A “Back Stairs” Party to Remember

Recently in my research I ran across a letter composed by the wife of Gari Melchers that I think is worth sharing. In it Mrs. Melchers recounted an episode that occurred during the couple’s residence in Germany from 1909 to 1915.

Gari Melchers was called to Weimar at the invitation of Wilhelm Ernest, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (below).  The American’s role as art professor to the Grand Ducal Art

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Academy practically amounted to a sinecure.  Melchers was obliged to critique student work once a week, was provided a spacious studio in which to carry out his own work, and still enjoyed enough freedom to travel about the country with wife Corinne and contribute to international exhibitions in Berlin, Dresden and elsewhere.

In a 1912 letter to her mother, Mrs. Gari Melchers described her formal introduction to the Grand Duke and his second wife Feodora of Saxe Meiningen (below).

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According to the strictures of court etiquette, Mrs. Melchers and the wife of another professor were ineligible to receive invitations to court balls and other parties given at the Schloss (palace/castle).  For certain occasions, their husbands,  were. So, while Mrs. Melchers termed the occasion a “backstairs party,” the distinction accorded to the two women was a pointed honor. They were invited to attend a supper in the quarters of the Hofmeisterin, the palace’s social aide to the royal household.  The Grand Duke’s stiff and arrogant manner gave the young American woman some discomfiture, an impression supported by this report of the period describing the Grand Duke as:

“One of the wealthiest sovereigns in Europe; stolid, well-behaved,  imbued with great pride of race, and a strict sense of what is due to the anointed of the Lord. He is also one of the most severely respected and proper of German rulers … The GD is very dull, and his court and environment reflect his character in this respect to such extent that Weimar has become the dreariest capital in Europe.”

Mrs. Melchers’ vivid account of the royal couple, at least with regard to the Grand Duke, bore this observation out. The Grand Duchess, on the other hand, she described as rather attentive and warm in her conversation, despite the rumors circulating at the time that Feodora found the notoriously rigid court etiquette of Weimar intolerable and was staying at a sanatorium as an escape from the grim marriage.

Interestingly, fifteen years earlier, Mrs. Melchers’ grandmother, Sarah Lawton, had found Austrian court protocol immensely stifling in her experience as wife of the U.S. minister, explaining the reference Mrs. Melchers made to Vienna’s court in her memorable letter of 1912 (below).

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  1. Jo Love Willis says

    A peek into rituals and rules of the times! My mother in law knew the Melcherses and especially Corinne. How far we have come!

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