What do Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Ford and Norman Rockwell have in common? At one point in their famous lives, they all came to Cape May.
For more than a century, Cape May has attracted a list of notable celebrities and historical figures; from presidents and actors to musicians and sports legends.
You may have heard about John Philip Sousa performing at Congress Hall or Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Harrison summering in Cape May. But did you realize the town has attracted many more well-known guests?
The Greater Cape May Historical Society has conducted extensive research on the many renowned persons who have come to Cape May, whether to live, vacation or to just stop in and have a meal. The Society’s current exhibit, “More Fascinating Famous Visitors to Cape May” is a follow-up to a successful exhibit held last year at its museum located in the Colonial House.
Museum curator Pat Pocher said the idea for the exhibit came from a computer database of famous Cape May visitors she’s working on. “The idea was to create a list that can be used by researchers in an organized form,” Pocher said. From the list sprang a fountain of information about famous visitors — photographs, writings and anecdotes.
While documentation exists as evidence that many of these people visited Cape May, personal accounts are also abundant. Besides official written sources are eyewitness accounts of encounters. “Some of the information is anecdotal, where people will come to us and say ‘I waited on this person at the Mad Batter,’” Pocher said, referring to occasions when entertainer Joan Rivers and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia dined in Cape May. “It’s part anecdote and part reference to old histories.”
For example, while literary sources pin down Oscar Wilde’s appearance at the Stockton Hotel, mentions of Mark Twain’s stay are only heard in passing and so are tougher to prove. “Someone said Twain was here but we haven’t nailed it down yet. It makes sense because this was the place to be in Victorian times,” adds Pocher.
The exhibit contains photographs, memorabilia and notations on the many famous actors, musicians, sports heroes, politicians and historical figures who visited Cape May. Some of the visitors in this year’s exhibition are surprising — American icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglas and Civil War figures like “Stonewall” Jackson, William Tecumseh Sherman share the exhibit with celebrities like Linda Ronstadt and Eddie Cantor.
The Mainstay’s Sue Carroll uncovered evidence of Confederate commander Stonewall Jackson’s visit to Cape May in the “Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson,” by his wife Mary Ann Jackson. “In 1858, after a visit to Fortress Monroe…We then went by steamer to Cape May, where he luxuriated in the surf bathing.”
Cape May’s old Victorian hotels have had their share of famous guests through the years. The Windsor Hotel saw such notable visitors as Frank Lloyd Wright, railroad tycoon Diamond Jim Brady, Grace Kelly, William Randolph Hearst, Henry Ford and Joseph Kennedy. George Gordon Meade, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, was a guest at the Stockton Hotel’s inaugural ball in July 1869. Meade biographer, Guillermo Bosch found a reference to Meade and Cape May in “The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade.” According to Steven’s “History of Cape May,” in 1890, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman visited his daughter, who was residing in a Columbia Avenue cottage. Newspaper accounts of the time reported that Sherman was a guest at the Stockton Hotel.
The Friends General Conference attracted many prominent speakers over the years. The Quaker conference was held twice a year from 1928 to 1968. Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was invited to speak to the Conference in June 1958. Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck visited in June 1950, also as a speaker at the Conference. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas went to Cape May Point and addressed the group in June 1962.
Also of historical significance is evidence that Frederick Douglas passed through Cape May in 1859 along the Underground Railroad, on his way to New York.
Several well-known actors and entertainers have visited Cape May at various points in their careers to perform, or just to relax. Actor Burgess Meredith performed in Cape Playhouse in 1932, and even married one of the cast members! Cape May Point Mayor Springer performed the ceremony. Entertainer Eddie Cantor came to the resort aboard a yacht during the 1930s. According to news accounts, musician Linda Ronstadt visited Cape May in July 1996 with her children. Ronstadt stayed at the Queen Victoria Bed & Breakfast during her visit. She had previously visited Cape May some time in the 1980s with Nelson Riddle’s orchestra. Actress Brooke Shields was spotted in 1989 bouncing along Beach Avenue in a white truck, and dancer Edward Villella, visited in both 1994 and 2001 and stayed at the Puffin. Lawyer-to-the-stars F. Lee Bailey was spotted in 1976 near the Marina.
