Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Intimate Memories

Early winter sky. 4:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016. A grey, getting-colder day, yesterday in New York with the clouds thickening by late afternoon and then in early evening the rains came.

The December Quest is out with a cover of festive Presidential family photos at Christmastime going all the way back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Besides my Social Diary, and a retrospective I did on “21” in 2004, This issue of Quest contains a story I wrote on Ferncliff, the Astor family estate in Rhinebeck (no longer extant) and Vincent Astor.

I had been inspired by a new book “Our Time at Foxhollow Farm; A Hudson Valley Family Remembered” by David Byars (SUNY Press in Albany, New York). The book is a great holiday gift for anyone you know who is interested in New York social history, photography, architecture and American culture at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century.

All of the photographs, taken in the first three decades of the 20th century, are by a man named Tracy Dows who built Foxhollow Farm and was a neighbor of Vincent Astor. Dows also took up photography as a serious avocation around the same time he built his beautiful estate in Rhinebeck. This magnificent photographic memoir is a document of a time, a sensibility and a society that no longer exists even in our imagination.

Dows was the son of a successful grain merchant in New York. He married Alice Townsend Olin in 1903. Alice’s forebears were Livingstons who had settled Rhinebeck in the late 17th century. When he married, Dows purchased several farms to establish the estate Foxhollow Farm next to his bride Alice’s ancestral home. The house and other buildings on the property were designed by Harrie T. Lindeberg who trained under Stanford White. The Olmsted Brothers landscaped its rolling hills that overlooked the Hudson.
Olin Dows painting on the back lawn of Foxhollow Farm in 1918.
Among the sections of this photographic treasure is one on Ferncliff, the Astor family estate during the years of Vincent Astor’s young manhood and first marriage.

Vincent Astor was then known as “the richest young American,” having inherited nearly all of his father’s estate after the Titanic. For such a privileged boy, he had a very difficult childhood which produced in many ways a very difficult man. One of the ironies of that difficult temperament, a man who basically was deeply alienated from affection and emotionally unequipped to render or attract it, is that from an early age – in his 20s –  with his great inherited fortune, he developed a deeply sensitive philanthropy for others (outside of his own family), especially for children and for regular working families, and the poor in New York City.
I recently acquired a wonderful new book called “Our Time at Foxhollow Farm: A Hudson Valley Family Remembered” by David Byars. This remarkable book is made up entirely of photographs taken by Tracy Dows, the man who built the Farm in the beginning of the 20th century.

Click to order “Our Time at Foxhollow Farm: A Hudson Valley Family Remembered."
In his serious avocation, Mr. Dows recorded with his camera not only his beautiful property but those who lived and visited there – including Thomas Wolfe who wrote his “Look Homeward Angel,” while staying as a guest there -- as well as his neighbors’ estates including Springwood and its family, the Roosevelts, as well as Ferncliff, the property of the Astor family that was the destination for the Astor scions right up through the last of them Vincent Astor.

Helen Dinsmore Huntington and Vincent Astor married on April 30, 1914 at Hopeland House, the Staatsburg, New York estate of her mother and father, overlooking the Hudson. The bride was 21 and the groom, whom she had known all her life, would be 23 on his birthday the following November 15.  

The New York Times reported that the wedding of Miss Huntington and “the richest young American” was held in the “utmost simplicity and informality, and the guests included only the immediate relatives and a few intimate friends, numbering about fifty. (1800 wedding announcements were mailed the next day.)  Among them were Mr. and Mrs. Tracy Dows of Fox Hollow Farm.  Mr. Dows who photographed the wedding of his friends.
Helen Huntington Astor admiring the flowers in the garden.
The occasion was held in the “strictest privacy” the Times also reported” with guards “posted at the several entrances to the Huntington estate and no one gained admittance except those “whose credentials were unquestioned.”  It was also reported that the groom had had a recent illness although “guests saw nothing to indicate that Mr. Astor had just passed through a serious illness” except for his “certain pallor.” (Years later it was claimed that he had had the mumps which made him sterile and unable to father children.) Alice Astor’s third husband David Pleydell-Bouverie once described his brother-in-law as “low voltage” sexually, as were his first two wives.)

