Friday, February 26, 2010



Friday, February 26, 2010


By Polly Guerin

It was many years ago when I first visited Edith Wharton's former Berkshire estate, “The Mount” in Lenox, Massachusetts---a pilgrimage of sorts to pay homage to Wharton's amazing oeuvre producing over forty books during her lifetime. 
    The library at that time (2010) was rather barren of books save for a few first editions, less than I expected. However, I had my picture taken there by her desk and commanded this moment to memory and asked Wharton to be my muse. Her characters, such as Ellen Olenska in the Age of Innocence and the charming but ill-fated Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, are the most memorable among her books that I have read. These personalities still resonate with readers, even today.
    Wharton's life and the society that she wrote about stand as a testament to the obstacles that she encountered to find happiness and self fulfillment.  She broke through polite society's restrictions to become a Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist, short story writer and interior designer.
Wharton’s life spanning the years (1862-1937) was truly amazing era which put her in an ideal position to chronicle the lifestyles and the social ambitions of the newly rich of the Gilded Age. As a participant in fashionable society and a keen observer of the regime set by the old money set, she was in an enviable position to combine an insider’s view of America’s privileged classes.
     With a brilliant, natural wit Wharton also wrote humorous incisive novels and short stories. In this privileged position Wharton witnessed the variegated changes in Old New York and in Newport, Rhode Island where she summered and observed the cognoscenti of the era.
     Eventually, seeking a different venue, she built her own house, The Mount, in Lenox in 1902.
Literary legal eagle, Louis Auchincloss in a talk in 2002 at the New York School of Interior Design had quite a bit to say about Edith Wharton. “Shy, yes,” he said, but she had a definite aggressiveness, too. In Newport circles, she was considered a little fast---I know my grandmother thought that!” Although Edith Wharton had a rather strained relationship with her mother she was not without early support. Her mother had her poems privately printed when she was sixteen and the copy that Auchincloss gave to the Morgan Museum had Wharton’s own pen corrections in it. 
      In 1885, at 23 year of age, Edith Newbold Jones married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, from a well-established Boston family who was 12 years her senior and a gentleman of her social class. Wharton at that time had very little knowledge of what to expect in marriage and she bitterly remembered that her mother refused to answer any questions that she may have posed. This fact wasn’t the only reason why it wasn’t a happy union, and aside from travel the couple had a lackluster relationship and more importantly, little in common intellectually. She divorced Teddy Wharton in 1913.
Edith Wharton’s writing career as an interior decorator may have been launched with the publication of her first book, The decoration of Houses, (1897) written with her architect friend, Ogden Codman, but it was just the forerunner of this born storyteller’s oeuvre. The two taste masters denounced Victorian decorating practices and advocated the elimination of overstuffed furniture, artificial plants, festoons of lace on mantelpieces and dressing tables, heavily curtained windows. They endorsed a style of minimalism, bringing a breath of fresh air into interiors by stressing rooms based on simple, design principles, stressing symmetry and balance in architecture and thereby launched the careers of professional decorators to interpret the new style.
Heading frequently to London and Paris she forged friendships with Bernard Berenson, the painter John Singer Sergeant and scores of French writers and artists including Jacques-Emile Blanche, Andre Gide and Jean Cocteau, always writing and managing to produce a volume a year. 
     In Paris, one of the most romantic cities in the world she began an affair in 1908 with Morton Fullerton, a journalist on the London Times, and all that she painfully missed in her marriage, love and intellectual communion, was fulfilled. However, Auchincloss described Wharton’s lover, Morton Fullerton as follows: “It is always sad to see a first-rate human being temporarily in the grips of a fourth-rater.” Wharton herself finally wrote that she would have been better off had she never met him. 
In Paris, Wharton on her own terms and newly divorced became part of the intellectual circles where the artists mingled with the rich and high-born interlopers. She settled in Paris, in the historic Faubourg Saint-Germain arrondissement on the Left Bank. Life was a whirlwind of visiting Americans as well, including Henry James, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Adams. 
