An Allure That 2 Tycoons Found Irresistible
Hanging in the Huntington Library in San Marino is a portrait of a mysterious and extraordinary woman of towering strength and determination. Her name was Arabella Huntington, and through her marriages to two of California’s richest men, uncle and nephew, she wielded enormous power over the state’s emerging arts culture.
Few influential women in America have managed to conceal their problematic pasts as successfully as Arabella, who rose from a poor, fatherless home to become the wife and major inspiration of one of California’s Big Four, Collis P. Huntington, and then of his nephew, Henry, the creator of the Pacific Electric trolley system.
Persevering in a rigid male- and class-dominated society, where wealth and power were tightly concentrated, she not only became one of the richest women in the world, but amassed one of the finest art collections along the way.
But what also shaped her life was her secret: It was on behalf of her son, born out of wedlock, that she spent a lifetime burying records and distorting facts in an attempt to legitimize his birth to the public.
She was born in Alabama around 1850, to Richard and Catherine J. Yarrington. She was 9 when her father died and her mother opened a boardinghouse in Richmond, Va., to support her five children.
In July 1869, Collis Huntington--the dominant member of California’s Big Four railroad and industrial cabal, and founder of the Southern Pacific Railroad--arrived in Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal support for a rail route south from San Francisco.
He managed to pull the wool over congressional eyes by presenting maps of California redrawn to suit him. The maps added several nonexistent mountain ranges to gain more funding for his railroad, because track laid over mountains costs twice as much as track laid in flatlands.
Taking his ease at Virginia resorts after his Capitol Hill victory, Huntington was either a guest at Arabella’s mother’s boardinghouse or a patron at John Worsham’s gambling parlor nearby when he met his future wife.
Worsham was probably the first man in Arabella’s life. One of several accounts holds that Worsham, who was estranged from his wife, went through a sham marriage ceremony with Arabella. Another contends that Arabella’s claim of marriage was contrived to protect her child.
Other stories circulated after Arabella became rich and powerful: Worsham dumped her and returned to his wife after Arabella became pregnant; Arabella abandoned Worsham for Huntington.
But her son, Archer Milton Worsham, preferring a more exalted parentage, albeit illegitimate, contended that Huntington took Arabella to New York to care for his invalid wife, and the two fell in love and had a child--himself.
However it happened, almost nine months after Arabella met the 6-foot-4-inch California tycoon, she went to Texas, and there she gave birth to her son. Soon thereafter, mother and son left for New York, to join her mother in a fashionable new home in Manhattan, conveniently near Huntington’s Park Avenue home.
In a new neighborhood where no one knew her, she became the young widow, Mrs. Worsham. She would not return to Texas for seven more years, when Collis Huntington paraded her on his arm and introduced her as his niece.
Before he met Arabella, Collis Huntington used to boast that he had never spent more than $200 on “personal adornment.” But he showered her with costly jewels, including a glittering rope of 119 blue diamonds from Tiffany’s.
Grooming herself for a much greater role, Arabella learned to trade in real estate and securities, indulged herself in decorating and educated her son as well as herself. Her opportunity came in 1884. Nine months after Huntington’s wife, Elizabeth Stoddard Huntington, died of cancer, Arabella Duvall Yarrington Worsham became the second Mrs. Collis P. Huntington. He was 62, she was 34.
The exultant bridegroom handed four $1,000 bills to the minister, the flamboyant Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the influential antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Beecher was no stranger to scandal, maintaining a string of mistresses who came to church every Sunday to hear him preach.
The newlyweds moved to Fifth Avenue, but even that address could not overcome Arabella’s mysterious past and Huntington’s ruthless dealings--notable even in that rapacious age. The Astors and Vanderbilts barred them from New York society.
Undeterred, Arabella began interesting her rough-hewn husband in art. Later she would embark on an art-buying spree with the noted art dealer Joseph Duveen, amassing a collection that would turn her into one of the most important art collectors of her generation. Among her famous buys was Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th century “Madonna and Child.”
In 1900, on vacation at his lodge deep in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, Huntington died at age 78. Arabella inherited two-thirds of his estate, $150 million, and his favorite nephew, Henry Huntington, received the other third.
Although Arabella and Henry Huntington had known each other for 30 years, estate arrangements brought them closer together at a time when Henry Huntington’s marriage was falling apart.
The smitten Henry Huntington, hoping to lure Arabella to the primitive Los Angeles countryside that he loved so much, purchased the 550-acre San Marino Ranch for $240,000 in 1903. In a few years, with Arabella’s help and the work of architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey, he began building his Beaux Arts “dream house,” surpassing any luxury Arabella had known, even in New York.
In the meantime, Arabella was dreading being called to testify in the sensational New York libel trial of William D’Alton Mann, publisher of Town Topics, the National Enquirer of its day. The husband of future etiquette queen Emily Post had been blackmailed by Mann to keep a dalliance out of the press. Arabella herself had paid $15,000 for Mann’s silence about details of her past. Alerted by her lawyer, she escaped for Europe just moments ahead of the process server.
Henry Huntington was busy amassing a fortune in California real estate, building a massive hydroelectric project northeast of Fresno and expanding his Pacific Railway system. He named his private car “The Alabama,” after Arabella’s home state.
But the miles that separated him from Arabella were becoming unbearable. Although she was 63, Arabella had still not lost her allure. In July 1913, Henry Huntington sailed for Paris, where he and Arabella were married. She added Henry’s ring to her hand next to the wedding band his uncle had put there three decades before.
Six months later, the newlyweds arrived in Los Angeles to a crowd of curious well-wishers. Although the San Marino Ranch was becoming a repository for a world-renowned cache of rare books and art, Arabella was not ready to commit herself to Southern California full time. She limited her stays to two months a year, spending the other 10 in Paris and New York. Where Arabella led, her adoring husband followed.
Despite health problems, Arabella returned to San Marino for the last time in 1924. She died that year in New York, and Henry Huntington followed her in death three years later. Archer Worsham, who took the name Huntington, died in 1956.
Today, Arabella remains an enigma, a cultural maverick whose secrets lie buried with her in a secluded spot on the San Marino Ranch in the “Temple of the Four Seasons,” the mausoleum of Henry and Arabella Huntington.
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