Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
I recently came across the “Diary of Reginald Fairfax Harrison, for the Year 1883-1884,” while in the process of working with a researcher from the Central Park Conservancy who was looking into the history of children’s relationships to the Park. Young Master Harrison, or “Fairfax,” as he was called, was fourteen years old when he began this diary, turning fifteen on March 13, 1884. The diary begins on Sunday, April 29, 1883, during which “It rained and snowed this morning, and I was not able to go to church.” Reginald goes on to recount that after his mother led him in prayers, he finished reading both Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, and Golden Days for Boys and Girls magazine.
This diary led me to wonder “Who was Reginald Fairfax Harrison?” Simply from the information I read in his diary I felt fairly confident that Fairfax was a member of New York City’s upper socio-economic class. Fairfax’s friends include “H. Havemeyer,” whom the reader assumes is a member of the wealthy sugar-refinery owning Havemeyers; and “Harry Whitney,” whom we can conclude is most likely Harry Payne Whitney, a member of the prominent and wealthy Whitney family, and future philanthropist and husband of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum of Art. In addition, many of the activities and opportunities Fairfax mentions (which will be discussed in later blog posts), are those not open to just every fourteen-year-old boy in late 19th Century New York City.
My curiosity led me to look further into our collection, and discovered that Ms. Baird, the woman who had donated the diary to the Museum, had also donated a photo of Fairfax and his two younger brothers, Francis Burton and Archibald Cary, as part of the same gift that included the diary. (Fairfax is seated, Francis is next, then Archibald.) By confirming Fairfax’s brothers’ names, I now had no doubts that this was the same Reginald Fairfax Harrison born to Burton Norvell and Constance Cary Harrison.
Fairfax’s father, Burton, served as Secretary to Confederate President Jefferson Davis during the United States Civil War, following which he moved to New York and resumed his law studies. In 1875, Burton became secretary and council to New York’s Rapid Transit Commission. Constance was an author, and in her memoir, Recollections Grave and Gay, she states that she solicited Emma Lazarus to write her poem “The New Colossus” for collection in an album created to raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. That poem is now inscribed on that very pedestal.
Farifax certainly came from successful parents, but what did he do with the opportunities he had been given? Fairfax graduated from Yale in 1890, and obtained an M.A. from Columbia. He entered the railroad business, working primarily for the Southern Railway, which he successfully steered through the Panic of 1907 as its Vice-President in charge of Finance and Accounting. After various positions with other railroads, he returned to the Southern Railway in 1913 as its President, a position he held until his retirement in 1937. Fairfax authored several works, primarily on topics related to Virginia genealogy and history. He had planned to focus his attention on his writing following his retirement from the railroad, but died just three months later, on February 2, 1938.
More posts to come on Fairfax’s life in New York City!