Catching up With the Joneses
BY By Susan Taylor Block
Though they only spent part of the year at Wrightsville Sound Wilmington has never again known the likes of residents Pembroke and Sarah Jones.
In the late 1880s Sarah Jones purchased both the Gov. Dudley Mansion and the western portion of the old Mount Lebanon estate that she would fashion into what we now know as Airlie Gardens. Pembroke Jones acquired 2 200 acres of land and built the “Bungalow ” an Italianate dwelling known after Biltmore as the finest house in North Carolina. Though the house was destroyed by fire the property once called Pembroke Park is now Landfall almost a city within the greater city.
Like the railroad systems to which the Joneses held strong connections they seemed to create a line straight from the little town of Wilmington to the grand cities of America. Through them even unacquainted locals could daydream and imagine they had at least a wispy tie to the Joneses’ famous friends — people such as Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt Enrico Caruso Kaiser Wilhelm II William Vanderbilt and President William Taft. The Joneses’ parties became the stuff of local legends and their lifestyle causes many to claim them as the source of the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses.”
Pembroke Jones died in 1919 and three years later Mrs. Jones married art collector and Atlantic Coast Line Railroad executive Henry Walters. Mr. Walters died in 1931 and Sarah Walters died in 1943.
Since Jan. 16 1948 when the Joneses’ daughter Sadie Jones Pope sold Airlie it has been harder to keep up with the county’s most interesting family. However events in the life of Jane Pope Akers Ridgway Pembroke Jones’s granddaughter also create an amazing story. Today at 88 she shines as a representative of a grand old family.
The younger daughter of Sadie Green Jones and famed National Gallery and Jefferson Memorial architect John Russell Pope was born on Christmas Day 1917. She spent much of her youth in New York City but also lived in Newport and Palm Beach. She was born into a family of great privilege but also one of tragedy. Pembroke Jones lost his mother in 1859 when he was just three months old. Then in 1890 his eldest child Alice died at the age of four. Granddaughter Jane lost her sister Sarah to meningitis in 1922 and her only other surviving sibling Mary to an automobile accident in 1931.
But there were many good times too and some of them happened in Wilmington. “I was so happy as the train pulled into the station at the end of Front Street ” Mrs. Ridgway recalled in 2002. “Airlie was all my beautiful childhood dreams wrapped up in one word that my grandmother spelled out so beautifully.”
The Airlie we see today was once a 155-acre garden estate complete with a playhouse the “Dollhouse ” that was custom-built for Jane and Mary. Sarah Jones and Sadie Pope invited girls Jane’s age to Airlie for parties and teas including Eleanor Wright (Beane) Rosalie Watters (Carr) Florence Moore (Dunn) Bessie Sparks (Eagles) and Isabel James (Lehto).
Mrs. Ridgway is remembered by her old friends as a beautiful girl who was down-to-earth and possessed of a sweet nature. Katherine Meier Cameron daughter of Wilmington clothing merchant and designer Beulah Meier remembers her exquisite clothes and her beauty. “With her golden blond hair and that pretty face she looked like a Botticelli angel ” Cameron said.
Bessie Sparks Eagles who lived at Edgewater remembers when friend Jimmy Sprunt drove the two young women to a dance in Chapel Hill. Jane was wearing an emerald bracelet loaned to her by her grandmother.
Catherine Alexius Emerson praised Jane for her naturalness. “Though Jane was a true glamour girl she was always the same person. She never put on any airs.”
And the late Eleanor Wright Beane who was very well-spoken herself remarked that her friend had “a rich and cultured voice.”
On Nov. 28 1942 Jane Pope married Anthony Boyce Akers in St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Manhattan. Her uncle Pembroke Jones III who lived a quiet life in Newport escorted her down the aisle. Mrs. William A. Dick a Wilmingtonian who lived at 113 Nun Street served as matron of honor.
The marriage would produce two daughters one died from surgical complications in 2002 the other is a writer living on the West Coast.
Anthony Akers a tall handsome Navy officer distinguished himself during World War II when he led Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Philippines president Manuel Luis Quezon from Corregidor to Australia. Later Lt. Akers spent three months in Hollywood working as a consultant for the film “They Were Expendable ” in which he was portrayed. John F. Kennedy was one of the many outstanding Navy men Akers met during the war.
Lt. Akers was an executive officer of a torpedo-boat training squadron in Rhode Island and Kennedy was a trainee who Akers remembered was “very good at organizing touch-football games.” Akers had additional contact with Kennedy during the Korean War years.
