New York has had plenty of crazy-rich families (yes, we’re looking at you Donald) but few were as mysterious as the Wendels. The siblings were born in the 19th century, never married, rarely went out in public, and grew old together behind brick walls inside the last private mansion on Fifth Avenue.
Their father made a fortune in fur and real estate and in the 1850s he built himself a big ol’ mansion on the fashionable, once-residential Fifth Avenue, at 39th Street. With all their money, you would expect the Wendel siblings—brother John and his six (some sources say seven) sisters—to live it up in high society. Wrong.
The all kept to themselves, rumors spread and John, who collected rent from his father’s vast real-estate holdings, became known as the “recluse of Fifth Avenue.” A newspaper story back in the day said,
“[John] frowned on marriage for his sisters and decreed they should stay out of society, live in the simplest possible style and wear the fashions of their youth.
All of the siblings lived “in an antiquated house of mystery amid the cacophonous commerce of midtown Manhattan.
There, starved of society by a tyrannical brother, the sisters cuddled lapdogs instead of sweethearts. With stingy allowances and shabby clothes, they slipped into spinsterhood—and perhaps, it was whispered, insanity.” ”
As the 20th century arrived and Fifth Avenue’s mansions were replaced by office buildings, the Wendel home—without electricity, telephones, or other conveniences—and its occupants fueled more rumors. The article goes on
“Spouses meant dispersal of the family fortune, so gossiped the gossips, and thus the seven Wendel sisters were kept moldering in the upper stories of their mansion, as brother John pinched their pennies.”
John died in 1914 in his 70s. Over the next decades the sisters began dying off as well (one did get married—in her 60s!). By the 30s, only Ella was left, seen only at night to give her poodle a chance to run around the backyard (Btw, a backyard that faced Fifth Avenue that was worth millions that she constantly turned down huge sums of money for!)
Ella died in her sleep at age 80 in 1931 and the public finally learned where at least part of the Wendel’s $100 million fortune would go: Drew University in New Jersey. Drew inherited the Fifth Avenue property and it was razed in 1934.
The University put up a plaque there in the family’s memory and you can see below that a Staples and a Panera Bread stands in the very spot where the family once lived.