The shocking secret past of wild child turned NYC high-society doyenne
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Beatrice Ashley knew she would cause a scandal marrying millionaire scion William Astor Chanler.
After all, Willie — a military officer, adventurer and former politician — came from storied New York stock: the Astors, the Stuyvesants, the Winthrops. Beatrice, on the other hand, was an actress.
The dark-haired beauty performed under the name Minnie Ashley, and despite her Broadway bona fides, she was not above posing for racy pin-up “cabinet cards” in a straw cowboy hat and … little else. She had a slew of high-profile admirers, including newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Plus, she was already married. (A hasty union with a fellow actor when Beatrice was just 16, but it still looked bad.)
Beatrice, however, seamlessly slipped into the role of society wife and quickly won over her detractors. She quit the stage, got a divorce and, two weeks later, married Willie in 1903, when she was 21. She bore two sons, studied sculpting and wrote books. During World War I, she organized relief efforts for Allied forces and operated a refuge for children displaced by the war at the Marquis de Lafayette’s ancestral home in the French countryside. Even her starchy sister-in-law — initially opposed to Beatrice marrying her brother — praised her for her “chastity” and “self-sacrificing drive.”
Yet Beatrice had other secrets: an illegitimate birth, an impoverished childhood and a clandestine love affair that she kept hidden from even her sons. Now, 75 years after her death, they are finally being told.
Beatrice is one of the heroines in Stephanie Dray’s new novel “The Women of Chateau Lafayette” (Berkley), a historical epic about the women who watched over the Marquis de Lafayette’s ancestral castle during times of war. The book lays bare all the secrets that Beatrice felt she had to bury, which Dray unearthed through years of research.
“At first, I believed that I was going to be telling a story about a blue-blooded do-gooder born in Charlottesville, Virginia,” Dray told The Post. “Instead, I found the story of an illegitimate daughter of Irish immigrants who lived a difficult childhood in Boston. And suddenly, the story became much more meaningful.”
Beatrice Chanler was born Minnie Collins in Boston in 1880. Her mother, Eliza Collins — the daughter of Irish immigrants — was a widow with two sons by a previous husband, and Minnie never knew the identity of her father. When she was a toddler, however, Minnie and her mother moved in with Eliza’s new lover, a kind-hearted butcher named George Ashley, and they took his last name though George never formally divorced his wife.
George died when Minnie was just 8 years old, and she and her mother eked out a meager existence. Minnie went to a charity school, but she demonstrated a talent for performing at an early age, and received free dance lessons from a French instructor who spotted her on stage during a children’s festival.
While most of her peers in school got factory jobs to help support their families, Minnie took theater gigs, often illegally. According to an 1890 Boston Herald dispatch, the 10-year-old ingenue was caught boarding a passenger ship to Nova Scotia alone so she could perform with a troupe there. (She was escorted back home by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.)
Minnie made her Broadway debut at 16, in the play “Little Christopher,” and in October 1896 she married New York actor William Sheldon. But three years later, they separated and Minnie moved into a house in Great Neck, LI, with her mother.
In 1902, William Astor Chanler saw Minnie in “The Country Girl” and was immediately smitten. He began courting the actress and even punched romantic rival William Randolph Hearst in order to win her affections. Around this time, Minnie began calling herself Beatrice Ashley — yet another reinvention for a woman who had lied about her age and made up stories about her background.
The Chanler family objected to her marrying Willie, and Beatrice’s mother was the only one of the bride’s relatives to attend the wedding.
“I think initially, there was a sense of embarrassment [for the family], considering that Beatrice was not only an actress, but had been divorced at the time of their marriage. It was a double scandal,” said Dray. “But Willie was always sort of a rebel and did his own thing. And Beatrice knew how to play a part. She quickly won over the family.”
While Minnie did, in all likelihood, tell Willie about her background, the pair never revealed the truth to anyone else, including their own children, who thought their mother’s real name was Beatrice Ashley.
Willie and Beatrice had two children — William in 1904 and Sidney (who went by his middle name, Ashley) in 1907 — but the marriage was hardly ideal. Willie frequently would ditch the family to go fight with rebel soldiers in Libya or race horses in France, and the couple quietly separated in 1909, though they did try to reconcile several times.
In 1913, Beatrice, by then a professional sculptress living in the glamorous Vanderbilt Hotel with her two sons, rushed to Paris to Willie’s hospital bed after he suffered a mysterious gun wound in his leg. She was still in France when the Great War broke out. Her first-hand experience inspired her to volunteer doing relief work during the war.
As part of her relief work, Beatrice went to the front lines at least three times. She was nearly torpedoed by an enemy submarine during an Atlantic crossing and refused to get out of her warm bath during the ensuing ruckus. During this time she and Willie bought the childhood home of French officer and American Revolutionary hero Marquis de Lafayette, transforming it into a school and medical facility for orphans and children displaced during the war. (France would later award her a Legion of Honour for her services.)
Beatrice continued her relief work as her husband suffered an amputation and descended into alcohol and morphine addiction. Her friends and family told her she worked too hard, and she had health problems due to a thyroid illness. She wrote a biography of Cleopatra’s daughter in the 1930s and continued volunteering during World War II, before dying of a heart attack on a train in 1946 at the age of 66.
Seventy-three years later, in 2019, William Chanler III received an e-mail from the writer Stephanie Dray asking if he could help her with some research about his grandmother, Beatrice. Dray had hit a wall due to her subject’s, as she would later put it, “casual relationship with the truth.” Beatrice’s official papers often listed different names and birth dates, and she once listed that she was born in Charlottesville, Va., which is not likely true. On one passport application she cheekily wrote “See Who’s Who” instead of filling in the required information.
“I heard very few stories about my grandmother growing up,” William III, now 70, told The Post. “We had photos of her back when she was going by the name Minnie Ashley acting and modeling, and we had some of her sculptures, but my father didn’t shed any light into who she really was.”
After rifling through Beatrice’s boxes at the New York Historical Society, Dray came across a bombshell: a sheaf of unaddressed love letters in a folder with a heart labeled “Maxime Furlaud & other letters from front in France 1918.”
It turned out that Beatrice had an affair with a French officer named Maxime Furlaud during World War I, and the two corresponded — and referred to each other in conversations with others — with code names. Even more shocking: Furlaud had at one point accompanied Beatrice to the States and even met her two sons. (The romance didn’t survive the war, however, and the letters end after 1917.)
“That was a secret I had to tell the [Chanler] family,” said Dray. “It was a very uncomfortable thing to communicate.”
“There was a little bit of shock,” said William III of the family’s reaction. (He has one younger brother and three first cousins who are still alive, and they have kids and grandkids). “I thought if there was an affair it would have been my grandfather, but then I realized that [Beatrice] was a beautiful vibrant woman who had been separated from her husband for many years.”
In other words, he couldn’t blame her for her wartime romance.
However, a few months later, the Chanler family received another surprise when a long-lost cousin named Roy Collins reached out.
“That was when we found out that Beatrice was not who she said she was,” William III said. “The news that she was an illegitimate daughter and that Minnie was her real name: That was the greatest shock.”
At first, he was reticent to have these family secrets — hidden for decades — made public. Yet, he has come around to letting Beatrice have her moment of truth. Instead of diminishing his opinion of her, he has more admiration than ever.
“It really makes her story a true Cinderella story,” William III said.
“The many hours I have devoted to Beatrice’s genealogy, poring through her letters and interacting with Stephanie Dray, has achieved one significant change in my life: getting to know Beatrice and developing a strong love of her,” he added. “I hope [the book is] going to be a best-seller!”
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