When Anna Thompson Dodge died in 1970, she was among the world’s richest women after her family played a pivotal role in the revolutionary American automobile industry of the early 20th Century. But her beginnings had been humble.
Born in Dundee on August 7 1867, Anna died at the age of 103 in Michigan in her beloved 75-room home, Rose Terrace.
The extraordinary building, situated in Grosse Point Farms, housed one of the richest collections of French paintings, furniture and porcelain ever assembled. And when the red sandstone mansion was demolished in 1976 it was described as a “great loss in the American cultural landscape”.
But how did this woman from Dundee amass such an enormous personal wealth during her lifetime?
In her early childhood Anna, who was born Christina Anna Thompson, was taken to Detroit by her widowed mother in search of a better life.
The family was one of modest circumstances but took pride in having an uncle in Scotland who was an architect.
She went to America with nothing, apart from her knowledge of the piano, and patience to teach the art to the middle-class young.
An article from the Daily Telegraph magazine, published on June 18 1971, said: “Whatever girlhood lessons in thrift Anna may have learned at the family hearth in Dundee, she certainly took with her when she sailed for the New World.”
After setting up her piano-teaching business in the 1890s in the small town of Niles, Michigan, Anna met mechanic Horace Elgin Dodge.
The pair married in Windsor, Ontario in 1896 with barely a penny to their name.
It is said that Horace had 75 cents in his pocket at the time and the newlyweds spent 45 cents on their honeymoon suite for one night, and 20 cents for breakfast – leaving them with 10 cents to begin their lives together.
Shortly after they moved in with Horace’s parents, Maria Casto and Daniel Rugg Dodge.
The path to success
In 1897 Horace, a gifted mechanic, and his brother John arranged a deal to join with a third-party investor to manufacture bicycles using a dirt-proof bicycle bearing that Horace had invented and patented.
By October 1900, the pair had sold the business and used the proceeds from the sale to set up their own machine shop in Detroit.
In their first year of business, the Dodge brothers’ company began making parts for the automobile industry. After agreeing to become the major supplier of components for Henry Ford in 1903, their business continued to grow.
By 1914, John and Horace had formed Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company to develop their own line of automobiles. Reputed for their quality, the cars were ranked at second place for US sales as early as 1916.
A change in circumstance
Unfortunately for Horace and John, their success was to be relatively short-lived. In January 1920, John died aged 55 after contracting influenza and pneumonia while in New York City during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Having also contracted the flu that December following several relapses, Horace died from complications of the disease, including pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver, at the age of 52.
By the time Horace died, Anna was already living a decadent lifestyle. With proceeds of the Ford stock sale, Horace paid $825,000 for a Cartier pearl necklace for Anna that once belonged to Catherine the Great – one of the most expensive jewellery transactions in history.
It is reported that Anna only wore the piece twice before giving it to her daughter, Delphine. After being passed down through the Dodge family it was eventually split into three different pearl necklaces. It sold for $1.1 million at an auction in 2018.
In 1910 Horace and Anna commissioned the much-lauded architect Albert Kahn to design a palatial house, dubbed Rose Terrace, on Jefferson Avenue, featuring a series of terraces cascading down to Lake St. Clair.
Six years after Horace’s death, Anna married actor Hugh Dillman and the pair decided to build a completely new mansion.
Calling in the art world’s super-salesman of the time, Joseph Duveen, and architect Horace Trumbauer, Anna supervised the first three years of work on her new palace on the Dodge estate, before announcing she was leaving on a world cruise aboard her yacht, the Delphine.
In 1926, the Delphine caught fire in New York and sank; Anna undertook a painstaking five-year renovation in which she restored it to its former glory.
Unfortunately, the yacht was only able to be enjoyed for a few years before she was requisitioned and pressed into duty as USS Dauntless PG61. Stripped of her lavish interior furnishings, she became the flagship of Admiral Ernest King, commander in chief of the US naval forces and chief of naval operations.
