Elizabeth Sherman was born on Park Avenue West just a couple blocks off Central Park, so her playground growing up was the public square, in front of her father’s office.
At that point in Mansfield’s history—1857—the park was only newly established as a green space, so she got to watch the young grass become established even as she was sprouting too.
She had a famous uncle down the street who was a United States Senator, and another uncle in the army who was a famous war hero. She was the youngest of seven kids in the family, and was used to being lost in the shuffle, and, in a world among all those giant relatives, she was generally overlooked.
Her life, however, was not destined to remain obscure.
Her life, in fact, became so fabulous that the evidence of her today, more than a century later, is valuable enough to be kept in locked safes. Her countenance is minted in gold and admired around the world.
The political name
Lizzie Sherman’s father was an attorney in town and then, once her famous uncle the Senator got power in the nation’s Capitol, her father was appointed as a Federal judge of Northern Ohio.
And then, once it seemed that the common Mansfield Shermans were about to sit at the table with the famous Washington Shermans, Lizzie’s mother started brokering a suitably famous marriage for her youngest daughter.
Lizzie was, literally, the bartered bride. The famous uncles struck a deal with their political enemy to marry her to a widowed Senator from Pennsylvania, who happened to be one of the richest men in America.
The rich Senator was not her first choice, or her choice at all. He came with his own spoiled, mean children who resented Lizzie; and biographers always refer to their union as a ‘loveless marriage.’
Her disappointing love life was not without its compensating benefits though, and in her new position at the pinnacle of the social pyramid, Lizzie’s life blossomed in the company of the most brilliant, talented, and interesting people of her era.
A gallery of artists
One of her best friends was the American author Edith Wharton, whose novels of high society characters in frustrating love triangles sounds very much like the life of Elizabeth Sherman Cameron and her lifelong paramour, Henry Adams. Adams, the American novelist and historian, was descended of two Presidents and wealthy even before he launched his writing career. He roamed the world pining for Lizzie, and wrote of her as a character in two of his novels.
From her salons in Washington and Paris, Lizzie served as hostess to politicians and leaders of the world, and because of her role as wealthy socialite, literally all doors were open to her. She was presented to royalty in Europe, including Queen Victoria; and, on occasion, shared carriages with the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Teddy Roosevelt and King Leopold of Belgium.
John Hay, the US Secretary of State, called her “the most beautiful woman in Washington,” and artists agreed.
She knew and regularly conversed with all the greatest portrait artists of her generation, yet most of them declined to paint her because they said what made her so remarkably stunning was the motion of her face—her moods, her conversant attentions, her glances and storytelling eyes—and these mercurial qualities could never adequately be captured in an image that remained immobile on the canvas.
There was one sculptor however, who had a crush on Lizzie, and as he became world famous, he put her face into the public imagination for all time…or as long as bronze and gold last.
Carved into time
Augustus Saint-Guadens was an American sculptor living in Paris, whose studio was not far from Lizzie’s Rue du Bois de Bologne house; and in his infatuation with her, he studied her face whenever he could.
When he was commissioned to create a public monument to honor Lizzie’s famous war hero uncle, St. Gaudens chose to depict the man riding a horse led by the allegorical figure of Victory. The statue was many years in the making, with several version and variations along the way, but when it was completed there was no question in the minds of Lizzie’s friends as to whose face the huge Victory wore.
St. Gaudens always said he believed the face of Victory could not be one particular, individual person, but those in Paris, and those in DC, and those in New York who knew Elizabeth Sherman Cameron, all agreed that hers was the immortal face on the statue.
A few years later, when President Theodore Roosevelt asked St. Gaudens to design coins for the United States mint, the celebrated Victory image was adapted into what is often called, “the most beautiful US coin.” So, on the $20 gold piece, there is a tiny revised rendition of Elizabeth Sherman Cameron from Mansfield, Ohio.
Elizabeth Sherman Cameron lived through “The Gilded Age,” and, appropriately enough, that is exactly how she survives in our time: in gold. The statue of her in New York City, at the corner of Central Park, was recently restored by re-gilding it with 23.75 karat gold leaf; so if you see her today, she is as gilded as it gets.
Lizzie came back to Mansfield only once, as far as can be documented, in 1903. Her mother always told reporters that Lizzie was born in Cleveland, because it sounded more metropolitan for her daughter’s social career; but Lizzie was proud to claim Mansfield as her first home.
In a letter she wrote in 1900 to an old grade school friend, Lizzie referred to Mansfield, appropriately enough, as the place where she “spent golden years as a child.”