I gave this talk on February 24, 2013, at the Waccabuc Country Club in South Salem, New York. For the Westchester Land Trust’s annual Leon Levy Environmental Symposium, for whose symposium two years ago I spoke at Bedford Historical Hall (Dispatch #64: Westchester, Bedford, and the Education of a Conservationist ).
A number of people came up afterwards with addenda and corrigenda which I have incorporated into this text.
The Great Estates of Northern Westchester and Their Contribution to Conservation
I am delighted to have been invited back this year to talk about a fascinating topic : the great estates of northern Westchester and their contribution to conservation. Before I start, I want to apologize for writing my talk out and reading it, as I did last time. Those of you who know me know I have a tendency to digress, and this talk is going to be long as it is. My talk two years ago at Bedford Historical Hall, which I also wrote out and read, went one for an hour and half, and this one– I haven’t timed it– could be even longer. So in the interests of getting you out of here by 8:30 so you can watch the Oscars, if that’s what you’re planning to do tonight, the loss of a little eye contact and spontaneity seems a fair tradeoff.
Secondly, I’m a Bedford Boy, and I haven’t even been that for 30 years, and I don’t think I’ve been up to the Salems more than a few times since I used to drive up to see Howland Adams in the early seventies. Howland lived on Route 35, the Old Post Road, coupla miles up from Cross River. He was one of the last of the old Yankee subsistence farmers in Westchester and was living on and working the same 100 acres that had been in his family since the Revolution. The Salems were considerably more countrified than Bedford in those days and they still are. I was in the spirit of the Sixties trying to make it as a singer songwriter and to emulate Loudon Wainwright III who grew up across the street and was doing occasional treework for my mother’s friends in Bedford, with an old McCullough clunker chainsaw that kept acting up, and I’d take it up to Howland, and he’d get it fired up and running smooth again in no time, with a few turns of a screwdriver. Every time I went to see him, he’d have a new joke. One time it was, hey alex how come mice have such small balls ? I dunno Howland, how come ? and Howland says cuz only tin percint of em kin dance. After Howard died his son sold the farm cuz he couldn’t afford the taxes and moved to the catskills. I don’t think there’s anybody like Howland in Westchester any more, but we still got a quite a few of them up in the Adirondacks, in the mountain valley where we have a camp. One of em said to me the other day, you live until you die, Alex, and that’s the only thing you to do.
Probably anybody in this room knows more about Lewisboro than I do, so I want to apologize ahead of time for any errors I am certain to commit, and would appreciate being straightened out so I can put the corrections into the text of this talk that I’ll be posting [I have in fact put them into this this post] on my web site, DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com, as I did with my talk two years ago. I extensively picked the brain of my brother Nick, who spent 20 years curating the nature museum in the ward pound ridge reservation and has an almost mystical sense of this many-layered locale. He should really be giving this talk, but he’s living as a recluse in the Catskills and is off the lecture circuit. his beat up old pickup truck can barely make it into town. Just to give you an idea of the depth of his knowledge, when I told him I was giving the talk at the Waccabuc country club, he told me that that carcass of Bet, the elephant of Barnum and Bailey’s circus, lies at the bottom of deep glacial lake waccubuc. Bailey was a local farmer who became partners with p.t. Barnum, a professional showman and scam artist credited with coining the aphorism “there’s a sucker born every minute,”, and Bet died at bailey’s place in Somers which later became and still is the Elephant Hotel and was brought over to lake waccabuc on a huge sledge and a hole was cut in the ice into which Bet was dropped, never to be seen again. So there’s a project for some enterprising local diver. The elephant’s body is probably intact down there, but brittle, like the corpse of a woman who had disappeared decades earlier and was found at the bottom of lake placid. [Apparently Bet belonged to another, earlier Bailey, Hachaliah Bailey, who had a circus in the 1820s, not to the Bailey of Barnum and Bailey, who were later. Old Bet died on tour in 1827 and according to the Elephant Hotel Wikipedia entry was said to have been buried in the front yard. So Nick’s story has some holes in it.]
I am also grateful to the Bedford town historian John Stockbridge and his assistant Christina Rae and to Lynn Ryan of the Bedford Historical Society, for helping with historical questions in the township, and to a thoughtful memo from Lewisboro town historian Maureen Koehl.
