The society hostess we love to hate

Local historian insists Louise Sneed Hill wasn’t all that bad

Kirsten Dahl Collins Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 3/31/21

Denver lore is studded with unflattering anecdotes about Gilded Age society hostess Louise Sneed Hill, who lived from 1862-1955. She is described as a scheming gold digger, a confirmed snob and the …

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The society hostess we love to hate

Local historian insists Louise Sneed Hill wasn’t all that bad

Posted

Denver lore is studded with unflattering anecdotes about Gilded Age society hostess Louise Sneed Hill, who lived from 1862-1955.

She is described as a scheming gold digger, a confirmed snob and the arch enemy of Titanic heroine Margaret “Molly” Brown. Even more damning are claims that Hill drove her unfaithful lover to suicide. Supposedly consumed with remorse, Hill then retired to a suite at the Brown Palace in downtown Denver, and lived out the remainder of her life as a recluse.

It does make a great story. One problem, though — most of it isn’t true, according to Denver historian Shelby Carr, who is the author of a new biography, “The Queen of Denver, Louise Sneed Hill and the Emergence of Modern High Society.”

Carr, a trained dancer who has performed around the world, never expected to become a professional historian. She entered University of Colorado-Denver as a dance major but grew discouraged by her injuries. Casting around for a new pursuit, Carr recalled her childhood fascination with a collection of stone houses from the 1600s in a historic Dutch settlement near her grandmother’s home in Hurley, New York. She switched her major to history and went on to do graduate work on prominent women of the Gilded Age. Outraged by the way Hill was vilified, she decided to write a Master’s thesis that would set the record straight.

Carr’s book began as her graduate school thesis, which she completed in 2018. She had always envisioned it as a book, however, and submitted it for publication a year later. In 2020, “Queen of Denver” was published by The History Press.  

Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” as an unflattering description of an era that glittered only on the surface. Loosely defined as 1870-1900, the Gilded Age began in the decades after the Civil War, when huge American fortunes were made and flaunted.

Edith Wharton’s novels about the era made it poignantly clear that women had few options except to marry well.

Like the orphaned, 29-year-old Lily Bart in Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” who was desperate to find a wealthy husband, the orphaned, 30-ish Louise Bethel Sneed must have known her time was running out. Carr’s book recounts that Louise was widely hailed in Memphis as a vivacious Southern belle “known for her kindness,” who would try to help out the shyer girls at dances. But she was still single, perhaps because the Civil War had decimated the supply of eligible young men.

Sneed arrived in Denver from Memphis in the summer of 1893. Two years later, Louise fulfilled her wealthy family’s expectations and married Crawford Hill, a member of Denver’s “Old Guard,” and heir to a vast smelting fortune. But according to Carr’s book, Hill was not known for his sparkling personality. Perhaps that explains his wife’s open affair with the couple’s close friend, Bulkeley Wells, a Telluride mining magnate. Wells was married with a family of his own, but he was also 10 years younger, handsome and charismatic. Apparently he swept both Hills off their feet.

After Crawford Hill died in 1922, Bulkeley Wells jilted Louise Hill for a much younger woman. Eight years later, a bankrupt Wells put a bullet through his head. But Carr doubts that Louise Hill drove him to it. In the years leading up to his suicide, Wells lost $15 million for a major investor, developed a gambling habit and demonstrated that he was perfectly capable of ruining himself.

Nor did Carr find any convincing evidence of bad blood between Hill and social upstart, Margaret Brown. Brown was excluded from The Sacred Thirty-Six — but then, so was most of Denver.

“Just because they lived at the same time, doesn’t mean they had to be friends,” Carr observes. She notes that Brown had a wide social circle of her own.

While Hill’s social climbing is less sympathetic than Brown’s social activism, Carr’s book makes it clear that the two women had something in common — both were forceful, outspoken and refused to let outdated notions of female propriety stand in their way.

In 1906, Denver’s society queen acquired a fitting palace — a 17,000 square foot French Renaissance revival mansion on 10th Avenue and Sherman Street. Designed by Theodore Boal, who studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the pale limestone-clad building resembles a large rectangular cake elegantly piped with whipped cream.

There, Louise Hill took the reins of Denver society and staged parties for a curated group of wealthy friends known as “the Sacred Thirty-Six.” Victorians of an earlier generation would have frowned on Hill’s imaginative fêtes, which often included card games, cocktails, roller skating and such scandalous ragtime-era dances as The Turkey Trot. A witty combination of Charleston steps with a fillip of barnyard mating dance, The Turkey Trot was widely banned and denounced by President Woodrow Wilson.

But Louise Hill was determined to move Denver society into the modern era, with a strong emphasis on the pursuit of fun. Hill’s larger goal, Carr’s book suggests, was to put Denver on the map, socially speaking. And to the amazement of her dusty Western hometown, she succeeded. In 1907, her years of adept social networking and self-promotion paid off. Hill became the first Denver resident ever presented at the Court of St. James, London.

Today, these goals may seem snobbish and irrelevant. And yet, like the whipped cream piping on her mansion, Hill’s frothy career has its delectable side. Despite the tight lacing on Gilded Age women, Hill managed to do pretty much whatever she wanted. And watching her do it turns out to be great fun.

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