What Once Was
A Portrait of a Marriage: William Hitt and Katherine Elkins, with an Italian Duke Thrown In
Published: October 14th, 2013
By Stephen A. Hansen*
William F. Hitt and Katherine Elkins were scions of two powerful and wealthy Washington political families at the turn of the 20th century. They grew up together in Washington. William pursued Katherine for years, and it was assumed by both families that they would eventually marry. They did – twice — but not without some significant complications.
William was the younger of two sons of Robert Roberts Hitt (1834-1906) and Sallie Reynolds Hitt. Robert Hitt grew up in Illinois and was a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. In 1858, at the request of Lincoln, Hitt used his excellent shorthand skills to record the Lincoln-Douglas debates. From 1874 to 1881, he was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as the first secretary of the American legation in Paris where he also served part of the time as chargé d’affaires. Later, he served as Assistant Sectary of State under James G. Blaine during President James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur’s administrations. Then in 1882, he was elected to fill the vacancy of a deceased Republican congressman from Illinois, and became chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs at the beginning of the 51st Congress; he served in Congress until 1893.
The Hitts’ eldest son, Robert Stockwell (“R.S.”) Reynolds Hitt served as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Panama and Guatemala. Their younger son, William, considered himself a financier and a sportsman, though it seems that he never held any professional positions.
Robert Hitt bought the land across from Dupont Circle (until 1882 known as Pacific Circle) at 1511 New Hampshire Avenue, NW not long after his arrival in Washington in 1881, but nothing was built on it until after his death in 1906. Up until this time, the Hitts had lived at 1507 K Street, NW where Mrs. Hitt developed a reputation as one of the city’s leading socialites. It was at the K Street home that the Hitts became acquainted with Senator Stephen B. Elkins of West Virginia, whose daughter Katharine would eventually marry the Hitt’s younger son, William.
In 1908, Sallie Hitt engaged the services of architect John Russell Pope to design a new house on the land her husband had purchased earlier. The house stood immediately to the left of the Patterson mansion and across the street from the Leiter mansion. It was four stories in height, 85 feet across the front, 86 feet deep and faced with Indiana limestone. It was constructed by builder George Fuller at a cost of $125,000 and was completed in 1909. Oddly, after she had this large house built, she curtailed much of her entertaining. Sallie lived to the age of 105 and died in the New Hampshire Avenue house in 1949.
In 1913, R.S. Reynolds built his own house at 1520 18th Street, immediately behind his mother’s house on New Hampshire Avenue. The five-story, 40-room brick and stone house was designed by another prominent architect, Jules Henri de Sibour.
Few American heiresses have taken a firmer hold on the country’s attention than Katherine (“Kitty”) Elkins, the daughter of West Virginia senator Stephen Benton Elkins. Elkins was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1895, and was re-elected twice, serving in Congress until his death in Washington in 1911.
Katherine grew up in the Elkin’s Washington home at 1623 K Street, NW. Her close childhood friends included Alice Roosevelt (Longworth), the Countess Marguerite Cassini, and Cissy Patterson. At one point, Alice was concerned that her fiancée Nicholas Longworth might run off with Katherine. Alice, Cissy, and Katherine would all later become Dupont Circle neighbors.
Prince Luigi Amadeo, the Duke of Abruzzi and the son of Amadeo, once the King of Spain and the cousin of King Victor Emanuel of Italy, met Katherine Elkins when he came to the United States while in command of an Italian warship at the Jamestown Exposition of 1907. They were introduced at a dance at the palatial home of Ambassador and Mrs. Larz Anderson at 2118 Massachusetts Avenue in 1907. It was love at first sight, and for months the duke remained in the company of Miss Elkins in Washington, Jamestown, Old Point, New York and Paris, as well as the following winter in Florida.
In the spring of 1908, rumors had started that the Duke and Miss Elkins were engaged. Neither family denied the rumors, and stories surfaced that negotiations with the Italian royal family to approve the marriage were in the works and that Katherine’s trousseau was being made in New York. But in the autumn of 1908, it was reported that Italy’s dowager Queen Margherita was opposed to the marriage. While the Duke’s cousin, the King of Italy, initially gave his approval, Margherita maintained full control over the royal family and had the final word. A promise of $1 million by Senator Elkins to help revive the duke’s expended fortune appeared to have temporarily weakened the queen’s opposition to the marriage, but ultimately did not sway her opinion. Elkins kept his money, and in late 1908, he publicly denied all rumors that Miss Elkins and the duke were ever engaged.
