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Curator’s Corner: The poignant story behind Mrs. Bellingrath’s Gorham cups

The Gorham cups, formerly owned by Albert Russel Erskine, president of the Studebaker Corporation.
The Gorham cups, formerly owned by Albert Russel Erskine, president of the Studebaker Corporation.

By Tom McGehee, Museum Director of the Bellingrath Home

In August of 1940, the owner of Rothschild’s Antiques on Royal Street in New Orleans wrote Mrs. Bellingrath a letter. He regretted having been out of town during her recent visit, but was happy to announce that he had found “a very fine pair of silver cups with tops … from the collection of Mr. Erskine, president of the Studebaker Corporation. His collection was famous all over the United States and abroad.”

The pair of cups pictured was made by Gorham Corporation in 1928. That was a banner year for Albert Russel Erskine, who was serving as president of one of this country’s premier auto manufacturers. America was booming and there seemed no limit to the number of cars to be sold to Americans in the midst of the Jazz Age. In fact, between 1927 and 1930 Studebaker even named one of their models the Erskine.

A year later the stock market plummeted and within a matter of months, so did the sale of automobiles. Either due to blind optimism or financial ineptitude, Mr. Erskine paid out an astounding $7 million in dividends in 1930 and half that amount a year later. The company showed no profits for either of those years.

By late 1932, Studebaker was $6 million in debt and had no cash reserves left. When the company defaulted on those loans, the firm was placed into receivership and Mr. Erskine was without a job. On July 1, 1933, Albert Erskine was at his palatial home, “Twykenham Manor,” in suburban South Bend, Indiana. On that hot summer day he walked upstairs and stood in his bathroom, placing a loaded revolver to his chest. His family found a note nearby, stating: ”I cannot go on any longer.”

Mr. Rothschild made no mention of Erskine’s sad end in his letter to Mrs. Bellingrath, and we have no way of knowing if she recalled the fate of her cups’ prior owner. Today, they are one of three pairs of magnificent silver cups with covers on display within the Bellingrath Butler’s Pantry.

And ironically, their prior owner is also in Alabama. Mr. Erskine is buried in his native Huntsville, some 360 miles to the north. His former home in South Bend survives as condominiums.

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  1. Thank you Tom for being our tour guide last night. My wife and I did not expect to receive a private tour and we all learned a great deal. You also encouraged my kids to learn more about the history we have here in our own town. Merry Christmas Sam and Wendy Ramsey

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