The only “unusual feature” of the day was “when all the Huntington dogs, about ten of them, all pets of the bride, were let loose from their kennels, after a morning of mysterious imprisonment to them, and allowed to enter the house. Their collars…. adorned with streamers of white satin ribbon,” ranted down the long room “never pausing until they found their mistress who welcomed them in her bridal finery.” It may have been the highlight of the bride’s day.
Helen with her dog Tatters, at Pond Cottage in 1926. The house dates from the 18th century and is the oldest structure on the Ferncliff estate.
It was an early afternoon wedding with the bride and groom leaving under a hail “of rice and old slippers” at 4:30, “and they were whirled away in a close motor through a rear exit from the estate to the State road on their way to Ferncliff, Mr. Astor’s estate at Rhinebeck, New York where they will remain until Mr. Astor has entirely recovered.”

What may have looked to an outsider like an ideal marriage would last twenty-six years although the majority of those years the couple tended to live separately – he in one place, she in another. In the last ten years of the marriage, he spent most of his time with his mistress, Minnie Cushing, whom he finally married right after his divorce from Helen.
Ferncliff in Rhinebeck, New York.
It was said of his marriage to Helen that young Astor was as anxious to cement his relationship with the bride’s father whom he admired as a “father figure.” In the early days of their marriage they were living in an environment that was familiar and comfortable to both, surrounded by (her) family and friends who are portrayed by Tracy Dows photographs in “Our Time At Fox Hollow Farm.” Wintertime meant the pleasures of snow lanes and sleighs and horses to ride them. And then came the holidays which were festive and, thanks to Helen, with family. 
The wedding of Helen Astor's sister Alice to Charles Henry "Buddy" Marshall Jr. in June 1917. Helen is second from the right. The best man was Marshall Field III. Cole Porter and Averill Harriman were ushers. When Buddy and Alice divorced fifteen years later in 1932, Buddy married Brooke Russell Kuser who later became the third and last wife of Vincent Astor.
This was the only real comforting experience that Vincent  ever had with family. Throughout childhood both his mother and father were absent much of the time. When his mother was present she was volatile and could be coldly cruel to the boy who recalled and recounted some of her maternal antics many times for the rest of his life.

Three years after Vincent’s birth, the young couple moved into a Richard Morris Hunt designed Italianate double mansion at 840 Fifth Avenue at 65th Street (where Temple Emanu-el stands today). When the little boy was taken by his father to see the excavations before construction which filled the 10,000 square foot lot, and told this was where he would one day live, he became hysterical thinking he was going to have to live in a hole in the ground.

Vincent Astor.
In a way, he wasn’t that far off the mark. Vincent was often alone, except for the twenty servants, in the huge house. His earliest memory – recounted many times, even to people he’d only just met –was from age four, in the year 1896. His nurse had brushed his curls and dressed him in a sailor suit that was the fashion for the little princes of Edith Wharton’s New York. She then took the boy by his tiny hand and walked him down the grand marble staircase to the drawing room where his mother was taking tea with her lady friends. As they entered the enormous room with its gilded pale green boiserie off-setting the Rosa Bonheurs and the Bouguereaus, its wide tall windows overlooking the newly paved Fifth Avenue, his nurse nudged the shy little child toward his mother.

Ava Willing Astor, a tiny yet legendary Edwardian beauty, still in her early twenties with perfectly coiffed hair, a pink and porcelain complexion, bejeweled, cinch-waisted and perfectly coutured, took one look with eyes blazing and shrilled, rolling her “rrrr’s,” as was her affectation, and shrilled: “He looks too frrrrightful! Take him away!” And the child was removed.

