and matching neckline trim. Thin silk-wrapped elastic cord runs through a casing at the neckline trim edge. Gathered black bobbinet fabric trims the shoulders, terminating front and back in heavily embroidered and beaded appliqués (four in all). Gold beads and sequins embellish the bodice, sleeves and neckline. The remnants of an ivory bobbinet neckline trim are stitched to the inside neckline edge. The foundation bodice is lightly boned, with an interior waistband (‘

Image of Dress - 1901 ca

Dress - 1901 ca

Two-piece cream satin-silk and lace, long dinner dress, with short train. Good quality machine-made lace, with silk and velvet appliques including leaves and rosettes. The bodice is made of silk and has a front triangle "bib" of netted lace with lace ruffle trim; mutton sleeve of satin with three-inch cuff trimmed with two long layers of matching lace, the top layer embellished with tiny velvet leaf shapes, satin 'rosettes' at cuff and center belt and bib. High collar (boned) with front inset of netted lace, top center back has lace inset with silk drape from lace to skirt hem, bottom edge trimmed with matching string-fringe. Back closure 18 hooks, five stays in front and center, six ba

Image of Jacket - 1880s

Jacket - 1880s

Unique long sleeved afternoon jacket. Macrame construction with beadwork. Beads are jet black, and made of glass. Handmade. Textile comprised of beads and thread woven together, no fabric. Styling: long sleeve with tasseled peplum, short stand-up collar. Nape to waist 15-inches, waist 21", sleeve 19", shoulders 13-inches.

Image of Napkin -

Napkin -

One of ten damask dinner napkins. Circular shaped monogram in center of the napkin with initials "BPMcK" (Bessie Pardee McKee). Design features throughout napkin include daisy type flowers, bands and swags that include flowers and leaves.

Image of Trunk - 1900s early

Trunk - 1900s early

This is a Louis Vuitton trunk which belonged to Bessie McKee, and was probably purchased soon after her marriage to William McKee in 1901. It is covered in the iconic monogram canvas, which was introduced in 1896. There are two wooden straps across the front of the trunk and four across the top. There is a leather strap around the top of the sides and back. All straps are fastened with metal tacks and corners are reinforced with metal. There are metal handles on the two ends and two metal front clasps and a metal keyhole. The trunk is on metal rollers. The trunk opens from the top and has two removable drawers. The top drawer has a 7" wide compartment on the right end which has a hi

Image of Tablecloth -

Tablecloth -

Large, cream color damask tablecloth, with tulip and leaves floral design. Bessie Pardee McKee's initials " BPMcK" are embroidered on one corner of tablecloth. Damask: a reversible figured fabric of silk, wool, linen, cotton, or synthetic fibres, with a pattern formed by weaving. Damasks are woven with one warp yarn and one weft yarn, usually with the pattern in warp-faced satin weave and the ground in weft-faced or sateen weave. (

Image of Tablecloth -

Tablecloth -

Square, green and white, linen table cover. The initials "BMcK" (Bessie McKee) are embroidered (cross-stitch) in white thread on green linen, in one corner. Feather stitich in green thread, along white border.

Image of Towel, Hand - 1920-1940

Towel, Hand - 1920-1940

Cream linen cloth in "huck toweling" fabric with a 3-inch crochet border at one end. The initials "BPMcK" (Bessie Pardee Van Wickle McKee) are embroidered at one end. Huck Toweling refers to the fabric weave, popular in the early 1900s. It has double threaded vertical loops in brick-like rows across the fabric. Thought to increase absorbency. Most often referred to as Monk's Cloth today.

Image of Towel, Hand -

Towel, Hand -

One of 7 cream-color Damask hand towels. "McK" (McKee) monogram centered in lower border. 1" drawn-thread border.

Image of Towel, Bath -

Towel, Bath -

One of four cream linen huck weave bath towels. Lower center medallion with the initials "McK" (for McKee) embroidered within. 3-inch border of damask scrollwork design along bottom, sits just above hemline. One narrow line of drawn thread creates a border about 1-inch from edge of towel. Huck Toweling refers to the fabric weave, popular in the early 1900s. It has double threaded vertical loops in brick-like rows across the fabric. Thought to increase absorbency. Most often referred to as Monk's Cloth today.

Image of Towel, Hand -

Towel, Hand -

One of two cream linen bath towels. Pulled thread work in a chevron design at each end of towel. The monogram, "BPMcK"" (Bessie Pardee McKee) is embroidered above the bottom hem.

Image of Towel, Hand -

Towel, Hand -

One of two cream linen bath towels. Pulled thread work in a chevron design at each end of towel. The monogram, "BPMcK" (Bessie Pardee McKee) is embroidered above the bottom hem.