The Nov. 7, 1895, wedding of Virginia belle Irene Langhorne and the New York City-based illustrator and artist Charles Dana Gibson brought excitement and pageantry. The Richmond Times-Dispatch declared this a marriage of “Beauty and Genius.”
The couple took their vows at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, noted for its Civil War-era worshippers Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. The wedding guests stayed at The Jefferson Hotel, which had just opened on Halloween.
Guests included Gibson’s friends Richard Harding Davis, an adventuring journalist who at age 24 became managing editor of Harper’s Weekly, and “starchitect” Stanford White of New York’s Washington Square Arch and the second Madison Square Garden, where he lived in its tower. Also taking the luxury train into town was up-and-coming actress Ethel Barrymore (Drew’s great-aunt).
The wedding culminated seven years of brilliant social choreography directed by the bride’s mother, Nancy “Nanaire” Witcher Keene, and her father, railroad contracting executive and Confederate veteran Chiswell “Chillie” Dabney Langhorne.
Nanaire married at 16 and birthed eight children, five girls and three boys (and three other children who died). In order, they were Lizzie, brother Keene, Irene, Harry, Nancy (who as Lady Astor in 1919 became the first woman to sit in the British House of Commons), Phyllis, William Henry and the surprise, Nora.
Nanaire orchestrated her campaign to find Irene a suitable match with Chillie’s support and her daughter’s willingness. Chillie enjoyed newspaper mentions of the comings and goings of his “Queen Bee.” Irene’s sisters thought the attention silly at best, and at worst, vulgar.
By Virginia lineage standards, the Langhornes weren’t a first family of Virginia, and their sudden wealth came late.
Chillie earned an entertaining reputation but little money in post-war Danville as a tobacco auctioneer who then sought employment in Richmond’s tobacco business.
In “The Gibson Girl,” his biography of his grandmother Irene, Langhorne Gibson Jr. writes, “Just a few dollars separated the Langhornes from the rude existence of the hordes of immigrants — the Irish, Germans and Italians — who had recently swarmed into Richmond, settling in crowded tenements in the hollows on the edges of ravines below the city’s hills.”
Chillie went into the railroad business through longtime friend William Douglas. Chillie’s first cousin Stanhope Bolling, a civil engineer, joined him, and within months, as subcontractors to Douglas, the men and their crews hauled rock, fill and cement to construction sites.
The Langhornes prospered.
In 1886, they bought a commodious but scruffy home at 101 W. Grace St. on the southwest corner of Adams. Nanaire transformed the house. (It burned in the 1940s; today the site is a parking lot.)
Irene, her voluptuous 5-foot-8 figure squeezed wasp-waisted by corsets, made an impression wherever she went.
The Langhornes, following well-heeled Richmonders, packed the family for the springtime train ride to the Grand Central Hotel, “The White,” in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, an early iteration of what is now The Greenbriar. Far removed from city clamor and grime, the eligible sons and daughters mixed, mingled and married off, the women often to Northern millionaires.
Irene was spun into a kaleidoscope of formal dances, galas and glittering social occasions. She received 62 proposals of marriage. The significant invitation came to lead the December 1893 cotillion of the renowned Patriarch’s Ball, which was officiated by Caroline Webster “Lina” Schermerhorn Astor — the Mrs. Astor — and William McAllister, a “dedicated snob” (per Gibson) in New York. At age 20, fame beckoned.
As for Charles Dana Gibson, he came from an old but modest Boston family and entered the public sphere by dint of his diligent creativity, and, beginning in 1890, he enshrined modern womanhood in his “American Girl” illustrations for Life magazine.
His critically praised drawings captured the imagination of the public, weathering the effects of the 1890s economic crash by depicting a world, often in a humorous light, exalted above theirs. Young women wanted to look like Gibson’s characters, and the men wanted to be worthy of them.
At 26, he’d experienced no captivating romance. Then came a November 1894 encounter at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York. Irene swished her skirts against Gibson’s table, and through a friend, he arranged for tea at his studio. Irene sat at the piano to accompany her singing “Good-night Beloved” in a fine soprano. Gibson later drew the scene, depicting Irene’s chin raised and a choir of cherubim around her.
Dinners with friends, theater and ice-skating followed. Violet-eyed Irene resembled “a house with all the windows lit, sweet music coming from a party inside,” quotes Gibson Jr. in “The Gibson Girl.”
Through Irene’s machinations, Gibson came to Richmond in April 1895, at the same time as her parents’ preferred suitor for Irene, Nicholas Longworth III, who came from a prominent Cincinnati family. Both men attended Irene’s musical performance in a sold-out charity production of “The Chimes of Normandie” at the Academy of Music. Exuberant crowds and heaps of roses demonstrated her celebrity.
Chillie, meanwhile, purchased Mirador, an 18th-century Federal-style house near Charlottesville. Gibson made two pilgrimages there to wear down Chillie’s opinion of him as a “Yankee sign painter.” The engagement was made public at The White on Aug. 15, 1895.
The wedding ceremony began at noon with choristers under the direction of Jacob Reinhardt, St. Paul’s organist and Irene’s voice teacher. Thousands of spectators surrounded the church, while others filled the unreserved seats.
The Gibson honeymoon traveled from the Hygeia Hotel at Old Point Comfort to the French Riviera and Naples. Upon returning to Life, the American Girl transformed into the Gibson Girl brand.
“The phenomenon was a serial soap opera and a marketing bonanza,” James Fox describes in “Five Sisters.” The Gibsons resided in New York and on an island off the coast of Maine. They parented two children, Irene and Langhorne. Gibson’s art kept him busy, though he moved into painting following the faltering of Life under his leadership. He died, age 77, on Dec. 23, 1944.
Irene supported suffragist causes and co-founded child-mentoring organization Big Sisters Inc. She worked for 25 years to improve child placement and adoption in New York and assisted in publicizing the restoration of Stratford Hall, seat of the Lee dynasty. She returned to Virginia to live near Mirador in a cottage on her son’s farm. Illness and memory loss claimed her on April 21, 1956. Her ashes were buried next to her husband’s in Massachusetts.
From the Gibson Girl, the line runs to Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, though like photocopies of photocopies, their glamour isn’t comparable to the original.