Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Vigorous, rebellious, and perceived by many to be unfashionably independent for a woman of her time and social standing, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot (1881-1960) was irrefutably the Keystone State’s most flamboyant first lady. But she was more than modern, much more than a stylish trendsetter. Pursuing an active public life that she described as “never stale or dull,” she prided herself in her ability to function effectively in a man’s world, which earned for her the description “new-styled feminist.” She tore off the shackles of her privileged background, steeped in the rigid restraints of the nineteenth century’s upper class, to champi­on social causes, to throw herself into the murky waters of state and national politics, and to leave a legacy that rivals that of her visionary governor-husband.

Married to conservationist Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), who had been the first Chief Forester of the U.S. Forest Service and would twice serve as governor of Pennsylvania – from 1923 to 1927, and again from 1931 to 1935 – Cornelia shared a baronial, forty-one room residence, Grey Towers, with him in Milford, Pike County. She also shared his abiding conviction that “the public good comes first.” For more than three decades the Pinchots worked relentlessly to combine resources­ – he as public official, governor, and conservationist; she as feminist, activist, and political candidate; and both as reformers, visionaries, and members of America’s affluent aristocracy. Gifford Pinchot was able to provide his wife – who would contribute two hundred thousand dollars to his various campaigns – with a stage and an important role to play before and immediately after women received the right to vote. Calling politics “the best of all indoor sports,” Cornelia Pinchot served on the Council of Republican Women and campaigned tirelessly for her husband. She ran three times, albeit unsuccessfully, in Republican Party primaries in 1926, 1928, and 1932, and vowed to run as an independent for governor if her husband was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934.

It was during Gifford Pinchot’s bid for the 1934 Republican senatorial nomination that his wife gave one of her unconven­tional political performances. The incumbent, the powerful Senator David A. Reed, had publicly criticized her involvement on a committee investigating sweatshop conditions. In May, she rode in a horse-drawn sleigh mounted on wheels, warning “Don’t let Reed take you for another sleigh ride!” With this allusion to Reed’s dishonesty, she addressed spectators gath­ering at Philadelphia City Hall. Shortly afterwards she was booed by a Republican women’s group which staunchly supported the senator. Reed won the nomination but lost the election to New Deal Democrat Joseph F. Guffey.

Before she met Gifford Pinchot, Cornelia Elizabeth Bryce had thirty-three years to hone her colorful personality. Born in Newport, Rhode Island, she was the daughter of Lloyd Stevens Bryce, editor of the North American Review, Paymaster General of the State of New York, Democratic congressman, and U.S. Minister to the Netherlands. Her mother, Edith Cooper, was the daughter of a New York City mayor and granddaughter of Peter Cooper (1791-1883), wealthy New York manufacturer, inventor, philanthropist and, in 1857, founder of Cooper Union, a tuition-free college of science and engineering. Cornelia described herself in the liberal magazine The Nation in 1926, as a child who was “always in violent motion, full of spirits and eagerness, with a full measure of the adventures and rebellions, the joys and despairs that make up a thoroughly normal childhood.”

The privileged background into which she was born included elite private schools (Eleanor Roosevelt was in her dancing class), competitive sports (polo, hunting, riding, and driving automobiles were among her favorites), and frequent trips from Newport to New York and Europe. Her education was erratic; the traditional subjects taught to proper young ladies of her era – art, music, literature – interested her little, if at all. Grey Towers curator Carol Severance explains that Cornelia wanted only “solid information about building, structure, form, and design.” She would later work to eradicate the Victorian era belief that females should not be educated, and she supported the notion that women should play a11 active role in developing educational policy.

At an age when young Victorian period women were eagerly anticipating their entreé into adult society, the intrepid Miss Bryce was careening about in a coach and four, enjoying “an extremely good time.” She was an enthusiastic sportswoman, particularly against “hard-boiled masculine competition,” who enjoyed courting danger. She briefly considered a career as a steeplechaser. Inevitably, suitors came and suitors went, but Cornelia refused all offers of marriage. Sometime later, Edith Cooper Bryce is reputed to have written her daughter upon finding several diamond solitaires in a discarded bureau. Cornelia claimed not to have any memory of them. “My father and mother, much to their surprise, were forced to adjust themselves to a ‘dud’ in the family circle,” she later recalled. ‘I flatly refused to ‘come out’ [as a debutante] … and knew that I was ‘agin’ everything the family wanted.”

