But few were as mysterious as the Wendels, siblings born in the 19th century who never married, rarely socialized, and grew old together behind brick walls inside the last private mansion on Fifth Avenue.
Their father made his fortune in fur and real estate. In the 1850s, like other wealthy city residents at the time, he built himself and his family a big house on fashionable, once-residential Fifth Avenue, at 39th Street.
With all their money, you would expect the Wendel siblings—brother John and his six (some sources say seven) sisters—to live it up among high society in late 19th century New York.
But the siblings kept to themselves, and rumors spread. John, who collected rent from his father’s real-estate holdings, became known as the “recluse of Fifth Avenue.”
“[John] frowned on marriage for his sisters and decreed they should stay out of society, live in the simplest possible style and wear the fashions of their youth,” a newspaper wrote.
The siblings resided “in an antiquated house of mystery amid the cacophonous commerce of midtown Manhattan,” stated a recent article in Drew [University] Magazine (where the photo montage above comes from).
“There, starved of society by a tyrannical brother, the [sic] sisters cuddled lapdogs instead of sweethearts. With stingy allowances and shabby clothes, they slipped into spinsterhood—and perhaps, it was whispered, insanity.”
As the 20th century arrived and Fifth Avenue’s mansions were replaced by office buildings, the Wendel home—without electricity, telephones, or other conveniences—and its occupants fueled rumors.
“Spouses meant dispersal of the family fortune, so gossiped the gossips, and thus the seven Wendel sisters were kept moldering in the upper stories of their mansion, as brother John pinched their pennies,” the article explained.
John died in 1914 in his 70s. Over the next decades the sisters began dying off as well (one did get married—in her 60s!).
By the 1930s, Ella was left, seen only at night to give her poodle a chance to run around the backyard (a backyard she constantly turned down huge sums of money for).
Ella died in her sleep at age 80 in 1931. The public finally learned where at least part of the Wendel fortune would go: to Drew University in New Jersey.
Drew inherited the Fifth Avenue property where the Wendel mansion, the last of its kind, was razed in 1934.
The school put up this plaque there in the family’s memory.