Mrs. Van Rensselaer was born Mary Denning King, on May 25, 1848 in New York City. Her father was Archibald Gracie King – son of Charles King, the President of Columbia University and grandson of Archibald Gracie – the wealthy builder of Gracie Mansion in New York City and business partner of Alexander Hamilton.
On October 4, 1871, Mary Denning King married John King Van Rensselaer in New York City. John King Van Rensselaer had an impeccable lineage of his own. His father was Col. Henry Bell Van Rensselaer and his paternal grandfather was Stephen Van Rensselaer III – wealthy businessman, holder of many powerful political offices, founder of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Last Patroon of Rensselaerswyck, also known as “The Good Patroon”.
Thus, through her own family and that of her husband’s, May (as she preferred to be called) King Van Rensselaer had family connections back to the beginnings of the European settlement of New Netherland/New York. That impressive pedigree was something of which she was very proud and which infused all aspects of her life.
May “. . . Van Rensselaer argued that those who had earned social distinction by being born into the right families . . . should be emulated and kept in the spotlight . . . She was concerned that the high society of the Twentieth Century was too focused on wealth and the ostentatious display of it . . . to be socially prominent, one did not need breeding (or) refinement . . . (just) wealth and an astute press agent.” (1)
|John King Van Rensselaer home No. 134 E 95th Street|
Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s life encompassed a wide variety of interests and activities. She authored a number of books on varied subjects. The Goede Vrouw of Mana-ha-ta is Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s history of Dutch women in New Amsterdam/New York up to the American Revolution. She praises the colonial Dutch women (the Goede Vrouw – the Good Wife), who had played a larger part in society, as compared to their British colonial counterparts. The book deals with some of her favorite subject-matter – the superiority of the Dutch and the shining contributions of the Dutch Founding Families in New Netherland.
“ ‘Let us found a patriotic society of women descended from colonial ancestry’ . . .with these words spoken in April 1890, . . Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer of New York initiated what was to become the oldest colonial lineage society for women in the United States”. (2) The Colonial Dames of America would be a very exclusive group, “. . . eligibility alone, without express invitation did not secure invitation . . . in 1895. . . it rejected a great-great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin’s”(3) Some suspected the rejection was due to Franklin not being considered to be a gentleman by the Dames. Mrs. Van Rensselaer stated she did not approve of Franklin’s morals.
Another elite institution of which Mrs. Van Rensselaer was a member was the New York Historical Society, founded in 1804. Although technically open to the public, the upper-crust members did not encourage public participation in viewing their historical treasures. At a meeting of the NYHS in January 1917, Mrs. Van Rensselaer did not hesitate to give her opinion about the Society. “The Society is dead or at least moribund . . .(they) have $1,000,000 worth of property but only 2 cents worth of gumption.” “It should not elect worthless officers simply because they bear old Knickerbocker names . . .The old fogies should be sent to the rear and new, red blood is sadly needed”. “ When the new woman shall have dusted off all our historical societies, the number of restful places open to men is going to be materially reduced.” (5)
While her remarks seem to speak of a modern outlook and a changing world, they are based on the nativist fears of the early Twentieth Century. “She felt that immigrants would not have a proper understanding of the valuable heritage of her ancestors (and therefore the proper understanding of the value of elites like herself). Van Rensselaer felt that social distinction had its place, but it should not overwhelm efforts to educate the city’s public, many of whom were immigrants or children of immigrants.”(1)
Mrs. Van Rensselaer practiced what she preached. Starting in 1915, she brought neighborhood children into her townhouse’s library to teach them American history. “ . . . instructions were not stuffy or boring; including, for instance, historic tableaux in which the children dressed in period costumes and played out important American events.”(4)
May Van Rensselaer was called bombastic and a bomb thrower. She was an unapologetic snob and elitist. She was a woman of her time and class, who honored and revered the past but was also practical and forward-looking.
1. Browne, Dorothy M., “New York City Museums and Cultural Leadership 1917-1940”,
Dissertation – City University of New York
3. Davies, Wallace Evan, “Patriotism on Parade: The Story of Veterans’ and Hereditary
Organizations in America 1783-1900”, Harvard University Press
4. Daytonian in Manhattan Blogspot.com, “The May King Van Rensselaer House –
No. 134 East 95th Street”, Feb. 13, 2015
5. New York Times, January 4, 1917