Ultimately, her rebellion against “the rich and established” and the nagging guilt that she had failed her parents proved burdensome. As the twentieth century opened, she claimed her independence by discarding “both my pearls and my maid” and setting off to tour the country. Armed with letters of introduction and in the company of a friend, Cornelia was, for the first time in her life, “footloose – with no family to consider or demonstrate against.” A liberated Miss Bryce, with her revolutions and rebellions behind her, armed herself with letters of introduction to all the great, the near-great, and the not at all great from Maine to California .” She enjoyed the attentions of “big-game hunters, reactionary Senators, Socialists, stodgy captains of industries, single taxers, a whole-hog Tolstoian, college professors, and editors galore – even a Hindu agitator.” In contrast with earlier feminists, Cornelia approved of cosmetics and pioneered in making them socially acceptable among women of polite society. “There isn’t a more fascinating or more interesting woman in this country than Mrs. Pinchot,” a nationally syndicated columnist opined in 1924, “and accord­ing to her own belief her success is due largely to the application of first aid from a beauty parlor at the critical moment.”

Upon returning to New York, she spent the following decade sharpening her political acumen and broadening her social activism. Since many of her family members had held elective office (she recalled handing out political literature as a six-year-­old), it was not surprising to find a youthful Cornelia in the smoking room or the dining room talking politics with the men long after the women had left the table. Family friend Theodore Roosevelt claimed she knew more about the subject than any other woman he knew.

The groundwork was being laid for a career that would eventually include picket lines, marches, protests, sweatshop inspections, worker organization, and support of government funding for social causes. She served on the board of managers of New York’s Bellevue Hospital where her duties included visiting the hospital, managing the nurses’ home, and running the social service department. She thought it absurd that wealthy women volunteered at the hospital because they seemed primarily interested in whether or not the nurses were wearing their caps correctly. Bryce marched into patients’ rooms and shadowed nurses to learn, firsthand, about their working conditions.

The disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City in 1911 called attention to the miserable conditions of factory workers, particularly women. Bryce served on committees that developed better safety laws for female employees. Her activities caught the eye of a columnist for the New York Tribune who reported “Miss Cornelia Bryce … with the utmost of wealth and position at her command … chooses as her chief interest the causes of the working woman.”

She worked unflaggingly for Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Campaign of 1912, his failed bid to recapture the presidency. It would prove to be memorable as more than a political campaign, for it brought together the five-foot-ten­-inch, red-haired Miss Bryce – she was a natural blonde who used a distinctive henna rinse – and the courtly and patrician Gifford Pinchot.

Before family members and a few close friends, including Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and Cornelia Bryce were married at her parents’ home in Roslyn, New York, on August 15, 1914, six months after the J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, published his book, The Training of a Forester. Pinchot was forty­-nine, sixteen years her senior. Their daughter-in-law, Sarah Richards Pinchot, later recalled the attraction of oppo­sites. “Gifford was very proper, moral, conventional. ‘Lelia’ [as she was called by the family] was a natural rebel – loved to upset people by doing outrageous things. They complemented each other. It was a delight to be with them.” For thirty-two years they shared a dynamic, supportive partnership – a balanced, loving relationship.

The couple married in the midst of Pinchot’s first race for the United States Senate, and the newlyweds spent their honeymoon campaigning. Cornelia traveled extensively, speaking and handing out leaflets. Some believed her drive was stronger than his, and that although she matched her husband in wealth and enthusi­asm, she outdistanced him in political ambition. Energy and devotion, however, were not enough to secure the election, and Pinchot was soundly defeated by opponent Boies Penrose. His wife, resilient as always, reflected philosophically on the outcome. “If you are a woman and marry a Pinchot, or if you elect to buck the dominant political machine … you must expect to lose just so often – possibly half the time. But it is a good game. And a little like a love affair, exciting and self­-satisfying whether one loses or not.”