Humiliation is perceived early on, and its mark is left and rarely ever forgotten. A second, clearer, and also oft-repeated memory of Vincent was of the day when his mother, in her dressing room preparing to go out for the day, already habitually annoyed by her child’s presence, shoved him into a closet and locked the door to get him out of her hair.  She then promptly left and forgot she’d left him there. When the child realized he was trapped in the dark, she had left, he started shouting and kicking and beating on the door with his tiny fists and feet, it was to no avail: no one in the vast house could hear him. He remained there for hours, long after the unheard screams had turned to tears and the tears to whimpering, to the end of the day.
Helen Huntington Astor in her horse-drawn sleigh, preparing to visit her sister-in-law, Alice Astor Obelensky, on another part of the estate.
When John Jacob Astor IV died on the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, he left an estate reported to be several billions in today’s currency, with his son almost the sole heir. At age twenty and a half, Vincent Astor now owned whole blocks of business property in the Wall Street area, in the Broadway area, on 14th, 15th, 26, 33rd, 34th, 42nd, 43rd, 44th Streets and all the way up Broadway to 150th Street; the land on which the Empire State would be built), four hotels, including the St. Regis, entire blocks of apartment houses (including the Apthorp at 79th and Broadway – still standing), hundreds of tenements and warehouses, as well as dozens of raw acreage on the Upper East and West Side of Manhattan and in the Bronx.

He was also proprietor of the 3000 acre Ferncliff in Rhinebeck, the oceanfront cottage, Beechwood, in Newport, and two yachts, the Noma and the Nourmahal.

When his father was alive, in first decade of the 20th century, the Astor Estate owned hundreds of acres around Manhattan, the Bronx and Astoria which today would be worth in the hundreds of millions.
Vincent in a Fiat S74 ate Ferncliff in 1912. Vincent had inherited an interest in automobiles and machinery from his father, whose passion led to road improvements in the Rhinebeck area. 1912 was the year Jack Astor died in the sinking of the Titanic.
The Ferncliff estate was originally acquired in 1858 by Vincent’s great-grandfather William B. Astor, the eldest son of the original John Jacob Astor. The main house was built in 1860 by his son William B. Jr., father of JJ IV and grandfather of the new groom. All three loved the property all their lives. Coincidentally, none of their wives liked it, and avoided it as much as possible. It may have been somewhat different for Helen because she, like her husband, had lived in the area since childhood.

In 1902, Col. Astor had built a large playhouse known as the casino not far from the main house. The architect was Stanford White. The inspiration was the Grand Trianon at Versailles. It was a private athletic facility with an indoor tennis court, squash quarts, a bowling alley, a barbershop and arguably the first private indoor swimming pool in America; really like a private men’s club where women were allowed. When Vincent inherited he changed very little. When his sister Alice married her first husband, Prince Serge Obelensky, her brother gave her 500 acres of the property and built her a rambling stone mansion on it.
The front of the Ferncliff Casino in 1920. The 40,000 square foot Beaux-Arts sporting pavilion, inspired by the Grand Trianon at Versailles, was designed by Stanford White in 1902. The building was completed in 1904. The casino had an indoor clay tennis court, an indoor heated swimming pool (reported to be the first in America). a bowling alley, an outdoor grass tennis court, two squash courts, and guest bedrooms. The building, now privately owned, is called Astor Courts.
Vincent and Helen playing tennis indoors at the casino with Alice and another friend.
Friends enjoying the indoor pool of the casino. The sparkling vaulted ceiling supported by Corinthian columns was painted turquoise and embedded with mica chips.
Vincent was fond of trains, and built three-quarters of a mile of tracks on the property for a miniature train equipped to carry up to 20 passengers. He later duplicated the train and rails at his house in Bermuda. He also had an elaborate system of electric toy trains in his Manhattan apartment with which he often played after dinner.  He also kept his yacht (also inherited from his father) the Nourmahal as well as a large motorboat anchored near a pier at the river’s edge.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, cars – which were still referred to as “motors” or “machines” – Vincent loved race cars and would race them on his mile long driveway winding through the property. At one time he kept 30 cars in his garage in Ferncliff. He preferred to be called “V. A.” and had vanity plates on his cars: VA 1, VA 2, VA-3, etc. He rode around New York in a nine passenger custom built limousine with an especially high roof (so that he could be seated in his top hat) and a chrome likeness of a penguin on the tip of the hood. He had a whimsical fixation for penguins and decorated the family coat of arms, his planes, his trains, his matchbooks, his stationary and even his bespoke cigarettes – which he chained smoked at the rate of 50 a day – with the image of a penguin.
Fascinated by trains, Vincent had a small-scale model version built with tracks that ran along the grounds of Ferncliff., seen here in 1925. The locomotive was built by Pete Snyder, the skilled machinist at Rhinebeck's Hub Garage. Vincent rode behind the engine in an attached car equipped with a seat and would place his feet on poles that extended on each side of the engine. Extra cars with seats could be attached for passengers.
He loved planes and bought his first plane, an amphibian, in 1915 when he was 24. For the rest of his life, he commuted up the Hudson and elsewhere with his own pilots. His greatest boyhood romantic love was the sea. In the mid-1920s, partly with profits from his investment of the original MGM film of Ben Hur (circa 1925, the most expensive silent film ever made – between $4 and $6 million), in which he had been a backer, he commissioned a new Nourmahal -- 264 feet, with eleven staterooms, a library, a dining room for 18 a special operating room in case of emergencies, and cabins for all the officers of the 42 man crew. With a cruising range of 20,000 miles, Vincent and guests, besides the many Atlantic crossings, traveled the world, often for months at a time.