     But World War I was looming and Wharton became fiercely dedicated to the Allied cause. Traveling to the front lines, unusual as it was for the time, she often in the company of Walter Berry and her chauffeur, made excursions in her automobile into the front lines to observe the fighting. 
     An early war journalist she wrote reports for American publications in which she urged the United States to join the war effort. In addition, Wharton helped establish workrooms to employ women who had no means of support and tirelessly led the committee to aid refugees. 
     During the war years she also collaborated on war charities with ElisinaTyler (Countess Elisina de Castelvecchio), for which the French Academy in 1920 awarded them jointly a gold medal inscribed with both their names.
The final stage of Wharton’s life was spent in two beautiful houses in France---the summers at Pavillion Colombe, in a small village just north of Paris, and the winters at Chateau Saint-Claire at Hyeres---where she continued to write and enjoy the company of her beloved miniature dogs that were always a key element of Edith’s intimate household. 
     In recognition of her accomplishments the grand dame of American letters was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence, and an honorary Doctor of Letters from Yale University in 1923. The lifestyle of the social and moneyed world in which she lived and depicted in her fiction may have vanished, but her books and authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design and travel have survived the test of time. Her achievements continue to leave a lasting impression of a remarkable woman who gave us a peak into the Gilded Age and other venues of witty storytelling.
RESTORING THE MOUNTAfter further touring The Mount several years ago, I was disappointed at the time that Edith Wharton’s boudoir and bedroom were empty, the furnishings long gone, but somehow her spirit lingered on. I was happy to learn recently that the NYC based designer, Michael Simon will soon be restoring these areas so that it reflects the time period in which she lived. The Mount is in every aspect of the estate, including its gardens, architecture and interior design, evokes the spirit of Edith Wharton who created an environment that would meet her needs as a designer, gardener, hostess, and, above all, as a writer. Within a year Wharton wrote: "Lenox has had its usual tonic effect on me, and I feel like a new edition, revised and the very best type.” In a letter to her lover Morton Fullerton, she revealed how much of herself she put into The Mount. “I am amazed by the success of my efforts. Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than a novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth.” The Mount, located on a hillside in the Berkshires overlooking Laurel Lake was designed according to the principles stated in Wharton's 1897 book, The Decoration of Houses. The house and the restored Italianate gardens can be visited from May through October. Ticket Office: 413.551.5107. www.edit

Wednesday, February 17, 2010



By Polly Guerin

My dear Marylou: I remember it well. It was a pristine summer day in June and I was looking forward to interviewing you at Caty Hill your 135 acre estate in Saratoga Springs, New York and there you were in an elegant creamy beige pant suit with a marvelous gold broach perched on the shoulder of your jacket that quite nicely accented your glossy blonde hair. You were a vision of chic yet when children came in from the pool, draped with damp towels; you let them climb on your lap. Your nonchalance was impressive, yet I knew that you were the grand dame of Saratoga Springs. What’s more your charity and benevolence in the cultural and sport areas was legendary. And so the interview took place and I took copious notes of a woman who is truly an amazing diva par excellence, Alaska frontierswoman, Adirondack environmentalist and patron of the arts, horse breeder and racing enthusiast. Let’s raise our champagne glasses as we salute your life and its finest achievements.
You sat behind the great Whitney desk and with your friendly and open manner you gave a most interesting discourse on your current life and activities. Have you been to the races?” you asked me. “I’ve been attending a writer’s conference here in Saratoga I replied, but I haven’t been to the races.” With that Ms. Whitney whipped out a pink booklet and I wondered if I was getting a pink slip dismissal, but no instead, she gave me two complimentary tickets to sit in her royal box at the Saratoga racetrack so that I could view the races first hand like a society lady. Thank goodness I wore a picture hat that day, because fashionable millinery is de rigueur at the race track.
On the eve of the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course, droves of onlookers would turnout to watch who’s who of the horse and society worlds walk the red carpet at Canfield Casino. Everyone, however, awaited the arrival of crucial social figure Marylou Whitney, the philanthropist and grand dame who annually made a spectacular entrance in a themed event that announced the festivities each season. A gala it was in every description, showmanship par excellence, which she put on since 1978 with her late husband Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney, who died in 1991. They had been the king and queen of the horsey set and later Marylou continued producing the gala with her current husband John Hendrickson. As the Queen of Saratoga, Marylou bestowed a magical influence on Saratoga Springs not only through philanthropy but through a huge impact casting the social spotlight on Saratoga’s summer horse village. “Marylou saved this town,” at least that is what people say.
