Friday, November 5, 2010

Mrs. J. Edward Johnston

In 1921, at forty-one years old, Mrs. J. Edward Johnston was the wealthiest woman in Winston-Salem, as well as mistress of its largest estate. Two years later she would be dead beginning a string of tragedy for this world famous, wealthy family played out on the world’s stage.

As a child, her second cousin, 31 years her senior, had jokingly promised to marry her some day. On her tenth birthday she received a gold bracelet from him. 12 years later their paths crossed in 1903 following the death of his seventy-eight year old mother. He chided her for not attending the funeral and suggested that she come to visit soon. Less than two weeks later, on a trip planed with his niece, the future Mrs. Johnston went along. Soon she was one of his three secretaries and the only female of the three, it being uncommon for a female to be a secretary at that time. She won a $1,000.00 prize in a company-sponsored contest. He said later that he married her to get his money back. By 1903 they were married, honeymooning in New York, before embarking on a four month trip to Europe.

Upon return from Europe they settled down in his fifth street home, he had shared with his mother and brother, where four children were born. She began purchasing land and creating a great estate. In 1917, with their new home ready for occupancy, he was in the hospital very ill. She was in poor health, as well, from a childhood case of rheumatic fever which left her with a weak heart. They both spent extended time in out-of-state hospitals. The children's governess coordinated the move from fifth street in there absence. They came for Christmas with the decorations already in place. He was unable to occupy his room and made his new den as his sick room.

By May 1918 he was back in the hospital out-of-state again. He came home in July and died on July 29th. This city was in a state of shock as to what would happen to this great estate, their children, local stock holders and the world renowned company founded by her husband. There was much gossip in the community concerning her relationship with her new employee J. Edward Johnston hired in the spring of 1919. On June 7, 1921 they were wed. She was forty one, he twenty-eight. No one from her first husband's family, other than her children, appears to have attended the wedding. They closed the great estate and moved to New York.

Although doctors had warned her not to have additional children, due to her heart condition, on May 1, 1922 a daughter was born. The daughter lived one day. By June they returned to Winston-Salem. By January 1924, ignoring advice of her doctors, at forty-three, she was pregnant again. She had told friends that she would give her husband a child even if it killed her. She succeeds in both her proclamations giving birth to a son,  J. Edward Johnston, Jr. and succumbing to an embolism three days later. Her new husband and her first husbands brother become guardians to her children and co-executor of her estate. Apparently, this may have been similar to turning loose two bulls in a china shop. Her grieving second husband built an extravagant memorial to honor her. Apparently, he grieved the first husband's family by not including his name in hers on the monument. 

Although he and his new son left town, apparently bought off by the first husbands brother who took over complete control of his brother's children and the estate, they would return occasionally to visit the monument. Many years later, due to vandalism, the principle component of the monument, a tall obelisk, was moved to the yard of a near by church for its protection. The massive pink marble surrounding the obelisk was traded for the removal, removed to storage, where much of it may still sit today. Unfortunately, they forgot to advise her son, and apparently few others. He returned many years later to introduce his bride to his mother’s monument. Even with assistance, from a former employee of the estate, they couldn't find it and thought it destroyed. By 2003 this monument was in the way of church expansion and with permission of one of the first husband's family, her nearest living relative J. Edward Johnston, Jr. not consulted, was sold for scrap and removed. Apparently, the church wasn't even aware that he was alive at the time.

Marianne O'Brien, Daughter-in-law
Hint - A photo of her famous actress, daughter-in-law (mother of one of the grandchildren she never saw) is on the right.

You probably thought that you knew a great deal about this family, you probably don't have a clue about the real stories!

Is there more to this story? Any idea as to who this Mrs. J. Edward Johnston was or where this monument ended up and how? With a little sleuthing you have been given more than adequate information in this post to discover for yourself. Does this sound like “happily ever after” to you? Is that the impression you get on visiting her estate, a local tourist attraction? Trust me, this is only a small dribble of the tragedy associated with this well know family.
  1. You can learn a great deal about this great estate and the family associated with it in a tiny but powerful book by clicking here
  2. For a more detailed work click here
  3. Learn about the lives of this tragic family and the escapades of it's children by clicking here.
  4. Learn about another of her famous daughter-in-laws, the life and tragic death of one of her sons, his first brief, shot gun, marriage to the daughter of a textile tycoon resulting in a granddaughter, and a the tragic death of a grandson by clicking here, also here
  5. Read the novel by Robert Wilder loosely based on this family by clicking here. See the movie based on this novel staring Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall by clicking here.
  6. Learn about the company funding their life styles by clicking here.
  7. Learn about the mesmerizing fall of this great company by clicking here. See the movie click here.

    As to the monument, I suggest that you look between Hawthorne Road and Reynolds Auditorium for an obelisk made of Mount Airy Granite. There is a plaque of interest on one side.

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