I am currently working on cataloging our files of photocopies and transcripts of Lee-related documents owned by other libraries and museums. The first mention that Henry Lee IV (only surviving son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee and his first wife Matilda) was seriously courting someone before he discovered his eventual wife came in a typed transcript of a letter from John B. Nicholson to Henry in 1816. Nicholson, a Virginian who eventually attained the rank of commodore, was one of a group of young men who kept in touch via letters containing the latest gossip and views on marriage and women in general. In a letter to Henry dated April 3, 1816, he wrote, “Serena was all loveliness when I left New York, but she is not for a Virginian; You mistake, I did not ever dare to look upon her but as a friend, I was not your rival. If you had possessed ten thousand a year—she would long ere this been Mrs. Lee—of this enough.” It piqued my curiosity. Who was Serena?
Thank goodness for Google search. On my own I would have never discovered the fairly obscure reference in a 1970 journal of American Literature available through JSTOR and titled “1815-1819: Prelude to Irving’s Sketch Book” by M. A. Weatherspoon. Evidently, quite a few young men were infatuated with the lovely—and wealthy—Serena Livingston of New York. Henry Lee and Washington Irving were just two of them.
In his article, Weatherspoon elaborated on Irving’s deepening depression after 1815 and a possible cause—an unsuccessful courtship of Serena. None of Irving’s biographers had ever mentioned her, but Serena was a definite presence in his life and letters. Irving’s letters to Henry Brevoort in 1815 described himself as “unsettled and almost joyless.” It seems that Henry Lee had told Irving that he had asked for Serena’s hand and that they were engaged. Irving wished him well and made plans to sail to England. Just before Irving embarked for Liverpool to help with his brother’s firm, he was given a note from Lee with instructions to open it the following morning when at sea. In the note, which Irving read according to the sender’s direction, was Lee’s confession that he was NOT engaged to Serena.
As expected, Irving was livid and completely disgusted with Lee. According to certain accounts, Lee concocted the story to prevent Brevoort and Irving from “quizzing” him about Serena. Lee assured Irving that he had told no one else the falsehood. Irving considered Lee’s deceit dishonorable, particularly since it involved the woman he adored. It is unclear whether Irving was more depressed at the idea of Serena’s engagement, her “lack of taste” in her chosen fiancé, or his thought that he would never be financially suitable to marry her. Irving later wrote, “she[Serena] is the heroine of all my poetical thoughts where they would picture anything very feminine and lovely. But where is the hero of romance worthy to bear away so peerless a face?—Not among the worthy young traders of New York most certainly….” By December 1816, Irving declared “Fortune by her tardy favours and capricious freaks seems to discourage all my matrimonial resolves…Certainly the timing of Lee’s declaration of his falsehood can be described as a ‘capricious freak.’”
Serena’s father, John R. Livingston, expected much of the man who would become his son-in-law, since he wrote, “poverty is a curse I can’t bear, with it a man had better not exist.” Irving, like Lee with no large inheritance or lucrative livelihood, had no hope of securing Mr. Livingston’s blessing. Unlike Irving, however, Lee had aimed his heart elsewhere and had successfully courted and wed his neighbor Ann McCarty.
The story doesn’t end here, however. In 1817, Washington Irving wrote of the marriage of Serena to Colonel George Croghan, a hero of the War of 1812: “The marriage of Serena L is in the best style of modern romance. I hope the Colonel is as amiable in the parlour as he is gallant in the field; if so, he is the very man for her.” Croghan held a lucrative postmaster job in New Orleans, but his marriage did not have a happy ending. George Croghan became an alcoholic and had financial as well as personal problems. Serena grew to hate him and refused to live with him, eventually obtaining a legal separation to stop him from selling her possessions. Croghan’s family blamed Serena for George’s “general dissolution” since he never drank when visiting them for extended periods. Croghan, who was appointed inspector general of the army by President Andrew Jackson in 1829, occupied the position until his death in 1849, when he was given a hero’s burial.