After passing through various hands over the years, the Delphine is now based in the port of Monaco, operating as the world’s only surviving steam-driven luxury yacht.
It is said that after Horace’s death, Anna inherited £24m, which she put into tax‐free municipal bonds, earning her £625,000 a year.
Some time in 1925 or 1926 – there are mixed reports regarding the date – Anna and John Dodge’s widow, Matilda, sold the company for $146m to Dillon, Read & Co in what was understood to be the biggest cash transaction in history at that time.
Arguably Anna’s crowning glory, her Versailles-style mansion, was truly spectacular. Despite owning homes in Palm Beach, London and Southampton – where she and Hugh hosted plenty of lavish parties – it was Rose Terrace that captured Anna’s heart the most.
The house’s 75 rooms were adorned with works of art and furniture that had been sourced from around the world; it was a well-known fact that Anna had a taste for anything French.
Beauvais tapestries hung on the walls, while much of Marie Antoinette’s furniture and palace items from Versailles filled the rooms.
In a buying spree from 1931 to 1935, Anna is thought to have spent well over $1m acquiring treasures such as a writing table that was once in the bedroom of the Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna, the second wife of Tsar Paul I.
Daily Telegraph writer Ian Ball said: “It [Rose Terrace] was a palace fit for royalty, let alone an immigrant piano teacher from Dundee.
“Servants, her own family and friends got into the habit of referring to her as ‘The Queen’.”
In 1932, Anna commissioned Sir Gerald Kelly to paint a vast portrait of her as Madame de Pompadour. It is said that for the sitting she had a romantic gown made identical to the one Pompadour wears in the famous portrait of her by François Boucher.
Anna and Horace had two children; Delphine and Horace Junior. Delphine married three times before her death at the age of 43, in 1943, and had two children, Christine “Cee Cee” Cromwell and Anna Ray Baker Ranger.
Horace Jr had five wives, including a Broadway showgirl and a US army nurse. At the time of his death, aged 63, he was married to actress and socialite Gregg Sherwood. Horace Jr had five children; John Francis Dodge, Diana Dodge, Delphine Dodge Petz, Horace Elgin Dodge III and David Elgin Dodge.
In her later years, Anna spent much of her time embroiled in financial battles. In 1954, Cee Cee Cromwell unsuccessfully sued to have Anna and the Detroit Trust company removed from control of the family trusts.
And following Horace Jr’s death, Gregg sued the estate for $11m before settling out of court with Anna for around $9m.
Anna and Hugh divorced in 1947 after seven years of separation and switched her surname back to Dodge.
Speaking of their time together, Anna said: “Hugh taught me how to have fun with my money.”
The pair met in 1923, before going on to marry in 1926.
By the early 1960s Anna was living full-time at Rose Terrace and, despite her surroundings, she preferred the simple pleasures in life. These included watching television, eating ice cream and listening to her favourite albums.
Anna died in her beloved home on Tuesday June 2 1970, aged 103. She had broken her hip seven years prior and had been wheelchair-bound ever since.
A funeral service was held at Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church in Grosse Pointe on Saturday June 6.
A 17-limousine cortege took her immediate family and close friends to the church.
There was a police motorcycle escort and 300 dignitaries attended. An estimated 15,000 people had passed her casket on June 5, as the body lay in state at the mansion.
Following Anna’s death, there were efforts to turn the art collection of the house into a museum but they failed. Most of Rose Terrace’s contents were sold at auction by Christie’s London and the estate was thought to have been divided among four of her seven grandchildren – although the exact details around this remain unclear.
She gave the city of Detroit $1m towards the construction of a fountain, designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi, in memory of her late husband and son.
The contents of her music room at Rose Terrace were bequeathed to the Detroit Institute of Arts and, sadly, her beloved home was demolished in 1976.
Anna is buried in the Dodge mausoleum at Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
With thanks to the Detroit Historical Society who assisted with the images for this piece.