Memory Lane



Two Strong-Willed Women of Oakdale

During Women’s History Month we spoke with Islip Town Historian, George Muckenbeck, about two women, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont and Isabella Premm, both of whom were associated with the Vanderbilt Idle Hour Estate in Oakdale.  Mr. Munkenbeck first spoke about Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, who after marrying millionaire William Kissam Vanderbilt in 1875, owned several properties and mansions including the Idle Hour Estate in Oakdale, New York.  During her marriage to Vanderbilt, Alva strived to impress and be accepted into high society.  Alva’s determination and drive is evident in this stage of her life and it is also later on.

After a bitter divorce from William K. Vanderbilt in 1895, Alva acquired the Marble House in Newport Rhode Island, while he held on to the Idle Hour Oakdale property.  Her years of residing in Oakdale ended when she divorced Vanderbilt.  A year later she married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont. Her quote “First marry for money, then marry for love,” may well be a reflection of her two marriages.  After the death of Belmont in 1908, Alva devoted herself to the woman suffrage movement.  Her enthusiasm, passion, and financial support were a valuable asset to the cause.

After the passage of the 19th Amendment, Alva became the president of the National Woman’s Party, a position she held until her death in 1933.  She died in Paris, France, but was brought back to New York to be interred in the Belmont mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  A suffragette banner inscribed with the slogan, “Failure is impossible,” which aptly seems to summarize her attitude in life, was interred with her.

Isabella Premm was another highly driven individual who campaigned on behalf of women.  She was born in 1903 to Arthur Premm, a superintendent on the William K. Vanderbilt’s Idle Hour Estate in Oakdale.  According to newspaper accounts, Isabella was an outdoorsy type, who during her childhood in Oakdale, gained an impressive knowledge of the coast and properties along the Great South Bay.  After graduating from the Hillside School for Girls in Norwalk, Connecticut, she embarked at the age of 19 on a career as a federal agent.  This was the era of Prohibition and a time when women agents were a novelty.  Newspapers from all across the nation reported on the attractive feisty young woman who was taking on the rumrunners.  There were reports about her chasing bootleggers and being fired at by them for her efforts.  She led an “owl’s life” sleeping during the day and seeking out rumrunners in the evenings.  She criticized the federal government for dropping women from the force because, as she claimed, women could not be easily bribed.

When exactly Isabella’s federal agent career ended is not clear.  She left the United States and married in 1929 John W. Jones, an Englishman who worked for the Cunard Line in Kent, England. They had one child, a son.  In January 1940, she unexpectedly died of natural causes in Southampton, England, at the age of 36.  

We encourage you to listen to George Munkenbeck, Town of Islip Historian, recount stories about these two strong-willed and determined women, both of whom are associated with the Idle Hour Estate in Oakdale.

George Muckenbeck Interview

George Muckenbeck Interview