When Tricia Foley had vacation time, she opted for places near and far for information on Yaphank native and powerhouse 19th-century woman, Mary Louise Booth.
Her search started 36 years ago, when the house two doors down from her weekend home beckoned with a hand-painted sign signaling Booth’s childhood residence, intriguing Foley, who then joined the Yaphank Historical Society.
Foley now lives in Brookhaven hamlet and her book, “Mary L. Booth: The Story of an Extraordinary 19th-Century Woman,” was published this month. It chronicles the amazing 19th-century intellectual, who was founding editor of Harper’s Bazaar, a translator, suffragette, and was friends with notables like Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott. She also helped pave the way for sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s pitch to build the Statue of Liberty for a young nation, while she entertained cultural and influential luminaries we read about in history books at her Park Avenue townhouse on 59th Street.
Foley wrote Booth’s story all last year. If it took her a while to get to it, that’s because it’s impossible to easily sum up Booth’s life and accomplishments. And Foley herself was busy as editor of Victoria magazine, writing 10 lifestyle books and heading up her own company, Tricia Foley Design, with private clients as well as Ralph Lauren Home and Bloomingdale’s.
“I found pieces of her life at the New York Historical Society, had dinner with Susan B. Anthony’s biographer, went to Seneca Falls, where the first Women’s Rights Convention took place to see if she was mentioned,” Foley ticked off of her research forays. “I traveled to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Southold and Shelter Island. John Booth, a relative, was one of the owners of Sylvester Manor there. I’d go to a house where there was a link for news or letters.”
Foley, who has a sense of humor, added this bon mot.
“When people ask me, ‘how did you do it?’ I tell them, ‘while you were drinking piña coladas by the pool somewhere, I was out searching, visiting houses and places where she’d been.”
A file of clips on Booth at the Yaphank Historical Society started Foley’s quest. She started compiling those, as well as letters, scraps of paper with pertinent information about Booth and other snippets or significant finds, and started with a timeline.
“I did a military strategy of the people she knew and where she went,” Foley explained. “So it was when President Lincoln wrote to her, when she visited this place, where she went.”
Booth convinced Charles Scribner Publishers to prepare an English translation of “The Uprising of a Great People. The United States in 1861. To Which is Added a Word of Peace on the Difference Between England and the United States,” a treatise on the institution of slavery by French author Count Agénor de Gasparin during the Civil War. She got the nod — it was debuted in 1862 to great acclaim and ultimately gained great friendships. President Lincoln sent her a letter of thanks in 1862, as did Sen. Charles Sumner, Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Ask Foley about her files; she’ll show you 25 bulging binders. “But I also found everything online, because files have been digitalized,” she said.
Booth was a brilliant child, who was sent to local academies including the Bellport Academy for Classical Studies, the Miller Place Academy and Female Seminary in Greenport, Foley said. And she was encouraged.
“She had read ‘The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ John Locke, whose philosophy helped form our Declaration of Independence, and David Hume, a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, when she was 9 or 10 and I think of her sitting in her house in Yaphank, reading these books,” Foley said. “Locke believed in the equality of women and these were her early influences. She started traveling in her 20s and by the 1860s she was involved with the development of this country before traveling to Europe.” Booth sadly died relatively young at age 57 in 1889, and was greatly mourned.
That Foley has been immersed in Booth’s life is an understatement. She helped with the Booth House renovations, researching the colors used and other aspects, hosted a wildly successful tea and talk on Booth for the Yaphank Historical Society and has given several discussions on Booth.
“I see her two or three times a week,” said Yaphank Historical Society president Bob Kessler, citing Foley’s devotion, “and if we don’t see each other, we chat. She’s been great for us. I can’t say enough about the book and Tricia’s work. She goes after and after things and kept finding information. Just the bibliography took months.”
The Booth House was donated to Suffolk County in 1996; the county moved it and it sat there for years on a foundation. It opened in 2011. “Tricia spearheaded the restoration; she selected all the paint colors, for example,” Kessler said.
Now that the book is out, will she be missing her iconic subject?
Nope. Booth continues on.
“I’m setting up the archives at the Yaphank Historical Society. We have to do a digital archive. I’m still in search of the first editions of her books; we have six or eight,” Foley said.
The book is a lively read of the times and well organized and the chosen photos provide a good glimpse of that era. If you think the 19th century was boring, think again. This woman did it all, and the vital, eruptive, progressive, clamorous events that took place that she engaged in are riveting.
By the way, Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Glenda Bailey wrote the forward.
Also, Foley points out, Booth was a member of the American Pre-Raphaelites, nature realist painters. The National Gallery of Art is hosting “The American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists” exhibit on April 14 to July 21 this year.
“I’ve been working with them for two years,” Foley said of Booth’s inclusion, because she was an ardent supporter. “Linda Ferber, museum director emerita and senior historian at the New York Historical Society, will give a talk and I’m going.”
Sidebar: “Mary L. Booth: The Story of an Extraordinary 19th-Century Woman,” is 240 pages with beautiful photos and illustrations and is published by Amazon Digital Services LLC. It sells for $44.99 and is available also on Kindle for $2.99.