Margery Durant 1887-1969

By Alexander Sanger

Margery Durant
Margery Durant

Margery Durant was born May 24, 1887 in Flint, Michigan, the daughter of William Crapo Durant and Clara Pitt Durant. She had a younger brother, Clifford, born in 1890. Margery’s father was the grandson of Henry Howland Crapo, a successful lumberman and railroad magnate, who served as Governor of Michigan from 1864-8.

Billy Durant had a number of careers, from cigar salesman and insurance agent to water works executive, before he found his calling, first as a manufacturer of horse buggies, with his Flint Road Cart Company and Durant-Dort Carriage Company, and then in the early 1900’s as a manufacturer of horseless carriages.

In the opening of her book, My Father, Margery tells the tale of sneaking off with a friend one day in 1902 to ride in an automobile. She races home breathless to tell her father, “Pops I’ve ridden in a horseless carriage.” Billy Durant replies, “Margery, how could you, how could you, be so foolish as to risk your life in one of those things.”

Durant soon thereafter bought the fledgling Buick Motor Car Company and then proceeded to buy Cadillac, Oldsmobile and other companies, eventually forming General Motors in 1908. He followed this up with the creation of the Chevrolet Motor Car Company in 1910 and finally the Durant Motor Car Company in 1921.

Margery accompanied her father on numerous cross-country automobile expeditions in the early 1900’s, a time of rudimentary roads and more rudimentary automobiles. Durant’s career has been the subject of numerous biographies. He was twice evicted from control of General Motors by its creditors, and, in the stock market crash in 1929, he lost more money in the shortest period of time than almost anyone in history. He died penniless in 1947, supported by Margery.

Margery attended primary school in Flint and then attended Miss Mason’s School for Girls, or The Castle, as it was called, in Tarrytown, New York, and later Mt. Vernon Seminary in Washington, D.C. from 1903 to 1905, where she roomed with Marjorie Merriweather Post and graduated in the Class of 1905. She took art history twice, the second time to study sculpture. She also took courses in literature, geology, American political history, astronomy and psychology.

She married a local Flint doctor, Edwin Rutheven Campbell, on April 18, 1906 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Flint. They had two children, William in 1907 and Edwina in 1909. Dr. Campbell was an immigrant from Port Perry, Ontario, where his parents had emigrated from Scotland. Margery was 18 and the groom was 40. Dr. Campbell, trained in general medicine, surgery and obstetrics, was WC Durant’s personal physician and soon joined his father-in-law in the automobile business. Margery kept his books when he practiced medicine and sent out the bills. Edwin Campbell is known today in the art world for having commissioned Kandinsky to produce four paintings, known as The Four Seasons, for the foyer of their apartment at 635 Park Avenue, New York City. The paintings hang today in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and are known as the Campbell Panels.

Margery was described by her daughter, Edwina, as “A raving beauty with dark curly hair, she had the whitest of skin and the kind of hourglass figure made famous by the Gibson Girl. She was also very bright and a good student, a natural for keeping books in father’s office. Gifted with a clear, true soprano voice, she was later trained in New York City by the best vocal coaches of her day. In my innocent childhood, little did I know that one day I would be called upon to accompany her on the piano as she sang Italian and French arias—in public no less!”

As General Motors and Chevrolet moved, so did Billy Durant, Edwin and Margery, since Durant lived with his daughter after divorcing Margery’s mother. They moved to Detroit in 1912 and then to New York City in 1914, Margery to the apartment at 635 Park Avenue. She later bought an 18-acre estate on Wheatley Hills Road in Old Westbury, Long Island, which she called Dreamwood. The main house had over 30 rooms, plus there was an 8-car garage, a superintendent’s house, a garden, stable, kennel, swimming pool and tennis court. She sold Dreamwood in 1939. According to the NY Times she also had an ocean front estate in Palm Beach in 1933.

She caught the Flu of 1918, as did daughter Edwina, but survived. She divorced Edwin Campbell in 1919, remarrying Robert W. Daniel in 1922-3. He was a Titanic survivor and the scion of a distinguished Virginia family. They bought Brandon, a James River Plantation, and restored it to glory. He later became President of Liberty National Bank, courtesy of his new father-in-law, who owned the bank.

Divorcing Daniel in 1928, after the birth of a daughter also named Margery, Margery became engaged to Mitchell Kennerley, a rare book dealer and publisher, known for publishing Edna St Vincent Millay’s first book of poems and for not paying her any royalties. Margery broke off the engagement after discovering numerous perfidies on his side. Years later, an impoverished Kennerley committed suicide.

Margery rebounded by marrying a man named John Hampton Cooper in 1929. Cooper was known as “The Ginger Ale King,” though he appeared to have no visible means of support. She soon sued him for divorce on the grounds that he did not disclose to her that he had been married before, a disclosure that, under the circumstances, one would have thought irrelevant. This story provided major fodder for the tabloid newspapers of the day.

In 1929 she wrote My Father, a biography of her father. She was assisted in this venture by one Fitzhugh Green, who ghost wrote We, Charles Lindbergh’s story of his epic trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. Margery was introduced to him by their mutual friend, Amelia Earhart. Green was a retired naval commander and polar explorer.

In 1931-2, Margery undertook her most amazing adventure to date, an Air Popularization Tour of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

In 1933 Margery married Fitzhugh Green and remained married to him until his death in 1947. In 1937 they built a fishing lodge in Taupo, New Zealand and made many trips there for the trout fishing. It is now the owner’s cottage of the Huka Lodge.

She died in Palm Beach, Florida on February 3,1969 at age 82.