Katherine Elkins and William Hitt: A Portrait of a Marriage...or Two

William Hitt and Katherine Elkins were scions of two of the most powerful and wealthy Washington political families at the turn of the twentieth century.  They grew up together in Washington, and Billy pursued Katherine for years.  It was assumed by both families that they would eventually marry. They eventually did—twice—but not without some significant complications along the way.

Katherine Elkins Hitt.  Library of Congress.

Robert Roberts Hitt's political career began as an expert stenographer for the Illinois state senate where he became a very close friend of future President, Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln appointed him as the stenographer for the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  Hitt later briefly served as Assistant Secretary of State under James Blaine during the Garfield and Arthur administrations in 1881, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1882, representing Illinois's 5th district.  While in Congress, he served as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs for eight years.  He married Sally Reynolds in 1874 and the couple had two sons.

Sallie Reynolds Hitt.  The Washington Times.

William Floyd Reynolds (“Billy”) Hitt was the younger of the Hitt's two sons.  Their eldest son, Robert Stockwell Reynolds Hitt, served as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Panama and Guatemala.  Billy's adult life took a much different path–– while he considered himself a financier and a sportsman, he never actually held any type of job his entire life. 
William "Billy" Hitt.  Library of Congress.

Katherine Hallie Elkins was the daughter of Stephen Benton Elkins and Katherine Hallie Elkins.  Elkins had an impressive career, starting with serving in the Kansas Militia during the Civil War, then as Attorney General of the Territory of New Mexico, and a Delegate to Congress from the Territory of New Mexico.  Around 1890, he founded and settled in the town of Elkins, West Virginia, after which he served as Secretary of War under President Benjamin Harrison, and then as United States Senator from West Virginia.

Not long after his arrival in Washington in 1881, Robert Hitt bought a house lot in Dupont Circle at 1511 New Hampshire Avenue Northwest, but nothing was built on it until after his death in 1906.  Until Robert’s death, the family had lived at 1507 K Street Northwest near McPherson Square.  It was there that Sallie Hitt developed a reputation as one of the city’s leading socialites.  It was also at their K Street home that the Hitts became friends with their  neighbors the Elkins, and where Billy first met the Elkin’s young daughter, Katherine.
Two years after Robert Hitt died, Sallie Hitt engaged the services of prominent architect John Russell Pope to design a new house on the land her husband had purchased on Dupont Circle.  The house stood immediately to the left of the Patterson mansion and across the street from the Leiter mansion.  Completed in 1909, the Beaux-Arts, Indiana limestone house was three stories in height and eighty-five feet across the front.   Oddly, after Sallie had such a large house built, she curtailed much of her entertaining.  Sallie lived in the house as a Cave Dweller, sandwiched between the homes of Dupont Circle’s smart set, until she died in the house in 1949 at the age of 105. 
The Hitt residence at 1511 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, circa 1970.  U.S. Commission on Fine Arts.

Few American heiresses have taken a firmer hold on the country’s attention than Katherine Elkins. Katherine grew up in her parents’ home at 1623 K Street Northwest, and her close childhood friends included Alice Roosevelt, Marguerite Cassini and Cissy Patterson.  At one point, Alice was concerned that her fiancĂ©, Nicholas Longworth, might run off with Katherine. Alice, Cissy and Katherine would all later become Dupont Circle neighbors. 

Prince Luigi Amadeo, the Duke of Abruzzi and the son of Amadeus, the former king of Spain, was introduced to Katherine at a dance at the home of Ambassador and Mrs. Larz Anderson in 1907.  It was love at first sight, and for months the duke was in the company of Miss Elkins wherever she went. 

Prince Luigi Amadeo, the Duke of Abruzzi.  Library of Congress.

In the spring of 1908, rumors had started that the duke and Miss Elkins were engaged. Neither of the families denied the rumors, and stories surfaced that negotiations with the Italian royal family to approve the marriage were in the works and that Katherine’s trousseau was being made in New York. But in the autumn of 1908, it was reported that Italy’s Dowager Queen Margherita was opposed to the marriage. While the duke’s cousin, the king of Italy, initially gave his approval, Margherita maintained full control over the royal family and had the final word. A promise of $1 million by Senator Elkins to help revive the duke’s expended fortune appeared to have temporarily weakened the queen’s opposition to the marriage but ultimately did not sway her opinion. Elkins kept his money, and in late 1908, he publicly denied all rumors that Miss Elkins and the duke were ever engaged.