The reason I’ve been asked to give this talk undoubtedly has to do with the fact that my l978 book, Westchester portrait of a county, has a chapter called the days of the big houses, which is primarily about the great estates of Bedford. When I was growing up in Bedford in the fifties and lived there in the seventies, I frequented quite a few of them. Bedford was where most of them were. Some of them with their stately Georgian brick mansions and rolling meadows and lush woodlands laced with riding trails were a lot like, and in fact modeled after, the hereditary estates of the English aristocracy. The home of Robert and Margaret Patterson, for instance, which was designed by the firm of Delano and Aldrich and built over l905 and l906, had the only grass tennis court for miles around, as well as a flock of peacocks, and whenever a ball that wasn’t hit high enough smacked the tape of the net, the peacocks would send up a squawk that could be heard down in the valley below. Margaret had grown up in the house. She was the daughter of William Sloane the department store magnate, who built it, and the Pattersons left it to the county. It’s now the Aaron Copeland retreat for composers. Copeland’s son lives there and it apparently needs some serious t l c. .
The people who lived in these houses were locally referred to as “hilltoppers,” although not all of the great houses were on hilltops. Some in this uppercrust stratum were highly cultivated, like the Marquands, who frequently had Edith Wharton as a house guest, or the Bechtels, who were close friends of the poet Wallace Stevens and had a beautiful rose garden including a maze that we used to run around in as kids. Bennet Cerf, who started Random House, lived in Mount Kisco and had people like Frank Sinatra out for the weekend, and on Guard hill Road was Crowfields, the large, welcoming, book-filled country house of Cass Canfield, who was the editor in chief of Harper and Row, for whom I wrote my first book, now it’s harper collins, and further up Guard Hill his sister’s in laws was the big chateau of the Cowards of Coward McCann and Geoghan, for whom I wrote my second fourth and fifth books, shortly after which the firm went belly up. Probably due to the poor sales of my titles. On Mianus River Road and its arteries there was a colony of Hollywood and Broadway show moghuls. Selznick, myers, mankiewitz. In fact I am staying in the old Selznick place, inhabited for the last few decades by John and Francie Train. Last night they had a dinner party that included Peter and Margie Kunhardt and Ptomely Thompkins, who ghost-wrote a current best-seller, about the near-death experience of a neuroscientist, and Peter Canby, the head of the New Yorker’s famously rigorous checking department. Peter checked a number of my pieces back in the day and is married to Annie Putnam, whom I grew up with. So there are still vestiges of culture in this neck of the woods.
Both Mr. Goldman and Mr. Sachs had big houses on lots of land in Bedford. My dad played tennis with both of them, on private courts, Jews not being allowed to join the Bedford Golf and Tennis Club.
Helen Clay Frick, the reclusive maiden daughter of the Pittsburgh steel baron and art collector Henry Clay Frick, lived in austere simplicity on her thousand-acre Westmoreland Farms, half of which she gave as a sanctuary which my dad was the first president of. Many of the women on these estates were serious gardeners, and it was in Bedford that the first chapter of the Garden Club of America was established in 1938, as well as, in 1913, the first chapter of the National Audubon Society, which my dad and brother were president of and I was secretary of in the seventies, when I was the resident naturalist at the Marsh Sanctuary, which had a fantastic garden with a greek amphitheatre that Isidora Duncan had danced in. The chairman of the board of the Audubon Society at the time, Tom Kessee, lived nearby and was on the board of the Marsh Sanctuary, and Pat his widow, who went to the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia with my parents to photograph their spectacular alpine flowers, and came to my talk in Bedford two years ago. Bedford is also where the Nature Conservancy, which is now conserving wildlands all over the world, started, with the acquisition of Mianus River Gorge and its magnificent virgin hemlocks. These hilltoppers loved their land and had the sense of service, stewardship, noblesse oblige and the conservation ethos that were part and parcel of being a gentleman. The American conservation movement owes a lot to them and you can’t step into the woods around here without soon finding a winged euonymous, some paccysandra, or one of the other many plants that have escaped from their gardens and become part of the local ecology, like the starling which was introduced in central park in 1890 by Eugene Schieffelin, a bourbon brewer who thought it would be a great idea to bring all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to America and whose descendants lived in one of Bedford’s hilltop mansions. When I taught at the Bedford Rippowam School in the seventies had his great-grandson, who was one of my students, write a report on the dramatic but disastrous success of the starling in North America. And the New York state police was started in l917 by two ladies, one of them a hilltopper, after some bankrobbers in Mount Kisco shot a random customer dead and got away with the money and were never caught, because Westchester didn’t have a police force.
If you look at a map of northern Westchester, it’s a patchwork of protected areas. There are dozens of them. Many of them are former estates or parts of estates that were given by their owners to their community. For instance, there was a great lady in Cross River named Mrs. Mommsen. She had spent her life in Brazil, and after her husband, who had been a big businessman and the American consul in Sao Paulo died, she bought eighty years here although she had no connection with Westchester. But she decided to spend her last years in America. Mrs. Mommsen didn’t know a low of people and was always glad when my wife, who was Brazilian, came over and we could all talk Portuguese and matar saudade, assuage our longing for Brazil.
