[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, David W. Lange. This information was originally published in 2005 in The Complete Guide to Mercury Dimes]
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Weinman selected as his model for the dime of 1916 one of his tenants. Elsie Stevens and her husband, the celebrated poet Wallace Stevens, rented rooms in a building which the sculptor owned and in which he maintained his studio. This house, at 441 W. 21st Street in New York City, was home to the couple from shortly after the time of their marriage in 1909 until they relocated to Hartford, Connecticut, seven years later.8 Around 1913 Weinman asked the young Mrs. Stevens to sit for a portrait bust. In it he captured the 27-year-old woman’s attractive features, including her long blond curls which would appear so distinctively on the dime. It was from this bust, rather than from life, that the artist transformed Mrs. Stevens’ profile into a portrait of the youthful Winged Liberty.
The future model for one of America’s most beautiful coins was born on June 5, 1886 to Howard Irving Kachel* and Ida Bright Smith at Reading, Pennsylvania. The following year, young Elsie Viola’s father died, and Ida Kachel remarried when her daughter was about eight years old. Although Lehman Wilkes Moll never legally adopted his stepdaughter, Elsie was encouraged by her mother to assume his surname. Thus, it was as Elsie Viola Moll that she was introduced to a young attorney named Wallace Stevens in the summer of 1904. Following a five-year courtship, in which the two came to know one another primarily through mutual correspondence, Wallace and Elsie were married on September 21, 1909.9
Although his career had begun with a succession of disappointments, Wallace Stevens found his niche as an attorney in the insurance industry. In 1908 he joined the New York office of the American Bonding Company of Baltimore, Maryland.10 The couple’s relocation to Hartford in 1916 was precipitated by his new employment with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. There he rose to prominence, ultimately becoming a vice-president of the firm by the 1930s.11
The letters written by Wallace Stevens in childhood reveal a precocious talent with words. It’s therefore not surprising that he developed this interest into a series of poems, written either for his love of Elsie or for his own self-realization. This curious mix of successful businessman by day and dreamy-eyed poet by night made him a popular figure in New York literary circles, although national and worldwide recognition of his work would not come until much later. He ultimately received the Pulitzer Prize for literature in the final year of his life, 1955.
Wallace Stevens and Elsie Moll had come from widely divergent socio-economic backgrounds. This fact, as well as other differences, evidently caused some distance between them. The poet in Stevens may have created an image of his beloved that proved more idealized than real. In addition, Elsie was disturbed by the subsequent publication of his poems to her, not being disposed to see them in their larger literary context. 12 Nevertheless, the marriage lasted nearly 46 years until Wallace’s death. It also produced a daughter, Holly, born in 1924.
Elsie Stevens clearly knew of her indirect involvement in the creation of the Winged Liberty Dime, and she remained fond of the bust which was given to her by the artist. Following her husband’s death, Elsie relocated to a smaller home, and she offered the bust to her daughter at that time.
Holly Stevens Stephenson, in recalling the occasion said, “I declined the gift, because while mother never talked about it, I knew she had a great attachment to it.”13
Eight years after the death of Wallace Stevens, his widow fell ill and was tended to by Mrs. Stephenson. By that time the bust had somehow disappeared, and it remains missing to this day. Elsie Stevens died shortly afterward, still unable to recall what became of her portrait. Whether or not the Weinman bust still survives is unknown. If it does yet exist, the present holder may know nothing of its connection with the dime of 1916. In looking at the photograph of this bust, however, numismatists will always be able to envision the youthful goddess Liberty.
*Some branches of the family spell the name “Kochel.”