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Spence Perry: New year brings with it new dreams

January 03, 2012|By SPENCE PERRY

The New Year causes us to look back and to look forward. To view what has been and what might yet be.

For Washington County, the look back involves empires, once mighty and now gone; love stories that end in private chapels on English meadows; and adventures with beginnings in humble country stores in small towns at the edge of the Western Maryland mountains.

Levi Leiter, of Swiss Mennonite descent, was born and grew up in the village his family platted just north of Hagerstown known to this day as Leitersburg. He learned farming and basic wholesale and retail trade from his father and uncle.

In his early 20s, he headed west in search of better prospects. He wound up in Chicago, where he went into the wholesale-retail business. By the 1850s, he took in a partner named Mr. Field. By the 1880s, the partners owned the largest wholesale-retail business in the country. Mr. Leiter sold his interest in the business to his partner, Marshall Field, and moved to Washington, D.C., in hopes of political and social grandeur.

By this time, Levi had several children, of whom the star was Mary Leiter, an astonishingly beautiful and intelligent young woman. While her parents became late middle-aged wallflowers, she became the closest friend of President Grover Cleveland's young wife and the belle of the Washington ball.

As the prospects of Leiters faded, they spent more time in Europe, primarily London. Then, Mary Leiter repeated her success — opening the Duchess of Westminster's ball with the Prince of Wales as her partner in the opening quadrille.

It was on this occasion that George Curzon, a rising young politician, first saw her. They were introduced a few days later and an epic love story was under way.

For various practical reasons, the couple were not able to wed for several years. They wrote frequently, saw each other as they could and maintained a single-minded focus on creating a life together (one of the causes for delay was Curzon's involvement in diplomacy surrounding one of Britain's numerous Afghanistan wars).

In April 1895, the time at last arrived, and Curzon and Mary were wed at St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square in Washington. After a huge reception at her parents' mansion on Dupont Circle, the Curzons had a modest honeymoon and he went back to work.

Thus began a marriage that was noted in its time for its happiness for both the partners and rich service to the British Empire.

Curzon soon became deputy foreign secretary. He then became governor of India and, within a few years, viceroy of India. In this post, he held the third-most powerful office in the British Empire; only the king and the prime minister stood above him. Mary, as his vicereine, was his able and courageous consort.

Tragically, India broke Mary's health. She died in 1906 at the age of 36. She had four children, all of whom became successful leaders in their own right. Curzon was devastated. Although he went on to hold most of the important political posts Britain had to offer, including the job of foreign secretary, he was never fully what he had been.

On the tomb in the magnificent chapel he built for her, he wrote, "Mary Victoria ... perfect in love ... beauty was the least of her rare gifts ... She was mourned on three continents and by her dearest will never be forgotten."

This was a dream that began, in part, in Washington County. It grew and matured through three generations. The basics of the place and the people are unchanged. Who can know what exciting, creative and useful dreams are evolving in Washington County even as we look to the new year?

Spence Perry lives in Fulton County, Pa., and is active in Washington County affairs.

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