de Kay Family Background

Helena’s father, George Coleman De Kay, was a naval officer, and was born in New York City in 1802; died in Washington, D. C., 31 January 1849. He prepared for College, but ran away to sea. He became a skilful navigator, and took vessels built by Henry Eckford to South America.

He volunteered in the navy of the Argentine republic, then at war with Brazil, and was given command of a brig in June 1827. After taking several prizes, he accepted a captain's commission, which he had declined on entering the service, preferring to win it by promotion. In an engagement with the brig "Cacique," commanded by Captain Manson, that vessel was captured, though twice the size of De Kay's, and much more heavily armed. When returning to Buenos Ayres in June 1828, his brig, the "Brandtzen," was driven inshore in the River Plata by a Brazilian squadron. He scuttled the vessel to prevent her capture, swam ashore with his crew, and on reaching Buenos Ayres was made a Lieutenant Colonel. He translated that title into Commodore when when returned to New York.

He also went to fight for Greek independence.

Returning to New York, De Kay married in 1833, Janet, the only child of Joseph Rodman Drake, the poet. In 1847 he took the U. S. frigate " Macedonian" to Ireland with supplies for the sufferers from the famine, having exerted himself to secure the passage of an act of congress permitting a government vessel to be so employed. See "Outline of the Life of Com. George C. De Kay" by Fitz-Greene Halleek (New York, 1847).
His wife and his two oldest children, Catherine and Drake went with him on the voyage to Ireland.

    From 'The Illustrated London News', August 7th, 1847.

This noble vessel arrived in the Cove on the 16th of July, after a fair voyage of 27 days, and anchored at Haulbowline.The Macedonian is a very large and beautiful frigate, carrying 44 guns, when in commission, and upwards of 1700 tonnes.  Commodore De Kay, Argentine navy, commands her.
The cargo, which consisted of corn meal, Indian meal, rice, beans, and quantities of clothing, has been generously contributed by the Middle States and Relief Committee of the inhabitants of Boston - the contributions of the city of New York alone amounting to the immense number of 1018 barrels of corn meal.  The value of the cargo is estimated at from $60,000 to $80,000, half to be discharged at Haulbowline, and the remainder between Belfast and Glasgow.  It was through the interest and solicitation of Commodore De Kay that Congress granted the use of the Macedonian for her present mission of peace and charity; the gallant and philanthropic gentleman bearing all the expense of victualling, manning and loading, amounting to something over £3000.  An American journal, dated June 13th, 1847 says: - "The brave and noble De Kay, with a liberality which entitles him to the gratitude of Ireland, and the admiration of the world, has carried out this magnificent undertaking at his own expense; and the cargo, commenced by the Corporation of New York, has been completed by the patriotic sense and good feeling of the citizens of Boston".The Macedonian is a fine specimen of the naval architecture of the United States: she worked beautifully during the voyage, although six feet deeper than if she had had in her armament.  The white
flag of the Jamestown, with a wreath of shamrock, and a rose and thistle in the centre, floated from the mainmast of the Macedonian, while the star spangled banner waved from her mizzen. Nothing can exceed the gratitude of the citizens of Cork to the American people, for their practical and generous sympathy.

The Macedonian

Helena's father put a great deal on his own money into the relief effort and attempted to to get the U.S. Government to reimburse him. When nothing was done, he moved his family to Washington in am attempt to personally lobby for reimbursement. He died there, exhausted by his efforts

Silhouette done of the Commadore

Saint-Gaudens' take

Helena's mother: Janet Drake deKay
"Mrs. deKay was thoroughly cosmopolitan; and yet the atmosphere of New York-- old New York-- surrounded her. She had strong principles and very rigid prejudices, but the prejudices were all soluble in a sense of humour. I was devoted to her and she rather liked me. I would go and sit at her feet, bearing a tight nosegay of roses and heliotrope surrounded by a fringe of lace paper, on every possible occasion. She was not very fond of the Catholic Church and I made it a point to appeal to my favorite saints as a matter of course, during our conversations. She was very polite about it, but her point of view was never concealed. I was certainly elusive, but when ever I had an opportunity to point out that Henry VIII was the founder of the Anglican Church, I always took it.

On one occasion, she felt that she was even with me. Miss Julis deKay had returned from a curio shop bearing two or three miniature Buddhas.

'I know what you're going to say, Julia,' Mrs. deKay spoke in loud whisper. 'You're going to mention idols, but I warn you not to do it, because Mr. Egan will have no frivolity in connection with them-- as everyone knows, they are part of his religion."

from "Recollections of a Happy Life" by Maurice Francis Egan

This a portrait of Helena's mother painted by Henry Inman 1825

Helena’s siblings were:

{*} Joseph Rodman Drake, soldier, born 21 October 1836; died in New York City, 9 June 1886. He served with credit during the civil war on the staffs of Generals Mansfield, Pope, and Hooker, and won the brevet of lieutenant colonel for gallantry in several battles. He liked to write big.

Partially printed pass from the Headquarters of the Military Department of Washington, dated August 6, 1861, just a few weeks after the First Battle of Bull Run, allowing passage "over the bridges & within the lines" of defense of Washington, DC. On the reverse is a printed loyalty oath that includes "and if ever hereafter found in arms against the Union, or in any way aiding her enemies, the penalty will be death." Signed on the front by De Kay as aide-de-camp with his famously enormous signature - the signature alone measures 1½" by 6"! De Kay’s colossal autograph was well-remembered by many people moving within the capital boundaries during the early days of the war. "That fearful signature," one contemporary journalist wrote, " could be read as far away as the Sandwich Islands."

