THE ORIGINAL BOUVIER money had been made by Jack Bouvier’s great-grandfather, Michel Bouvier. He arrived in America in 1815, at the age of twenty-threes, from the village of Pont-Saint-Esprit on the Rhone in southern France.
WHY TO IMMIGRATE ?
Today, most Americans like to think that their immigrant ancestors came to these shores because America had come to symbolize « the land of golden opportunity », but the fact is that many immigrants came for more stern and practical reasons. Some came to avoid taxation, persecution, or jail. Some came to avoid military service. In Michel Bouvier’s case, he had been an infantryman in Napoleon’s army at Waterloo, and, in the weeks following that celebrated defeat, royalists forces in Paris were demanding the arrest, torture, and execution of all who had participated in the Hundred Days.
GO TO USA
Feelings ran particularly strong in the Midi, and to be a veteran in Waterloo meant death. There was little for Michel Bouvier to do but get to Bordeaux as quickly as possible and book himself on the next boat for New York. From New York, he made his way to Philadelphia, where there was already a French-speaking colony and where he was able to find work as a handyman. In France, before his military stint, he had been apprenticed to his cabinetmaker father, and gradually he began to pick up jobs as a carpenter and furniture maker. He was a slight, solemn-faced young man, but he must have been industrious. He must have been thrifty because the first record of a financial transaction involving him shows that, in 1817, he was able to deposit $536 in the Girard Bank of Philadelphia – the equivalent today of several thousand dollars.
JOIN THE BONAPARTISTS
Too, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph, fled the Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. By no coincidence, the ex-King of Naples and ex-King of Spain arrived to Philadelphia. Called himself the Comte de Survilliers, he created a predictable stir in the city. He was welcomed with a series of galas, bals, and receptions on an imperial scale. He had brought with him trunkful of Imperial jewels and paintings, and was able to buy himself a huge estate called Point Breeze, on the New Jersey banks of the Delaware River, which he proceeded to fit out in lavish style.
Michel Bouvier, uneducated though he was, must surely have been aware of his distinguished countryman’s presence in the city, and may have actively tried to ingratiate himself with Joseph Bonaparte. If so, it would have been very French. The French have a rigid sense of class and the barriers that divide classes, and it is usually unthinkable for a member of the bourgeoisie to attempt to mingle with the nobility. On the other hand, by 1818 Philadelphia had become the center of an American movement to rescue Napoleon from Saint Helena, bring him to the United States, and to collect funds and forces tu return him to the French throne. As a Waterloo veteran Michel Bouvier, even though he had been only an ordinary foot soldier, would certainly have been qualified to take part in such a movement.
WORK FOR J. BONAPARTE
In any case, by 1818, Michel had begun doing odd bits of carpentry jobs for Joseph Bonaparte at Point Breeze. When Bonaparte decided to erect a cottage for one of his daughters on the state, Michel was put into charge of that project. Michel’s first real good fortune, however, occurred in 1820, and in the form of a disaster. Bonaparte’s Point Breeze burned to the ground and, obviously pleased with the young man’s work. Bonaparte appointed Michel to supervise the reconstruction. This was an assignment that lasted three years, and earned Michel, his first real money. Bonaparte was an important costumer.
AND FOR S. GIRARD
Michel was able to collect another – the millionaire Philadelphia banker and financier, Stephen Girard, who also happened to have been born in France. Girard and Bonaparte, in fact, vied each other to see who could create the grandest residence, and Michel Bouvier happily abetted their competitiveness. Gradually, Michel was becoming known as the carpenter for the wealthy, and other well – off Philadelphians started coming to him with jobs. He continued, however, to do humble chores. His 1828 ledger shows that he billed Girard $20 for « furnishing cloth and silk for tables ». In 1829, he received one dollar from Girard for « polishing dining room table », and fifty cents for « taking down and putting up bed ». He was, in other words, an interior decorator.
MANUFACTURER & DEALER
By 1837, however, Michel was beginning to make the transition from a maker of hand-made custom furniture to a manufacturer of mass-produced items. He installed a steam-driven saw in his shop, and began turning out marble tops for tables and dressers, marble mantels, and veneers for all kinds of furniture. He began importing mahogany and marble. By 1839, he no longer listed himself in the Philadelphia business directory as a « cabinet and sofa warehouse » but as a « manufacturer of veneers and dealer in marble and mahogany ».
Two years later, he made his first step into real estate. He bought a tenement on South frnt Street, and a small lot on north Broad Street. Thirteen years later, he had sold the Front Street property at a healthy profit, bought a decaying mansion on Third Street, torn it down and built three brownstones in its place. He then sold them, bought more Broad Street property, built a big house on that, bought several other choice pieces of Philadelphia business property and – most important – had bought a vast amount of land in West Virginia.
AND MONEY COMES
At one point, he owned a total of 157 000 acres of West Virginia land. What prompted him to buy is unclear, but it was what lifted him permanently into the ranks of rich. Railroads were opening up the country, moving westward. This land was covered with valuable timber, which he knew. Beneath it, rich beds of coal, which he could not have known. When he sold, his land was more than three times what he had paid for it. He made a profit of about $100 000 (half a million dollars in today’s money).
Michel Bouvier built a huge mansion for himself at 1240 North Broad Street, Philadelphia. Choice adress with a three storeys, topped with a square cupola, in the Italian Renaissance style. It had more than twenty-five rooms, including a private chapel, and there were adjoining stables, greenhouses, and a « grapey ». The entire house was surrounded by a fenced garden filled with Italianate fountains, sculpture, and topiary. An imposing flight of curved stone steps led up to the great entrance. The house was all the advertisement that was needed to tell Philadelphia that Michel Bouvier had « arrived ».
Michel had, meanwhile, married a woman named Sarah Pearson who had died after giving him a son and a daughter. He had then married a French woman named Louise Vernou. She and Michel had ten children. But on their three sons, only two – John Vernou Bouvier and Michel Charles Bouvier – lived to maturity. Michel and Louise children where the most devout of any Bouvier generation. One daughter became a nun and, of the six others, only one married. The others remained spinsters and spent a great deal of time with their beads and their missals as « house nuns ».
NEW YORK IS MONEY
The boys, armed with trust funds and comfortable bank accounts, headed for New York and Wall street. At the time, the reason for the move was that the financial capital of America was no longer Philadelphia ; it was New York. New York was where the money was. But there were other, stronger motivations. Michel’s big, garish castle on Broad Street offended the sensibilities of Philadelphia society. He had come up from nothing at all too rapidly to flaunt his success so flashily. The backbone of Philadelphia society was then, and is now, composed of families who trace their presence in the city to before the American Revolution.
BUT PEOPLE ARE JEALOUS
« Who were these Bouviers, anyway ? » people asked themselves. Socially, the Bouviers had everything against them. Michel Bouvier was self-made, nouveau, uneducated. He was a Roman Catholic, and a foreigner. Worse than that, he was « in trade » and, even more shocking than that, a man who had worked with his hands. For any one of those reasons, the Bouviers would not have been invited to the « Fish House » or the « Rabbit Club ». Just as, a couple of generations later, Boston would make it clear that it would never accept the Kennedys, Philadelphia has made it clear that it would not accept the Bouviers. They were not « Philadelphians ». It was that simple.
A BOOK ABOUT WATERLOO ?
La bataille de Waterloo de Jean-Claude Damamme