After Mrs. Mommsen died, she left her land to the town and it is now the Mommsen Preserve.
The heyday of Westchester’s great houses and estates from l880 to l940, although in l966 I whiled away an afternoon at Haywire, the agent Leland Hayward’s place in Yorktown Heights, playing scrabble with his ravishing red-haired socialite wife Pamela, who had been married to Randolph Churchill and would end her days as the wife of Averill Harriman. A new crowd had moved into these mansions or built new ones when I did a story for Vanity Fair about the demographic turnover of Bedford in l999. Ivan Boesky, Carl Icahn, Nelson Peltz, Donald Trump, George Soros, Ralph Lauren, Martha Stewart, some of the biggest megabucksters in the country, were among the new hilltoppers. A lot of these houses had stories. When James Sutton and his wife the only daughter of R.H.Macy opened the front door of their just-built house on Guard Hill Road in the l880s, they were greeted by the sight of the architect hanging by his neck in the stairwell, who was apparently not happy with his creation. The mother of one upperclass Bedford family I knew in the seventies was a big horse rider. She had a bad fall that put her permanently in a wheelchair, and the family sold their estate– more of an estatelet or an estatette, being only a dozen acres– and moved to Santa Barbara. The next owner was a member of the Mafia. The estate abutted a nature sanctuary, and birds were flying into the surveillance cameras he set up and being electrocuted. Finally a delegation of distressed birdwatchers led by the formidable Georgina Cortlandt van Rennselaer, one of Bedford’s grandes dames who was actually as nice as could be and totally unhoity-toity, went to see the mafia guy. They knocked on his door and he came out a with a big piece in a shoulder holster under his armpit. Mrs. van Rensselaer, unintimidated and trembling with outrage told him, “You’ve killed all the goldfinches,” and he said, “ Lady I didn’t whack the Goldfinches. I was in Palm Beach.”
The history of the 370 acre– Leon Levy preserve, on the occasion of the opening of whose parking lot I have been asked to give this talk, is really interesting. I’ve only done a little digging, but already I can see that all the layers of human history in this part of the world up to the last 50 years are represented, and the preserve could be a fantastic field research laboratory for archaeologists, historians and natural historians. You could spend years peeling away the layers not begin to scratch the surface.
An important Indian trail went right through the ravine, with its 25 foot cliffs, and it would be surprising if there were not some artifacts in there. There’s a definite Indian cave, its roof blackened by the smoke of ancient fires, right across the street. Most of the natives who moved through the ravine were probably Kichawank, a band of Lenape Delaware that summered on the Hudson, at the mouth of the Croton River, and may have wintered on Lake Kichewan, although the only artifacts found there have been archaic, much older than the late woodlands Kichawank. They belonged to the Wappinger Confederation and spoke the Munsee dialect. To the south, in Bedford, were the Tanketiki. These are the people who
gave Chappaqua, Katonah, Lake Mahopac, Mount Kisco, and this lake and country club, Waccabuc, their names. In l644 200 mercenaries led by the infamous Indian killer Colonel John Underwood were hired by the governor of New Amsterdam to avenge some attacks on colonists settlements to the south. They crept up on a winter celebration the Tanketike were having, probably on the grounds of what is now Pepsi Beverages’s corporate offices across the Muscoot Reservoir in Katonah, not in Cross River, my brother contends, and cut down 180 of them and set fire to 500 who had fled into their lodges. they burned to death without uttering a sound, not even the children, not a cry or a whimper was to be heard, according to one of the mercenaries who was haunted by the pride and dignity of the way they went for the rest of his life . The rest of Westchester’s native people were deported to a series of reservations, in Wisconsin and Oklahoma’s Indian Territory, where my brother tracked down the last 12 of their descendants who still spoke Munsee in l985. My brother had found arrowheads and beadwork in caves in Bedford when he was a boy, and now was the curator of the nature museum at Ward Pound Ridge reservation in Cross River, and had become really interested in Westchester’s long-gone original inhabitants and taught himself Munsee and the plants they ate and used for medicine and everthing about their culture that he could find out. I’d go over to his place for dinner and he’d serve me a meal of acorns and jerusalem artichoke, with tea of sumac berries and hemlock needles (the conifer not the herb, which is poisonous). The Lenape in Oklahoma were so blown away by nick’s knowledge of their culture that they made him a member of their Chaney River Band and gave him a Munsee name which means He Who Stand Firm, which he has used ever since. It was even on his driver’s license until Homeland Security made him change it back. My brother found a magnificent bear petroglyph on a granite boulder right in someone’s back yard in Cross River, and started opening kids and adults eyes to what was really going on around here. It wasn’t just bland boring generic burbs, it was a world of endless fascination and layers waiting to be peeled. eventually he got a grant to bring the 12 Munsee speakers back to their homeland, which their ancestors had been deported from 200 years earlier, and had a healing ceremony at his museum on the reservation conducted by their shaman, a noble and powerful woman named Nora Thompson Dean. It was a deeply moving event for all of us who were there.