Shortly before his marriage, and because he had decided to pursue a career in Pennsylvania politics, Gifford Pinchot had established his residence at Grey Towers, the family summer home in northeastern Pennsylvania, not far from the borders of New Jersey and New York. Built in 1885 for his parents, James Wallace and Mary Jane Eno Pinchot, the Normandy-style chateau, complete with a turreted tower, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895), a family friend and leading American architect whose Gilded Age clients included Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, and William K. Vanderbilt. Hunt wanted the expansive stone residence to reflect the family’s French heritage, while at the same time incorporating local building materials. Located in the Pocono Mountains, the house commands a magnificent view of the Delaware River Valley. Designated a National Historic Landmark, Grey Towers is maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service as a tribute to Gifford Pinchot. Into Grey Towers swept the irrepressible Cornelia Bryce Pinchot in 1914, and the stately residence would never be the same. Several family members were horrified by the sweeping changes the new lady of the house made as she “jazzed the place up” and “let in the light.” She had a penchant for red, and brought in a red lacquered highboy and a red silk chaise longue. She favored the exotic, and covered pine floors with teak boards. She adored the unconventional, and moved the dining room outdoors. Since she enjoyed including guests in her whimsy, she replaced the traditional dining room table with an oddity she dubbed “The Finger Bowl.” An oval stone water table, carved out like an enormous bowl, it was filled with water and placed on the patio. In good weather, Cornelia hosted dinner parties alfresco. Under a canopy of wisteria, with fish darting about in the bowl below, guests passed food to one another on floating trays-much like children pushing toy boats across a little pond. Because the Pinchots strongly believed in blending structures with their surroundings, they created new walkways, patios, gardens, and pools at Grey Towers. In the sum.mer, Gifford Pinchot moved his office outdoors under a tent.

No longer a grand and imposing mansion but a home genuinely suited to the frenetic activities of its lively occupants, Grey Towers became a beehive of activity as droves of politi­cians and government officials swarmed through what became known as Milford’s “political boarding house.” Cornelia was in her element. She took great pride in her ability to break out of the restrictions that limited women’s aspirations. Her whirl­wind energy matched her husband’s, and she filled Grey Towers with the movers and shakers of Progressive politics. They credited her with being an effective professional politi­cian, a skilled strategist, and a clever tactician. Her success as a politician was, in part, due to her ability to listen as well as to expound. Grandson Peter Pinchot remembers her as a “com­pletely self-possessed woman with an embracing intellect,” who focused intently on her conversational partners.

It was during a 1915 soiree that she went into labor before the birth of their only child, Gifford Bryce Pinchot. Rather than interrupt the reception, Cornelia slipped into another room where she banged her head against the wall until the labor pains passed. When she recovered sufficiently, she rejoined her guests as if nothing was amiss.

Together, the three Pinchots worked hard and played heartily. The young Gifford Bryce Pinchot-nicknamed “Giffie” – became an early participant in his parents’ political activism, although he clearly did not share their zeal. Giffie’s son Peter Pinchot recalls his father’s account of being packed oft at the age of nine or ten, to deliver a political speech for his parents. “He wasn’t comfortable, but he did it anyway.” Giffie Pinchot never shared his parents’ fascination for politics, choosing instead a career as a biochemist. A seven-month South Seas cruise in 1929 was a family activity more to Giffie’s liking. Following his father’s unsuccessful attempt to win a U.S. Senate seat, the family set sail in a second-hand, three-masted, one hundred and forty-eight-foot topsail schooner. The twenty-five passengers, including three scientists (and only one woman, Cornelia), made stops at Tahiti and the Galapagos, Marquesas, and Tuamotu Islands where they studied and collected specimens of fish, animal, bird, and plant life. One discovery, a new species of fish, was named benthosema pinchoti, another Giffordella Corneliae. Both Pinchots sent home a series of chatty articles about their travels which were published in Pennsylvania newspapers and helped keep them in the minds of voters.

