Elizabeth Caroline Ranft Steinway

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Elizabeth ("Ellie") Caroline Ranft Steinway (b November 15, 1853, in New York, NY; d March 4, 1893 in New York, NY) became the second wife of William Steinway on August 15, 1880. During their marriage, she gave birth to four children: William Richard (1881); Theodore Edwin (1883); an unnamed daughter who was born and died in 1886; and Maud Emily Louise (1889). Ellie Steinway died suddenly on March 4, 1893, at thirty-nine years of age, after three days of illness from what was initially diagnosed as pneumonia.(1)

Ellie, born in New York City, was the eldest daughter of Elise Heep and Richard Ranft, a wealthy German felt importer whose goods were popular for many uses, including the making of piano hammers. The family returned to Dresden in 1873. When William was in Europe in 1880 he met the Ranft family and arranged his marriage to Ellie.(Diary, 1880-08-11, 1880-08-16—wedding day)(2, pp. 301-2) The couple returned to William's house at 26 Gramercy Park in New York City over three weeks after the wedding, following a whirlwind tour of Vienna, Germany, Paris, and London.

Like so many of the other Steinway women whose lives revolved around raising children, managing households, and appropriate socializing, Elizabeth's voice is silent in the historical record. What is known about her comes from William's diary or from official documents. As he did in his first marriage to Regina Roos, William tracked their sexual relations and her menstrual cycle. But in just about every other respect, his second marriage appears to have been dramatically different from his first.

"Official government papers" described Ellie Ranft "as five feet four inches tall," with "brown eyes, high fore-head, nose prominent, chin round, hair dark, complexion fair, face oval."(2, p. 302) She has been also been characterized as "dour" and "practical" in contrast to Regina's "beauty" and "passion."(3, p. 92) While it is likely that William and Ellie's relationship was not full of the kind of ardor that fueled his first marriage, it also seems clear that their relationship was marked by great tenderness and affection. For her part, Ellie was well liked by the women of the extended Steinway family and she cultivated numerous friendships and acquaintances.

At the time of his marriage to Ellie, William was no longer a healthy man. Wracked by rheumatism when they returned to Gramercy Park after the wedding, it was more than a month before he was able to walk as far as the bathroom, and it was not until December that he could get around without crutches.(Diary, 1880-12-01)(2, p. 302) Given his poor health, William was fortunate that he had found a wife who was willing to spend time rubbing his aching feet and legs and who he would be able to commend after her death for putting so much energy into selflessly caring for him.(Diary, 1880-10-25)(Diary, 1893-08-17) Moreover, unlike Regina, and with the exception of the unnamed baby girl who died shortly after birth, Ellie seems to have had relatively uneventful pregnancies and easy births. And William, during this phase of his life, spent much more time with Ellie and their children than he did with Regina—both at home and during myriad public events and more leisurely recreational activities. William also regularly played skat with Ellie's brother, Richard.

On the day Ellie Steinway came home sick with the pneumonia that would soon kill her, William recorded that she had been "out in Carriage making many visits, getting wet feet & taking a cold bath."(Diary, 1893-03-01) On the afternoon Ellie died, William recorded in his diary that he was "almost stupefied by this terrible misfortune."(Diary, 1893-03-04)

The next day, after spending time with his children, William experienced grave physical effects as a result of his emotional state. He wrote, "I am seized with so terrible an attack of despair on seeing my beloved, now motherless children that I feel my blood stop in my veins, and am carried to the very brink of death. Nurse Brooks at once gives me stimulants, when at last I am able to weep and sob for quite a while. The shock has literally lamed my body and limbs."(Diary, 1893-03-05) Two days before, as the three doctors attending Ellie advised him that his wife's condition had become hopeless, he had revealed that he was "almost crazy with excitement and grief" at the prospect of her death.(Diary, 1893-03-03)(2, p. 379) Autopsy findings recorded in William's diary revealed that Ellie, "who was never sick a day in her life," suffered from "Bright's disease of the kidneys," "fatty degeneration" of the heart, problems with her liver, and "gallstones in her gallbladder." (Diary, 1893-03-05)(2, p. 380) Given her physical condition, William learned that she "could not possibly have lived two months longer under the most favorable circumstances."(Diary, 1893-03-05)(2, p. 380) In shock and grieving, William found consolation in the fact that "she died without pain, and as it were with a smile on her face, rather than a lingering painful illness."(Diary, 1893-03-05)(2, p. 380)

Soon after, Paula, William's daughter from his first marriage, moved into 26 Gramercy Park with her husband, Louis von Bernuth, and children to manage the household and to care for Ellie and William's three children—all under the age of twelve. Over the years William had contributed generously to the city of Seesen, Germany, his birthplace, for the creation of a park. The city government decided to name it Steinway Park. After learning of the death of Ellie, the Park Commission decided to name the existing pavilion in her honor, "Elisabeth Pavilion." William was so pleased that he sent an additional contribution toward park expenses.(4)

Elizabeth Ranft Steinway at Steinway Mansion, circa 1885

Elizabeth Ranft Steinway at Steinway Mansion, circa 1885

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Sources:

  1. "Died," The New York Times, March 5, 1893, p. 5.
  2. Fostle, D.W. The Steinway Saga: An American Dynasty. New York: Scribner, 1995.
  3. Lieberman, Richard K. Steinway & Sons. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  4. Stroschein, Dirk and Sabine Vollmers. Steinway—Kurpark, The Green Jewel in Seesen [Steinway-Kurpark, Das grüne Juwel in Seesen], Seesen, Germany: P. Dobler Alfeld, 2008. p. 47.