Sallie Ward, Mrs. George F. Downs
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One of those extraordinary women which the world from time to time produces, who rise to eminence solely through the force of their own personality, was born in America as the nineteenth century was rounding out its first quarter. Known all her life throughout the entire country, she was one of the most conspicuous figures in the life of the South and Southwest, and was the object of a sentiment that fell but little short of worship among the people of the state of Kentucky, to which she belonged.
James Lane Allen who has studied his people from every stand-point, draws the typical Kentucky woman for us as “a refinement of the English blonde, with greater delicacy of form, feature, and color.”
“A beautiful Kentucky woman,” he says, “is apt to be exceedingly beautiful. Her voice is almost uniformly low and soft, her hands and feet delicately formed, her skin quite pure and beautiful in tint and shading, her eyes blue or brown, her hair nut-brown or golden; to all which is added a certain unapproachable refinement.”
Of such a class, Sallie Ward, with her blue eyes full of twinkling humor and rather far apart, lending to her round face an expression of candor, which was further borne out by her somewhat large though finely shaped mouth disclosing handsome teeth in her happy tendency to frequent smiling, her brown hair, and a skin faultless in tint and texture, has been the most noted representative. A radiant woman, instinct with spark-ling life from the crown of her beautiful head to the tips of her slender feet, spoiled, willful, lovely, and loving, it is probable that but few people will ever truly estimate her character.
She was the daughter of Robert J. Ward, a man of considerable wealth and of that distinction of manner and bearing which is commonly designated as of the old school. Like many another gifted young Kentuckian, similarly placed in life, he began his career with political aspirations, and before he had reached his thirtieth year he had been elected Speaker of the State Assembly. His own private concerns, however, gradually absorbing his time and interest, drew him away from his youthful ambitions. He married the heiress of a large fortune. Miss Flournoy, of Georgetown, Kentucky, the descendant of an old Huguenot family, to whose fame her immediate ancestors had further contributed by the gallant part they had taken in the war of the American Revolution.
Sallie Ward, one of the eldest of a large family of children, was born on her grandfather’s estate in Scott County. She went to boarding school in Philadelphia, the reputation of whose educational institutions in the first half of the century surpassed those of any other city in the country. At even an earlier period, an entry in the journal of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the most enlightened men of his age, shows in what high estimation they were held, from the fact that he mentions no other, though the praise in this instance is rather of a negative order. He records in 1816 that he has sent his little granddaughter, Mary Harper, to a school in Poitiers under the care of Mr. Gallatin, then our minister to France, “where she will be more piously educated than in the very best boarding-school in Philadelphia.”
There were some good students, no doubt, to uphold the reputation of well-established schools, though it was before the influence of Hannah Adams, the pioneer of a broader education for women, had been widely felt, and before that delicate balance between the mental and physical being of a girl student had ever been dis-turbed by over-study. With that “little learning,” that was not “a dangerous thing” from the point of view of the women of that day, there were many with a mental sprightliness that was far more exhilarating than all their deep draughts from the Pierian Spring had rendered a few such women as Hannah Adams. A disappointed man who once made a stagecoach journey with her related that she only opened her lips to enumerate the pieces of baggage with which she was encumbered, lest in her descent she should, in the preoccupation of her mind, leave behind her either her “great box, little box, or bandbox.”
Sallie Ward, in deference perhaps to the prejudices of her French origin, was sent to a school presided over by a woman of that nationality. She enlivened its atmosphere of conventional elegance by many startling ebullitions of her undisciplined young spirits, such as appearing unannounced in male attire at wholly inappropriate moments. Then, as everybody disappeared with more haste than dignity, her own uncontrollable laughter would reveal the truth of the situation. Someone would exclaim, ” Sallie Ward!” and the others would troop back to admire her, for, if a little effeminate, she made, nevertheless, a very captivating youth, and no school-mistress could ever look into her beaming face and find it in her heart to be harsh to her.
Her own mother attempted once when she was a very little child to punish her for some misdemeanor, but Sallie, divining her purpose, dropped quickly on her knees and raised her little hands in supplication. There seemed at that moment something so seraphic in her childish beauty that her mother afterwards admitted that her good intentions were involuntarily thwarted. Though the rod was always soared, she grew up to be none the less lovable, though a woman of the world in all things rather than a woman of the spirit, the logical result of her environment.