In January of 1909, the duke attempted to resign from the royal family and the Italian navy, renouncing his title and all royal privileges in hopes of removing any obstacles to his marriage to Miss Elkins. The king refused his resignation from the navy. King Edward of England himself tried to impress the dowager Queen Margherita that, judging from his acquaintance with the Ms. Elkins, that she was worthy of any man of any blood, provided that the man relinquishes all claims to a throne. This didn’t work either.
In the spring of 1909, Katherine and her mother travelled to Europe where there appears to have been at least one tryst between Katherine and the duke, with the pair meeting up in Baden-Baden, Germany, but the duke denied rumors of any such rendezvous. They also purportedly met up at a secluded resort in the western Austrian Tyrol state, when Katherine was in the company of a friend from Philadelphia. Finally in October of 1910, Katherine returned from Europe, declaring that she “was coming home to be an American.”
For the next two years, rumors continued that the couple was trying to make the necessary arrangements to marry, yet both families continued to deny that the relationship between the two was anything more than a friendship.
In October 1912, a rumor surfaced that Katherine Elkins had married childhood acquaintance and neighbor William F. Hitt in Rome. This news was considered a slight to the duke of by the Italian nobility. But after a frantic city-wide search of hotels and pensiones for the couple, it was determined that no such marriage had occurred in Rome. The rumor was also immediately denied by the Elkins family.
But Katherine did marry William Hitt without notice in October of 1913 with a very brief and simple service at her parents’ estate Halliehurst in West Virginia. Hitt had been pursuing her for years, both at home and abroad, and it was assumed by the Elkins that Katherine would sooner or later give in, although to date there had not the slightest hint that they considering marriage. The duke heard of the news of the marriage through the newspapers. He never married and when he died in 1933, the only two pictures on the walls in the living room of his house were those of King Victor Emanuel and Katherine Elkins Hitt.
In 1922, Katherine Hitt traveled to Paris to file for divorce from William, claiming that they were not on terms of affection necessary for married life, and that Mr. Hitt refused conjugal relations. Friends of the couple observed that while they were very compatible as friends, they found each other incompatible as man and wife, and what they had interpreted as love was really a good friendship and nothing more.
After the divorce was granted, the couple returned to the United States together on the same ship, and according to other passengers, were on the best of terms. In March of 1923, they remarried in a civil ceremony in Washington that was as much of a surprise to society as their first marriage had been.
By 1930, the couple was living in Middleburg, Virginia with a houseful of servants, breeding horses and raising dogs. They did not have any children.
Katherine Hitt died in 1936 in New York City. Funeral services were held at her mother-in-law’s New Hampshire Avenue mansion and she was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery. Upon her death, she was remembered more by the press for her romance with the Duke of Abruzzi than for her two marriages to William Hitt.
William Hitt later married Eugenia Woodward, a fiery southern beauty whose family owned a Birmingham, Alabama department store. Eugenia had previously been married to F. Frazer Jelke, a wealthy Wall Street broker who refused to give her a Reno-style divorce to avoid a public spectacle. So, she took him to court and won.
In 1951, William Hitt sold the house at 1511 New Hampshire Avenue to the Pan American Sanitary Bureau when it was converted to offices. It was then sold in 1965 to the American Council on Education and was finally demolished in 1970 to make way for the present office building.
William Hitt lived most of the rest of his life on the family estate in Middleburg, Virginia where he continued raising horses for racing and hunting, and in New York City. For 50 years, he belonged to the Chevy Chase Club and was also a member of the Alibi and Metropolitan Clubs in Washington. He sold his Middleburg home in 1960 and moved to his Park Avenue home in New York City. He died the following year at the age of 81. Eugenia died in New York City in 1990 at the age of 84.
The architect for Sallie Hitt’s residence at 1511 New Hampshire Avenue was John Russell Pope (1874 –1937). Pope was born in New York, the son of a successful portrait painter. He studied architecture at Columbia University and graduated in 1894. He was the first recipient of the Rome Prize to attend the newly founded American Academy in Rome, a training ground for the designers of the “American Renaissance.” His firm developed a master plan for the future growth of Yale University (1919) and additions to the Tate Gallery and British Museum in London. In Washington, DC Pope’s firm is widely known for designing the National Archives (1935), the Jefferson Memorial (1943) and the West Building of the National Gallery of Art (1941).
*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.
© 2013 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.