This is the richest temperate deciduous hardwood forest on earth, with 4500 species of higher plants from ferns on up and the natives made use of a lot of them. Not only a botanical but an ethnobotanical inventory should be made of the reserve, making use of the extensive library at the Delaware Information Center that my brother set up at the nature museum in Cross River.
Several rare endemics– purple milkweed and blue cohosh– have already been reported, and there are undoubtedly more. I did an inventory of the Marsh Sanctuary’s flora and we found all kinds of surprising things, including a vine, Dioscorea villacea, which had never been found in Westchester. The Marsh Sanctuary was one of the last remaining habitats of the endangered Muehlenberg turtle, a fact which weighed heavily in the battle over the route of 684 up through bedford in the sixties.
You probably have some rare species here too, new subspecies of butterflies and mushrooms at the very least, like I’ve discovered on our 40 acres in the Adirondacks.
During the dutch colonial period the preserve was part of Van Cortlandt manor, a vast estate granted to the poltroon ancestor of the husband of Georgina Cortlandt van Rennselaer. who had the conversation with the mafia guy. After the English conquered New Amsterdam, it was part of a section of land called the Oblong that both New York and Connecticut claimed. It had a no-man’s land frontier quality right up to the beginning of the 20th century. Cowboys banditi and rowdies as described in contemporary account raided horses and cattle and stole stuff in connecticut and sold them in new york and vice versa. Vista through the l950s had a pocket of rednecks and hillbillies descended from the them.
From the late 1600s on
Settlers from England moved up to the salems and eked out a hardscrabble living from the soil, stacking the many glacial boulders into stone walls. Indians were still part of the local mix through the 1730s.
The reserve has the remains of an old dam and mill from this period, during which its lower parts were flooded.
During the Revolution Col. Shelton and his Dragoons camped on the property for a couple of days. Major Andre, the British spy, was briefly imprisoned in Salem, and the last Wappinger sachem, who fought with the freedom fighters, was killed in the Bronx. Colonel Rochambeau and his troops in the all white uniforms of the French, marched right up 123 from vista right past the preserve.
when the war of independence was over, Jeremiah Keeler returned to Salem as a hero with a sword from LaFayette. He built the white house on the corner of Route 35 and 123 in 1795 from materials from an Episcopalian church that stood across the street and was buried in 1853 in its graveyard. His son, Thaddeus Hoyt Keeler, was the next occupant of the property until his death in 1874. Around this time the Leatherman was making appearances at farmers’ doors and pointing to his mouth meaning he wanted somethng to eat. He was such a local sensation that postcards of him were sold in the general stores. My brother thinks he represented an alternative lifestyle to the stifling puritanical dawn to dusk routine of the local farmers, a freedom to roam that they didn’t have. One of his caves is just above kimberley bridge in the pound reservation, and right next to it there was a bobcat den. My mom and I locked eyes with one of these magnificent superalert cats in the seventies.
There’s a great new book by Dan De Luca on the Leatherman that calls in question the contemporary account that he was Jules Bourglay, a Frenchman who was engaged to marry the daughter of the shoe factory where he worked which burned to the ground and he was blamed for it, and his engagement was cancaled, so he came to the New York and spent the rest of his life half-tetched walking a 34-day circuit staying inc caves and appearing at farmhouses pointing to his mouth.
The railroad and later the automobile brought a new class of people into northern Westchester– the hilltoppers. By the l914 or so motorcars had replaced horses as the way to get around, and the hayfields to feed the horses were let go, and the forest began to return. Most of northern Westchester’s forest is second growth, now a century old. Minus its chestnuts, which were killed by a blight, and don’t get any bigger than saplings any more. Their niche was filled by several species of hickory. The northeast is one of the few places in the world whose forest cover is actually increasing, and with the return of the forest big animals have become more common. My brother saw a mountain lion in ridgefield in the late seventies, and one appeared not long ago on the playing fields of New Canaan Country Day School. Bears have been making their way across Interstate 684 into these parts. There’s a den on the reservation. coyotes are increasingly plentiful and brazen, and the deer population is out of control. And the fisher cat has made a dramatic comeback. It preys on domestic cats– one more reason to keep them indoors. The main predator of deer is now the automobile, and they are the main cause of car accidents, and they are the main vector of Lyme disease. The tiny tick was only just beginning to appear in katonah in the late seventies, now thanks to the deer and global warming, it’s established itself all the way in the Adirondacks and will soon be crossing the border into canada.
