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Among the members of the graduating class at Mary Institute, St. Louis, in the year 1873, was a young girl who, in addition to the bright mind and intellectual ambition she had already manifested, was endowed with so extraordinary a physical beauty and so lovable a character that much of the brilliancy of her life might even then have been foretold. She was not yet seventeen years old, and was as absolutely unconscious of the unusual loveliness of her person as she ever seemed to be even after ten years of adulation. Her figure had already attained a faultless contour, and in her simple graduation gown of white French muslin, the flounces of its skirt headed with wreaths of pink roses and green leaves, and its round bodice offset with a bertha covered in the same design of roses and leaves, she suggested all the fragrance and beauty of a flower. Her red gold hair seemed to reflect some of the sun’s own glory, and with the marvelous delicacy of her skin, the deep wine color of her eyes, and the classic perfection of her features, there can be little doubt that she was, as she was so often said to be later, the most beautiful woman ever born west of the Mississippi.
Among her schoolmates Nellie Hazeltine had won that popularity that was hers in after years to so remarkable an extent among all women. The power she possessed of diffusing herself and all that pertained to her among others precluded every thought of envy, and those with whom she came in contact experienced rather a sense of personal gratification in the contemplation of her gifts than any desire to despoil her of them or of the admiration they attracted.
She was the only daughter of Captain William B. Hazeltine, a man who had made a large fortune in the mercantile world, and she went from school to further enhance the attractiveness of an already beautiful home. There for several years she continued her studies, though it was not unusual then for girls of her age to take up their position in the social world immediately upon quitting school. As a result her accomplishments were of a higher order than those commonly possessed by the young women of her period. She was well read, she spoke French with the same ease with which she spoke her mother tongue, and was a musician of unusual ability. Such attributes soon gained for her a wide reputation and a unique position in the society of her native city.
In the matter of its social complexion St. Louis has generally been classed among the cities of the South. Besides the French, who formed a large proportion of its early settlers, those who rose early to a leading position were the families who had migrated there from Virginia and Kentucky. They were slave owners and landholders, and as such gave a substantial character to the social foundations of the city. The Anglo-Saxon gradually absorbed the French element, which, though it disappeared from the political horizon, still formed a powerful undercurrent in the lives of the people, harmonizing the forms of their social intercourse and imparting a certain artistic value to their existence generally, that gave St. Louis a distinctive place among the growing and wealthy young cities in its vicinity. This, with the character it took from the dominant race, which restrained it from that tendency to display that was elsewhere more or less apparent, yet which ever inculcated the sacred laws of hospitality, blended into a delightful whole and gave to the city a charm that it has never lost.
Of such a civilization Nellie Hazeltine has unquestionably been the fairest product. Yet no one was less conscious than she of the eminence of her position or of the sensation her appearance invariably created.
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Shortly after the beginning of her social career she went with her father to Washington to attend a competitive drill of military organizations from all sections of the country. While there she was selected to present the colors to the company of which her father was captain. Among the spectators of a scene which is always more or less inspiring, was a man who, though already past middle life, was yet not proof against the witchery of such a singularly lovely presence as Nellie Hazeltine’s. From the moment she thus crossed his life, like many another man of less prominence, Samuel J. Tilden followed her career with an ardent and chivalrous admiration that increased as her beautiful character developed and disclosed itself.
When he came before the country as the Democratic candidate for the Presidency, and captured not only the nomination but the majority vote of the people, when his name was on every tongue in America, and everything that concerned him was of absorbing interest, the story of his devotion to Nellie Hazeltine spread throughout the length and breadth of the country.
From the moment it became known that Samuel J. Tilden had been elected President of the United States, till Samuel J. Randall, Speaker of the House of Representatives, cutting the tie vote of that body, redeemed its pledge to abide by the decision of the Electoral Commission, which declared Rutherford B. Hayes President of the United States, forms one of the most thrilling periods in our political history. It was but eleven years after the great civil struggle, and people living today, when the sinews of the nation are again knitted, cannot easily estimate the bitterness engendered by the campaign that fell during our centennial year.
