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William Homer Leavitt: Wikis


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Artist William Homer Leavitt, photographed at St. Louis, Missouri, 1904

William Homer Leavitt (1871–) was an American portrait painter who married the daughter of politician William Jennings Bryan. For a time, Leavitt was a sought-after society portraitist, until he departed for Paris to pursue his art. He was subsequently divorced by his wife, and his two children were raised by their politician grandfather. Leavitt's two children became the subject of a heated custody battle chronicled in the newspapers of the day.


Early life and career

William Homer Leavitt was born in Scituate, Massachusetts, to Aaron Littlefield Leavitt and his wife Sarah (Clark) Leavitt. The family subsequently removed in 1880 to Newport, Rhode Island, where William Homer Leavitt, having studied art in Paris, returned and set himself up as a society portrait painter. He was much in demand, and among the many well-known figures he painted was United States General Joseph Wheeler, who after the portrait session lent Leavitt his black horse, Alabama. The horse bucked and threw Leavitt onto Newport's Bellevue Avenue.[1] Initially Leavitt was not expected to recover, although he did later make a full recovery.[2]

Two years later Leavitt's career had taken off, causing The New York Times to note that "artist Leavitt has won distinction in his work and has a host of friends in intellectual circles." That same year, 1903, Leavitt went west to Lincoln, Nebraska, to paint the portrait of attorney and Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.[3] The portrait sessions were repeatedly interrupted by demands on Bryan, and the 32-year-old artist and the politician's 18-year-old daughter Ruth struck up a friendship.[4] On September 17, 1903, the couple announced their plans to marry the next month, meaning the politician's daughter would leave her freshly started career at the University of Nebraska.[5] In announcing the marriage, The New York Times noted that "Preparations [Were] Under Way to Make It an Elaborate Society Event."[6]

But the big society wedding never transpired. Senator Bryan opposed the match, because of the difference in ages of the couple, as well as the fact that his daughter Ruth had just begun college.[7] The couple married, in a small civil ceremony – described by the newspapers as 'informal' – attended by Bryan's parents, the members of Miss Bryan's college sorority and the widow of the college president and minister who had married William Jennings Bryan and his wife. William Leavitt's mother traveled to Nebraska from Rhode Island for the wedding, which was held in the Bryan home at Lincoln. "In accordance with Miss Bryan's wishes and those of her parents," noted The Oswego Daily Times, "the wedding appointments will be void of any attempt at elaboration."[8]

Marital life and dissolution

Following the abbreviated ceremony, painter Leavitt and his wife departed for the East Coast and the South, and briefly to Europe where they honeymooned. Later the couple settled at their home at 81 Pelham Street in Newport, Rhode Island, where Leavitt set himself up in a studio devoted to his portraiture.[4] But the union was apparently rocky from the start, and within six years Leavitt had departed for Paris to paint, and his wife sued for divorce on the grounds of non-support.[9][10] William Jennings Bryan, a devout Presbyterian, was said to have opposed the divorce on religious grounds. Nevertheless, in 1909 Bryan's daughter's petition for divorce based on non-support was granted. Following the divorce, Ruth Bryan Leavitt (as she continued to be known) often filled her father's shoes in his speaking engagements.[11]

The couple had two children, Ruth and Bryan Leavitt, who were favorites of grandfather William Jennings Bryan. At the Democratic National Convention in Denver, in 1908, newspapers carried photos of Bryan's two grandchildren, and noted that the candidate "was never happier than when bouncing on his knees Ruth and Bryan Leavitt."[12] Following the divorce, grandfather Bryan assumed custody of the two grandchildren. The following year, Ruth Bryan Leavitt married Major Reginald A. Owen, a British Army officer, whom she met while studying voice in Germany. Following his ex-wife's remarriage, painter Leavitt told reporters that the nuptials – and his ex-wife's presence overseas with her husband – meant that Leavitt would make an attempt to gain custody of his two children. But those attempts were, apparently, in vain, and the two Leavitt children remained with their grandfather Bryan.[13]