Every year, on the eve of the Whitney race, Marylou costumed herself in keeping with a fantasy theme, such as Snow White or Little Bo Peep or the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz. Whether she appeared as a fairytale princess, a flapper era debutante or an Alaskan heroine her entrance was a crowd pleaser for Marylou was much loved by the town as their patron and savior. Although these events had carnival aspects, they were not stuffy affairs, and catered to the local crowd as well with dog and clown acts, fortune tellers and booths set up where people could eat burgers and indulge in make-your-own-sundae tastings. The social elite paid stiff sums for the fundraiser benefits, which included the National Museum of Dance, and for the privilege to attend a private party inside the casino with Marylou and her entourage of celebrity friends.
Nary a lightweight when it came to philanthropy Marylou’s was instrumental in reversing the tide of decline of a seemingly sleepy Saratoga in the 1950s by putting the Saratoga Springs, 150 miles north of New York City, high on the social scene by throwing those high-profile parties that brought celebrities, media, and much-need dollars to the racetrack. Her late husband’s family was a major force in thoroughbred horse racing and in 2003; she made a $100,000 donation to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. The “Marylou Whitney Stables owns Bridstone, the 2004 Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes winners.
In October 1997, when she was 72 years old Marylou (b. Marie Louise Schroeder 1925) married John Hendrickson, a (then) 32-year-old tennis champ and former aide to Governor Walter Joseph Hickel of Alaska. She met the very-junior John Hendrickson when she was in Alaska helping to ready her dog team for the Iditarod at a dinner party held by Governor Hickel. According to accounts there was an immediate attraction and she began spending a lot more time in Alaska. Hendrickson is no lightweight and had been managing land holdings in Alaska, so it is not surprising that later, as a vice president, he joined Whitney Industries, a lumber and logging business with 51,000 acres of critical Adirondack real estate. As for the glaring age difference between her and Hendrickson, Whitney once said, “He’s basically 31 going on 60. He’s older than me because I newer grew up. Perhaps it is because my father called me ‘Baby.” Hendrickson seems to be assuming a bit of the protector role that her late husband Sonny also played in her life.
Hendrickson’s deft sale of 15,000 acres of Mrs. Whitney’s land in the Adirondacks proved he was more than just a semi-pretty face With John taking the lead some acres were sold to New York State and the acquired lands are called the Willam C. Whitney Wilderness Area. In 2007 Marylou and her husband John Hendrickson donated 250,000 to the Long Lake Library. In celebration of the gift, the library will be renamed The Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Long Lake Library. Together they have followed in the Whitney family’s legendary philanthropy and gave generous donations to the Long Lake Medical Center and the Long Lake United Methodist Church. And as breast cancer activists Marylou and Hendrickson donated $2.5 million for the Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson Center Facility for Women at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center.
Sadly Marylou suffered a stroke in early 2006, which seriously curtailed her celebrated activities in Saratoga. The planned summer gala that traditionally opened the racing season was to be “A Night in Alaska” by dog sled, and for the only woman who’s ever been to the South Pole and the North Pole within a period of four months, ‘A Night in Alaska’ would have been the quintessential event of all times. However, since having a stroke, Marylou has forsaken champagne nights, but the horse town has not forsaken the stalwart Queen of Saratoga and neither has anyone who has any horse sense. We salute her amazing ‘joie de vivre,’ her generous sense of philanthropy, a champion race horse owner and breeder and last but not least for putting Saratoga Springs on the map for future generations.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010



Lacy and be-ribboned, gilded with hearts, intertwined and pierced by Cupid’s dart, “Love Tokens From the Heart” were the fru-frou confections of lavish sentimentality, which identify with the Golden Age of Valentines, the years 1830 to 1860. These lavish confections, spilling forth with fancy paper work and sentimental verse, expressed an era and a time when the delicate art of romance was heightened by sending of charming valentine cards and greetings. So engaging is the custom that modern sentimentalists will be sending over a billion Valentine greetings, February 14th, making Valentine’s the second largest card-sending holiday.