Around the turn of the twentieth century the Keeler farm was bought by John Mason Craft, a famous chemist and president of M.I.T. He built a large stone and shingle house called Black Mansion that had lots of outbuildings including an ice house and his lab and a cottage for his daughter and retired there until his death in 1917. The architect is thought to have been Grovesnor Atterbury, but this hasn’t been nailed down.
In fact the latest word, from the Atterbury Society, which was sent a photo of its ruin, is that it wasn’t Atterbury. But they weren’t sent a photo of the intact elegant and original carriage house, which would give a better idea of who the architect was.
Atterbury designed the stone and shingle Tudor mansion Savin Rock, across Route 123, which J.P. Morgan, a warden of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, built for his rector, William S. Rainsford, in 1907. Since 1973 it has been a gourmet restaurant and event destination called Le Chateau. My dad had his retirement dinner from itt rayonier at le chateau in l979.
But Black Mansion and all its outbuildings except the carriage house burned to the ground in l979, leaving only the elegant European beech and white birch lined allees and carriageways. No photographs or plans of the mansion and its outbuildings have turned up. I would start by tracking down some of the Kaplans, whom I’m getting to shortly, and finding what what images and documents and stories they may have. A lot of fascinating archaeological discoveries could be made digging up the dump and the lab and the ruin of Black Mansion itself. I’ve found all kinds of great old wine and champagne bottles and amethyst milk bottles and dark brown bottles of long-forgotten elixirs and panaceas in the dump of the old Hoare mansion in the woods above our camp in the Adirondacks, which are now part of the forever wild Hurricane Wilderness. The Hoares and their guests seem to have had a great old time back in the day, and the Crafts probably did too. Some of their guests were probably prominent figures. The next occupant of Savin Rock after Reverend Rainsford, Colonel Frederick Sansome, who had previously been the owner of Converse Farm in Greenwich, often entertained White House dignitaries.
There were some interesting people in the verdant hills and on the sparkling lakes of Lewisboro, especially– to jump ahead a generation– Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice president from l940 to l945, who was also a corn breeder, having been a boyhood protege of George Washington Carver, in Iowa, and he was an ardent spiritualist, holding seances to communicate with the dead. I wonder in if he had any in Lewisboro. Wallace kept up a lively correspondance with the Russian painter and mystic, Nicholas Roerich. They were both interested in a world governing body that would keep global peace, the future United Nations and in the hidden paradise in Tibet of Shambahala or Shangri-la.
1934. When Wallace was secretary of agriculture he sent Roerich to the Gobi Desert on the government’s dime to study the local mongolian’s arid farming techniques. The Republicans raised holy hell when they got wind of this, and
Westbrook Pegler painted Wallace as a commie and cook, when he ran for president on the progressive party ticket in l948. Wallace’s platform included universal government sponsored health care and ending the cold war and giving african americans full voting rights, and he toured the south with his party’s black candidates and refused to appear at any rallies that were segregated. He only got 2.8% of the vote and returned to Farview, his beloved farm in South Salem, where he developed hybrid corns and chickens whose eggs were soon the main ones being consumed around the world. He believed that all wars resulted from a lack of food. Few people realize that the father of modern agriculture, of the green revolution, lived right here in south salem up route 35 from howland adams. He moved here be close to FDR who was over in Hyde Park. His estate was called Farview.
After Roosevelt died, while sitting for a portrait by my grandmother, elizabeth shoumatoff, in warm springs georgia
on april 12, 1945, truman made wallace his secretary of commerce, but they fell out over truman’s soviet policy and wallace became the editor of the New Republic and attacked the Truman doctrine, which started the cold war and he predicted would usher in a hundred years of fear.
My brother remembers going to tea at farview several times with our parents in the fifties, and visiting him in the sixties, he was a striking looking man, a lean lanky lincolnesque midwesterner. The silo of the barn was strange shaped cuz top was actually a shortwave wave. He big greenhouse and was experimenting with radioactive dust got from the manhattanville project. Sprinkling it liberally on the vegetables and flowers and this was reportedly quadrupling their size. Farview, Jim Nordgren, who is a great admirer of Wallace, contends, should be on a National Monument. But his reputation will take some rehabilitation. At one point during the McCarthy witch hunt, Wallace reckoned he was the most unpopular person in America.
In 1921 Black Mansion passed into the hands of Abram Kaplan, who had prospered in the molasses and sugar business. Kaplan’s son Joel David Kaplan was convicted of murdering his business partner in Mexico in l962 and was sentenced to life in a Mexican prison, but in l971 he was swept away in a helicopter chopper that suddenly landed in the prison yard and took off before the guards knew what was happening. A movie called Breakout starring Robert Duval and Charles Bronson was made in l975 about this daring escape. I remember seeing it years ago. It was great.
