Peggy Thayer: Society Dudine and Bronco Buster

From time to time, I will introduce you to some of the fascinating women I encountered in my research into the history of dude ranching. Today, you’ll meet Peggy Thayer, one of my favorite gals.

Peggy was born in Philadelphia in 1898. The Thayers were wealthy and ran in the highest social circles; her father, John B., was a vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Peggy had a sister and two brothers and grew up privileged and happy.

In 1912 her parents and oldest son Jack, age 17, went on a trip to Europe and spent time visiting the American consul in Berlin. On April 10 they boarded a ship for home.

The RMS Titanic.

Peggy’s mother Marion, brother Jack, and a maid survived the sinking. John B. Thayer did not.

Once reunited, the family did what it could to put itself back together and try to live normally. But disasters leave cracks behind. Peggy was only 14 when she lost her father in a way that was both awful and splashed all over the newspapers. As she moved into adulthood, she dealt with her loss in ways that shocked mainline Philadelphia society.

During World War I she refused to make her society debut, and instead worked on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. She later took a nursing course and served alongside Philadelphia doctors helping victims of the flu epidemic in 1918. These were noble activities and didn’t raise too many alarm bells in her family. But when the war ended and Peggy was in her early 20s, she started displaying a daring streak that set her mother to worrying.

She went West with friends in 1919 and saw Yellowstone for the first time. Already an accomplished horsewoman, she likely did some riding on this trip, but she also rode regularly at home. Women in Philadelphia sat on English saddles and plodded sedately on quiet pathways. Not Peggy. According to a profile written in a New York newspaper, when Peggy went riding the only thing to be seen was dust. When she got on a horse she rode as if she had some place to go and wanted to get there. She craved excitement, and even danger.

So, it was inevitable that Peggy would take a dude ranch vacation.

In the summer of 1920, she and one of her aunts took the train to Jackson Hole to spend a couple of weeks at the JY Ranch, one of Wyoming’s earliest dude ranches. She had such a good time she went back the following summer. One dude ranch trip was a bit eccentric for a single young woman. She could have gone to Europe for her next holiday, but a return trip to a rustic western dude ranch? That was just flabbergasting.

Not only that, she made headlines at home when she went to a Jackson Hole rodeo and entered one of the events. She didn’t try one of the sedate activities specifically for dudes; she entered a horse race meant for local cowgirls only, because the horses were not quite broken. She chose a horse that tried to buck her off before the race even started, but she won her race and a silver trophy. Interviewed later about her feat, Peggy said, “There’s nothing in the world so satisfying to me or so much akin to my own disposition as a wiry, determined, outrageous, bucking broncho.”

After returning from Wyoming, Peggy indulged her adventurous soul by going on the stage, playing semiprofessional tennis, opening a perfume shop, traveling to Egypt (where she almost died of typhoid), and big game hunting. In 1925, she married Harold E. Talbott, Jr. whom she met on a hunting trip in Canada. Nearly all of the newspaper coverage about her engagement referred to her time as a “cowgirl” in Jackson Hole.

Peggy and her husband, who was a director of the Chrysler corporation, lived in New York and had four children. On the outside she was a society wife, but she was deeply committed to the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, where she was a vice president, and she regularly ran fund raisers for the hospital. She was also a trustee of Sarah Lawrence College. In 1940 she was named the 14th best dressed woman in the world by a group of New York stylists, fashion writers, and designers.

During the Korean War, Harold Talbott was appointed Secretary of the Air Force. However, he resigned just two years later after being brought before Congress to testify about allegations he used his position to further one of his business interests. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1957.

Peggy was now burdened with two heartbreaks: her husband’s death, and the suicide of her brother Jack in 1945, who was despondent over the death of his son during World War II. But she rallied and joined other New Yorkers who traveled to Moscow in the summer of 1959 to attend the American National Exhibition, a display of American art, culture, fashion, and cars, intended to smooth relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (Reviews were mixed.)

Peggy didn’t show up in the society pages very often after her return from Moscow. She spent time with a few friends and with her children, but she apparently told no one about how hard the last few years of her life had been. Then, on July 15, 1962, she wrote five notes, put them on a table, and jumped out the window of her 12th floor apartment. She was just 64 years old.

It’s a tragic ending, but Peggy had always charted her own course. She could have reacted to her father’s terrible death on the Titanic by choosing safety and conventionality, but she went the other way and sought adventure, action, excitement. Early in her life she decided that only she would be in charge of her actions and kept to this promise until the day she died.

The western experiences she had at the JY dude ranch gave her the wildness she craved, even if was just for two short summers. I think about her at the ranch, talking not just to the guests who were of her own class, but to the wranglers and the dude ranch owners. She was enthusiastic about everything. If I had been at the ranch with Peggy, I would have sat next to her at every meal.

2 thoughts on “Peggy Thayer: Society Dudine and Bronco Buster

  1. Quite a woman! Wonder if she’s related to Benjamin Bowditch Thayer, the SF chemist/pharmacist with products from toothpaste to “squirrel exterminator” and his lab across from the Palace Hotel in the late 19th century.


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