Irénée du Pont Jr., the patriarch of Delaware’s prominent, wealthy and influential du Pont family, died Monday. He was 103.
Du Pont was the great-great-grandson of DuPont Co. founder Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours who fled France for Delaware during the French Revolution and began building a vast family fortune by producing gunpowder along the banks of the Brandywine.
His father Irénée du Pont Sr., along with his father’s two brothers Pierre S. du Pont, founder of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, and Lammot du Pont had each served as the Wilmington-based DuPont Co.’s president. They helped expand its interests from an explosives manufacturer to one of the world’s largest chemical companies.
Irénée du Pont Jr., who had eight sisters, was the youngest and only son of Irénée and Irene Sophie du Pont, who were second cousins.
A graduate of Wilmington’s Tower Hill School, he attended Dartmouth College and graduated in 1943 with a degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his father’s and uncles’ alma mater.
He was hired by “the family business,” as some du Ponts liked to call the DuPont Co., in 1946, by the late DuPont scientist Nathaniel C. Wyeth. Wyeth was the inventor of the plastic soda bottle and the older brother of famed Chadds Ford artist Andrew Wyeth.
As was the family tradition, Irénée Jr., known by his nickname “Brip,” worked his way up the company ladder. He learned the ropes and held various engineering and supervisory positions at plants in Arlington, New Jersey; Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Charleston, West Virginia.
He returned to Wilmington in 1953 and later served as the company’s senior vice president before retiring in 1978.
Du Pont told The News Journal in a 2000 interview that he declined all suggestions that he run the company.
“I as a stockholder would have objected to me as president,” he said.
Du Pont told The News Journal he had dyslexia and it would have kept him from doing the huge volume of reading needed to do the job well. “I would have been a disaster. You’ve got to be a very astute and quick-witted person to take an executive level of leadership. It would have been in my financial interest not to go there.”
Still, du Pont was one of the last family members to reach one of the highest levels of management in the DuPont Co. The family who had led the DuPont Co. for most of the 20th century eventually ended its control in the late 1970s.
Life at Granogue
Du Pont was once considered one of the richest men in the world, according to various Forbes magazine rankings over the years. He brushed aside the reports and told The News Journal the $525 million net worth which Forbes attributed to him and his family in Montchanin in 1998 was based on money “generated generations ago.”
When a News Journal reporter interviewed him in 2000, du Pont was more than delighted to show off the tag inside the blazer he was wearing. It wasn’t from Brooks Brothers. He bought the jacket at Value City, which, at that time, was a well-known discount store.
He lived at Granogue, the hilltop estate and mansion with a mile-long driveway and 30 rooms in northern New Castle County, which can be seen along points of Smith Bridge Road. It is sometimes referred to as the symbol of Chateau Country, the name for Delaware’s most exclusive region and for generations the home of extended members of the du Pont family.
The century-old house was built in 1923 by du Pont’s father. The mansion has 11 bedrooms for family members and six for live-in employees. Walls are lined with paintings by family friends, like Maxfield Parrish, and Rembrandt Peale’s original painting of DuPont founder Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours hangs over a hearth.
Du Pont was proud of an oak-paneled music room, home to an Aeolian pipe organ housed in a chamber below the floor. The music is controlled by a computer, much like a player piano, but sometimes du Pont brought in musicians to play the organ. He enjoyed sharing the organ’s music with others.
He and his wife Barbara also were known for opening the grounds of their estate to local organizations and groups for fundraisers.
A 5K run and walk called Granogue & Bach were held in the 1990s to raise money for Brandywine Baroque. Musicians played Bach compositions for participants at the finish line. In recent years, the Beau Biden Foundation has hosted trail runs on the estate with more than 800 participants.
President Joe Biden, who attended the run when he was vice president, had raced motorbikes on the estate with Irénée when Biden was serving in the Senate. Biden’s sister Valerie once lived on the Granogue property
A passion for car collecting
Du Pont told The News Journal he was a “motorhead” and enjoyed collecting motorcycles and automobiles which he stored in his 12-garage car.
Over the years, his collection included everything from a 1980 two-door Chevette hatchback to a 1936 Oldsmobile coupe his father gave him on his 16th birthday.
He frequently brought his 1918 Cadillac to various events, including Winterthur Museum’s annual Point to Point steeplechase races and to the Marshall Steam Museum at Auburn Valley State Park in Yorklyn.
Du Pont found the car at a salvage yard in 1939 when he was a student at Dartmouth College. He said he paid $40 for it and joked he spent as much on immediate repairs. He said the car once was owned by actors Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck.
Du Pont was known for upholding his family’s legacy and served on DuPont’s board of directors until 1990 and worked on various projects as a trustee for Wilmington University and Longwood Gardens, the former home of his Uncle Pierre.
Despite the clannish nature of the family, another tradition du Pont had long upheld was never stepping foot on the Nemours estate of Alfred I. du Pont in Rockwood. It was due to a historic rift that happened a few years after cousins Pierre, Alfred and T. Coleman du Pont banded together to buy the DuPont Co. in 1902. Pierre and Alfred had a falling out about control and Alfred lost his role in the company.
When Alfred built his Nemours estate, he installed a 10-foot stone wall topped with shards of broken glass to surround the majestic mansion inside. Supposedly, he said he built the wall with the glass shards around his estate “to keep out intruders, mainly of the name of du Pont,” according to Marquis James’s 1941 book “Alfred I. duPont: The Family Rebel.”
Irénée Jr. told The News Journal in 2000 that his father was on his brother Pierre’s side and gave his children strict instructions to never step foot inside the Nemours gates.
Du Pont obeyed for years, but apparently changed his mind, and in 2008 he told The News Journal “it’s a great place — if you like that kind of thing.”
He was predeceased by his eight older sisters; his daughter, Susanne; his son, Irénée du Pont, III; and Barbara, his wife of 77 years.
Du Pont is survived by his daughter-in-law, Eugenie Collison du Pont, and his daughters Irene Light (Tom) of Lime Rock, Connecticut; Cynthia Tobias (Terry) of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania; Sally Quinn (Rob) of Winchester, Massachusetts; Grace Engbring (Paul) of Telluride, Colorado; 13 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at a later date. Burial will be private.