Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Lenox, James

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LENOX, James, philanthropist, b. in New York city, 19 Aug., 1800; d. there, 17 Feb., 1880. He was the only son of Robert Lenox, a wealthy Scotch merchant of New York, from whom he inherited, in 1839, a fortune of several millions of dollars. He was educated at Columbia college and studied law, but never practised the profession. He went to Europe soon after his admission to the bar, and while abroad began collecting rare books, which later became the absorbing passion of his life. To a scholarly love of literature he added a taste for art. For half a century he devoted the greater part of his time and talent to forming a library and gallery of paintings not surpassed in value by any private collection in the New World. These, together with many rare manuscripts, marble busts and statues, mosaics, engravings, and curios, he conveyed in 1870 to his native city, together with the massive building which he erected for their preservation. The Lenox library, represented in the accompanying illustration, occupies the crest of the hill on Fifth avenue, between Seventieth and Seventy-first streets, overlooking the Central park, and cost $450,000, the land being valued at very nearly the same amount. It is a fire-proof structure, with outside walls of Lockport limestone, with a front of 200 feet and a depth of 114 feet. It contains four spacious reading-rooms, a gallery for paintings, and another for sculpture. The collection of Bibles, including the Mazarin, both as to number and rarity, is believed to be unequalled even by those in the British museum, while its Americana, incunabula, and Shakespeariana surpass those of any other American library, public or private. The collection may safely be valued at nearly a million of dollars, which, with the $900,000 for the land and building and the endowment, make a total of above $2,000,000. In addition to the library, which the founder saw completed several years before his death, he gave about half a million in money and land to the Presbyterian hospital, of which he was for many years the president. Mr. Lenox was also the president of the American Bible society, to which he was a liberal donor, as he was to Princeton college and theological seminary, and to many churches and charities connected with the Presbyterian church, of which, like his father, he was a member. His gifts were unostentatious; but their number and magnificence made it inevitable that they should be known to the world, from which in many instances Mr. Lenox strove to hide them. Several gifts to needy men of letters which passed through the writer's hands were accompanied by the condition that he should not be known as the donor, the same condition being imposed on a lady to whom he sent $7,000 for a deserving charity. When, some years later, she applied a second time, Mr. Lenox declined to contribute, although the object commended itself to him, because she had revealed his name on the previous occasion. He was of that small class who “do good by stealth and blush to find it fame.” He never married. The only lady to whom he was ever attached, and who in early life refused him, is still living and still single. This event increased his peculiarly reserved and retired habits, and he became and continued a recluse, never being seen in the best society of his native city, to which by birth and connection he belonged. He declined proffered visits from the most distinguished men of the Old World and the New and from a recent highly gifted governor-general of Canada, as he would doubtless have done had the Queen, whom Lord Dufferin so well represented, expressed a wish to pass his Fifth avenue threshold. An eminent scholar, who was occupied for many weeks in consulting rare books not to be found elsewhere, failed to obtain access to the library of Mr. Lenox, who, however, assigned an apartment in his spacious mansion for his use, and to that apartment the works were sent in instalments without his ever penetrating into the hall containing the precious collection, or to the presence of its possessor. Mr. Lenox occasionally reprinted limited editions, restricted to ten or twenty copies, of rare books, which he placed in some of the great public libraries and notable private collections like John Carter Brown's (q. v.). Of his seven sisters, two outlived him, but they have since died: Henrietta Lenox, the last survivor, giving to the library twenty-two valuable adjoining lots and $100,000 for the purchase of books. Portraits of Mr. Lenox were painted by Sir Francis Grant in 1848, and by G. P. A. Healy three years later, which may be seen in the Lenox gallery. He was also painted by Daniel Huntington in 1874. This picture, from which our portrait is copied, is in the Presbyterian hospital. His special request to the family was that no details of his life should be given for publication, and that not even the time of his modest funeral should be announced. See “Recollections of James Lenox,” by Henry Stevens (London, 1886). — His nephew, Robert Lenox Kennedy, b. in New York city, 24 Nov., 1822; d. at sea, 14 Sept., 1887, was for many years president of the Bank of Commerce, and succeeded his uncle as president of the board of trustees of the Lenox library, to which institution he presented, in 1879, Munkacsy's important picture of “Blind Milton dictating ‘Paradise Lost’ to his Daughters.”

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