Meet the Libbeys
This is a continuation of the Charles Reif vs SB Paige story. This post is focused on the mother and sister of Mary Elizabeth Libbey Fagin who was the second Mrs. Paige. This is the 9th and final installment in the series.
Elizabeth Nelson Libbey was born in Ireland probably in about 1824. She consistently refused to age as the census years went by. She was 24 in 1850, 30 in 1860, 33 in 1870, 53 in 1880, 50 in 1892, and 58 when she died according to her memorial on Find A Grave. She would actually have been about 71 at the time of her death in 1895.
Elizabeth also changed where she was born from time to time. She was most certainly born in Ireland but occasionally listed New York, or simply the US as her place of birth. It was said that she was very controlling and did not allow her younger daughter to marry during her lifetime. I have wondered if the marriage of her older daughter Mary to William Fagin was done in secret. The Libbey family was living in Davenport, Iowa but the marriage of Mary and William took place 100 miles away in Illinois.
Mary was reported to have been aided in her separation/divorce from Fagin by her mother. It appears as though Mary’s mother was in support of Mary’s marriage to SB Paige. After the death of Mr. Paige and all the legal happenings, Mary did not marry again until after her mother’s death.
Mary Libbey Fagin Paige’s sister was an author of romance novels. Laura Jean Libbey was certainly well known in her time. She is described as very fashionably dressed by reporters of the day. She was fond of jewelry. She had large portraits done of herself to hang in her home. Laura took extended trips overseas, spent the summer in fashionable resorts, and went on book tours around the United States. She was never seen in the company of men. Her mother was her constant companion. Laura wrote about 80 stories during her lifetime. Every source I could find online listed the information in her obituary as factual events in her life. It appears as though no one actually looked at the historical record.
Laura Jean Libbey was born in Wisconsin (probably Janesville) in about 1856. She was not numbered on the 1855 Wisconsin census, but was 4 years old by the 1860 census. She was consistently listed as born in WI until after the 1900 census. After that, she is born in New York or simply in the US. She appeared to have the same aging problem as her mother. Laura aged appropriately until the 1892 New York Census. Amazingly, she aged only 1 year between 1880 and 1892. Laura reported her birth year as 1862 in 1900, 1905, and 1910. Between 1910 and 1915, she remained 47 years old. Laura died in 1925 “in her 63rd year” when she was actually at least 69 years old.
Much is written about Laura as an author. Several news articles mention how she became an author in her teens and wrote prolifically through her adulthood. She was said to have written newspaper stories that were published all through her 20s. She became well known in the mid to late 1880s and continued to publish until shortly before her death. Once again, the available historical record would disagree somewhat with the popular idea of her life.
Laura was living in the same household with her mother and older sister throughout her youth. She was a ballet dancer at the Grand Opera House in Cincinnati with her sister under the stage name of the “Pierpont Sisters” from about 1878 to about 1881. Laura moved to New York with her mother as part of the plot for her sister to marry SB Paige – the millionaire lumberman from Wisconsin. After the death of Mr. Paige, Mary used her new fame to announce that she was writing a book about her life. She first announced her intention on 23 June 1883, just three months after his suicide. In at least one interview (19 December 1883), Mary mentions that her sister Laura is writing a book as well and is about to be published.
In none of the hundreds of articles that are written about Mary and her legal matters – many of which delve into her past and personal life – is anything written about Laura Jean Libbey as being a well-known author. The very first mention that I can find in any newspaper that even mentions her name is on 7 December 1883 in The Sun (New York) where her story “A Fatal Wooing” is listed as a dime novel. Laura would have been about 27 years old at the time of that publication.
The New York Public Library has a collection of Laura’s papers including journals of her world travels. Rutgers University Library Archives also has a collection of Laura’s personal papers including:
“Deeds and other real estate papers, 1906-1924, including tax bills, 1911-1923; bills and receipts, 1895-1924, including receipts, 1892-1902, for monies received from publishers (George Munro’s Sons and Norman L. Munro) for serial installments of her writings; canceled checks, 1896-1924; correspondence, 1890-1924, chiefly pertaining to Libbey’s real estate (in New York City, especially Brooklyn) and literary productions; publishing contracts and legal agreements, 1886-1889 and 1919-1924; original and later copies of U.S. copyright certificates for works that were registered or renewed from 1883 to 1924; dramatic writings, undated, including typescript copies of four plays, typed synopses of plays and typed title pages of plays (many with annotations such as the name of the book on which they are based); three photographs, including a sepia-toned 1910 publicity image of Libbey; will and estate papers, 1924-1928, including papers relating to rights to her works after some of them became the property of her niece and nephew; press clippings, 1911-1924, most of which consist of samples of Libbey’s syndicated newspaper columns or pertain to her estate; and miscellaneous other papers.”