Abram Kaplan’s wife found Black Mansion cold and drafty, the only heat being from the fireplaces, so they moved to the Benedict House on the corner of Route 35 and Ridgefield Avenue and only visited the property in the summertime.
After the Second World War– this comes from a history of the property that Bobbe Stulz sent me– the property was part of the area considered for the new home of the United Nations. It was thought to be a secure location with an airport close by in White Plains. [I wonder if wallace did any lobbying for it in his hometown) There was also a plan to build a nine-hole golf course. Along Mill River on the east side of Route 123, there is an old railroad bed that follows the path of the river through the preserve but the tracks were never laid. When was this done ?
By the l950s Black Mansion was all but abandoned. The furnishings were all still intact, presumably left behind by the Kaplans. On the ground floor there was a player piano and an elevator. The second floor had a long corridor leading into a big room that was lined with small beds. Some have speculated it could have been a nursery or an infirmary.
In 1959, the property was bought by the Bell/Lyden Partnership, who were basically land speculators. Two years later the partnership leased the Keeler house, barns and surrounding fields to Sheila Adams to run a non profit riding club and school with up to 18 horses, which she ran for many years.
In 1967 an easement and lease was given for a telephone relay station. The tower was referred to as “the biggest business in Lewisboro” and is still in use today.
Records from 1972 to 1984 at the Town Planning Board show a long term effort by the Bell/Lyden Partnership to develop the property with a 324 unit condominium complex called “Mill River Run.” Maps show a water tower, sewage treatment plant, park/playground, community swimming pool, and even a retail center. But the development never got off the ground.
The abandoned Black Mansion began to show signs of abuse and neglect through the 1960’s and 1970’s. Motorcycles raced up and down her stairwells and through her corridors. Furniture crashed through her top floor windows.
Then on January 28, 1979 somebody torched her. Three of her stone walls still stand but they need to be stabilized.
On April 4, 2005 the Lewisboro Land Trust, a chapter of Westchester Land Trust, issued a press release that the 383-acre property had been acquired for 8.3 million dollars and was going to be set aside as a nature sanctuary called the Leon Levy Preserve. Leon, described by Forbes magazine as a “Wall Street investment genius and prolific philanthropist,” had died two years earlier at the age of 78. He had started mutual funds that managed $120 billion and a hedge fund worth $3 billion, and his net worth was estimated at around a billion dollars. It would have been more if he and his wife Shelby White hadn’t given so much of it away– some $200 million over the years. Among the many worthy institutions and causes, the couple donated a court to the Metropolitan Museum for the exhibition of Hellenic and Roman art, much of it from their own collection, funded an excavation in Israel and a grant program for archaeologists to write up their excavation reports, they founded an economic institute at Bard College and endowed a $60,000 residency at New York University for biographers, which I immediately called when I found out about to see if this includes autobiographers– I’m 400 pages into my memoirs, and am only up to the age of 29 and could use an infusion of cash to get through the rest of it– but sadly it doesn’t. Leon and Shelby funded the creation of native plant gardens in both the New York Botanical Garden and the Bahamas. As his brother recalled, Leon had a great love of nature ever since he planted his first radish at the age of four. The year before he died, Levy published a memoir, written with my esteemed colleague Eugene Linden, called The Mind of Wall Street: A Legendary Financier on the Perils of Greed and the Mysteries of the Market. Linden is Time Magazine’s long-time environmental correspondant and lives in Irvington.
If you google leon levy at the bottom of the page you can refine your search to leon levy biography center, cancer center, fellowship, information commons, professor, leon levy and shelby white court, library (of dental of medicine).
Leon Levy was an enlightened human being, in short. Someone who had tremendous energy, many interests, and who cared about the world.
I wish I had known him. But his widow Shelby White is here with today, and it was her idea to set aside the preserve in his name. She and Leon had bought a place in South Salem to which she still comes on weekends, and she is a serious gardiner. Her daffodils are among the most vibrant in northern Westchester. Five million dollars for the preserve came from the Jerome Levy Foundation, which Leon started in the l950s in memory of his father. The Town of Lewisboro put in a million, the New York City Department of Environmental Conservation another million (in return for which the town gave it a conservation easement for the 90 acres that are in the Croton Watershed), and the Dextra Baldwin McGonagle Foundation $500,000
Yesterday I spent two hours exploring the reserve with Jim nordgren and Bobbe Stultz, wlt’s director of art and events . It has five miles of trails.
