The theater of quirky mansions and living history

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What fun to be welcomed into Eagle’s Nest, the Vanderbilt mansion on Long Island, by Coco Chanel.  Her heavily accented English was a bit hard to understand, but there’s no doubting her pride in appearances.  She was very straightforward in advising, “the best pearl is the one that looks good on you.”  William Vanderbilt insisted all his women wear pearls, and you should see the size and number of strands in the necklace his wife Rosamund wore swimming!

Given the chance, I would have engaged Coco on her belief that “a woman who does not wear perfume has no future.”  But alas, I was one of a large group of 1932 donors to the Huntington Hospital Fund.  Vanderbilt promised us all a personal tour in exchange for our generosity, then promptly rushed off the New York.  I think he was avoiding us.

So he foisted his tour on Coco, his Irish cook Delia O’Rourke, Ellin Berlin (Irving’s wife), his brother Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, and his crisply cold mother-in-law Agnes Lancaster.

I met Coco (2nd left), the mother-in-law (seated center), brother Harold (back center in red bow tie), dear Ellin (in red necklace, outfit by Coco), and Delia (middle row, 2nd right)

They managed to show us about the house, while also telling stories about themselves.  Harold is darn proud of winning the America’s Cup.  He and his brother are into cars and boats.  William has 10 yachts and was attracted to this Long Island site because of the deep water harbor for his boats.  Naturally.

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He is credited with bringing the first automobile to the U.S. from France.  This roadster is from 1904, and he won a race in it by going 92 mph.  Whoa!



Things were pretty calm among the various guides, except for Coco and Delia, the cook, who had a ‘lively’ discussion about dinner.  Delia took it like a champ, before sighing she’d get a bucket and go dig up some clams.  Coco ducked off for her meeting with Vogue.

Delia told us about all the meals she had to plan–3 a day each for the nursery, 28 staff, and family and guests.  Each had a different menu.  It takes three hours to plan the meals with Mrs. Vanderbilt, and great project management!  All the food has to be top drawer, and she said the staff are her biggest critcs.  “Morale is high when the food is good” is the motto of the house staff.  She typically works from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.  No wonder, she values the precious key to the wine cellar, saying this is where she likes to end her day.

2014-08-30 12.52.28She seemed to have the most knowledge of the house, which Vanderbilt designed and built.  It reflects his eclectic, offbeat taste, as a Spanish style mansion, filled with stuff he bought from around the world.  Yes, there’s your whale shark, mummy, and shrunken heads.

But also he swept up monastery furnishings.  Seems a bit like the DuPont/Winterthur aesthetic.  Buy it all, buy it now.  Choir benches, a refectory table for the dining room table, the sacristy cabinet intended for monks’ robes holding linens, the alms counter, with its slots for coin donations, serving as a sideboard.

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Ellin showed us some furnishings and art, which he collected for their appearance, not their meaning.  Medieval works in the hall–just like how they look.  Don’t care about religion.

She was my favorite, because she’s “saucy but amusing,” and I liked hearing her stories about her marriage.  Did you know that Irving wrote “Always” for her?  But even better, he signed over the royalties for the song to her (he did likewise for “God Bless America,” benefiting Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts).  That set her up for life.  Although we didn’t get to stay, Irving was to play the 1270-pipe organ that night, with 6 p.m. cocktails.  I’m not much of a fan of organ music, but hearing Berlin play Berlin…that would have been fun!

Nice view

Nice view

Mrs. Lancaster arrived six weeks after the honeymoon and never left.  You can see why.

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She is a very proper lady, with her hat (indoors) and gloves.  I did appreciate her showing us her daughter’s dressing room, which with mirrors on 3 sides, meant that Rosamund didn’t have to strain to see herself from all sides.  She designed her own closet, and it was functionally clever.  Her rose marble bath was, well, over the top.

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But even with the Biltmore fortune, the place has some noticeable need of repair.

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Maybe not as decrepit looking as Gillette Castle, designed to look like a craggy Romantic ruin.  Its Romantic setting, looming over the Connecticut River, just begins to tell the story.

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Nice view

Nice view








William Gillette was a theater guy who made his fortune, yes, in the theater.  Yes, really.  Pre-Hollywood, he did quite well acting, playwriting, and patenting set design innovations.

You’re wondering, how could that make him a fortune?  Probably, it came from his most famous role–Sherlock Holmes.  He worked with Conan Doyle to make Holmes more theater friendly.   Gillette gave the character the deerstalker hat and pipe.  “Elementary, my dear Watson” was his, too, apparently.  Soon Gillette, who played the role some 1300 times, was so identified with the character, that people thought Holmes was real.  His castle became known as ‘Sherlock’s Castle’.

After 60+ years in the theater, Gillette decided to retire to Connecticut.  Like Vanderbilt, he designed and built his home, which took over 4 years, completing it in 1919.  He filled it with more of his inventions and designs with plucky Holmesian ingenuity.

Like the Vanderbuilts, he dabbled in railroads, building a track, bridges, and tunnels around his castle.  Plus his own Grand Central station.  Just for fun.

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View from Grand central

View from Grand Central








Inside and out, the castle is constructed of local limestone, giving that massive appearance of a medieval castle.

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For the inside, he hired master carpenters to carve wood wall paneling, ceilings, and more throughout the three story structure, all based on his designs.  Each door is unique, and he designed the clever window locks and lights, too.  He scaled the stair rails to be short so he would look even taller than his 6′ 4″.


From the balcony, where Gillette could spy on his guests via strategically placed mirrors, you also get a view of teh table with hidden cat potties...

From the balcony, where Gillette could spy on his guests via strategically placed mirrors, you also get a view of the table with hidden cat potties…


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Gillette adored cats and had lots of them.  Weirdly, he designed this table for the 1500 sf Great Hall, to hide cat toilets inside.  Hmmm.  Not every idea was a winner.





You gotta love the trick cabinet for the bar, with a locking mechanism useful during Prohibition, since when closed, the bar looks like part of the wall.  He loved to fool his guests, too.  Since the trick involved no simple lock, but a series of levers and secret parts that had to be pressed just right, his guests struggled to get inside it.  Gillette could enjoy their frustration from the “surveillance” mirrors he placed strategically under windows, effectively hiding them.

Here in the stairway The hidden door is right in the center, not the open door.  It Is very hard to see.

Here in the stairway, the hidden door is right in the center, not the open door. It is very hard to see.



After all that, the third floor art gallery, just as he left it, was a bit of a let down.  Long live the quirk!

The study

The study

Love the light swithc, which looks like railroad pulls

Love the light switch, which looks like railroad pulls