But Jane Pope Akers had known Jacqueline Bouvier for a much longer time. Jackie spent summers at Hammersmith Farm with her mother and stepfather Hugh Auchincloss. Young Jane summered at The Waves the family’s Newport mansion and the girls became friends. After Jackie’s engagement was announced the Akers gave a party for the Kennedy and the Auchincloss families. They also hosted the bride’s party at The Waves the night before the wedding.
Anthony Akers a graduate of Columbia University Law School was deeply interested in politics and during the 1960 presidential campaign served as chairman of John F. Kennedy’s New York campaign. Jane Akers was hostess at a large campaign party held at the Waldorf=Astoria. Kennedy won New York and soon after becoming president named Anthony Akers as the ambassador to New Zealand.
After the Akers returned to the U.S. Mr. Akers resumed the practice of law but eventually added a new hat: real estate developer. Following the death of her childless uncle Pembroke Jones III Mrs. Akers inherited Pembroke Park. She renamed it Landfall and began formulating plans for a distinctive development. Some of the first streets through Landfall bear her mark. Obviously she named Pembroke Jones for her grandfather and Pope Court for her parents. London Lane is named for the London family of Wilmington her ancestors through a long genealogical line that eventually leads back to Richard Bradley for whose family the creek is named.
While Jane and Tony Akers planned Landfall they spent more time in the Wilmington area typically staying at the Blockade Runner Hotel. Summer beach resident John Hanby Debnam has an indelible mental image of the svelte Mrs. Akers walking down the beach strand with a deep tan wearing a stark white bathing suit.
Others also remembered her looking like a perennial model. The late Jimmy Sprunt her peer said “I don’t think she ever realized how good she looked and how different she looked from those around her. She had such style.”
Sadly tragedy struck again when Anthony Akers died suddenly of a heart attack at a Wrightsville Beach hotel on April 1 1976. He was just 61. His death came just as the Akers were preparing to unveil their plans for Landfall’s development and the pain of losing him took the luster off the dream. Eight years later Jane Akers sold Pembroke Park to developer J.P. Goforth.
In 1982 Jane Pope Akers wed Thomas Ridgway Jr. a family friend of long standing whose father had been one of Philadelphia’s most prominent attorneys. It was a first marriage for Mr. Ridgway who had been an Army Air Force pilot during World War II. He flew “over the hump” as a member of the famous “Flying Tiger” squadron.
The Ridgways had a happy marriage for 23 years but he died suddenly of a heart attack on Sept. 5 2005 in Newport.
Today Mrs. Ridgway splits her time between Palm Beach and Newport. Mrs. Beane was correct. Mrs. Ridgway does speak beautifully as you would imagine a true American princess might. She is also modest and witty and her conversation is punctuated with sentences that are movingly poetic. Her life has been far grander and more complex than a single article can cover but considering her reticence this may have to suffice.
And as for things local she has never lost her feeling for the floral paradise on Wrightsville Sound. “I am keenly interested in my beloved Airlie ” she said in 2004. “The place and its people that I grew up with are ever gentle on my mind.”
Sources: Primary sources include the author’s correspondence and interviews (2001-2006) with Jane Pope Akers Ridgway and her local friends and acquaintances and from information gleaned from the JFK Library and New York Times archives.
1880s ‑Sarah Green Jones purchases 52 acres of the Mount Lebanon estate
1890 ‑Sarah and Pembroke Jones lose their oldest child Alice Dickinson while living at the Gov. Dudley Mansion
1917 ‑Pembroke and Sarah Jones’ granddaughter Jane Pope is born to Sadie Jones Pope and John Russell Pope
1919 ‑Pembroke Jones dies
1922 ‑Sarah Green Jones marries Henry Walters
Jane Pope loses her sister Sarah to meningitis
1931 ‑Henry Walters dies
Jane Pope loses her sister Mary in an automobile accident
1942 ‑Jane Pope marries Anthony Boyce Akers
1943 ‑Sarah Green Jones Walters dies
1948 ‑Sadie Jones Pope sells Airlie
1953 ‑Anthony and Jane Pope Akers host the bride’s party for Jacqueline Bouvier the night before she wed John F. Kennedy in Newport RI.
1960 ‑Anthony Akers serves as chairman of John F. Kennedy’s Presidential campaign in New York
1970 ‑Jane Pope Akers inherits Pembroke Park and renames it Landfall
1976 ‑Anthony Akers dies in Wrightsville Beach
1982 ‑Jane Pope Akers marries long-time family friend Thomas Ridgway Jr.
1984 ‑Jane Pope Akers Ridgway sells Landfall to developer J.P. Goforth
2005 ‑Thomas Ridgway Jr. dies in Newport RI