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Six Historic Love Nests

Romance bloomed in all six New England states

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In honor of Valentines Day, the New England Historical Society chose to highlight six love nests.

Love nests can be lavish mansions built for mistresses or summer homes where movie stars can canoodle. Or they can be places where long and happy marriages take place.

We even included a house that was a love nest only in an author’s imagination.

Here, then, are six historic love nests, one for each New England state. If you know of another historic love nest, please share it in the comments section.

Hepburn House


Katharine Hepburn’s house in Fenwick, probably Connecticut’s most famous love nests.

Katharine Hepburn loved her summer home in Fenwick, and she loved her married co-star Spencer Tracy.

And, lucky for her, she could enjoy both of them together.

She had been going to the summer beach colony in Old Saybrook, Conn., since she was five years old. Born in Hartford in 1907, she swam, sailed and golfed at the wealthy enclave. After she met Spencer Tracy on the set of Woman of the Year, she could have called it her love nest.

At that first meeting, Katharine famously said, “I fear I may be too tall for you, Mr. Tracy.” Film director George Stevens retorted, “Don’t worry, he’ll soon cut you down to size.”

Instead, they fell in love with each other. They starred in nine movies together, but lived apart and kept their affair private. Tracy was estranged from his wife, but neither sought a divorce.

Tracy and Hepburn stayed together at Hepburn’s Fenwick home. Her caddy remembers them having breakfast together.

The house, at 10 Mohegan Ave., is privately owned, but you can visit the Katharine Hepburn Museum in Old Saybrook. It’s at 300 Main St. Click here for more information.

Aaron Dunning House


As love nests go, this one was imaginary. Photo courtesy Google Maps.

Visitors to Brunswick, Maine can take a stroll past 76 Federal Street, also known as the Aaron Dunning House at the corner of Cleaveland Street. This was where Nathaniel Hawthorne (Bowdoin Class of 1825) spent most of his school days.

Across the street was the home of Professor Parker Cleaveland, a mineralogist who taught Hawthorne. More importantly to the future author, Cleaveland’s very attractive servant also lived there. Whenever someone arrived at Cleaveland’s door, Hawthorne would come to his window to catch a view of the young woman.

Some writers suggest this young woman was the model for a character in his first novel, Fanshawe, set at the fictional Harley College. The college bears a striking resemblance to Bowdoin.

In real life, 76 Federal Street served Hawthorne’s love nest only in his imagination. Some say Professor Cleaveland thwarted Hawthorne’s desire by shooing him away from the young lady. If so, that would explain his portrayal of an academic in his short story, The Great Carbuncle. An extremely eccentric fictional Doctor Cacophodel bore a striking resemblance to Professor Cleaveland.

The Aaron Dunning House is private, but you can see it at 76 Federal St., Brunswick, Maine

Emily Dickinson Museum


As love nests go, this one may have been the oddest.

Emily Dickinson’s married brother Austin carried on an illicit love affair for 13 years with Mabel Loomis Todd, also married.

The whole town of Amherst, Mass., including Todd’s husband, knew about the affair. He thought it was okay. Austin’s wife did not.

Austin used to take Mabel next door, where his mother and reclusive sisters Emily and Lavinia lived. They’d then have sex on Emily Dickinson’s dining room sofa.

We know because Austin recorded everything in his diary. For example, on January 3, 1886, he wrote, “at the other house 3 to 5 and +=====XXX.” Mabel, who also kept a diary, wrote on the same day. “A most exquisitely happy and satisfactory two hours.”

Emily Dickinson, who surely knew what went on in the dining room, died in 1886.  Lavinia asked Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson to publish her poems. They did, and Mabel embarked on a lecture tour that made famous the reclusive Emily.

Mabel’s affair with Austin ended with his death in 1895.

The Emily Dickinson Museum includes both Emily’s and Austin’s house.  It is at 280 Main St. in Amherst, Mass. Click here for more information.

Wentworth Coolidge House


One of New Hampshire’s colonial love nests.

When the cream of Portsmouth, N.H., society assembled at Gov. Benning Wentworth’s house in March of 1760, they had no idea they’d entered his love nest.

Wentworth had a surprise in store for his guests.

His maid entered the room, not to serve the meal but to get married – to the governor.

Wentworth, at 64, had been widowed and his two sons had died. He hoped to produce an heir.

Martha Hilton, 23, decided to marry the crotchety, portly, gouty Wentworth. The two tied the knot right there in the midst of colonial New Hampshire’s high society. They remained married, living in what is now the Wentworth-Coolidge House for a decade. The marriage ended with Wentworth’s death.

Wentworth-Coolidge House, 375 Little Harbor Road, Portsmouth, N.H. Open to visitors in spring, summer and fall.

Grace Vanderbilt

The most lavish of the love nests, it is now the Grace Vanderbilt. Photo courtesy Google Maps.

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the third son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, built the 33-room Newport mansion in 1909 as a love nest for his mistress, Agnes O’Brien Ruiz.

The affair caused a scandal, as Ruiz was married to the Cuban attache in Washington and Vanderbilt’s wife, the former Elsie French, had moved in with her brother.

The Vanderbilt family told Alfred he could have his money or his mistress, but not both. He chose the money. Ruiz committed suicide.

Vanderbilt remarried and died in the Lusitania sinking.  The love nest became a luxury hotel, the Grace Vanderbilt.

You can stay at the Grace Vanderbilt at 41 Mary St., Newport, R.I.

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Farm


The Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller mansion is now part of a national park.

When he was 17 years old, Laurance Rockefeller developed his first crush on Mary French. She was the sister of his brother Nelson’s Dartmouth College roommate.

Nothing came of it until several years later, when he attended Harvard Law School and she studied sculpture in Cambridge, Mass. They married in 1934 in Woodstock, Vt., where they held the wedding reception at Mary’s family’s summer home.

They had a close partnership dedicated to philanthropy and conservation. In 1951, at the age of 41, Mary inherited her family’s Woodstock estate, which had originally belonged to environmentalist George Perkins Marsh. Her grandfather, railroad tycoon Frederick Billings, bought it and established a model farm on the property.

Their love nest became the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park when Mary and Laurance gave it to the federal government in 1992.

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Mansion, 54 Elm St., Woodstock, Vt.

This story was updated in 2023.

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