Sometimes he would play host to the man he most admired in the world his Dutchess County neighbor Franklin D. Roosevelt whose half-brother James Roosevelt Jr. was married to Vincent’s aunt Helen Schermerhorn Astor, making them (half)cousins. After FDR was elected President, Vincent put the Nourmahal at his disposal. When the United States entered the Second World War, he turned it over to the US Navy.
Serge Obelensky, husband of Alice, who remained friends with Vincent Astor long after Alice Astor divorced him. (For years he ran the St. Regis Hotel.) Obelensky, the son of Russian aristocracy, was born in Saint Petersburg and served as an officer in the Chevalier Guards during World War I. He was first married to a Russian princess but divorced her in 1924 to marry Alice Astor the same year. They divorced in 1932. Describing his life with Alice during their marriage, he wrote in his 1958 autobiography One Man in His Time: The Memoirs of Serge Obelensky, 'We lived like this: in midsummer we visited the United States, first at Newport, then to Rhinebeck for the fall, returning to London for Christmas and leaving in January for St. Moritz to sky, then stopping off awhile in Paris before going to the south of France for the spring and returning to London as the new season began."
By the time he was in his thirties, people who knew him socially referred to him as “Ghastly” Astor, among other names,while making faces behind his back. He was, to many, like a spoiled child with a gruff voice, without a scintilla of charm.

He had a predilection for practical jokes and would go to great effort and expense to play them on unwitting victims. A favorite involved hiring an actor to pose as a waiter, spill soup on a chosen guest and then insult him, driving the guest into a rage. Which is pretty funny if the guest was enough of a stuffed shirt. Victims, however, found it obnoxious at best. Others felt like slugging him. But they didn’t, and they wouldn’t, partly because he never chose a victim more hapless than himself – he was strange but not consciously cruel. Mostly he escaped massive retaliation because he was Vincent Astor, as royal as a New Yorker could be; he owned the town.
The Astors' Christmas tree in 1920 under the beautiful round skylight designed by Stanford White.
During the Second World War when he was married to Minnie and was away, with his agreement, she had the main house that his grandfather had built demolished. It was old, out of style, and she hated it. When Vincent returned from his service and saw the land now empty, yet with its stone entrance steps still there, he felt as if he were looking at his grave. The casino was revamped so that they could live there.

Vincent continued to use Ferncliff for the rest of his life, leaving it to his third wife Brooke who sold the land holding the casino and donating the other part of the land to conservation. That was a century after the first William B. Astor acquired it. A hundred years later, nearly all of the Hudson Valley real estate has been sold, broken up or reduced in size in the hands of new people. The society that acquired, built and celebrated its beauty and their personal luxury, had disappeared from the scene also.

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