If not quite a household name, George Templeton Strong enjoys a certain notoriety among historians as a pungent observer of 19th century New York. His 2250-page diary, held by the New-York Historical Society, has been described as “the greatest of American diaries, and one of the world’s great diaries,” and has been cited or quoted in countless works of history. “As a chronicler of contemporary events,” commented one reviewer, “Strong was to nineteenth century New York what Samuel Pepys was to seventeenth-century London.” A tireless observer of current events, Strong commented on pretty much every person of importance in 19th-century New York, often with a caustic wit that makes him irresistibly quotable. To give just one example, Strong attributes the death of Peter Schermerhorn, then one of New York’s wealthiest citizens, to a “chronic disease — enlargement of the bank account — which has shattered his nervous system . . . “, and laments that “he must be sadly bored in a world where there are no rents to collect and no investments to be made.”
Even non-historians may recognize Strong from Ken Burns’ blockbuster Civil War documentary, and/or Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary Film, both of which quoted extensively from Strong’s diary entries (read by George Plimpton in convincingly upper crust Manhattan accents). That Strong’s eldest son also kept a diary, however, is likely to surprise nearly everyone.
Acquired by N-YHS in 2010, the diary of John Ruggles Strong begins in 1909, by which time the 58 year old was a retired widower. Born in 1851, John Ruggles Strong received his law degree from Columbia University in 1875, and began the practice of law in New York City. According to Milton Halsey Thomas, editor of George Templeton Strong’s published diaries, John Ruggles Strong “was a man of brilliant mind, but was afflicted with prostrating headaches of such intensity and frequency that he was forced to give us his legal work.” In 1885, he married Laura Coster Stewart, and they subsequently moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Like his father, John Ruggles Strong was an accomplished musician, and he and his wife also wrote poetry (five small volumes of which were published). In 1906, Laura Coster Stewart died and John Ruggles Strong moved back to New York, where he lived with his son, George Templeton Strong III.
Although John Ruggles Strong’s tiny script could easily be mistaken for his father’s, their diaries bear little resemblance beyond the handwriting. Instead of commenting on the political and social issues of his day, John Ruggles Strong focused almost exclusively on his personal affairs — in particular, his unhappy relationship with his son. Indeed, his diary entries consist largely of a litany of parental complaints, to wit:
December 1, 1909: “George had a dollar yesterday and did not return the change, fifteen cents, till requested this evening. The change was one cent short, which we did not seem to notice.
“December 25, 1909: “Note, that when I was ill at Great Barrington he [George] kept wholly away from me, that he returned from Cooperstown by a different train by choice, and that on the morning of Dec. 14, though I was conspicuously waiting in the lobby, he went alone into breakfast, where we found him contentedly eating. I virtually dismissed him from the table for this, and made him pay for his meal.”
March 28, 1910: “Letter from Rutherford . . . he wrote to George . . . suggesting a business career out West. I replied that I had no objection, except that as George was immature, he would not do anything out West, and would be safer at present near relatives in the East.”
May 23, 1910: “Had George to dinner at the Marlton . . . then had a private talk with him. He must repay me the $20 (see May 15). I said that he might have made friends with his mother and myself . . . but as he did not seem to care for us, he would certainly not get all of my estate, and might not get any of it. He, as usual, had nothing to say. He is looking very well.”
July 7, 1910: “Note upon the present Georgian situation: (1) rooms habitually in disorder; (2) desire to drive nails in the walls of his handsomely papered room; (3) desire to have windows open here all day when he is downtown and the dust and heat are here; (4) has finally, this morning, been compelled to remove his belongings from the cooks room, who is expected today, to his own room. These things were left in the room at Mrs.Rice’s all winter, and have been the subject of a struggle. He also has a tendency to peremptoriness.”
June 13, 1912: “George announced this evening that he intended to leave the Susquehanna silk mills, and take up the chicken business . . . he said that he did not seem able to get on with the people at the Susquehanna. I said that that was because he had not really worked but had confined himself to mechanically doing what he was told there. That if he had worked he would be too interested to leave …”
November 3, 1912: “Had serious talk with George at breakfast, saying that, in view of his record with his mother, myself, at school and in business, if he should bring an ineligible person to me as my daughter-in-law, I should consider that the end of our relations . . . Before this talk began, I asked what anniversary this was. He did not know. I said, ‘your mother’s birthday.’ He said he had never heard of it but knew mine. On stating mine, however, he was ten days off.”
These and similar entries may resonate with researchers who are interested in (or members of!) rich, dysfunctional families, but the diaries rarely touch on other aspects of life in the early 20th century. One interesting exception is the entry on December 1, 1934, which illustrates the transition then underway in the Strongs’ Hamilton Heights neighborhood (in West Harlem), from a distinguished white neighborhood to an elite black neighborhood: “George says the owner or manager of the tennis court in front of his house, a Jew named Ullman, has rented the court to Negroes, refusing to rent it any longer to the present white tenants.” Armed with excellent eyesight and a high tolerance for family feuds, researchers who explore these diaries (held in the Strong Family Papers) may well unearth some additional social commentary worthy of George Templeton Strong himself.