Feminine fussbudgets and finicky old gents may have dominated the social scene in Southampton at the turn of the last century but not without plenty of competition from the irrepressible Zella de Milhau, who came to Shinnecock Hills to study at William Merritt Chase’s Summer Art School and stayed to stir things up.
Here is fellow art student Marietta Minnigerode Andrews’ description of the friend she called Della:
“[She] came to Shinnecock to be with friends and to make life merry for others in her own absurd and lovable way …”
Short in stature and favoring short-cropped hair and plus-fours, de Milhau called the Art Village cottage she shared with Molly Lawton “Laffalot.” When she was adopted by the in a blood ceremony she took the name Chiola (she who laughs) and when she gave a party, she pulled out all the stops. Heads turned and hearts stopped when she drove her Tally-ho (four-in-hand coach) through the village at a hair-raising clip, a frequent occurrence that inspired this bit of verse:
“When Miss Zella Milhau
Drives her Tally-hau
She takes her whip
And hits ‘em a clip
And makes the horses gau”
“Laffalot” was thought so original that Charles Jagger devoted an admiring article to its charms in the autumn 1912 issue of his Southampton Magazine. Purchased from Mrs. William S. Hoyt, the structure was but a “bare little hut,” he wrote, until it was transformed by de Milhau’s magical hand (with help from her friend, architect Katherine Budd). De Milhau filled it with exotica — “Barbaric rugs and draperies … thousands of Indian relics and trophies of the chase or other sports or adventures in France, in Egypt, on Shinnecock Bay on the Western plains, in the Rocky Mountains, in the woods of Maine or elsewhere all over the world.”
She got around.
With her student days behind her — she also studied printmaking with Mary Moran in East Hampton — she went on to experiment with etching, aquatint and mezzotint, rather successfully it seems: the Library of Congress owns 15 of her prints. She and Ms. Budd were driving forces in the much publicized Street Greenery Movement in Brooklyn Heights where she lived off-season, and she continued to leap into action whenever she thought she could help.
During World War I de Milhau raised the money for an ambulance and shipped it to France where she took the wheel. Writing from France in a letter reprinted in the November 21, 1918, edition of The Southampton Press, she described her service “evacuating ‘old uns’ under shell fire and carrying wounded, too, under the same conditions.” For this act of generosity and heroism the French awarded her the Croix de Guerre.
Twenty years later she was again in rescue mode when the 1938 Hurricane struck while she was spending time at her Montauk hideaway, “Pirate’s Cove.” With Napeague awash, she rallied three men to help her gather supplies of food and medicine for the cut-off community. For this, she was cited by the Red Cross for her courage.
Recalling an impression of childhood, when de Milhau was a family friend, Barbara Lord spoke in a 2007 interview of de Milhau’s unique sense of style. She remembered picnics at “Pirate’s Cove,” where her family was entertained by de Milhau, and Fourth of July parades in which de Milhau could always be spotted marching proudly through town.
“She was an eccentric,” Ms. Lord said. “She was a live wire.”
Sources from the archives: “Memoirs of a Poor Relation” by Marietta Minnigerode Andrews; “Laffalot,” Southampton Magazine, Autumn 1912; 21 November 1918; “The Students of William Merritt Chase,” exhibition catalog, 1973; Interview with Barbara Lord, March 2007.