Artists have drawn inspiration and relaxation from Cape May. Andrew Wyeth was in Cape May during 1992-93 making sketches. A painting of his of a life boat and a nun, titled “Cape May” now exists in a private collection. Norman Rockwell vacationed in Cape May Point in 1962, while Howard Pyle, the so-called “Father of American Illustration” visited in 1902.
Athletes have also frequented Cape May. Former Philadelphia Eagles star Ron Jaworski was a customer at the Ball Park Café. Other sports figures vacationing in Cape May have included Yankee pitcher Sparky Lyle, Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer, skater Scott Hamilton, Yankee Joe Pepitone, Giants coach Bill Parcells and boxer Billy Conn.
In the political realm, the following presidents visited Cape Island, many before they became president: Andrew Jackson (1839), William Henry Harrison (1840), Franklin Pierce (1855), James Buchanan (1858), Ulysses S. Grant (1869, 1874), Chester Arthur (1883), Benjamin Harrison (1889 through 1891 and 1893), and Woodrow Wilson in 1911.
Cape May’s charms were also beheld by men running for the nation’s highest office. The following presidential candidates visited Cape May: Henry Clay (1847), William H. Seward (1865), Horace Greeley (1847), James Blaine (1884), Wendell Wilke (1940), George McGovern (1986), Bill Bradley (through the 1990s). Recent evidence turned up new additions regarding visiting politicians. Gerald Ford, George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Bob and Elizabeth Dole came to Cape May around 1970 to 1973 to
support Charles Sandman’s bid for governor. In the 1960s, George Bush (the father, not the son) was in Cape May to promote an oil venture.
Cape May has been a grand host to foreign visitors, as well. In 1900, Chinese Minister Wu Ting Fang and his wife and son spent the season here. Well-known Siamese twins Chang and Eng entertained at the Washington Hotel with two of their children in 1866.
Some guests have peculiar anecdotes attached to their visits. Psychologist B.F. Skinner came to Cape May around the 1970s or 1980s en route to China with his daughter. Skinner dined at Alexander’s and stayed at the Queen Victoria. Spying one of his books on a shelf, he autographed it, unaware it was a library book borrowed by the hotel’s hostess.
The list of famous guests is far from complete, so the public is welcome to bring their information or accounts of famous visitors to the museum. “The people who come to this exhibit really enjoy it. We’re also trying to have people vote for their favorite famous visitor,” Pocher said.
The exhibit is located at the Colonial House, 653 1/2 Washington Street next to Cape May City Hall and runs from June 15 to September15 and from October 5 through October 14 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Colonial House is closed Sundays. For more information, call (609) 884-9100.
Was Lincoln really in Cape May?
The person who could perhaps be considered the most famous visitor of all remains at the center of a swelling controversy among local historians. It has been rumored for years (with a hotel register the only physical evidence) that Abraham Lincoln stayed in Cape May. Some believe Lincoln visited in 1849 with his wife. A brittle hotel register from the Mansion House bears the inscription “A. Lincoln & wife.” Whether this is the 16th president’s signature is still the subject of debate. The hotel register is part of the current exhibit, and anyone can compare the hotel registry’s signature to the Great Emancipator’s signature and decide for themselves if Lincoln indeed visited Cape May.
Was Abraham Lincoln in Cape May? Tell us what you think.
Update: It is believed the “A. Lincoln” who signed the register at the Mansion House was a grocer from Philadelphia named Abel Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was supposedly practicing law in Illinois the day he was meant to have signed the register. Abel Lincoln was reportedly a frequent visitor to Cape May. Ocala Star-Banner, February 12, 1990