|Name||Bessie Pardee Van Wickle McKee|
|Mother||Anna Maria Robison|
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.
BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND
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.
A LEGACY FOR BLITHEWOLD
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.
END OF AN ERA
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,|
Marjorie Randolph Van Wickle Lyon
Augustine Van Wickle Shaw Toland