J.J. Van Alen served as a lightning rod for controversy his whole life. But never more so than when he took up with Elizabeth Colt, wife of industrialist Samuel Colt. This tangling between two would-be political forces never caught fire as the Sprague-Conkling affair did. But it intrigued Rhode Islanders who were gearing up for an entertaining feud among the state’s society elite.
Samuel Colt had remarkable success in business that he could not extend to other areas of his life. A nephew of arms maker Samuel Colt, his mother was a member of Rhode Island’s wealthy DeWolfe family.
Originally from New Jersey, he trained as a lawyer and took up residence in his adopted home of Bristol, R.I. As a businessman he rehabilitated a failing rubber company, turning it into Uniroyal, at one time the nation’s largest tire manufacturer. He founded Industrial Trust Company, a bank which would later become Fleet Bank and merge into Bank of America.
He settled into a grand home in Bristol, which served as a filming location for the Great Gatsby, and married Elizabeth Bullock. There the two started a family and Colt pushed into politics. He was popular with locals, who called him “Unkie.” (Friends called him Pom, short for his middle name Pomeroy.) His home, Linden Place, is now a museum and his country retreat is now the beautiful Colt State Park.
But politics was not Colt’s strong suit. He won the honorary title of colonel for his service to the state’s governor. He served in the legislature, and rose as high as attorney general — winning the office three times for one-year terms. But his effort to reach the governor’s office was a bust, and his attempt to be elected to the U.S. Senate was a political debacle that stands out even by Rhode Island standards.
Colt threw his name into a tightly contested three-way race in 1906, and Rhode Island’s legislature was unable to settle the election for more than four months, leaving the state with an empty senate seat. Eventually, Colt withdrew.
But the most celebrated turn of events in Colt’s life came in 1895 when his wife Elizabeth became friends with J.J. Van Alen. Van Alen, known as Jimmie, was from a similarly affluent background. With a father who was wealthy in his own right, Van Alen married into the Astor family.
The Van Alens were New Yorkers who maintained a mansion in Newport. Van Alen’s wife died just a few years after they married, leaving Jimmie a bachelor. Perhaps most unsettling to Colt was that Van Alen was a Democrat while the Colts were Republican.
Van Alen’s claim to political fame came in 1893 when he was a backer of Grover Cleveland’s presidential election. The Democrats were short of cash and Van Alen dumped $50,000 — at the time a considerable sum — into Cleveland’s campaign, helping him over the top.
Cleveland nominated Van Alen to serve as American ambassador to Italy. The result was an outcry that Van Alen had bought the posting. The Senate confirmed Van Alen, but Van Alen stepped down and refused to serve.
The move was typical of Van Alen, long on showmanship but short on actual accomplishment. During Britain’s Boer War in South Africa he offered to buy an ambulance to assist wounded British troops if he were allowed to drive it himself. The offer was declined.
He was an avid swimmer, flower-grower and socialite. At age 72 he would renounce his citizenship. He said he would spend his final days in Europe to protest America’s prohibition of alcohol. The announcement raised a few skeptical eyebrows since no one believed alcohol was unavailable to Van Alen and other wealthy Newporters, but he insisted it was a point of principle.
Exactly how he became acquainted with Elizabeth Colt isn’t clear. But in October of 1895, the Colts began divorce proceedings with a bang. Samuel sued J.J. Van Alen for $200,000 for alienation of his wife’s affections. He had a sheriff dispatched to Newport to arrest Van Alen if he didn’t post $400,000 bond. Van Alen retaliated, charging slander. Colt’s lawsuit was in response to his wife’s filing for an outright divorce. Samuel had refused her request for a quick and quiet settlement.
If Samuel thought his mudslinging would frighten Elizabeth, he was wrong. She fired back releasing a statement to the press that offered a hint of the fireworks to come: “A number of society people started for Jackson Falls, N.H., in early August. Col. Colt was one of the party, and so was a distant relative of his, a society woman of New York. His attentions to this young lady became so marked that three of the party became disgusted and came home to Providence. Hence the present trouble.”
The salacious mudslinging on both sides apparently was all that was required to calm the matter. By December of 1895 the Colts agreed to separate but not divorce. Samuel Colt issued an apology to J.J. Van Alen, explaining that his lawsuit was based upon a misunderstanding.