In January 1909, the duke attempted to resign from the royal family and the Italian navy, renouncing his title and all royal privileges in hopes of removing any obstacles to his marriage to Miss Elkins. The king refused his resignation from the navy. King Edward of England himself tried to persuade the Dowager Queen Margherita that, judging from his acquaintance with Miss Elkins, she was worthy of any man of any blood, provided that the man relinquished all claims to a throne. But this did not persuade the queen either.

In the spring of 1909, Katherine and her mother traveled to Europe, where there appears to have been at least one tryst between Katherine and the duke, with the pair meeting in Baden-Baden, Germany, but the duke denied rumors of any such rendezvous. They also purportedly met up at a secluded resort in the Austrian state of Tyrol at another time when Katherine was traveling with  a friend from Philadelphia.  Finally in October 1910, Katherine returned from Europe, declaring that she “was coming home to be an American.”  Yet, for the next two years, rumors continued that the Katherine and the duke were making arrangements to marry, yet both families continued to deny that the relationship between the two was anything more than a friendship.

Friends Katherine Elkins Hitt and Alice Roosevelt Longwoth promenading in Dupont Circle.  Library of Congress.

In October 1912, rumors surfaced that Katherine Elkins had married her childhood acquaintance and neighbor Billy Hitt in Rome. This news was considered a slight to the duke by the Italian nobility. But after a frantic citywide search of hotels and pensiones for the couple, it was determined that no such marriage had occurred in Rome. The rumor was also immediately denied by the Elkins family.

But Katherine finally did marry Billy Hitt without any notice in October 1913 in a very brief and simple service at her parents’ estate Halliehurst in West Virginia. He had been pursuing her for years, both at home and abroad, and it was assumed by the Elkins that Katherine would sooner or later give in, although to date there had not been the slightest hint that they were even considering marriage.  The duke heard of the news of the marriage through the newspapers. 

Hitt-Elkins wedding announcement in the San Francisco Call, October 27, 1913.  The Duke of Abruzzi is included in the lower center.

In 1922, Katherine Hitt traveled to Paris to file for divorce from Billy, claiming that they were not on terms of affection necessary for married life and that he refused conjugal relations. Friends of the couple observed that while they were very compatible as friends, they found each other incompatible as man and wife; what they had interpreted as love was really a good friendship and nothing more.

After the divorce was granted, the couple returned to the United States together on the same ship and, according to other passengers, the two were on the best of terms.  In March 1923, they remarried in a civil ceremony in Washington that was as much of a surprise to society as their first marriage had been.  The couple then moved to Billy’s house in Middleburg, Virginia, with a houseful of servants, and spent their time breeding horses and raising dogs. 

Katherine Hitt died in 1936 in New York City. Funeral services were held at her mother-in-law’s New Hampshire Avenue mansion, and she was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in the Hitt family plot. Upon her death, she was remembered more by the press for her romance with the Duke of Abruzzi than for her two marriages to Billy Hitt. Billy later married Eugenia Jemison Jelke Woodward, a fiery southern beauty and divorcĂ©e whose family owned a department store in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Eugenia Jemison Jelke Woodward Hitt.  Geni.com
In 1951, Billy Hitt sold the house at 1511 New Hampshire Avenue to the Pan American Sanitary Bureau when it was converted to offices. It was then sold in 1965 to the American Council on Education and was finally demolished in 1970 to make way for the present office building. 
The Duke of Abruzzi never married.  When he died in 1933, the only two pictures on the walls in the living room of his house were those of King Victor Emanuel and Katherine Elkins Hitt.

The Duke of Abruzzi in later life.  Summitpost.org

Billy Hitt died in 1961 at his Park Avenue home in New York City.  He is buried next to Katherine in the Hitt family plot in Rock Creek Cemetery.    
Hitt family monument in Rock Creek Park.  "Out with the ebb tide, on some farther quest."

Site of the Hitt mansion today.  Source: Google Earth.