Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Jenny Jerome Birthplace (but not)
Address: 426 Henry Street
Cross Streets: DeGraw and Kane Streets
Neighborhood: Cobble Hill
Year Built: 1840’s
Architectural Style: Greek Revival
Landmarked: Yes, part of Cobble Hill HD (1969)
The story: When’s an historic birthplace not an historic birthplace? When it’s here. For many years, this unassuming four story brick Greek Revival house has been called the Jenny Jerome House, and it has an official plaque to prove it. Jenny Jerome was the American-born mother of Winston Churchill, and Brooklyn has always been proud to point to this house and tell the tale. Winnie even came here and blessed it, with great pomp and circumstance. But it seems, the tale is wrong.
Jenny was the daughter of Leonard Jerome, a New York financier and bon vivant, and his wife Clara. In the course of his interesting life, Jerome lost a couple of fortunes, made them back, had a huge mansion on Madison Avenue and 26th Street, raced his yachts and his horses, and managed to have Jerome Avenue in the Bronx named after him. (His Jerome Park racetrack, as well as his summer home, was there.) He hung out with a couple of the Vanderbilt’s, loved opera, started the Belmont Stakes with Augustus Belmont, and spoiled his four daughters, who lived almost completely in Manhattan and in Europe.
Jenny was actually born a couple of blocks away from this house, at 197 Amity Street, in 1854. She was part American Indian on her mother’s side, and her exotic good looks, vivacious personality, and money made her a fine catch for impoverished, but well titled, European gentry. Her father had named her after Jenny Lind, the famous opera singer, as opera was also one of his many passions. The family had already moved to Europe when Jenny met Lord Randolph Churchill. After a whirlwind courtship of three days, he proposed, and they were married in 1874. Winston showed up, premature, they say, seven months later. He did pretty well with his life, and after World War II was an international hero.
The mix up with the house began when Deputy County Clerk James Kelly found evidence of the Jerome’s living at this house around when it was thought Jenny was born, and he sent his records to Winston Churchill for verification, back in the late 1940’s, after the war. The publisher of the Brooklyn Eagle got it into his head to put the plaque up on the house, and Churchill gave his blessings. In 1953, the great man himself, now 74, made a visit to New York, and came to the house, to the delight of the neighborhood and city. He stood in front of the house and proclaimed “I am most grateful to those who have put up this tablet in commemoration of my mother, who was born here in Brooklyn.” The plaque has been there ever since.
Subsequent scholars, including Brooklyn historian Francis Morrone, did some further investigation and they have concluded that Mr. Kelly was wrong. There are no birth records in Brooklyn before 1866, and Jenny Jerome listed her birthdate as January 9, 1854. At that time the family was living at 8 Amity Street, which has since been renumbered 197, according to the 1854-55 Brooklyn City Directory. They did live here on Henry St. in 1850, when Jerome’s uncle leased the house, but Jenny was not born here.
Some people know this, most do not, so this house is still pointed out in tours, and people dutifully take pictures of the plaque. I did, too. After World War II, there was no leader greater than Winston Churchill, and Americans were proud that his mother had been an American. Cobble Hill can point to two different houses as the homes of the Jerome’s, before they decamped to mansions, England, and greatness. It’s not Blenheim Palace, but it’s still pretty cool. GMAP