Fate of the children and later life

Ruth Bryan Owen lived abroad for several years during her English husband's postings, until she returned to America, where she ran for Congress from Florida after his early death. She was the first Congresswoman elected from Florida, served as the first woman on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and later served as the nation's first female Ambassador.[14] While the United States Ambassador to Denmark, a post to which she was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ruth Baird Bryan Leavitt Owen married [15] Danish citizen Capt. Boerge Rohde, Captain of the Royal Life Guards of King Christian X of Denmark, to whose court Ruth Bryan Owen was ambassador.[16] She died in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1954.[17]

William Homer Leavitt's son James Bryan Leavitt later dropped the name Leavitt.[18] He became an actor known simply as James Bryan. His sister Ruth, daughter of painter Leavitt, married investment banker Robert Lehman, head of the family investment banking firm Lehman Brothers.[19][20]

Painter William Homer Leavitt eventually returned to America from Paris, and married as his second wife Gertrude (Leeper) Leavitt, daughter of the Rev. Dr. G. Leeper of Cleveland, Ohio. Leavitt lived at his old home in Newport with his wife, who died of appendicitis on April 15, 1914.[21] Leavitt continued to paint and in February 1927 delivered a lecture at the Boston Public Library on The Personal Influence of John Ruskin.[22]

Ruth Bryan Owen, wife of William Homer Leavitt, daughter of William Jennings Bryan. Owen divorced painter Leavitt, went on to become congresswoman and ambassador


  1. ^ Newport Artist Injured, The New York Times, September 11, 1901
  2. ^ The News of Newport, The New York Times, September 12, 1901
  3. ^ Making Waves: Female Activists in Twentieth-century Florida, Jack E. Davis, Kari A. Frederickson, Raymond Arsenault, Gary Mormino, Published by University Press of Florida, 2003, ISBN 081303129X, 9780813031293
  4. ^ a b Miss Ruth Bryan Married, The New York Times, October 4, 1903
  5. ^ Ruth Bryan's Engagement Announced, The New York Times, September 18, 1903
  6. ^ The Leavitt-Bryan Wedding, The New York Times, September 23, 1903
  7. ^ Everywhere, An American Magazine of World-Wide Interest, Edited by Will Carleton, New York, 1908
  8. ^ The Oswego Daily Times, October 3, 1903
  9. ^ Bryan's Daughter Sues for Divorce, The New York Times, January 23, 1909
  10. ^ By the time of the divorce filing, the couple had lived separately for two years. During that time, the gifted Ruth Bryan Leavitt was filing stories as a journalist, including one story entitled In Damascus with Ruth Bryan Leavitt which appeared in the Illustrated Sunday Magazine of the Daily Picayune, New Orleans, La., on October 11, 1908.[1] She also took to the campaign trail during her father's third Presidential campaign in 1908 to act as his traveling secretary.[2] During the time of the two-year separation, in 1908, The New York Times reported on a bizarre break-in at the couple's former joint home in Denver, where the home was ransacked and its contents destroyed. [3]
  11. ^ Daughter in Bryan's Place, July 11, 1909
  12. ^ The Oswego Daily Times
  13. ^ Leavitt Wants Children, The New York Times, May 5, 1910
  14. ^ Madam Minister's No. 3, TIME magazine, July 20, 1936
  15. ^ The wedding to Capt. Rohde, a gentleman-in-waiting to the Danish king, ended Ruth Bryan Owen's ambassadorial career, as it automatically made her a Danish citizen, and thus unable to serve as an American diplomat. Nevertheless, she campaigned for her friend Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his Presidential campaign of 1936.[4]
  16. ^ The best man at Ruth Owen's wedding to the Danish officer, held at Hyde Park chapel at the suggestion of President and Mrs. Roosevelt, was her son-in-law Robert Lehman.
  17. ^ Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present, Robert McHenry, Courier Dover Publications, 1983, ISBN 0486245233, 9780486245232
  18. ^ Names Make News, TIME Magazine, November 24, 1930
  19. ^ Married, TIME magazine, July 2, 1934
  20. ^ Good Hunting, TIME magazine, November 18, 1935
  21. ^ Mrs. Gertrude Leavitt, Obituary, The New York Times, April 16, 1914
  22. ^ Annual Report of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library, 1927, Published by the Trustees, Boston, Mass., 1927

External links

See also



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