A popular magazine in 1850 explained the significance of the expected Valentine: “But of all the clamorous visitations in expectation is the sound that ushered in…a Valentine. The knock of the postman on the door this day is light, airy, confident and befitting of one that bringeth good tidings. A blessing on St. Valentine, the patron saint of the day, fraught with so many heart flutterings and heart enjoyments!”
   As the postman’s footsteps were heard along the street on Valentine’s Day ladies awaited the tell-tale knock at their door, which signaled the momentous arrival of a sweetheart’s sentiments. To be passed by was a devastating personal experience as it was observed by one’s next door neighbor who was peeking out of the window and awaiting the post as well. So much for Victorian fables!
   The custom of sending valentines to loved ones was so well established that there was practical help for swains whose feeling went deeper than words. If the muse did not inspire there were little books of love poems, called “valentine writers”, which were available for copying by lovers who could not conjure up an original rhyme. Commercial valentines were soon to lead the way to a prolific business that spread from England to America.
The first valentines were imported from England, where new graphic art techniques enabled publishers to produce valentines of extraordinary beauty, intricacy and delicacy. Of all the well-known makers in England and America two stand out above all others, Jonathan King of London and Ester Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, the first lady of the American Valentines.
   The real inspiration behind Jonathan King’s business was his wife Clarissa who added glitter to cards simply by decorating them with powdered colored glass. King’s valentines were highly ornamented to catch the eye and prettily enhanced with fine net, lacy paper, silver and gold glitter, cupids, flowers and love birds.
   Valentine “bank notes” issued by the Bank of True Love were also in vogue at the time. Typically the sender promised to pay the sincere homage and never-failing devotion of an affectionate heart. The idea was pure fantasy and wit, but the notes were printed on actual bank note paper that looked so real that they very soon outlawed.
The history of valentine greetings in America has one special heroine—Esther Howland. Esther was the daughter of Southworth A. Howland who ran the largest bookstore and stationery shop in Worcester, Massachusetts. The well-educated young woman, a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary was preparing to go into teaching, but when she saw a British valentine that her father had imported to introduce in his emporium, it sparked her artistic talent. Quite enchanted with the cards, Esther hit on the idea that she could make Valentine cards as pretty as the European kind, if not nicer, and set about doing so.
   When her brother, Allen, was scheduled to go on a horse-and-buggy sales trip for their father's business, to get orders for the next season, Esther convinced him to take along a few samples of her cards. The handmade cards cost from $5 to $l0, a price that only the wealthy could afford, and the response was overwhelming. Esther expected her brother to sell $100 to $200 worth of the expensive cards. Instead he returned with orders for $5,000 worth.
   In 1847, with such good sales results, Esther was able to convince her family to let he go into business.She persuaded her father to import embossed lacy paper and materials from England, and color pictures from a lithographer in New York. With all the material assembled, as well as artificial flowers, feathers, glitter, silk and lace, spun glass, colored papers, portraits and romantic scenes, Esther rounded up her "staff," selecting young women eager for a trade, friends and family and set up her enterprise.
   She took over a bedroom in the family home as her workshop and created prototype designs for her helpers to copy. Then they worked in an assembly-line fashion. One person cut out pictures; another made backgrounds, and so on around the table the valentine confections were assembled as each girl added further embellishment. As time went on, Esther Howland's, assembly-line production of her trademark Valentines did exceedingly well and the business expanded to a $100,000 a year enterprise. It was an astonishing accomplishment and huge sum for 1848.
It was not long before other entrepreneurial individuals recognized a good thing and established similar businesses with valentine cards that bore a striking resemblance to Esther Howland’s. Legend has it that among one of her employees was George Whitney, who later established his own business. The striking resemblance of the Whitney valentines in decorative art collections today prove out the fact that Whitney’s valentines closely resemble those of Esther Howland, even to the small red “W” stamp at the back of each card, similar to the “H” used by Miss Howland. When her widowed father became deathly ill in 1880, his dutiful daughter gave up her business to be at her father’s side.
