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Fair weather in New York

Looking northwest across Central Park from 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Friday at 5:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, November 8, 2010. Sunny and chilly weekend of fair weather in New York. The Marathon was in town, and traffic was heavier than usual because of all the out-of-towners coming in for it. On Saturday, I went with two old friends to dine at La Grenouille, which was packed. Borne of the tradition of haute cuisine in New York mid-20th century, the lighting, the flowers, the service, the food at La Grenouille is elegant. You are transported and with assurance.

It’s not just a discipline but also a sensibility. Partaking of it is one of the remaining luxuries of that era, this time, and way of life in New York. Which is why it’s packed. La Grenouille clientele is well aware. Betsy Bloomingdale, in from Los Angeles, was there with friends and family. At a table nearby Casey Ribicoff and Gil Shiva were entertaining Anne and Kirk Douglas, also in from Los Angeles. It was a mid- to older crowd at the 8 o’clock dinner hour and then after ten, a much younger, well dressed crowd, and taking it all in, having the experience. It was a lovely New York Saturday night.

The lady in the picture is Peggy Cheston and her two dogs, one of which, a shih-tzu was named James. It was taken in the early 90s at her oceanside house outside of Northeast Harbor, overlooking Somes Sound, in Maine. I met Peggy and her husband George through a mutual friend, Sarah Churchill, in the early 1980s in Beverly Hills. Peggy and George and Sarah were friends going back to the 1950s when they all lived in and around Philadelphia.
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
Peggy Cheston and her two dogs at her oceanside house outside of Northeast Harbor.
I knew nothing about the Chestons before we met, although after spending an evening with them, it was easy to see they were very comfortable with Sarah, old friends enjoying themselves the way only old friends can, talking about everybody they know or had known or seen or met or visited. The Chestons got around; they were worldly, or as worldly as they wanted to be. Aside from their homes in Philadephia and Northeast, they kept a pied terre in the Rockefeller apartment complex on West 55th and 54th Streets across from MoMA, and, for a long time, a shooting plantation in the Carolinas or Georgia.

They also liked to travel and to houseguest occasionally. George told a story about being a houseguest of Lee and Walter Annenberg at the Palm Springs estate. Very grand it was, thoroughly landscaped and manicured, as well as the Annenbergs’ fantastic art collection (the Chestons and the Annebergs were compatriots through the Philadelphia Museum). And the guest lodgings were grand also.

After dinner on their first night there, Peggy and George walked over to the guest house they were staying in. Settling in, ready for bed, George decided to go outside and take one last look before bedrime at the amazing grounds around the desert oasis that Walter Annenberg had created. It was also entirely fenced in, and so very safe from any wandering eyes of the hoi-polloi who might happen by.
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
The Detroit residence of Peggy's grandfather, John Francis Dodge.
However, that night, when George Cheston stepped out onto the terrace of his guest house for that last breath of the night air, suddenly spot lights flooded the lawn and gardens surrounding the guest house, and a helicopter, also blazing with floodlights suddenly appeared out of nowhere! What was he doing there, they wanted to know of George. He was a houseguest, he retorted, privately very annoyed by the confrontation in his bathrobe. Oh; end floodlights and not a word of apology for the intrusion. George later laughed in telling about it but recalled that it gave him the creeps. “Why would anyone need that kind of security?” George asked innocently but sensibly.

They were a charming couple and very different in style. George was thin and wiry, white haired and very proper buttoned up in not only his comportment but his attitude toward his experiences. He could be persnickety, what my mother used to call a fuss-budgit. Peggy, on the other hand, was almost laid back in her approach. She had a seemingly endless supply of patience for her husband’s expectations, possibly to the point of being amused by his nature. “Oh George,” she would say with that smile you see in the photograph, after he’d protested too vociferously about his breakfast menu that she’d carefully prepared.

Aside from the little I’ve related here, I knew very little about Peggy and George’s background, except they both obviously came from wealth, or what could be called Old Money. Whether they retained or how they retained it was only obvious by the way they lived.
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
The Sycamores, the childhood home of Peggy Cheston in Detroit.
That breed of 20th century American life is nearly extinct – although their issue remain, some still entrenched, willingly or not. They had grown up in a world that, except for the presence of its progeny, has all but disappeared in sensibility. That was even obvious in 1980. Nevertheless, George and Peggy Cheston remained true to that, and also lived enthusiastically in the New World Disorder.

