Modern history

Independence Day

The New Essex and Sussex, a grand hotel opened in 1914 with colossal white entrance columns that faced the Atlantic Ocean, spread out to occupy an entire seaside block of Spring Lake, forty-five miles up the coast from Beach Haven. Old Glory fluttered high from four turrets above the soaring portico. In the first week of July 1916, uniformed porters attended the parade of chauffeured Pierce Arrows arriving from New York, Texas, the South, and the Midwest to join the summer colony. The sea with its high gull calls and soothing motion seemed a lovely complement to the hotel. By setting and architecture, the New Essex and Sussex had announced itself a capital of the new American empire, an enclave of wealth and power in a bright and optimistic new century. And this, in fact, it was.

Later that summer, President Woodrow Wilson and Mrs. Edith Galt Wilson, the newlywed First Lady, arrived to inhabit the summer White House in nearby Long Branch. The President was joined on the shore for the summer by his daughters, his Cabinet, and the entire White House staff, which occupied the top floor of the Asbury Park Trust, a small five-story bank building in nearby Asbury Park. Philosophically opposed to campaigning from the White House—“the people's house,” he called it—Wilson campaigned for the November election from the front porch of Shadow Lawn, the grandiose Victorian mansion the president insisted upon renting in Long Branch, refusing free lodging from a wealthy benefactor. He ran the country from an office in the bank building, where he transacted the business of the presidency, including press conferences.

The gentlemen of the press were assigned a room in the bank, from which they dispatched wires datelined Asbury Park, Long Branch, or Spring Lake. The Asbury Park Evening Press claimed to be chronicling “the most important year in the history of the nation, perhaps of the world, for many decades.” Mindful that the President would be mulling the Great War and the election, the Philadelphia Bulletin was likewise impressed. “New Jersey will have cause this summer to feel more important than ever, for its name will be blazoned all over the world daily, and that without allusion to its mosquitoes . . . [New Jersey's] shore resorts are more or less famous throughout the civilized world, as it stands now, but this summer will be the ‘red letter year,' for President Wilson has . . . decided to establish his summer capital at . . . Shadow Lawn.”

The President's arrival signaled that the New Essex and Sussex Hotel would become the center of the nation's social life. On Saturday, July 1, New Jersey Governor James F. Fielder, a Wilson Progressive who succeeded Wilson when he went to the White House, launched the social season by hosting the Governor's Ball in the grand ballroom of the “E & S,” as it was fondly known. The “glittering throng” sent the newspapers into paroxysms of nostalgia over the Gilded Age when presidents Ulysses S. Grant and then James A. Garfield established New Jersey's “Gold Coast” as the summer capital; when the British actress Lillie Langtry, one of the most beautiful women in the world, frequented the coast as a respite from touring with She Stoops to Conquer or As You Like It; and when singer and actress Lillian Russell was escorted by the flamboyant and enormous gustatorial tycoon James Buchanan “Diamond Jim” Brady.

Three days after the Governor's Ball, as if to affirm the return of distant glory, a gleaming roadster cruised along the seacoast, turned off Ocean Drive at the New Essex and Sussex, and disgorged William Howard Taft, the ex-President of the United States, all 332 pounds of him. Taft had been only the third American President to ride in an automobile, and thus he was known to make a small ceremony of disembarking, standing regally in the backseat of the open roadster for the photographers, his great girth wrapped in a dark suit crossed at the chest by a gold chain, walrus mustache drooping in the middle distance between enormous jowls and soft, fair eyes. Politicians, socialites, and officials of the Essex and Sussex crowded around their guest of honor. The amiable ex-President was then a law professor at Yale University, greatly relieved to have surrendered the White House to Wilson in 1912. A confused hullabaloo attended Taft's visit to Spring Lake that day, but one fact is eminently clear: Taft was not glad to be there. He had been summoned on July the Fourth, the nation's one hundred fortieth birthday, to make a speech. Giving speeches was something Taft detested nearly as much as being President. He would rather, he often said, be playing golf. More than likely, after a long drive, he desired nothing so much as a good meal, or a nap, which he often took in public.

Taft, famously good-natured, was a well-liked ex-President. That afternoon, as he stood at the podium, magisterial in his dark suit, looking out on the sea of faces in the ballroom of the Essex and Sussex, murmurs of excitement swept the crowd. Emboldened by his enormous girth—a man so big, the pundits said, there was no room for meanness—Taft enjoyed the symbolism of rising and commanding a crowd. He had been the first President to throw out the first pitch of the baseball season—at a Washington Senators–Philadelphia Athletics game on April 14, 1910. Yet many of the summer colony, despite their wealth and position, had never heard Taft's voice. It was an extraordinary and memorable event before radio for an American to hear the President speak.

As the baritone of the ex-President's voice filled the room, however, the thrill quickly diminished. Taft spoke almost mechanically of Americanism and patriotism in the style of an earnest, careful lawyer with the soul of an honest bureaucrat, a man who began his first inaugural address: “The office of an inaugural address is to give a summary outline of the main policies of the new administration, so far as they can be anticipated.”

To polite applause, William Howard Taft concluded his speech, ending with an appeal to a shared faith in “Almighty God,” and the wealthy summer colonists spilled out of the hotel onto the boardwalk to enjoy the remnants of daylight. The sea was blue-gray and calm with a few swimmers in the water, and roadsters whined along Ocean Drive behind them. It was at that moment that a crowd on the boardwalk—no doubt still discussing Taft's speech—spotted a large, dark fin in the ocean. Then there were many fins, rolling in a school parallel to the coast.

“Sharks!” someone in the crowd cried, and near hysteria rippled through the group. Local fishermen nearby attempted to calm the crowd by pointing out that the fins were not those of sharks but belonged to porpoises, which commonly moved in schools offshore. But to many in the summer colony who had read in the Press about the young man in Beach Haven who was attacked and killed the previous Saturday by a shark, sharks were a subject of worrisome gossip and speculation for days.

Still, the excitement subsided as longtime residents assured guests that sharks never attacked bathers on the Jersey coast. Some insisted that Vansant's death had been fabricated by the newspapers, or grossly misunderstood, as the youth must have simply drowned. Shortly, their confidence restored by knowing skepticism, the summer colonists returned to the hotel to prepare for a graceful evening of music and July Fourth dinner. “The first accident of its kind recorded in the annals of the Jersey coast created considerable excitement,” the Asbury Park Evening Press reported, but “doubt as to the veracity of the dispatches from Beach Haven was frequently expressed.”

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