The suffrage movement attracted Cornelia’s interest, at first in a casual way. She remembered walking in her first suffrage parade and in subsequent ones “as a matter of course and without feeling that Twas doing anything significant.” Her work for voting rights continued, however, not because it was a just cause but because she saw women as a huge, new voting block – a group that could play a more vital role in their own lives if they secured a public voice. Her goal was to “enfran­chise them with even more interest in their responsibilities than in their rights.” Subsequently, she served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Woman’s Suffrage Association where her money and influence contributed to ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, enacting women’s right to vote. The type of feminism to which she adhered during this time called for women to use their new power intelligently. From that concept grew the League of Women Voters, of which Cornelia was a founder and Gifford a strong backer. The Pinchots believed that the women’s point of view would cause changes in the entire political scene because women stressed certain issues and had special qualities. Women were expected to throw their weight against war and unfair labor conditions.

An issue sponsored by women leaders was the prohibition of liquor, a cause for which both Pinchots fought passionately throughout their political years. When they hosted large public crowds on the grounds at Grey Towers for special occasions, they served ice cream instead of the politicians’ customary alcoholic beverages. Although the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor was ratified in 1919, and federal enforcement was provided by the Volstead Act, only with state cooperation in enforcement could it have eradicated the underground liquor culture that arose. The General Assembly of Pennsylvania passed the Snyder Act in 1923 authorizing state enforcement of the Volstead Act, but it would not fund the upgrading of the police system that was necessary. Governor Pinchot resorted to using Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) donations to assist enforcement, and he assigned herculean enforcement duties to the understaffed Pennsylvania State Police. Prohibition was unpopular not only with such political powers as Pittsburgh’s Mellon family and Philadelphia’s Republican ward bosses, but with many ordinary citizens. Despite the hostilities fomented by prohibition, the Pinchots’ stand on other issues often made them the people’s choice.

Nowhere was Cornelia’s maverick streak more conspicuous than in her ideological separation from earlier feminists who had renounced marriage and children, claiming that a successful career demanded one’s full attention. Cornelia saw herself as homemaker, mother, politician, activist, who was making a real contribution to the Commonwealth. She proclaimed, “My feminism tells me that a woman can bear children, charm her lovers, boss a business, swim the Channel, stand at Armageddon, and battle for the Lord – all in the day’s work!” She further believed, contends John W. Furlow Jr., author of “Cornelia Bryce Pinchot: Feminism in the Post­Suffrage Era” which appeared in Pennsylvania History, that “through contact provided by political equality, men and women would become more realistic in their relations; that together men and women could know more.”

To accomplish her expanded day’s work, Cornelia Pinchot’s new breed of woman would have her drudgery reduced by modern circumstances, and the 1920s saw the introduction of domestic devices, such as the home refrigerator, electric iron, electric toaster, radio, and inexpensive automobile. She was in favor of new methods, although she came to anguish occasion­ally. Criticism was raised by an assemblyman when her car was nearly driven into a stream, and her several months of learning to fly an airplane – in order to campaign throughout the Commonwealth – came to naught when she failed the eye examination.

Next among Cornelia Pinchot’s political priorities was the all-consuming task of helping her husband capture major political offices, including the governorship of Pennsylvania. She was to demonstrate a flair for listening to people and drawing them out, as well as a savvy for strategy. When the newly formed League of Women Voters hosted the candidate at a luncheon, she advised him to speak straightforwardly. “Women [don’t] want hot air and generalities,” she told him. She also convinced him to give up wearing a bow tie because “it made him look like an undertaker.” Pledging to clean up the mess in Harrisburg and promising honesty in government, equal enforcement of laws, and an improved economy, Gifford Pinchot came from behind to win the 1922 election. He did not hesitate to share the moment with his wile. “It was due to Mrs. Pinchot and the women she organized, far more than to any other single factor that we won,” he wrote. The New York Times reported, “The greatest fear of the machine leaders was not of the nominee, but of his wife’s prove[n] political generalship.” Cornelia, however, saw the alliance from another point of view, for when addressing a women’s group in Nashville in 1925 she said “Pinchot happened to be sympathetic and loose, so the women made use of him.”