jim , used to be town supervisor, and was instrumental in saving the property. He has a degree from yale forestry and leads many of wlt’s walks, he will be leading a walk on the preserve on march 10. It has the most magnificent hardwood forest I have ever seen in Westchester, particularly the grove of ash and tulip trees whose huge branchless boles shoot up on the slope going from the carriage house to the ruin of the mansion. Jim really knows his trees and shrubs and was able to identify red black white scarlet pin and chestnut oaks from their bark patterns and physiognomy, and all kinds of understory woody species from witch hazel to shadbush, striped maple, hornbeam and hophornbeam. In a few weeks the floor of the forest will be blazing with spring wildflowers, and songbirds will be singing their hearts out.
his thoughts, which show a deep undersanding of Lewisboro’s history , before we met
there are some interesting angles that you could elaborate on, First, like every other hilltop in Westchester County during the Gilded Age, it had a mansion–the Black Mansion. The hill across the street has a mansion. Just around route 35 you can still see the remnants of the Gilded Age–a mansion now used by Four Winds as a psychiatric hospital, another that’s still a private home just to the west. Another, like Black Mansion, burned–it was called Falcon Ridge–now they’ve name the subdivision after it.
I hiked Taxter Ridge a few months ago in Greenburgh off 287 and learned the same thing–it had a mansion owned by Jay Gould who also owned Lyndhurst, now completely disintegrated, just a foundation, an old carriage road and the Norway spruce planted in front. Another one on the adjacent hill was owned by the artist Bierstadt, and across 287 was a mansion now run as Hackley School.
I think people today have no idea what grand buildings were built in that time period–there were no income taxes, skilled immigrant Italian masons were hired for almost nothing and wanting, for security, to be paid in even cheaper lira instead of dollars. The entire area was dotted with hilltop mansions surrounded by poor dairy farmers, from just north of NY City to Newport and Bar Harbor and the Adirondacks, and most of those mansions are gone now, and, in this area if they were not subdivided, are reverting to forest.
Another angle is that next to the mansion is one of the many summer colony lake communities (Lake Kitchawan), scattered all over northern Westchester. Lewisboro has 7 lakes, Mahopac has a bunch also, all were summer colonies. These were for the poor people who didn’t have the mansions, a way for them to escape the city. Many were Jewish colonies–like Goldens Bridge. These modest summer homes have all been greatly expanded and winterized. Lake Kitchawan is still very modest, and the people there don’t have many options for recreation–they have used the Levy Preserve for hiking/hunting/riding/biking/ATV’ing forever–that’s why it was nice to preserve it for their use.
[ATV”s the dreaded all terrain vehicles which tear up trails and muddy up streams were banned from public land in south salem a year ago.]
Then there is the natural history. Guy Hodges, a Lake Kitchawan native, found lots of native American artifacts around the Levy Preserve. Lake Kitchawan has always been a magnet for wildlife throughout time, bones of a mastodon were found there.
[actually a complete skeleton. The skull and tusks are in the nature museum at pound ridge reservation]
And the entire preserve overlays a belt of calcareous limestone, which encircles the Reservation [which is mostly a magmatic intrusion known as Pound Ridge gneiss]. This soil is less acidic and so more hospitable to a wide range of amphibians, insects and wildflowers, species not normally found in the area.
But Jim doesn’t know the Kaplan story.
I did a little digging there, being not only being an environmental writer, but also an investigative reporter for Vanity Fair, my eyebrows couldn’t help twitching with interest at the J.D. Kaplan breakout story. With a little googling and couple of emails and phone calls it quickly became very interesting. J.D. was also a millionaire he had a glucose and sugar company in partnership with a Cuban named louis Vargas jr. He was also allegedly a courier for Fidel Castro. According to various sources he was “a mixer in latin american political intrigue,” involved in “revolutionary counterrevolutionary counter counter revolutionary us cuban machinations.”
