Nancy of the Virginia Langhornes
Nancy Perkins Field Tree Lancaster
By Megan McKinney
The next personality in our series A Rich Life with the Trees is Ronnie Tree’s first wife, the great 20th century interior designer Nancy Lancaster. A bearer of multiple surnames, she began life as Nancy Perkins, daughter of Elizabeth, eldest of the five fabled Langhorne sisters of Virginia.
Nancy’s glamorous aunts included the feisty Lady Astor, who married William Waldorf Astor and became the first woman seated as a member of the British Parliament.
Another Langhorne sister, Irene, was the original Gibson Girl. She married the celebrated illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, who created the legendary ideal woman of the period, and Irene was his muse. With her strong dimpled chin, Irene personified the outdoorsy essence of feminine perfection of the 1890’s. The Gibson Girl lasted through World War I, to be replaced by the flapper of the 1920’s.
After attending the horsey Foxcroft School near Middleburg, Virginia, Nancy Perkins stayed in New York through the debutante season with Irene and Charles Dana Gibson, in their new Stanford White-designed house at 127 East 73rd Street.
This is the way the lovely Upper East Side townhouse looks in the 21st century.
Although the Langhorne niece, remembered today as Nancy Lancaster, was Ronnie Tree’s first wife, Ronnie was not her first husband. In 1917, when she was 19, Nancy married Henry Field, younger son of Marshall Field Jr, and one of the nation’s great heirs. The marriage would last five months.
In July 1917, after undergoing an elective tonsillectomy, 21-year-old Henry Field tragically suffered a pulmonary embolism and died, shattering his young bride, who would continue to be unstable for much of the remainder of her long life.
In November, immediately following the Armistice, Nancy and her sister, Alice, sailed on the RMS Mauretania for England to spend Christmas with their aunt, Lady Astor, at the Waldorf Astor estate, Cliveden, below.
On the ship was Ronnie Tree, another of Marshall Field’s grandsons, who was said to have immediately “fallen in love” with his cousin’s widow and thrilled to have the long leisurely days of a trans-Atlantic passage to woo her.
Woo her he did and in 1920 they married. During the first year of their marriage, the Trees rented the 7 East 96th Street house, designed and owned by architect and interior designer Ogden Codman Jr.
Above is the extraordinary Ogden Codman 96th Street dining room. Nancy’s keen “eye” would lead her become arguably the greatest interior designer of her time and, as this series progresses, we will explore her various splendid dwellings in America and England. However, throughout her life, she loved one house above all others, Mirador, on her grandfather’s plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia.
The substantial Mirador, circa 1842, was purchased by the Langhorne family in 1892. When Nancy and Ronnie Tree acquired the estate in 1921, they brought in one of the nation’s premier architects of residential properties, William A. Delano, to update the handsome mansion. Together, Billy Delano and Nancy transformed the residence from a Federal plantation house to a Neo-Georgian Gilded Age estate. They added wings on either side, and the interiors were upgraded with Georgian motifs. However, their greatest achievement was turning a long, narrow ground floor central hallway into what you see below.
This is merely the beginning of the extraordinary design adventures upon which Ronnie and Nancy Tree would embark, together and later with others.
Join Classic Chicago Publisher Megan McKinney’s Great Chicago Fortunes next for more about the great estates of Ronnie Tree and his first wife, the fabulous interior designer Nancy Lancaster.
Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien
Author Photo: Robert F. Carl