Both Cornelia and Gifford Pinchot shared a passionate devotion to the use, preservation, and renewal of natural resources to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. They believed that the scarcity or abundance of natural resources impacted directly and irrevocably on world conditions – prosperity or want, war or peace. John Furlow attributes this attitude to Cornelia who believed “A man’s view about conser­vation might well be taken as the acid test to determine his attitude towards public questions of all sorts.”

The second Pinchot administra­tion, in contrast with the economic prosperity of the first, called for another kind of conservation – government intervention to conserve society in the grip of an ever deepening Great Depression. Cornelia Pinchot’s pro­-labor stance grew stronger, and she continued to be a female role model. When criticized for the cost of entertaining in the executive residence, she gave a dinner party for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and four dozen guests, serving food and goods purchased at York’s public markets. The menu of soup, com bread, cabbage rolls stuffed with salmon and rice, ham­burger steaks, salad, and ice cream reportedly cost only five-and-a-half cents per serving, earning it a place in gastro­nomical annals of the era.

Her style either amused or bemused beholders. Augusta (“Gusty”) Raymond Gale, administrative assistant and social secretary to governors and first ladies for nearly a half century, remembers working for the Pinchots in her 1987 autobiography, Those Incredible Years. Gale, who joined the governor’s staff during the last year of Pinchot’s first adminis­tration, paints a flattering portrait of both Governor and first Lady Cornelia Pinchot, whom she and the staff called C.B.P. behind her back, a reference to the way in which she signed letters to many notables. “Governor and Mrs. Pinchot were both exactly as you would picture a Governor and First Lady to be – tall, erect, aristocratic, gracious, and each with such piercing eyes that you felt they knew what you were thinking even before you said a word!”

Gale admired nearly everything about the stylish pair. “The Governor dressed simply, but in good taste, almost always wearing his famous ten-gallon hat. Mrs. Pinchot dressed elegantly, wearing bright colors which complemented her flaming hair. She was also known for the hats she wore. Those hats were really something, with high crowns and plumes of all kinds.”

She also applauded their fierce work ethic. “Governor and Mrs. Pinchot were no slouches when it came to work. They worked hard and expected everyone else to work just as hard as they did. On many occasions at Grey Towers … we began work at eight o’clock in the morning and continued until evening, depending on the importance of the work at hand. Of course, to any governor all work is important, so we knew from previous experience that this would be a very active and strenuous administration.

“This second Pinchot Administration was very colorful in many ways. I spent some of my time in the Governor’s Office working primarily on legislative bills,” Gale continued. “Mrs. Pinchot, who was extremely popular and exciting, required additional secretarial help from time to time, and then I was sent down to the Executive Mansion. One of the first things I noticed was that she had her letters typed in green, and she also signed them in green ink Rather unusual, but Mrs. Pinchot was an unusual First Lady.” And colorful, the word seemingly everyone used to describe her.

Cornelia Pinchot’s remarks were as colorful as her fiery red hair, her vivid red clothes, or her bright red automobile. She was not one to mince words or hesitate to shock listeners. In a talk to the Women’s Club of Pen Argyl, Northampton County, in 1924, she announced that the popular women’s club move­ment was created to fill empty lives. Addressing the Bradford County Civic League the following year, she stunned her audience by describing Esther, a legendary Native American who presided over the bloody execution of early settlers in Luzerne County, as “a woman of unusual force with a gift for leadership.” In 1926, she told a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution that she always hated genealogists. Further articulating her convictions and asserting her indepen­dence, she – as a former Republican first lady of Pennsylvania – campaigned for Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940.

When Governor Pinchot fell ill at the end of his second term, it was Cornelia Bryce Pinchot who took charge of the Common­wealth for nearly three months. In his final message to the state legislature, the governor gave “special thanks” to his wife, “whose advice in this emergency was indispensable. Indeed throughout both my terms Mrs. Pinchot’s assistance in dealing with the human side of government has been invaluable. In her the people of the Commonwealth have had a11 ally impossible to duplicate or replace.”