The contest reached nothing less than a sublime climax when Randall, with nothing in his great form or his strong face to betray the struggle it had cost him, stepped quietly down from the Speaker’s platform, and, taking his place on the floor of the House, uttered amid its breathless silence that affirmative syllable upon which hung national tranquility.
Both men took the oath of office, Tilden, the people’s choice, in the privacy of his own home in New York, and Hayes, twice, first, on Saturday afternoon, the 3d of March, in the White House, overlapping Grant’s term of office by a few hours, that there might be no intermission occasioned by inauguration day falling on Sunday; and again on Monday, the 5th of March, in the presence of the people.
A Presidential campaign that proceeds and terminates in the usual way is sufficient to entail an enormous amount of publicity upon the candidates. The campaign of ’76, however, gave Tilden both a prominence and a place in the affections of the people of his country that could scarcely have been greater had he been permitted to fill the high office to which they elected him.
His bachelorhood was an interesting feature of his personality, for we had had at that time but one bachelor President. The sentimental side of public opinion was satisfied, however, with the report that he was soon to be married to Miss Hazeltine. On her part, though his admiration for her was easily apparent, she never referred to his having offered himself to her any more than she revealed the fact of any other man ever having honored her with a similar proposal. Yet it was known through men who could not easily disguise the sharpness of their disappointment at her rejection of their suit that she was continually the recipient of such offers.
Though she was already well known socially, in both St. Louis and New York, her fame was established after the summers of 1876 and 1877 on a vastly wider basis.
During the latter season she made a tour of the Eastern watering places, and went for the first time to the Greenbrier White Sulphur Springs, succeeding Mattie Ould in its social leadership during the last days of the old regime, when it occupied the first rank as a distinctively Southern resort.
There was no one who made any pretence of rivaling her, though fair women from every section of the South still upheld the fame of the old resort. She has been frequently compared to Mattie Ould, and the history of their short lives furnishes several points of similarity. Hers was a more faultless type of beauty than Mattie Ould’s, however, and she had a reserve and dignity that were in keeping with its high order, whereas, Mattie Ould was distinguished by a flow of spirits and a brilliancy of wit that captivated every fancy and carried all before it. Both had the power to attract and hold the attention and admiration of large circles of people, one by the overwhelming sparkle of her words, the other by the magic of a lovely presence.
Nellie Hazeltine was at all times as charming in the society of her own sex as she was among men; and women in every rank of life had for her a tender attachment. Many a girl trying her uncertain young social wings for the first time owed to her that subsequent enjoyment and happiness which is called success. She was absolutely unselfish, and without display used the remarkable power which her own fascinating personality gave her to add to the happiness or improve the condition of others.
On the 2d of December, 1881, she was married to Mr. Frederick W. Paramore, a young railroad man of St. Louis, and a son of Mr. J. W. Paramore, who was president of the Texas and St. Louis Railroad.
Memories of her, like those of Mattie Ould, center in the days of a glorious girlhood. She was but twenty-seven years of age when she passed out of life, a little more than two years after her marriage, followed by an infant son whose existence had measured but a few days. The entire city of St. Louis mourned her loss, and few people have been laid to rest amid such evidences of a profound and universal grief as followed her. Her grave in Bellefontaine, whither strangers visiting St. Louis still frequently make a pilgrimage, was literally filled in with flowers by the young women of the city, to whom her life had been a beautiful example.
In the Museum of St. Louis, there hangs a portrait of her painted by Carl Gutherz. It is a full length figure dressed in white and standing in her own drawing room. Her abundant hair is arranged after the peculiar fashion of the day, with a heavy fringe low on the forehead. From beneath it, however, there looks down upon the beholder a face reflecting something of both the heart and mind whence flowed the charm of Nellie Hazeltine’s personality, and of a beauty so ideal as to be almost sufficient in itself to immortalize her among the women of her country.