Today marks the beginning of the journey of my first creative non fiction piece, a biography based on my ancestor Colonel Herman Thorn (1783 – 1859) and his wife, Jane Mary Jauncey and their children. I’m using this blog as a way of organising my thoughts and research material, while I gradually turn it into a book. It won’t necessarily be chronological, and I may disappear down some rabbit holes that take me away from the family into interesting side stories. I’m going to allow myself that luxury here because I want to enjoy the process. All roads, however will eventually lead back to Herman Thorn and his family.
Consider this the first post and the place to orient yourself. From now on, I will try and signpost well enough for you to follow the threads. Use the categories on the right, and the search field at the bottom of the page, to look for the topics that interest you.
So firstly, some background to this project-of-the-heart: I grew up with a fairly well-developed knowledge of my French ancestry. We have books on it, and one very large gilt-framed family tree that is rather lovely. As a kid I would stare at it for hours, wondering who those people were, what their lives were like. (Especially fascinating was the intermarriage of two branches of the family, long after they had split apart!)
On the mantel piece of the dining room in my family home, above a log fire, resides a rather elegant statue of a lady on horseback. For as long as I can remember, the horse held a pound note in its mouth – the result of a bet, though nobody is too sure of the nature of the wager.
The woman on the horse is Jane Mary Thorn, Baroness (and later Vicomtesse) de Pierres, lady in waiting to Empress Eugenie of France, Napoleon 111’s wife during the The Second French Empire. Jane married Etienne de Pierres and began the line of which I am a direct descendant.
Being a madly ‘horsey’ adolescent, this statue intrigued me. She seemed so poised, the folds of her riding outfit falling perfectly over the horse’s shoulder, her hat at a jaunty tilt. And the horse itself is beautifully proportioned – muscular and prancing. At around thirteen, I learned of the family lore surrounding Jane Mary. My mother was a Francofile and loved to speak of the de Pierres history to me. According to mum, Jane was the daughter of a wealthy American named Herman Thorn who had taken his daughters to France to find them men of title to marry. It was there Jane had met Etienne and fallen in love. Herman, so the story went, was so rich he owned much of Central Park in New York. This turned out to be a flawed version of history, but I will get to the real story in due course.
In many ways, I would like this biography to be Jane’s. She was an outstanding horsewoman, a great beauty at court, and an anxious woman, who in later years smoked a clay pipe – there are surely some stories to unearth there. But history often sees more information recorded about men, and I found myself drawn back to her father. Herman, according to records, was charmingly flamboyant, gentlemanly, benevolent, and fiercely American. Unremarkable in his endeavours and yet hugely influential.
Once I began to read and understand how his patronage of the Arts, and friendships with politicians affected New York and Paris in the early 1800’s, I was completely hooked. This project is a puzzle of social history and change that deserves to be preserved, if for no other reason than it may hold back, just for an instant, the whelming wave of time.
DEATH OF COL. THORN.–A conspicuous citizen of New-York, whose face was better known on the Boulevards than on Broadway, and whose life, were it at all becoming to write it fully here, would be a most curious picture of the history and progress of American society for the last forty years… His white hair, imperious bearing, and the whole striking air of a man, made him a marked panorama in our streets. He will be seen no more: and though his life, properly speaking, withdrew him from the scope of the public eye, he had filled too notable a niche in the American social history of his times for him to sink without a ripple into the wave that whelms us all.’’ New York Times.
And so I begin delving deeper. There will be gaps, and I may make mistakes. Remembering and researching the past is an inexact practice. But you are welcome to join me, and to contribute any information or thoughts.
Marianne de Pierres, January 1st 2019.