In 1943, Cornelia Pmchot was a founding member of the Committee of One Hundred, an organization dedicated to justice and equality for African Americans. A year after her husband’s death in 1946, she traveled to Greece to report on conditions to President Harry S. Truman. Later, she attended the United Nations Scientific Conference on Conservation and the Utilization of Resources, where she cautioned the delegates to neither “sidestep the human and political implications of conservation,” nor deal with it “exclusively in terms of materi­als, matter and technical processes.”

Cornelia Bryce Pinchot – popular and controversial – had sailed the South Seas, ridden a dromedary in Egypt, stalled in an airplane over London, and been stoned by angry mobs while picketing for better working conditions in textile mills. At a time when few women were able, she enjoyed a challenging but eminently rewarding life in the forefront – and on the front­line – of politics. Her efforts, working independently and with her husband, helped to secure women the right to vote, brought about legislation that improved workers’ conditions, saw the enactment of laws protecting women and children and, ultimately, gave a sympathetic human face to the body politic. In spite of Cornelia Pinchot’s countless contributions, upon her death on September 9, 1960, in Washington, D.C., the following morning’s New York Times headlined her obituary only with “Widow of Former Governor (Pinchot).” But now, nearly forty years later, history remembers the fierce independence, the zealous activism, and the courageous spirit of Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, The Lady in Red, who led the fight against injustice and oppression and advocated fairness and equality for not only Pennsylvanians but all Americans.


Grey. Towers, a National Historic Landmark and home of Gifford and Cornelia Pinchot, is administered by the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The house and one hundred acres of grounds, including formal gardens, expansive lawns, and lush wood­lands, were conveyed to the Forest Service by Pinchot’s heirs and dedi­cated in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy as the Pinchot Institute for Conservation Studies to develop conservation programs through training and research. In 1983, the National Friends of Grey Towers, a private non-profit educational foundation, was established to assist the Forest Service to preserve, protect, restore, and interpret the his­toric estate, and to promote public understanding of conservation through programs of the Pinchot Institute. The house is open to visi­tors from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Because Grey Towers is sub­ject to close for special events and conferences, visitors are encour­aged to telephone in advance of their visit to verify visiting hours. For more information, write: Grey Towers, Post Office Box 188, Milford, Pennsylvania 18337; or telephone (717) 296-6401.


For Further Reading

Fausold, Martin L. Gifford Pinchot, Bull Moose Progressive. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1961.

Furlow, John W. Jr. “Cornelia Bryce Pinchot: Feminism in the Post­-Suffrage Era.” Pennsylvania History. XLIII, 4 (October 1976).

Gale, Augusta Raymond. Those Incredible Years. Camp Hill, Pa.: The Gale Family, 1987.

Greene, Le Roy. Shelter for His Excellency: The Story of Pennsylvania’s Executive Mansion and the One Hundred Governors of the Commonwealth. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1951.

McGeary, M. Nelson. Gifford Pinchot, Forester-Politician. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Pinchot, Gifford. Breaking New Ground. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1987.

____. The Training of a Forester. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1914.

Schneider, Dorothy, and Carl J. Schneider. American Women in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920: Change, Challenge and the Struggle for Women’s Rights. New York: Anchor Books, 1993.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. These Modern Women: Autobiographical Essays from the Twenties. Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1978.


The author wishes to thank Antoinette Pinchot Bradlee and Peter and Nancy Pinchot for graciously sharing their memories of Pennsyl­vania’s remarkable First Lady Cornelia Bryce Pinchot. The author also acknowledges the assistance of Carol Severance, curator of Grey Towers, for lier review and critique of this article.


Mary Beth Kennedy Voda, a resident of Wyalusing, Bradford County, teaches for the Wyalusing School District, the Pennsylvania State University, and Keystone College. She has written for several publica­tions, including Pennsylvania Magazine, The Reading Teacher, and the Wyalusing Rocket.