By all accounts Esther Howland by Victorian standards was an attractive young woman and wore the fashionable attire, perhaps having her gowns made by a seamstress who copied styles form Godey’s Lady’s Book, at that time, the quintessential arbiter of style. It featured colored fashion plates from England, selected by the venerable editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, whose opinions on domesticity and fashion ruled the lives of Victorian readers.
.  Esther came from  an excellent entrepreneurial family, she had  a good education and a fine bearing and with such business success one might have thought that many a beaux would have courted the First Lady of Valentines.. However, the opposite was her misfortune. She never had a sweetheart of her own and died a spinster in 1904.
   Let's toast the First lady of Valentines whose greetings lavished with lace; love and sentimentality were the epitome of a romantic bygone era. Let's raise a glass of champagne to her memory and her charming valentine's that brought such happy sentiments to so many people.♥
FYI: For individuals interested in the decorative arts, Howland's Valentines are considered valuable collectibles today.
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Tuesday, February 2, 2010




Dear Doris: When I visited Rough Point, your mansion in Newport, Rhode Island a few years ago, I was struck by the massive life-depicting painting that hangs in a stairwell, where a beautiful, blonde young girl stares out of the picture with a poignant gaze into the unknown future. Commissioned by your father James Buchanan Duke, who founded the American Tobacco Company and endowed Duke University, this is a portrait of You, Doris Duke, that young girl who would become an heiress, a philanthropist and benefactor of artists, medical research, and charities that support the environment and work to prevent child abuse. As founder of the Newport Restoration Foundation (1968) you may not have wielded the hammer and nails yourself but much of your fortune and time was spent on restoring over 80 Colonial buildings in Newport, Rhode Island, where you spent your summers at your mansion home, Rough Point. THE GOLDEN SWAN
Over the years you became a golden swan with a generous spirit and during your lifetime you gave away more than $400 million to various causes. You are an amazing art deco diva, brainy, athletic, cultured, a world traveler, but most of all you were not frivolous but had strong convictions about your humanitarian concern for giving back to society and by turning your wealth toward historical preservation and bettering the world through generous endowments to support numerous institutions. A lover of animals, particularly your dogs, and pet camels, in later years you became a wildlife refuge supporter. With amazing foresight when you were just 21 years old you established a foundation called “Independent Aid,” an organization which eventually became The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation,” an organization that still operates today. For all this we salute your integrity and prolific philanthropy, and honor your memory.
A great deal has been written about how you inherited an immense fortune, an estate estimated at $80 million, at your father’s death in 1925. You were a mere twelve years old and the media was quick to dub you the “Million Dollar Baby” and later “The Richest Woman in the World. On his deathbed, her father wisely cautioned his young daughter to “trust no one,” a piece of fatherly advice that would forever resonate in your impressionable mind. Doris’ mother on the other hand was only left a modest trust fund and inevitably it strained their already tenable relationship. Showing her mettle, when Duke was only 14 years old, she was forced to sue her mother, Nanaline Duke, in order to stop her from selling family assets. However, Mrs. Duke had considerable say in the matter of her daughter’s upbringing and when Doris wanted to attend college, her mother forbade it. Instead she took Doris on a grand tour of Europe, where she was presented as a debutante in London. Such travels may have forged Doris’ pleasure as a globetrotting enthusiast throughout her life. One thing was quite clear about Doris’ character. While other heiresses sought press coverage, Doris shunned it and was a reluctant celebrity avoiding the glare of publicity and refusing interviews. She had a private persona that forged an aura of mystery and speculation. ROMANCE AND THE HEIRESS
It is not surprising that upon entering the social world of continental society that the lovely, statuesque Miss Duke with her golden tresses and athletic good looks would attract suitors. In 1935 at the age of 22, she stunned everyone when she hastily married aspiring politician and semi-millionaire, James H.R. Cromwell (Jimmy), who was sixteen years her senior, the son of Palm Beach, Florida doyenne Eve Stotesbury. After a two-year around the world honeymoon, Doris and her husband arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii, where they built a house named Shangri-La (after the mythical land where no one grows old), in which she created her own decorating style filling it with Islamic art which she began collecting in the 1930s and a notable collection of Southeast Asian Art. A non-conformist, Doris was not bound by the usual rules of decorum and developed a rather magical oasis in Shangri-La, where she dressed in her version of Oriental splendor surrounded by world-class treasures. Cromwell meanwhile, a New Deal advocate, had ambition and used his wife’s fortune to enter the political arena, becoming U.S. Ambassador to Canada in 1940. The couple had a daughter, Arden, who lived only for one day. They divorced in 1943. While living in Hawaii, it is not surprising that Duke became the first woman to take up competition surfing. After all, she had been swimming in the ocean right off the coast of her Newport mansion, Rough Point, for quite some time and had developed the strength and stamina to withstand its rugged waters. Hawaii would be a similar challenge. Under the tutelage of surfing champion and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku and his brothers she tackled the sport like a true champion.
