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Guide to the James Hazen Hyde Papers
1874-1940, 1953
 MS 319

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400


New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Larry Weimer, with Alec Ferretti, Jennifer Gargiulo, and Aaron Roffman

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on September 24, 2021
Finding aid written in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical / Historical

James Hazen Hyde (1876-1959) was born in New York City, the son of Henry Baldwin Hyde (1834-1899), who had founded the Equitable Life Assurance Company of the United States in 1859, and Annie (Fitch) Hyde (1845-1922). Hyde attended Cutler School in New York and entered Harvard College in 1894. At some point in his youth, Hyde picked up the nickname "Caleb" and correspondence from family and some friends used that name when addressing him.

A lifelong Francophile, Hyde joined the Cercle Francais de l'Universite Harvard, a society of students interested in French culture and literature and proficient in the language. While president of the club in 1897, Hyde received from his father $30,000 to form a trust to fund annual French lectures at Harvard under the auspices of the Cercle Francais. The first of these was delivered in March 1898 by René Doumic. Hyde's initiative led to him being named a member (Chevalier) of the French Legion of Honor in 1900. He would be promoted to the highest ranks in the Legion in the 1920s. In 1904, Hyde supported a counterpart program in France, whereby American academics from Harvard would lecture at the Sorbonne and France's provincial universities; Barrett Wendell was the first of these lecturers. (See the Harvard Register of 1905-06, page 88 (on-line) and, especially, Hyde's description to George Nettleton in this collection of the Cercle and later lectures and Hyde's involvement with them.)

After graduating from Harvard in 1898 with degrees in German and French, Hyde joined his father at the Equitable in the high-ranking position of Second Vice-President. At the time, Hyde's father, Henry, was president and controlling shareholder of the company he had founded, having built it into a firm with perhaps 600,000 policyholders and $400 million of assets. Henry died the following year, in 1899, at age 65, bequeathing to his son the controlling shares. Equitable's First Vice-President James W. Alexander ascended to the presidency and Hyde advanced to First Vice-President.

Over the next few years, Hyde expanded his financial interests, taking on directorships of various banking and other firms. His wealth also grew and his passion for French culture continued, both of which he flaunted. And his position as First Vice-President at Equitable put him in line to become company president. These factors culminated in Hyde's downfall as a businessman in 1905. In January of that year he hosted an ostentatious Versailles-themed costume ball for New York's wealthy elite. The extreme extravagance of the event led to not only general criticism in the press, but investigations into whether Hyde had misappropriated company funds for the purpose. Those at the Equitable looking to oust him from his position of power used the opportunity to deride him as reckless and unfit for the management of a financial firm. By the end of the year Hyde had resigned his position at the Equitable and his many directorships and sold his controlling interest in Equitable to Thomas Fortune Ryan. In December 1905, he sailed to France, where he would live until 1941, returning to America only when forced in the face of Nazi Germany's defeat of France.

During his years in France, Hyde leveraged his wealth to rebuild his reputation, remaking himself as a philanthropist, patron of the arts, and cultural ambassador. As a foundation, he expanded on the French-American cultural exchanges he had begun during his college years. In 1911, when Harvard formalized its own exchange of professors with the Sorbonne, Hyde redirected trust funds to support a continuing series of Harvard lecturers visiting the provinces. He maintained relationships with American diplomats, journalists, military officials, and others, acting as an unofficial guide to French culture and point of introduction to important French contacts. He traveled widely in Europe, and also to the Middle and Far East, enabling him to be a source of information for Americans new to the European scene. He delivered public remarks at times and wrote newspaper articles. During World War I, he gave over his home at 18 rue Adolphe Yvon in Paris to the Red Cross to use as a hospital and he worked as aide to Colonel Harvey D. Gibson, Commissioner for France of the American Red Cross.

After WWI, when the American Field Service created its Fellowships for French Universities, Hyde was on the Advisory Board. In the 1920s, Hyde was on the Executive Committee of the Continental Division of the American University in Europe, among other positions involving cultural exchange. As a philanthropist, among the many projects he supported were Albert Lythgoe's Egyptian archaeological expeditions and the acquisition and restoration of Madame Pompadour's residence at Versailles. He collected art, including a large number of allegorical prints now in the collections of New-York Historical Society. In recognition of his cultural and philanthropic services, Hyde was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1928 and was elected to the French Academy of Political and Moral Sciences in 1938, among other honors.

In 1913 in Paris, Hyde married for the first time and his wedding was emblematic of his French-American interconnections. His bride was Countess Louis de Gontaut-Biron, whose first husband, a member of the old French aristocracy, had died in 1907. She was American, her maiden name being Marthe Leishman, the daughter of a former United States ambassador to Germany. Hyde's best man was Myron T. Herrick, the American ambassador to France. The Hydes had one son, Henry Baldwin Hyde (1915-1997), and they divorced in 1918; the New York Times reported that the cause was Marthe's sympathies toward the Germans during World War I. Nonetheless, as Hyde's diaries show, Marthe and Hyde stayed in touch over the years, notably in connection with their son; Marthe sent congratulations to Hyde on the occasion of his promotion to Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1923 (see Series V, Volume 3).

Hyde remarried in 1930, to Countess Ella Matuschka, who was also an American (from Detroit) and who was previously married to a German officer. Hyde left her in 1931 and was sued for divorce in 1932. That same year, Hyde married a third time to Madame Thome (nee Stephanie Dervaux?), whose husband, Andre Thome, had been killed at Verdun.

On his return to the United States in 1941, Hyde lived at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in New York and summered in Saratoga Springs. Over time in the 1940s and 1950s, he donated his papers and some of his artwork to the New-York Historical Society. He died of pneumonia in 1959 at the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs.