HISTORY REVISITED ~ The 'Fifth Avenue Pearls'

Recently, after providing a presentation on Groton's Morton F. Plant to the East Lyme Historical Society, my wife, who is my most sincere critic, relayed her disappointment that my talk had not included the story about Mrs. Plant and her pearl necklaces, and I agreed to include the story in future presentations.

Most readers are aware of Morton F. Plant, his wealth, and his extravagant estate, including the Branford House at Avery Point in Groton; however, many are unaware that this was his summer resort, which he used only two to three months a year. During the remainder of the year his primary residences were in Clearwater, Fla., and New York City.

In 1902, Mr. Plant purchased a building lot on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 52nd Street in Manhattan in New York City. The property was purchased from William K. Vanderbilt, the multi-millionaire horse breeder and yachtsman, whose own magnificent mansion was diagonally across Fifth Avenue from the building lot. Over the next three years, Plant, and his wife, Nellie, built a six-story, marble and granite, neo-Italian Renaissance-style mansion on the property. The residence was one of New York's finest.

On Aug. 8, 1913, Nellie Capron Plant, Morton's wife of 26 years, died.

It is after the death of Mrs. Plant that the saga about Plant's riches begins to get interesting.

In May of 1914, less than 10 months after the death of Nellie Plant, Morton Plant announced his engagement to Mae Cadwell Manwaring. As the story goes, Mr. Plant had met Manwaring, who at the time was married to Selden B. Manwaring, the proprietor of the Oswegatchie Hotel in Waterford, shortly after the death of his wife, and they were immediately attracted to each other.

One story has it that Plant became so infatuated with Manwaring that he offered to provide her husband a gift of $8 million as an enticement to leave his wife. Another story relays that shortly after Manwaring and Plant met, Mr. Manwaring found himself in a compromising situation with a young woman in a New York hotel room, which subsequently caused Mrs. Manwaring to sue for divorce. Whatever the case, approximately one month before Mae and Morton announced their engagement, she was granted a divorce from her husband.

The marriage between Mae Caldwell Manwaring and Morton Plant took place at the Plant mansion in Groton on June 17, 1914. At the time of their marriage Mr. Plant was 61 years old, and his bride was 31. According to several national and local newspapers, at the time of their marriage, Mr. Plant provided his new bride with a wedding gift of $8 million. This leads to the question: Why would he provide his new wife with a gift of $8 million when his personal wealth was valued at more than $50 million? Was the "community property law" in effect at that time?

Shortly after their marriage, Morton and Mae Plant made a decision to sell the mansion on the corner of 5th Avenue and East 52nd Street. They disliked the rapid commercial redevelopment in the immediate area and decided to build a new residence further uptown on the northeast corner of 5th Avenue and 86th Street. The new residence was a six-story building, with 100 feet of frontage overlooking Central Park. The façade was of brick and limestone in a French Renaissance style and had a balcony running around the entire roof. The cost to build this new residence (land and building) was $1,000,000-more than $20 million by today's standards.

While construction of the new residence was taking place, Mrs. Plant became extremely fond of two exquisite Oriental pearl necklaces, valued at $1 million, on display at Cartier's in New York. One of the pearl strands contained 55 matched and graduated pearls and the second had 73 pearls.

Although there are no details available to determine the circumstances, Morton Plant subsequently bartered with and reached an agreement with Cartier's, which wanted to buy the property on the corner of 5th Avenue and East 52nd Street. Plant sold the property and building for $100 and acquired the two pearl necklaces.

A short time later the Plants moved into their new home. It is here you would think the story would end, but not so.

In 1918, Morton Plant died and Mae Caldwell Plant later married twice: first in 1919 to Colonel William Hayward, who had organized the all-Negro regiment from Harlem in WWI (who died in 1944) and then, in 1954, she married John E. Rovensky, a successful industrialist, banker, and economist.

In 1956, Mae Caldwell Plant Hayward Rovensky died at the home built by her and Morton Plant in 1916. As directed by her will, all of her possessions, including the two pearl necklaces, were placed on the auction block. With the advent of cultured pearls in the 1940s, the demand for natural pearls plummeted. In 1957, the two pearl necklaces, once valued at $1.5 million, sold at auction for $150,000, to an undisclosed foreign buyer. In retrospect, maybe the heirs of the former Mrs. Plant should have held on to the necklaces for a few more decades. According to my research, a similar natural double-strand of pearls recently sold at Christie's for $3.1 million.

Just think, those Cartier pearl necklaces, and their owner, once frequented the halls of the Plant estate here in Groton.

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