Old Fifth Avenue’s rich, most reclusive siblings

WendelfamilydrewuniversityNew York has had lots of crazy-rich families.

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.

Johnwendelhome1856-1934But 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.

Wendelplaque3“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.

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10 Responses to “Old Fifth Avenue’s rich, most reclusive siblings”

  1. Ellen Levitt Says:

    Awww, I thought you would be posting about the Colyer Bros.

  2. vastlycurious.com Says:

    I simply loved this, especially, “kept moldering” . Thanks for sharing!

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks! I didn’t realize that New York has at least two reclusive siblings who moldered away on Fifth Avenue….

  4. Beth Says:

    I also thought this was going to be about the Collyers, Homer and Langley, on upper Fifth Avenue, a little younger than these people. I hadn’t heard of this family. An interesting story, all the same.

  5. Drew University Archives Says:

    I am thankful you wrote about this fascinating and mysterious family. As an archivist responsible for a collection of Wendel family materials, I’m happy to find more written about them and located newspaper clippings. May I offer some clarifications to your work? Drew University did not receive the entire family fortune. The school only received a small portion of the Wendel family fortune, but roughly 5 million was still a lot of money! I also think it’s unlikely that Drew still owns the property after 82 years, despite the existence of the plaque.

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks for writing in! I changed the post to reflect the new information.

  7. Ken Says:

    Well, according to that plaque it sure seems that Rebecca A D Wendell Swope must have gotten married!

  8. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks for pointing that out–I edited it out of the post accidentally. Added back in now.

  9. A New Subscriber Says:

    You don’t have to be rich to be crazy, but it helps.

  10. Pat McG Says:

    I love coming across fascinating stories like this. The original link to the Drew Magazine article no longer works (understandable after all this time) but this seems to be equivalent, if not the actual source: https://uknow.drew.edu/confluence/display/DrewHistory/Wendel Thanks for the post!

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