The Last House on Tough Street

Helen Hay Whitney

All winter I’ve been caught up in The Five of Hearts by Patricia O’Toole, a chronicle of the life and friendship of Henry Adams, Marian “Clover” Adams, John Hay, Clara Hay, and the enigmatic “fifth heart” Clarence King.

Their lives are fascinating, their friendships are inspiring, and their circle of acquaintance is wide and included Mark Twain, W.D. Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, H.H. Richardson, Augustus St. Gaudens, Stanford White, John LaFarge, Cecil “Springy” Spring Rice, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and so many other notables of the time that the book really gives the reader an insider’s view of the Gilded Age.

One of the many fascinating characters is Helen Hay, daughter of John and Clara. She later married millionaire oarsman Payne Whitney and after his death donated the gym at Yale.

When she was a young woman, she visited her friend Constance Lodge at the family summer place in Nahant. Before she left, she had promised no fewer than a dozen boys that she would take a walk with them on the seaside cliffs.

When Constance’s parents Cabot and Nannie Lodge insisted she entertain the boys at the house, the young people gathered on the porch and began singing, which was actually a cover so that Helen could take all the walks she had promised.

“Amused to find himself outmaneuvered,” O’Toole writes, “Cabot contented himself with eavesdropping, and his worries about Helen’s ability to fend for herself must have melted when he heard her explain to an admirer, ‘I am a tough, and I come from a tough place, and I live on a tough street, and the farther you go the tougher it gets, and I live in the last house.'”

Now I find it hard to believe this young lady made this up herself, so I’ve googled it on many different occasions and found it all over the place. Billy Graham heard a young boy saying something like this, so you find that a lot, and lots of American folkloric characters have adapted it for their own use.

One night I found a reference to song that T.S. Eliot like to sing when he was being shaved that went “My name is Tough and I live on Tough Street, etc.” but I’ve tried and tried and have never been able to find  it again.

Since Helen’s father, John Hay, was ambassador to Great Britain, I think it must have been a music hall song she heard in London.

Our last view of Helen in The Five of Hearts is on the eve of her wedding to Payne Whitney, surrounded by magnificent wedding gifts — silver candelabras from the Astors, an enormous silver punch bowl from Andrew Carnegie, a diamond-studded warming pan from the father of the groom, and, according to Henry Adams, “pitchers, pots and plates enough to supply the Walkyrie and Valhalla.”

The occasion, as it turned out, was unutterably tragic as Helen’s brother Adelbert had died in a tragic accident a few months before when he fell out of a window in the New Haven House while attending a Yale reunion. He had been about to assume his duties as secretary to President Theodore Roosevelt, a position his father held under Abraham Lincoln.

Henry was grieved to see his beloved Helen, “simple, foolish, helpless, unstylish, unfashionable, unconventional, blind with headache, and stupendously out of place in all that New York menagerie.”

But Helen easily found her place in New York society. She was a widely-published poet and an author of children’s books, and she founded Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic at New York Presbyterian Hospital, among many other charitable organizations. She was also a very successful horse breeder. Her horses won the American Grand National, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

I would love some help tracking down the reference to the last house on Tough Street. Email me at