Sometimes a single image is all that you need to imagine the entire story of somebody’s life. That is how I felt when I happened upon this beautiful image of Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman while rifling through Brooklyn Historical Society’s portrait collection. Her face pointing away from everybody else in the photograph, and the contrast of her light clothing with the clothing of the people around her, give an impression of sadness and isolation. At the same time, her casual slouch, and her ensemble – complete with white gloves, a string of pearls, and a clear disregard for the dangers of wearing white in the grass – suggest a Gatsby-esque world of high society excess and insouciance.
When I searched for Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman’s name on the web, I found stories of a life even more lavish than what I had imagined from her portrait.[i] The New York Times is filled with articles from the 1920s and 1930s of Mr. and Mrs. Fleitman with homes in both Manhattan and Long Island, sailing to Europe, hosting luncheons, and attending dog shows, races, and various high society events. The sadness and isolation are also in these stories. In one article, Mrs. Fleitman is rescued from a downed seaplane while on her way to Sweden, while Mr. Fleitman was at his home in Long Island, “spending the day at the beach” and could not be reached.[ii] Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman was originally from England, and appeared to have lived an increasingly separate life from her husband, eventually divorcing Henry. Years after the divorce, another article reports that Mr. Henry T. Fleitman was found dead in his home, “slumped in front of a gas stove which had two burners open,” after a change of fortune.[iii]
While the details of the social events, and the seaplanes, and the suicides may not be in this image of Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman, the impression of that life is there in the composition of the photograph, and the clothing of the woman, and the contrasts of the shadows and the light. It is only one of the many beautiful and telling portraits that Brooklyn Historical Society has in its collections. I can only imagine what incredible stories there are to go along with the other photographs.
Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our new website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Fri, 1:00-5:00 p.m.
Author: Halley Choiniere
[i] There are two photographs of Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman in the Brooklyn Historical Society Portrait collection, and one is labeled “Fleitman” and the second is labeled “Fleitmann.” Similarly, The New York Times articles from this period use both spellings when referring to Mr. and Mrs. Fleitman of Locust Valley, Long Island. While the correct spelling is not clear, it seems safe to assume that the New York Times articles are referencing the same people shown in the images in the BHS collection.
[ii] “Freighter Rescues Two New York Women Adrift in a Disabled Seaplane Off Sweden,” The New York Times, August 27, 1933
[iii] “Broker is Found Dead,” The New York Times, December 7, 1937