It seems to me that women of great wealth often become easy targets of marriages that make the headlines. According to reports Miss Duke was pretty happy most of the time, traveling, obtaining treasures from around the world and whatever delights she could not easily obtain, she bought. Over the course of her long life, she also acquired an impressive roster of lovers and a second husband, who cost her a fortune. While in Paris in 1947, Doris became the third wife of Porfirio Rubirosa, a diplomat from the Dominican Republic and a notorious playboy. Because of her great wealth, Duke’s marriage to Rubirosa attracted the attention of the U.S. State Department, which cautioned her against using her money to promote political agendas in this alliance. Although a pre-nuptial agreement protected her financial interest, she still gave Rubirosa several million dollars in gifts, including a stable of polo ponies, sports cars, a convert B-25 bomber, and, a 17th-century house in Paris in the divorce settlement. After this debacle Duke never remarried.
Inside the sprawling Rough Point mansion, which was originally built by Frederick W. Vanderbilt in 1887, one can see the lifestyle of an heiress with a passion for collecting. Twenty years after Shangri La, Duke turned her attention to Rough Point, where she had grown up. Completely emptied several years before, after her mother stopped coming to Newport each summer, the house was a blank canvas for Doris to decorate with art and furnishings from Duke Farms, the family’s New York house, as well as the great art dealers and auction houses. Duke was ahead of her time in her taste for exotic d├ęcor, the floors were covered in Persian and Indian carpets and the house had object d’art throughout. Her art treasures include antique furniture, and everywhere hang paintings by masters like Gainsborough, Van Dyck and Renoir. When it came to creating a glamorous and luxurious bedroom Duke chose an entire bedroom set and accessories in glowing mother-of-pearl, which was made in Vienna around 1820, with the exception of the impressive secretary desk, which was made in Goa, a Portuguese colony in western India, circa 1800. Duke bought the mother-of-pearl furniture suite at Parke-Benet Galleries in New York in April 1966 for $18,500. The music room was the site of numerous musicales and a caretaker at Rough Point told me that Doris loved jazz music so much that she became an amateur jazz pianist and often performed with a jazz group. With such a passion for jazz, it is quite understandable why she frequently made anonymous gifts to starving musicians. In 1993 Rough Point was willed to the Newport Restoration Foundation, complete with all of its contents. It was her wish that it be opened to the public as a house museum.
Among the great treasures in Rough Point is the reminder of a child’s Newport summer, which may surprise the visitor. One of the most charming items on display in the home of this heiress sits little trophies Doris won while making sandcastles on Newport Beach. Those are the halcyon days of her childhood but now the treasures from this house belong to the public, as he continuing gift of giving to a world made better by her philanthropy. She was a woman of considerable chic and was considered one of the best dressed in society. On any day, one might also get to see some of the custom-made couture fashions that she wore throughout her life, by designers such as Dior, Givenchy, Halston and Pucci, to name a few. We sadly say adieu to a woman whose life mantra, above all else, was philanthropy. We shall also remember her as a stalwart patron of historic preservation and environmental conservation.