{*} George Coleman, soldier, born 24 August 1842; died in New Orleans, 27 June 1862, left his studies in Dresden, Saxony, in 1861, returned to the United States, and entered the National service as lieutenant of artillery, and afterward was on the staff of General Thomas Williams till he received a mortal wound in a fight with bushwhackers at Grand Gulf.


She saw the bayonets flashing in the sun,
The flags that proudly waved; she heard the bugles calling;
She saw the tattered banners falling
About the broken staffs, as one by one
The remnant of the mighty army past;
And at the last
Flowers for the graves of those whose fight was done.

She heard the trampling of ten thousand feet
As the long line swept round the crowded square;
She heard the incessant hum
That filled the warm and blossom-scented air-
The shrilling fife, the roll and throb of drum,
The happy laugh, the cheer. O, glorious and meet
To honor thus the dead,
Who chose the better part,
Who for their country bled!
- The dead! Great God! she stood there in the street,
Living, yet dead in soul and mind and heart-
While far away
His grave was deckt with flowers by strangers' hands today.

-Richard Watson Gilder

{*} Sidney, soldier, born 7 March 1845, ran away from school in the second year of the civil war and joined the 71st New York volunteers. He was afterward made lieutenant in the 8th Connecticut regiment, served on the staffs of Generals B. P. Butler, Devens, and Terry, and received the brevet of major. After the war he went to Crete to assist the Greeks against the Turks.


{*} Charles, art critic, born in Washington, D. C., 25 July 1848, published "The Bohemian" (New York, 1878); " Hesperus" (1880); "Vision of Nimrod" (1881); "Vision of Esther" (1882); and "Love Poems of Louis Barnaval" (1883). His best-known story is " Manmatha." Charles De Kay was known as the "Charmer of New York" in the 1870’s, when he was in his twenties and had newly arrived to make his way socially and in literary circles. Educated in Europe and a Yale graduate, he ornamented salons both abroad and in New York. In 1876, he took over the post of literary and art editor of The New York Times until 1894. In 1899, he founded the National Arts Club and was elected a member of the Institute of Arts and Letters in 1906. He was also art editor of The New York Evening Post during 1907 and associate editor of Art World from 1915-1917. His obituary quotes an admirer, Robert Underwood Johnson, who thought de Kay was "the master of more branches of knowledge than any man I have ever met - - art, science, philosophy, Oriental lore, to general literature. . . . He was not only intellectual but also the master of half a dozen languages and of a rare scholarly precision of statement. I doubt if he was ever caught in an error of fact."

{*} Katharine De Kay Bronson, born 1834, who settled in Venice in 1875, where she lived in the Casa Alvisi, a small palace on the Grand Canal and became one of leading members of the expatriate art scene in Venice. She had married Arthur Bronson in New York. They then lived in Newport, but traveled extensively in Europe. Arthur entered a convalescent home in Paris in 1881 and later died there. She was a generous patron and hosted Robert Browning and Henry James frequently. In the 1880s, she became a close friend of Browning and his sister. He dedicated his last book of poetry to Katharine. She helped a couple of American artists out by commissioning them to do portraits of Browning. She also counted Whistler, John Singer Sargent, and William Merritt Chase among her friends and house guests. Helena and her husband met Browning through her.

{*} Julia DeKay,born 1840, another sister.


Helena’s grandfather, Joseph Rodman Drake, was a poet, born in New York City, 7 August 1795; died there, 21 September 1820. " The Culprit Fay," on which Drake's reputation as a poet chiefly rests, was written in his twenty-second year. When Drake was on his deathbed, at his wife's request, Dr. James DeKay (Helena’s uncle), an intimate friend, collected and copied all his poems, which could be found and took them to him. "See, Joe," he said, "what I have done." "Burn them," was the reply of the dying poet; "they are valueless."

A judicious selection of Helena's grandfather's poems, including "The Culprit Fay" and "The American Flag," was made in October 1835, by Helena’s mother, and issued in New York during the following year. Thirty years later an illustrated edition of "The Culprit Fay" was issued in New York, of which many thousands have been sold.

Helena’s uncle was James Ellsworth De Kay, naturalist, born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1792; d, in Oyster Bay, L. I., 21 November 1851. He studied medicine at Edinburgh, and there took his degree as a physician. Dr. De Kay also became intimate with his brother-in-law, Joseph Rodman Drake, Fitz-Greene Halleck, William Cullen Bryant, and other men of mark in literature and science. He settled permanently at Oyster Bay, L. I., devoting himself to the study of natural history and contributing to the New York press. He was subsequently a founder of the Lyceum of natural history, afterward merged into the National academy of science. In 1836 the state ordered a geological survey, making it comprehensive enough to cover botany and zoology, and intrusting those departments to Dr. De Kay. The results of his researches are contained in five volumes of the " Survey" (1842'9). His watercolors done for this Survey are in the Audubon vein of illustration. Besides these, he was the author of "Travels in Turkey" (New York, 1833).

James, Helena's uncle, is the one on the rock, reading a book.


An interesting piece is the ornamental framed mirror below. It was commissioned by Charles de Kay
as a present for their mother. It was designed and hand painted by Albert Pinkham Ryder, and
depicts scenes from "The Culprit Fay" written by Helena's grandfather. The gentleman portrayed
in the middle panel on the right side is Joseph Rodman Drake. The middle panel on the bottom is
supposed to be Helena (portraying a earth goddess)