Wednesday, December 31, 2014

52 Ancestors: #52 Fanny Gowdy and an American Romance in Paris

 Fanny Alice Gowdy
The Saint Paul Globe, 1903
Back of the prosaic announcement that Robert E. Mansfield, Consul at Valapariso, Chile, has petitioned his department at Washington for a transfer to France ... is an interesting little romance.  Consul Mansfield is in love.  And the object of his affection is ... Miss Fanny Gowdy, daughter of the United States Consul General in Paris.  

What is more, Miss Gowdy is also in love -- with Mr. Mansfield. And here Uncle Sam, after allowing them to be together for a long time, has separated them almost as far as he possibly could.  No wonder Mr. Mansfield wants to get back to France, and Miss Gowdy is anxious that he should be there.  ("Four New American Romances," The Saint Paul Globe, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 6 Dec 1903, page 30.)

The courtship of Fanny Gowdy and Robert Mansfield was a favorite topic in the gossip columns of many newspapers across the country and abroad.  It is not surprising; they were both young, attractive, and accomplished.

Fanny Alice Gowdy was born on March 6, 1870, in Arlington, Rush County, Indiana, to John K. Gowdy and Eve Eliza Gordon.   She was raised as an only child, since her brother died two weeks after she was born. In 1887, 17-year-old Fanny graduated from Rushville High School as valedictorian of her class with special honors in elocution and literature.  She went on to study literature, art, and linguistics at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

Robert Emmett Mansfield
Passport photo from
Fanny Gowdy and Robert Mansfield first met in Rush County, Indiana. Robert was a journalist in Muncie and often visited her father on business. When John K. Gowdy accepted the post of Consul General to Paris, his wife and daughter accompanied him to France.  Naturally, Robert was delighted to receive the position of Gowdy's personal secretary.

However, Mansfield was soon called away to Valparaiso, Chile, on a political assignment. The consular position in Chile was a highly sought-after office, but Mr. Mansfield was determined not to stay longer than necessary.  He soon petitioned for a transfer.

With so many thousand miles of territory between the young people their happiness could not be complete and therefore Mr. Mansfield can certainly be pardoned for his anxiety to effect a transfer to Calais, which is within easy reach of Paris.  The members of the Indiana delegation, who have hearts as big as the side of a hill, certainly will do whatever is in their power to help Mr. Mansfield, who is popular with them.  (New Castle Daily Press, New Castle, Indiana, 24 Oct 1903, page 1.)

Fanny Gowdy, age 28, and her mother in Paris
Mr. Mansfield was not the only one who thought well of Miss Gowdy.  At one time, there were rumors that Fanny was to marry a French count. It was clear that Europeans and Americans alike admired her elegance and charming manners, and she quickly became a leading lady of Parisian society.

Several newspapers credit Fanny Gowdy with the establishment of a popular literary salon.  This is regarded as a wonderful achievement by the Europeans, who understand the great importance of these gatherings [are] ostensibly social, but also frequently political. ("Four New American Romances", The Saint Paul Globe, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 6 Dec 1903, page 30.)

In 1900, Tennessee artist Willie Betty Newman, who was living in Paris, painted a remarkable portrait of Fanny Gowdy.  "Portrait of Miss Gowdy" was heralded as one of the best portraits of the year and received an honorable mention at the 1900 Paris Salon.

"Portrait of Miss Gowdy" by Willie Betty Newman
The painting was again displayed in 2002 as part of an exhibit of Newman's pieces at the Parthenon in Tennessee.  A review of the recent exhibit describes the century-old portrait: Newman captures Fanny -- a lithe, Gwyneth Paltrow-style beauty -- as she lounges on a divan with a vase of white flowers at her elbow.  ("An Artist Reclaimed" by Angela Wibking, 14 Feb 2002)

Another publication mentions the painting's "exquisite color arrangement."  I would love to see the original color palette of the portrait; unfortunately, I have only found it reproduced in black and white. I'm not exactly sure where the painting is now, but it may be in storage at the Smithsonian. Perhaps it will be displayed again some day so I can see it in person!

Early in 1906, Fanny and Robert officially announced their engagement, putting an end to the constant rumors generated by newspapers throughout America and Europe.  Soon after, Consul Mansfield started his voyage home from Chile.  Then he ran into trouble.  On January 31, 1906, an earthquake, measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale, resulted in destructive tidal waves off the coasts of Ecuador and Colombia.
Washington Times, 14 Mar 1906 
Although Mr. Mansfield wasn't harmed in the disaster, the delay in his journey caused much anxiety for his family and friends.

San Fransisco Call. 12 Jul 1903
Robert and Fanny were married the 17th of April, 1906. If you were expecting to hear a grand account of an extravagant wedding ceremony, I'm sorry to disappoint you.   The popular couple chose to have a small, quiet ceremony at the Gowdy's home in Rushville.  They did not even make the wedding time known to their friends -- I suspect they were tired of being in the spotlight.  Apart from the immediate family, only two guests attended; Fanny's elderly aunt, Mary Jane Green, and Mrs. Posey, a neighbor.

In June of 1906, the Mansfields moved to Lucerne, Switzerland, where Robert served as consul.  After four years abroad, the couple returned home to Indiana for good.  During her lifetime, Fanny visited or resided in many countries including France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada.

Robert died at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis on September 18, 1925 after a long illness.  Fanny died at the age of 67 in her hometown of Rushville on March 23, 1937.  The Mansfields never had any children, so there are no descendants.  Although I am only distantly related to Fanny (she is my 1st cousin 4 times removed), I felt compelled to recount her fascinating life.


  1. What a great story! So interesting. Thank you for sharing it !

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it! There's much more to tell about the Mansfields that I didn't include, but I had to stop somewhere!

  2. What a fascinating woman! We have to tell the stories of those without descendants just as much as those with. I'm interested in the "more to tell"!

    1. The Gowdys and Mansfields will probably appear again in future posts ;) Thanks for reading!

  3. I found your story quite entertaining and thought for sure Oh No he's lost in the earthquake but then was happy to read he made it. What a great you preserved!!!

    1. I was so surprised when I found that newspaper heading! Thanks for reading!