The charge of murdering his partner J.D. maintained was a complete setup. The body wasn’t even that of Vargas. But the CIA wanted him to put him out of action and may have had a hand in his conviction, and maybe it wouldn’t have terribly upset his uncle J.M., the molasses and sugar king and later owner of Welsh’s grape juice who was charged with and probably guilty of, someone who knows the family told me, funneling CIA funds through his company to leftie but anticommunist Latin American leaders like juan Bosch of the Dominican Repbulic and bettancourt venezuela and munoz marin the governor of Puerto Rico. J.M. was a sentimental old leftie, a collectivist but anticommunist socialist, like many in the Jewish intelligentsia and in fact like the CIA in its early days, which was staunchly anticommunist, but its operatives were liberal lefties, and didnt become reactionary until Nixon and Kissinger. J.M. organized the sugar cane plantations in cuba in his youth, and later converted welsh’s grape juice from a corporation to a cooperative. He started the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a big supporter of environmental and architectural preservation initiatives like Onearth, the Natural Resource Council’s excellent magazine, which I am a contributing editor of, and whose editor lives right here in South Salem and commutes to the NRDC’s office in New York. I was hoping he’d be here today but his son is in a show in new york city. In fact, ten years ago the J.M. Kaplan fund commissioned me to write up four transborder initiatives it was funding, which are posted on my Web site, DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com. One was about its support of the effort to preserve the fabulous crumbling but still avant-garde art deco architecture in Havana. One of J.M.’s granddaughters, the writer Isabela Fonseca, is married to Martin Amis. I saw them at Christopher Hitchen’s memorial service in Cooper’s Union last spring. She spent four years with the Roma, the gypsies, and wrote a highly-praised book about it. Interesting family. Also socially aware and philanthropic. I wonder if J.D. is still alive. He would be 86 now. And what the second half of his life living somewhere under an assumed name was like. He married a Mexican woman named irma vasquez calderon in prison which he said in the book he wrote about his escape, The Ten-Second Jailbreak, was a “marriage of convenience.” so it doesn’t sound like she joined him. He escaped from santa martin acatilla prison august 19 1971, with a venezuelan counterfeiter carlos antonio contrereras castro. The helicopter hovered right over yard, Lowered a rope hauled em in, and they out of there, the whole thing over in eleven seconds, the guards were given pause cause the bottom of chopper was painted with mexican military colors and insignia. In the chopper was the famous lawyer vasilios choulos of san fransisco, who was the johnnie cochran of his day. He represented jack ruby, lenny bruce, abbie hoffman, jerry rubin, timothy leary and the hells angels and specialized in high profile countercultural figures who had run afoul of the military industrial complex. Choulos was convinced by j.d.’s sister of his innocence. j.d. allegedly the wrote his book in choulos’s house. From then on the digital trail goes cold.
The other thing that immediately raised my eyebrows was the name william r. rainsford, for whom j.p. Morgan built Savin Rock now the Chateau on the other side of 135. Bet Christina Rainsford’s husband was related to him, I thought to myself, and sure enough, with the help of another christina, christina rae the assistant to Bedford’s town historian, I confirmed yes christina’s husband w. kerr rainsford architect and poet was william s.’s son. Christina was a fabulous bedford lady, dear friends of my parents, maybe even a little older than georgina van rensselaer and miss frick She lived on hook road, in a gothic brick mansion there was a suit of armor when you walked in. in back below the garden a red clay tennis court and a cottage where my sister and her husband lived for first few years they were married. Christina back in the sixties I think famously lay down in front of the town bulldozers that come to pave hook road. Over my dead body, I absolutely forbid you to ruin the rural character of our beloved Hook Road, she told the work crew, and they turned around and went back to the town yard. And to this day most of hook road remains a dirt country road winding through the forest. Christina was a delightful poet, I quote in my westchester book, these verses from her poem “Imperfect Paradise” about her garden. The metre and rhyme scheme are that of “The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam.”
Wake, the coffee bubbles in the pot,
The egg is waiting, and the toast is hot.
This is no day for lingering in bed.
We must be up and dig our garden plot.
Sometimes I think that never flower grows
That blooms as long or smells as sweet as those
So glowingly portrayed in catalogues.
Why do ours never look the same ? Who knows.
Eager to learn I zealously frequent
The Garden Club and hear great argument
Concerning pesticides but oftentimes
Come out as ignorant as when I went.
Ah, my beloved, if our garden seed
Could grow and bloom with never any weed,
With never any blight or worm or slug,
Our garden would be paradise indeed.
Christina was a Nichols and she grew up in the brick Georgian mansion the brilliant currency speculator and leftie philanthropist George Soros and his wife bought in the nineties, but they have divorced and only she lives there now. I could tell you stories about that house, but I’ve gone on enough.
[post script : after my talk was over, an old man came up to me and said I had it wrong, the CIA supported Castro, and Louis Vargas Jr. was a CIA agent. I know the old man told me because I was part of the operation, which is still classified, so I can’t tell you anything more, and with that, before I could get his name and contacts, he left the building. A woman I know whose husband was in the CIA during this period said he tried to convince the U.S. to support Castro, so they could use him against the USSR, but ended up being fired for making the suggestion. But would Castro have embraced the unfettered freemarket capitalist U.S.A. some
of whose most brazen and ruthless profiteers were in bed with the Batista regime he had just overthrown ? All things considered I’m glad there was a Castro a Marxist gadfly at our back door, even though Cuba suffered a lot from the boycott we imposed.
I remember going to a cocktail party maybe in South Salem in the eighties and a huge shouting match broke out between a Colombian woman who family had been wiped out by the paramilitaries the CIA was supporting, and a fanatically anti-communist IBM’r who could have been CIA. IBM was a big front for the Company. As Somerset Maugham described Monaco as “a sunny place for shady people,” Westchester could be described as a shady place for shady people.” But that would do a disservice to the many unshady people who are raising their kids there.]