W. de C. Poultney, man about town Character: The wealthy Baltimore society bachelor was known for his amiability and flamboyance.

Remember When

September 14, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Walter de Curzon Poultney was one of the most colorful, flamboyant and eccentric characters ever to step out of the Gaslight Era and into the 20th century.

As an arbiter of Baltimore society, and perhaps the most amiable Baltimorean ever, Poultney was known as the city's Lord Chesterfield and Ward McAllister.

"Mr. Poultney was in early life dubbed 'Sir Walter' by his intimates," said an obituary in The Sun at his death in 1929.

"This grew out of his gallantry and the fact that a big white and waxed imperial mustache made him resemble a portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh hanging in his home," said the editorial.

A Beau Brummel, boulevardier and bachelor, Poultney remained throughout his life a fixture at cotillions and society affairs until becoming paralyzed at the age of 81.

He spent the last three years of his life confined to his St. Paul Street town house, where he had resided for 75 years.

Descended from Maryland lineage that included such figures as Philip E. Thomas, the first president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, he was the great-grandson of Ellen Moale Curzon, one of the city's earliest settlers.

Born in 1845, the son of a founder of a Baltimore Street hardware business, Poultney lived the first nine years of his life in a Mulberry Street town house opposite the Basilica of the Assumption.

He "was educated privately, without the necessity of college; nor was it essential for him to work. His career, instead, was in society, and he lived the part to the full," said The Evening Sun.

After moving to the ancestral St. Paul Street house, he spent more than seven decades filling it with priceless furniture, paintings and assorted bric-a-brac gathered during 38 European buying trips.

"In his public character, he had little to do with the workaday world, but, like the grace notes of a well-ordered fugue, he could not have lived in the manner he chose had not a stable social structure existed beneath him," said The Sun.

Poultney was a short, slender gentleman, who, in his old age, "had white hair and a goatee, carried a cane and delighted in gay shirts and neckties," author Francis F. Beirne wrote in "The Amiable Baltimoreans."

"When he walked down Charles Street he was so light on his feet he gave the impression of skipping," Beirne added. "Sometimes known as the 'White Rabbit,' he once came [to a party] dressed as one."

"Having an extensive wardrobe, he frequently changed his attire three times daily," observed The Sun. "His cravats, negligee, shirts, gloves, spats and hose usually were of the liveliest colors or in pastel shades."

Poultney created a sensation in 1911 after returning from Switzerland with a Tyrolean costume. A headline in The Sun said of the costume: "W. DE C. POULTNEY DID SHOW HIS KNEES."

Despite being a man of a congenial nature, Poultney created another social sensation in 1902 at the Bachelors Cotillon when he accused Ral Parr, a society figure, of tripping him during a dance.

His anger eventually subsided, but not before he threatened to resign from the Cotillon.

"However, he was full of courage that evening and it is said that he gave Mr. Parr a well-earned tongue lashing," wrote New York society columnist Charlie Knickerbocker.

As his neighborhood changed, Poultney waged well-publicized campaigns against the cutting of trees, the building of Preston Gardens and the widening of St. Paul Street, which he complained was for the "automobile traffic" and the "comfort and convenience of the residents of Roland Park."

An egalitarian, he once said that aristocracy of family is a thing of which to be proud, but "there is also an aristocracy of brains that must be recognized."

Once, while walking with a friend, he was criticized for tipping his hat at a black butler with whom he was acquainted.

"My dear boy," he explained to the friend, "I doffed my hat because he doffed his. No matter who the man, what his color or station in life remember always, he must never be more of a gentleman than you."

In 1923, Poultney was the only Baltimorean invited to attend the wedding of the Duke of York, later King George VI, and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the present queen mother, who recently celebrated her 97th birthday.

Poultney sent the couple a silver bowl and received a "gracious and girlish letter from the new Duchess written on the eve of her nuptials," reported The Sun.

In an editorial at his death, The Sun said, "Walter de Curzon Poultney so far outlived his age that the present generation will have some difficulty in understanding the extent to which he was a public symbol and the conditions which made his life possible. But to the survivors of the age of dowagers and drawing rooms he was a natural product and an admired one. He flourished in the period of Society with a capital S, where the world of the reigning dowager was the law of the city and he served as an acolyte at the matriarchal altar.

"It is remarkable tribute to his vitality that Mr. Poultney, with his significant world crumbling about him, was able to maintain for so long his pose as arbiter elegantiarum and to lose, in his daily promenades, so little of that fragile stateliness which in an earlier day was his chief possession."

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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