Peggy had a sparkle in her eye when she greeted you. She was very kindly and loved a good laugh. In the 90s I saw them maybe once or twice a year, usually in Maine where I’d visit with Sarah for a few days. It was quite a modern house for what you’d think were staid WASPs. A large all-glass living room (with stone fireplace), with cathedral ceiling and cantilevered over the water. There was a guest wing on one side, and a master wing on the other, with a guest apartment underneath overlooking a swimming pool. It reminded me almost of something I’d seen in Southern California in layout. It was comfortably and adequately furnished, devoid of a decorator's hand save the upholstery and the curtains.

It didn’t have the “proper” dining room but instead an open kitchen. Peggy didn’t like having staff around, so this kind of serving space suited. To maintain privacy, she had her housekeeper, a very efficient local young woman (mother/housewife) come in at 6 a.m., and depart at noon. Peggy did her own cooking and cleaning up, along with the help of friends, including Brooke Astor, a neighbor and frequent guest.
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
Casa Gireavento, the Palm Beach house of Peggy's mother, Winifred Dodge Seyburn.
From the little I knew of Peggy’s background – Sarah had never mentioned it – she was a sophisticated, well-bred woman of what used to be called Society in the Northeast. She had been married before George, first time to John Braganza, a member of the Portuguese Royal Family, as well as the Rhinelander family in New York. Second was to a gentleman named McIlvain, and lived in New York, before she married George who was a Philadelphian. She had children by all three husbands. It could be that the great sorrow of her life was losing one of her sons in the War in Viet Nam. That was a very sore subject for an otherwise steady disposition. Her marriage to George was the last and the longest – a half century.

Peggy died, several days ago, at her house in Philadelphia. She was 93. I was surprised to learn her age for although she was almost a generation older than I. she had a smart girlish quality to her presence, to the way she related. George had died a few years ago. (Our friend Sarah died ten years ago.)

Peggy's mother, Winifred Dodge Seyburn in Palm Beach, January 18, 1939. © Bettmann/CORBIS.
John Francis Dodge.
I never knew until I read the notice in the New York Times that Peggy’s birth name was Winifred. Named for her mother: Winifred Dodge Seyburn. Peggy’s father, a man named Wesson Seyburn was a Detroit banker and a very successful real estate developer at dawn of Detroit as a major American industrial city. Her maternal grandfather was John Francis Dodge, who with his brother Horace, was one of the founding members of the American automotive industry. The Dodge brothers first got into the business making engines for Henry Ford at the beginning of the 20th Century. Eventually they took the money and opened their own company: Dodge Motors. The two brothers both died of pneumonia while on a visit to New York, within several days of each other in 1920. Their widows sold the company for the equivalent of billions of dollars four years later.

Peggy was born the same year as John F. Kennedy and Henry Ford II, both men she’d known most of her life. That sparkle in her bright blue eyes, and that welcoming smile that I met when she was in her sixties, was disarmingly vivacious in the young woman. She liked people. She also had deep throaty voice, that deepened with age, and a somewhat laconic manner of speaking, as if she thought before she spoke. That voice, with that laughter with a toss of the head; you liked her too. But the voice could fool you – not that she intended to, because she didn’t. But when you called on the phone, and she answered in that voice, you’d say “Hello George,” and she would reply in that manner, “No, this is Peggy.”

She grew up in Detroit but came of age in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. It was the world John O’Hara wrote about -- and they were classic Philadelphia characters. It was the world chronicled by Cholly Knickerbocker, the world where the Social Register was the phone book. Cousins, but just slightly racier than the crowd in Louis Auchincloss’ stories. They came of age in the Great Depression at the end of Prohibition. They were heirs and heiresses of the Great American Century, the age of the automobile culture. They saw its birth and some of them lived long enough to see its struggle for survival. Their forebears (the Dodge Brothers) may have been rough and tumble, but the scions were taught otherwise, to be refined and proper. (Not everyone learned but George and Peggy did.) Very proper, but they also sometimes dined and and even sailed or cruised with movie stars and Greek ship owners, as well as sportsmen, bankers, lawyers, not to mention the occasional star-gangster.

That was the world of Peggy Cheston. She wouldn’t have seen it quite that way, however. She was a woman without any pretense whatsoever. She had the mindset of a woman of her generation and her class (upbringing). I don’t know what her politics were but I’ll bet she voted Republican, that is Eisenhower Republican, for he was the hero of her age.

She loved her friends. And her children and their children. And her dogs. And George. It was a good life. John O’Hara would have concluded the same. Maybe. Peggy.
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