Klein Constania

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Gatsby Glamour & Klein Constantia – April 1911

Posted on 30 Apr 2013

It was in April 1911 that a milliner (ladies hat designer) from Paarl named Abraham Lochner de Villiers married one of America’s wealthiest heiresses, namely Clara Hussey, granddaughter of the Pittsburgh physician turned copper smelter/cast steel shovel manufacturer, Curtis Grubb Hussey.

Abraham (Braam) de Villiers and Clara (Claire) Hussey

The engagement had come as a shock to everyone, firstly because of the distance involved: ‘What Mother dreads is my being always so far away,’ wrote Clara to Braam after accepting his long-distance proposal in June 1910. ‘Even England or California seem like next door compared with South Africa.’

What’s more, Braam and Clara were already in their 40s, giving society gossips a lot to talk about after then engagement was announced in September 1910 ‘Rich Spinster to be Wedded,’ wrote the Pittsburgh Public Ledger rather unflatteringly: ‘Miss Hussey is probably the richest spinster in Pittsburg. She is thought to be more than 50 years of age, and this is the first love affair she is ever known to have had. Little is known here of Mr De Villiers. Miss Hussey is said to have met him abroad.’

In fact Clara Hussey was born on 8 September 1869, making her just 40 at the time of her engagement! But that didn’t stop the Boston Herald from using the headline ‘50 Years Single, To Wed’; The Inquirer from describing her as ‘more than fifty years of age’ and ‘perhaps the richest maiden lady in Pittsburg’; or The Club Fellow & Washington Mirror from describing her as ‘perilously near the time of life when she might be referred to as a maiden lady’!

The South African Review of 11 November 1910 was rather more kind about the engagement, describing Miss Hussey as ‘most charitably inclined’, Me de Villiers as having ‘very artistic tastes’, and ‘happy couple’ as having ‘met whilst travelling on the Continent a few years ago, so there is quite a halo of romance surrounding the union’.

The wedding in April was described as ‘a very brilliant affair’ with the Washington Mirror commenting that ‘the contrast of the sprightly bridegroom and his much more sedate bride was a never-ending joy to the Sewickley colony’.

Initially the newlyweds lived at Bisby Lodge in Paarl, near Braam’s shop La Mode, but in 1913 they purchased Klein Constantia for £8250 – and here they entertained lavishly, ushering in an almost Gatsby-like era of glamour.

‘At first, people in the [Constantia] Valley withdrew in alarm, thinking that all this was extremely “nouveau riche”,’ recalled someone who had known them well in Philippa Dane’s book, The Great Houses of Constantia. ‘But then they began to see what they were missing and they flocked to lunches, dinners and picnics at Klein Constantia. At the age of sixteen I learned what real Russian Black Sea caviar tasted like. It was wheeled in, swathed in the barrel of ice, and you’d help yourself. There was smoked salmon and oysters… You can’t IMAGINE the glamour of it all!’

It should be noted that many of the parties at Klein Constantia were charity fundraisers, with Clara setting up the Sunshine Home foundation for underprivileged children in 1928. In her words, it was to be ‘a sunshine school or holiday houses for European children who are delicate and in contact with tuberculosis’.

Clearly proud of the improvements he and Clara had made to the Klein Constantia house – including a reception hall complete with a minstrel’s gallery, a private chapel, and a classical pavilion which stood beside a large swimming pool set in landscaped gardens – Braam held an unveiling ceremony  for a corner-stone which proudly states: ‘Deze Steen is geleght door Abraham Lochner de Villiers. 29 April 1930.’

Sadly he only lived five more months, dying at the age of 64 on 21 September 1930. His obituary in the New York Times simply described him as ‘Host to American Tourist Parties’ and said he had ‘made it a lifelong practice to entertain at his estate […] every tourist group from this country that included Cape Town in its itinerary. As a result of this hospitality he made the acquaintance of many hundreds of American visitors to South Africa’.