A subtle quality that goes forth from some personalities, commanding instant attention and reverence, went forth from Sallie Ward, evoking everywhere admiration and love. She realized the power herself, and it enabled her to do everything with an indefinable grace proceeding from an absolute self-confidence. That which would have seemed daring coming from another woman was approved and applauded in Sallie Ward. She possessed a knowledge of horses that is more or less common among the women of Kentucky, and rode with a dash and skill which the women of no other State have ever surpassed. She sometimes capriciously utilized this accomplishment to test a man’s devotion, doing apparently without premeditation some daring feat and discovering thereby the extent to which he would fol-low her, for every man was at least worth measuring weapons with, though in the process she unwittingly, no doubt, despoiled many a less dazzling woman. She was, however, only exercising what she conceived to be the prerogative of every woman. While riding in Louisville one day she came upon the market-house, which ran for some distance through the centre of the street. Instead of going around it, she impulsively dashed through it without in any degree slackening her speed. The man who was with her unhesitatingly followed, and was rewarded, as he drew up beside her on emerging from the far end of the structure, with an arch smile and “Now, sir, you’ll have a pretty fine to pay, twenty-five dollars apiece, for that little stretch.” When he went the next day, however, to pay the penalty for the pretty caprice, he found that the obligation had already been quietly discharged by Miss Ward herself.
She had innumerable lovers and suitors all her life, and never, even in its closing years, entered any assemblage, small or great, private or public, that her name did not pass from mouth to mouth till all were aware of her presence. She was the glorious heroine of many a shy girl’s first ball, while the forlorn little maid whom it purported to introduce to the social world clung timidly to the wall, with admiring eyes, however paradoxical it may seem, upon the radiant being who with apparent unconsciousness was carrying off all the honors of the occasion. The remarkable popularity of Sallie Ward has been compared to that of a feudal princess in her hereditary domain. It was con-fined to no class, but entered into all grades of society, parents in all walks of life naming their children after her, and children in turn naming their pets after her. Many a product of the far famed stock farms of the Bluegrass State was likewise honored with a name that came to be a synonym for all excellence. “It is a perfect Sallie Ward,” or, “I’ve a regular Sallie Ward,” was the proud boast of many a man who owned anything whatsoever that he esteemed of superlative quality.
A mother once putting her little girl to bed related to her as a lullaby the story of the creation of the world, pointing out its beauties and blessings as they came from the hand of God.
“He made the sun that shines in the day,” said the mother, “and the moon and the stars that we see in the night, and all the flowers that beautify the world, and the birds that gladden it with their sweet song.”
“And mother, don’t forget,” interrupted the child. He made Sallie Ward, too.”
When the governor of Kentucky, at the outbreak of the Mexican War, was called upon to furnish a regiment of infantry, both the Louisville Legion and the Louisville Guard, among whose officers and men were enrolled many names of which the State was justly proud, volunteered for service. Sallie Ward was selected to present the flags to both companies, and the enthusiasm of the people, when on the bright May morning of their departure the Legion passed in review before her home, testified to the concurrence of the entire city in the choice. There was a prolonged shout of rapture from the throng of spectators as many eyes dim with weeping beheld the already familiar form of Sallie Ward standing beneath the silken folds of her country’s flag. Their cheers redoubled as she presented it to the standard bearer, and they continued to ring in her ears as she waved her own farewell to the embryo heroes, many of whom carried away that last picture of her standing in the sunshine of that bright morning to be an inspiration in a darker hour. She drove to Portland to present the flag to the Guards, who em-barked from that point. As they marched by the open carriage in which she sat at the conclusion of the ceremony of the presentation, every man saluted her, and she afterwards declared that it was the proudest moment in a life of many triumphs.
Her father’s wealth not only enabled him to maintain one of the most elaborate establishments in Louisville, but in the summer to transport his numerous family, accompanied by men and maid servants, in travelling carriages to the White Sulphur Springs, where his daughters were successively belles. A portion of each winter, including the season of the Mardi Gras, was spent in New Orleans, for though the facilities for travelling that exist today were not known at that time, a man blessed with the worldly goods that Mr. Ward possessed could not only permit his family to make frequent journeys, but to make them also under most comfortable and agreeable circumstances.
In this way the fame of Sallie Ward was well established at the South when, before she had reached her twentieth year, she married Bigelow Lawrence, of Boston, and entered upon her brief career at the North. The man who thus won her from many Southern rivals was many years her senior, and it was to a woman of her temperament a most unfortunate alliance. He was the son of the Hon. Abbott Lawrence, who had been our minister to England, and was himself a man of wealth and distinction and an exquisite gentleman of the severe Boston school, whose ethics were wholly at variance with that spirit of liberality which was all Sallie Ward had hitherto known. Developed in an atmosphere of almost passionate admiration, love and appreciation had become as necessary to her being as light and air. Transplanted in the very effulgence of her bloom to a frigid temperature of critical and unsympathetic surroundings, all her spontaneous grace congealed into acts of deliberate effrontery. Bewildered by a chill she had never before felt, too young and inexperienced in the ways of the world beyond those of her own genial climate, where she had been a law unto herself, to realize aught of the value of mutual concessions, she struck blindly against the cold conventionality in which she felt herself encaged. It was a strange and almost cruel fate that put her in the bosom of the Lawrence family, and occasioned as much suffering to her Southern heart as to their Northern sensibilities.
