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Nancy (Nannie) Witcher Langhorne was born in Danville, Virginia, USA on either 17 or 19 (there are varying accounts) May 1879.

She was one of eight surviving children born to Chiswell (Chillie) Dabney Langhorne and Nancy Witcher Keene. She had four sisters (Elizabeth, Irene, Phyllis and Nora) and three brothers (Keene, Harry and William). Three more siblings died as infants.

Improving fortunes

Nancy's father was from an established Virginian family but he had lost almost everything in the American Civil War of 1860 to 1865.

Throughout her early years he worked as an auctioneer and then as a manager on the railroads. Gradually the family's fortunes improved. In 1892, when Nancy was 13, he purchased Mirador, a large estate near Charlottesville.

First husband

All the Langhorne women were known for being attractive, but Nancy's elder sister Irene, was the most beautiful. In 1895 she married the graphic artist, Charles Dana Gibson.

A couple of years later, whilst staying with her sister and husband in New York, an 18-year old Nancy attended a polo match. It was here that she met Robert Gould Shaw II, the man who would become her first husband. Shaw was a Bostonian from a good family. Unfortunately for Nancy he was also a heavy drinker.

A turbulent marriage

Their relationship was turbulent from the start and would end in disaster. Nancy, had doubts from the beginning and broke off their initial engagement. They were reconciled and married at Mirador in October 1897. Within a week she was home again - only to be sent back to her new husband by her father.

Back to Mirador

By the end of 1901 Nancy had returned to Mirador for good with her young son Bobbie (Robert Gould Shaw III, born in 1898). The same year, Nancy's mother took her to Paris and London.

It was her first trip abroad and she also received her first introduction to the Astor family when she met Mrs J.J. Astor, the wife of one of the Astor millionaires.

Over to England

The trip lifted her spirits - only for them to be shattered again in 1903 when her divorce came through and her mother then died at the age of just 55.

Nancy unsuccessfully tried to keep house for her father for a while before visiting England again in 1904 for the hunting season, reconnecting with people she had previously met and promising to return once more.

Nancy Langhorne on her 19th birthday, 1898

© Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

A young Nancy Langhorne and her mother, Nannie

© Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)