Intern Voices: The Blood of Socialite Annette Townsend Phillips

Sat, 05/12/2018 - 9:52am -- mfarias

Annette Townsend Phillips, 1922 by unknown, PH.NPT.0782
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library 

Connections are important in high society. They help to guarantee social status, and secure a place at the table, so to speak. However, familial connections were just as important to the social sphere as were the connections made at the most elite of events. Who you are, and where you came from, were the key to rising in social standing.

Annette Townsend was born to Captain Thomas Gerry Townsend and Clara Pell Townsend in Washington D.C. on February 8, 1884. Rhode Islanders will recognize her mother’s maiden name, as she was descended from the Pell family, who have had connections to Newport since as early as the 1730s. She was also a relative of Senator Claiborne Pell, who created the Basic Education Opportunity Grant in 1973.

Townsend Family, ca. 1895 by unknown, PH.NPT.0780
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library 

Annette was a middle child, the only daughter of five. The above portrait of her siblings was taken around 1895. Thomas Gerry, named for his father, was the oldest, pictured seated in the center. Edward Davis is pictured on the far left, and Annette on the far right. Her two younger brothers, Herbert Pell and Roger Claiborne, are standing on the left and right of Thomas, respectively.

Annette Townsend Phillips & Sons, ca. 1914-1920 by unknown, PH.NPT.0778
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library 

Making her societal debut in 1903, she ended up marrying Marshall Phillips in June of 1904. A year later in March, she gave birth to the first of her two sons, Thomas Gerry, a name that had been a tradition in the Townsend family for at least three generations. In 1906, she had her second son, Alexander Auchmuty, a middle name that harkened back to ancestors in Scotland. In the above portrait, Thomas is pictured sitting next to his mother, with Alexander standing on the right. This picture was taken in their home in Goshen, NY, where the family moved after living in Philadelphia for a time.

The Tatler, 1922 by unknown, PH.NPT.0788
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library 

During her time in Goshen, Annette became a member of the Orange County Hunt Club, which was formed in 1905. Wealthy residents from the area had decided to travel from Orange County to Virginia at the turn of the century in order to participate in fox hunts in a more temperate climate. In this news clipping, from a London newspaper called The Tatler, six members of the organization are pictured just before taking part in a Hunt Breakfast, a big meal typically enjoyed either before or after a long day on the back of a horse. Standing in the center left is Robert Walton Goelet, the nephew of Ogden Goelet, known for his French chateaux style mansion, Ochre Court, now owned by Salve Regina University. The other five people pictured from left to right are his wife, the Prince de Braganza, Miss. Louise Wilson, Mrs. H. L. McVicar, and Annette.


Dr. Jacob's House, Whiteholme n.d. by unknown, PH.NPT.0790
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library 

Annette Townsend Phillips at Whiteholme, prior to 1963 by unknown, PH.NPT.0786A
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library 

Eventually, Annette moved to Newport in 1938, buying a home on Rhode Island Avenue. Six years later, she purchased Whiteholme, a mansion on Narragansett Avenue up the road from the Forty Steps. The mansion was originally designed by John Russell Pope for Dr. Henry Barton Jacobs. Mrs. Townsend ended up purchasing the mansion at an auction for $26,000, raising the previous bid by $1,000. The home was eventually sold to Salve, but the condition was not what it was in 1944, and the decision was made to tear it down to build a new dormitory and dining hall.

Annette Townsend Phillips at Bailey's Beach, 1942 by Lloyd S. Pauley, PH.NPT.0783
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library 


In between her moves between mansions in Newport, Annette became a member of the elite social community, the Spouting Rock Beach Association, also known as Bailey’s Beach Club. As of 2003, a single cabana on the beach can cost about $50,000 to buy outright. Many of these cabanas are handed down through families and it is very rare that one opens up for new buyers for that reason. To become a member, it essentially comes down to who you are connected with that ensures your spot on Bailey’s sand. In addition, according to the Annual Report of the Directors of the Redwood Library in July 1940, Annette was also elected a “Member of the Company” and acquired shares here at the Library.

Annette Townsend Phillips at Bailey's, n.d. by Jay Te Winburn, PH.NPT.0785
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library 

During her time in Newport she also wanted to connect back to her roots. She had connections to the Pell family through her mother, which was possibly one of her reasons for moving to Newport. She wrote several genealogies on her other familial connections including that of the Auchmuty family in Scotland and the Walton family in New York. In addition to her genealogies she also wrote an unpublished manuscript entitled “The Letter Book of a Diplomat,” which is currently held at Yale University in their archived collection, the Annette Townsend Papers.  The papers include all of her notes and letters in relation to the project, which chronicled the life and times of her great-great-grandfather, Elbridge Gerry. Gerry was one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, refused to sign the Constitution based on its lack of a Bill of Rights, and is probably best known for being the namesake for the term “gerrymandering.” Interestingly, Robert Walton Goelet was also connected to the Gerry family. His great-aunt, Hannah Green Goelet, married one of Gerry’s sons, Thomas Russel, further showing how familial and social connections are symbiotic in their importance.

Annette Townsend passed away in January of 1965 at 80 years old. Her connections ensured that she would live an extravagant life; full of fox hunts, fur coats, and expensive beach cabanas. In endeavoring to write out her family histories, she also made sure that those connections she had to make her life extraordinary were not lost to history.



“Mrs. Phillips Dies at 80.” Newport Daily News (Newport, RI), Jan. 08, 1965.
Seaberry, Jane. “Hunt Country’s Very Own Legend.” Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), April 18, 1991.
Trebay, Guy. “Summer Places; At Bailey’s Beach, The Ruling Class Keeps Its Guard Up.” New York Times (New York, NY), July 20, 2003.
“Weddings of a Day.; Phillips – Townsend.” New York Times (New York, NY), June 5, 1904.


{This week's blog post comes from Redwood Library intern and student at Salve Regina University, Allison Graves, who has spent the spring semester at the Redwood working with our Newport Collection of photographs. Her valuable work scanning, analyzing, and describing these photos will be accessible online soon so that new stories can be told. While at the Redwood, she also spent considerable time researching and writing labels for our exhibition on the library of John J. Slocum, on display through the summer in the Peirce Prince Gallery.}