At a ball given in Boston about the time Mrs. Bloomer was seeking to introduce her reform in woman’s dress, and while the subject was being widely discussed. Sallie Ward, then the wife of Bigelow Lawrence, appeared in a costume designed on the Bloomer pattern. Socially conservative Boston was agog, and Lawrence achieved through his wife an unenviable notoriety. Another of her proclivities wrought additional sensation and consequently further havoc in his social status. Notwithstanding the natural beauty of her complexion, it was whispered even in Louisville that she sought with more or less artistic skill to further embellish it. One day when the artifice was unusually apparent, as she passed a group of laboring men, one exclaimed, audibly, “By God, painted!” Nothing daunted and without changing color, the story runs, she said, quietly, “Yes, painted by God,” and passed on.
Her mother, realizing the unhappy condition of her life with Mr. Lawrence, took her home, and within a year she applied to the Legislature of Kentucky for a divorce, which was granted on the ground of incompatibility of temper. She took her maiden name and lived for several years in retirement.
Her first reappearance in that world of gayety and social emulation which was her natural element was at a ball given in Louisville, and where at midnight, though everybody knew she was in the house, she had not yet made her appearance. Shortly after twelve o’clock the music suddenly ceased; in an instant silence fell upon the ballroom; someone whispered “Sallie Ward,” and every one pressed towards the stairway. She was, indeed, a vision of radiant loveliness that held every man and woman spellbound as she descended its winding length. She was enveloped in white tulle, which seemed to float about her like a cloud, a jeweled pin catching the meshes of a filmy veil and holding it imprisoned in her brown hair. One arm covered with jeweled bracelets was extended, the hand resting in that of the man who had the honor of leading her. So light and floating was the effect she produced that the tips of her white slippers seemed scarcely to touch the steps.
She was at all times supreme and irresistible without resorting to extraordinary effects, which she frequently did, for she was not lacking in that vanity which is “the cordial drop,” said John Adams, “that makes the bitter cup of life go down,” though an existence filled with so many sweets as was hers could have needed no such stimulus.
At a fancy-dress ball given in her honor at Lexington, she created an unparalleled sensation by changing her costume four times in the course of the evening, reaching the climax as an honor.
Her second marriage was to Dr. Hunt, of New Orleans, where she was already well known. The city, with its contingent of wealthy Spanish and French planters, contained many homes whose palatial splendors exceeded those of the most pretentious establishments of other localities. The new home in which Sallie Ward came to preside was on a scale of magnificence that fully gratified her luxurious tastes and love of the beautiful. Its rich adornment of tapestries, statuary, and Parisian furnishings, its marble court, with its glistening fountains and wealth of tropical bloom, formed an exquisite background for her artistic individuality and prodigal temperament. Its hospitalities were munificent and the legend of the magnificence of its dinner-parties, during which the orchestra from the French opera filled the court yard and dining room with its melodies, was the marvel of a people accustomed to entertaining with all the luxurious accompaniments of a most artistic civilization; and into all of whose forms of a ceremonious existence there entered a perfect harmony that was a second nature to them.
The years of her residence in New Orleans represent the most brilliant period of Sallie Ward’s life, when her surroundings, combined with her natural gifts, gave her easily that leading position which she filled so graciously and with so much happiness to herself her only child, Mr. John Hunt, of New York, was born of this marriage.
After her husband’s death she returned to Louisville, and there for some years devoted herself to rearing and educating her son. She was subsequently twice married, the first time, after nearly fifteen years of widowhood, to Mr. Vene P. Armstrong, and the second time to Mr, George F. Downs, both of Kentucky. She retained till the end of her life, which closed in the summer of 1898, all her remarkable powers of attraction.
Surrounded always with the pomp and vanity of life, and deeply imbued with the maxims of a worldly philosophy, she yet preserved intact an unselfish heart that not only prompted her to many deeds of noble philanthropy, but to countless little acts of kindness graciously performed that beautified lives less fortunate than her own. With her quick bright mind and gift for clever repartee, she sent many a ripple of irresistible drollery over the current of the life that encircled her, and sped many a shaft of stinging wit into the armor of a hollow conventionality. “How lovely of you to say that! but then you always say such sweet things of everybody,” was the meaningless flattery in the response of a woman to whom she had spoken in heartfelt praise of another woman. “Did you ever hear, madam,” retorted Mrs. Downs, “that I had said anything sweet of you?”
She never could have attracted and held the universal homage that was undoubtedly hers had there not radiated from her a power quite beyond that bestowed by the material possessions of the world, the potency of a vivid and lovable personality. Had she been a man, she would have been capable of such acts of gallantry and daring as characterized “mad” Anthony Wayne or General Custer. As she was a woman, with her field restricted to the social world, from whose stand-point she must necessarily, therefore, be judged, her singular genius was productive of many extraordinary achievements, through all of which there was a very audible appeal for the love that never failed her, but which was given to her in such measure as perhaps to no other woman ever born in America.