I am not able to find anything published by Laura Jean Libby until 1883. When her sister Mary published her book in June 1884, it should be noted that the copyright is held by “L. Libbey”. It appears from following newspaper articles (primarily in New York) that Laura’s career began to take off in 1888. In 1889 she began to be mentioned in the society notes and in April of 1889, Laura gave the first interview that I could locate to a reporter from the Brooklyn Citizen. In that interview, she said that she was the younger of two sisters and named her sister as “Olive P. Fairchild” and said that her sister was the author of “several books”. Laura went on to say that she spent her leisure time in boarding school writing in her youth. This is also the first published picture of Laura Jean Libbey that I could locate.
In an interview in October 1890 with the Brooklyn Eagle, Laura said that she was born in Newark and moved to New York with her parents in about 1880 and that her sister is the author of “A Double Love and several other works.”
In February 1891, the Buffalo Express wrote that Miss Libbey was buying press notices to be published about herself to keep her name in the papers. It was reported that she was paid $150 per week to write for one of the newspapers at that time. Her home on President Street was said to be worth $20,000. When Laura married Van Mater Stillwell in 1898, she said that she would not stop her writing career and insisted on using her maiden name.
Laura Libbey’s career continued to grow into the early 1900s. She gave an interview in 1909 where she said that at the age of fourteen, her teacher submitted an essay Laura had written to Robert Bonner, a publisher in New York. Mr. Bonner was amazed by her writing according to Laura and so her teacher sent another essay. After receiving that paper, Mr. Bonner sent for her and she went to meet him. Bonner asked her to write a story for him for which he paid her $140.00 when she was just fourteen years old.
The details of that interview are patently false. At the age of fourteen, Laura Jean Libbey was living in Davenport with her mother and sister. The family did not move to New York until about 1882 when it was necessary to further the marriage plans of her sister Mary with SB Paige.
In a 1910 interview, Mary says of her sister that she “is now in her 30s” – when in fact Laura would have been about 54 years old. The interview was done on the occasion of Laura Jean Libbey’s stage debut as an actress. Mary said that Laura “never had ambitions to be an actress” and was reluctant to go to the stage.
This is in direct contrast to an earlier interview where Laura expressly stated that she wanted very much to be an actress and was talked out of it by a producer. This also is disregarding Laura’s time at the Grand Opera House in Cincinnati from about 1878 to 1881 as a ballet dancer. Her stage performance seemed to be generally well received based on the articles written after the show.
Laura Jean Libbey was accused of plagiarism in 1890 for parts of “Pretty Frieda’s Lovers” and in 1891 for parts of “Della’s Handsome Lover.” I could not locate any articles stating the outcome of either accusation.
She was interviewed by the press several times during her life and was photographed as well. It was said by one reporter that she was the opposite of her sister Mary. Laura was said to be quiet and reserved. She had curly hair that was said to be light brown in her youth, but blonde by the 1890s, and auburn in the early 1900s. She was medium height and slender. Several photographs and drawings of Laura Jean Libbey can be found in newspapers from the 1880s until several years after her death.
Laura Jean Libbey was quiet about her marriage to Van Mater Stillwell. There was no mention of them courting, no engagement announcement, and no large society wedding. It is interesting to note that within two to three years after her marriage, Laura’s advice columns begin to include advice to married women about keeping their own money and how a husband taking his wife’s money is shameful. The couple is rarely mentioned in society pages together.
When Laura Jean Libbey died in 1925, there were dozens of obituaries published across the country. She was born in Springfield, MA, or New York, she was 62 or 63 years old, and she was educated in private schools in New York. It would seem that her obituaries were her last works of fiction.
She left the majority of her $35,000 estate to her sister Mary. The estate was to pass to Mary’s two children after Mary died. Laura reportedly sold her book and film rights two months before her death for $7500. Some newspaper reports said that she left her husband out of her will “for good and sufficient reasons known to him and to me.”
This Libbey family was a fun and interesting project to research. I am still not entirely convinced that Mary Libbey did not contribute to the death of her husband SB Paige. She and her family certainly benefited from his death – if not financially, then through infamy and free publicity for their literary pursuits. Mary Paige changed her children’s names from Fagin to Paige. Her daughter, Laura, reportedly ran off to marry Edward T. White. Mary’s son, Ulmont Sidney Paige, became Harry T. Page and ran for sheriff in New Jersey. Mary married yet again in 1897 to John Ashton Taylor. Mr. Taylor was about 13 years Mary’s senior. Unfortunately, Mr. Taylor died unexpectedly in 1906 leaving Mary a widow again.
These ladies certainly knew how to spin a tale and how to keep themselves in the news. They were a true rags to riches story. I think they might be annoyed to see their true history revealed after all this time. Then again, they may find it amusing that almost a century later, their names live on online.
There was just one more note in the Reif vs Paige suit. It was reported in 1891 in the Neenah Daily Times that Charles Reif was left some property by the estate of the late Mr. Paige. Unfortunately, I cannot confirm this story through any online databases.
In the previous post regarding the historical record of Mary Libbey Fagin Paige, I have links to the online sources available. The newspaper articles are available to be found through a newspaper subscription service.
The final (I think) post on this family- exploring information found in Thomas Libbey’s pension file- can be read here.