Peter Fonda Shot – John Lennon writes song about it

January 7, 1951
Rock Hill, 235 Cedar Lane, Ossining, New York

“Peter Fonda, 10-year-old son of Henry Fonda, actor, was reported in a fair condition tonight in Ossining Hospital after having accidentally shot himself yesterday with a .22 caliber pistol. The accident occurred on the Rock Hill estate of Rush H. Kress, retired chain store executive.”  New York Times, 1/7/1951

No really, it’s true! That headline is more than just click bait – Peter Fonda really WAS shot (in 1951) on the premises of the Kress Estate in Ossining. And John Lennon DID write a write a song about it (in 1965), though he changed the pronoun to “She.”

Perhaps you know the song, “She said, she said” off the album Revolver:

She said, “I know what it’s like to be dead.
I know what it is to be sad.”
And she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born . . .

 Let me back up a bit. What we know today as Cedar Lane Park (at 235 Cedar Lane) was formerly known as Rock Hill, owned by Rush H. Kress. You may have heard of the S.H. Kress stores – a chain of five and dime stores like Woolworth’s and Kresge’s? Well, S. H. was Samuel Kress, Rush’s older brother. A lifelong bachelor, he ran the company with the help of his two brothers, Rush and Claude. By 1929, the Kress brothers were so wealthy, and had such an extensive art collection, that they founded the Kress Foundation to “Promote the moral, physical and mental welfare and progress of the human race.” Grandiose, no? But the brothers, Samuel and Rush especially, collected Renaissance and Baroque art on a grand scale.   Today, if you go to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, you will find 2,493 pieces of art donated by them, not to mention about another thousand donated to museums around the country.

So deep was Samuel’s reverence for art, he gave money to Mussolini to restore Italian landmarks damaged by World War I.  (Following that tradition, Rush paid to restore the St. Georg Church in Nuremberg-Kraftshof in the 1950s, where many Kress ancestors were buried.  It’s nice to have money.)

The Kress stores were known for their unique architecture.  According to the National Building Museum, “Samuel H. Kress… envisioned his stores as works of public art that would contribute to the cityscape.  To distinguish his stores from those of his competitors, namely F.W. Woolworth Co. and S.S. Kresge Co., he hired staff architects. Kress achieved retail branding success not merely through standardized signage and graphics, but through distinctive architecture and efficient design. Regardless of their style, from elaborate Gothic Revival to streamlined Art Deco, Kress stores were designed to be integral parts of their business districts and helped define Main Street America.”

Kress stores certainly defined Main Street America in the 1960s when they refused to serve African-Americans at its lunch counters.  (To be fair, they were not the only national chains to do so.)

Many of the buildings still stand today, re-purposed and placed on the National Historic Register.

Okay, but what’s the connection to Cedar Lane Park, Peter Fonda and John Lennon?   Right, sorry, sorry, I got lost down the Internet.

In 1916, Rush Kress bought the 72-acre Rock Hill estate from General Edwin A. McAlpin, President of D. H. McAlpin & Co. (later called the American Tobacco Corporation) and Proprietor of the Rock Hill Poultry Farm:

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That’s a nice looking cock!

(Ossining history sidebar:  McCalpin married Anne Brandreth, daughter of Benjamin Brandreth, maker of Brandreth’s Vegetable Pills.  They were married at Trinity Church in Ossining and lived in Hillside House, now known as the Victoria Home.  Not quite sure where the chicken farm fits in, though.)

But back to Rush Kress — he divided his time between his apartment at 225 West 86th Street (aka the Belnord), Rock Hill, and traveling overseas to acquire the afore-mentioned art.

Under Rush’s guidance,  Rock Hill was transformed from a Blue Ribbon Poultry Farm into an elegant estate with lavishly sculpted grounds, greenhouses, cottages and a grand manor house.

Here’s a view from the Cedar Lane gate, circa 1930, looking over the pond:

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Here’s that same view today:

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Hard to believe this is the same property, no?

Here’s a shot of the Cedar Lane gate, also circa 1930:

1920s winter photo Rock Hill

And here’s that view today:

IMG_4094

If you scramble up the hill on the far side of the pond, you’ll come across the ruins of two large, old greenhouses.  Built by the American-Moniger company, they were the height of greenhouse fashion.  Here are a couple of photos from the 1950s (courtesy of grandson Rush Kress via Steven Worthy’s Facebook page “Save the Kress Buildings at Cedar Lane Park“):

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Virginia Watkins Kress, former Broadway showgirl and 2nd wife of Rush H. Kress, with her mother and one of her children during the 1950s at Rock Hill Estate.  A student of art at the University of Arizona (where the family wintered) she was apparently very influential when it came time to distribute the fabulous Kress collection of Renaissance and Baroque art to nearly 100 institutions across the US.

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And here’s one more:

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Handyman George Francis Dean with one of the Kress children.

It was in the colorful 1950s that Peter Fonda was driven down from his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, along with one of Rush Kress’ grandsons, Anthony Abry and another boy.  Peter’s father Henry was honeymooning in the Virgin Islands with his new wife Susan, and his mother, Frances, had committed suicide six months earlier.  Seems like the three boys were on their own . . . After Peter shot himself that unsupervised winter afternoon, he was driven to the Ossining Hospital by the Kress family chauffeur.  (Good God, could you imagine that drive??)    He was operated on by Dr. Charles Sweet (also the Sing Sing prison doctor) and it was touch and go there for a few days.

Fast forward fifteen or so years, when the Beatles are dropping acid in Benedict Canyon:

Regarding “She Said She Said,” John remembers:  “That was written after an acid trip in L.A. during a break in The Beatles tour where we were having fun with The Byrds and lots of girls.  Peter Fonda came in when we were on acid and he kept coming up to me and sitting next to me and whispering, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead.’   We didn’t want to hear about that!  We were on an acid trip, and the sun was shining, and the girls were dancing (some from Playboy, I believe) and the whole thing was really beautiful and Sixties.  And this guy – who I didn’t really know, he hadn’t made ‘Easy Rider’ or anything – kept coming over, wearing shades, saying, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead,’ and we kept leaving him, because he was so boring.  It was scary, when you’re flying high: ‘Don’t tell me about it.  I don’t want to know what it’s like to be dead!’”  George recalls:  “I don’t know how, but Peter Fonda was there.  He kept saying, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead, because I shot myself.’  He’d accidentally shot himself at some time and he was showing us his bullet wound.  He was very uncool.”

Unless he shot himself more than once (and it was the ’60s after all, so who knows) he was probably talking about that day at Rock Hill.  And John Lennon turned it into a song.

In 1959, Rush Kress sold Rock Hill to the 52 Association, a philanthropic organization that provided “recreational facilities for veterans of both world wars and the Korean conflict.”  At the time, it was reported that the estate “overlooks the Hudson River, consists of thirty-seven buildings, eleven of which are residences . . . The property also includes two lakes, a swimming pool, a tennis court and barbecue pits.”

Sometime in the 1990s, the Town of Ossining acquired it for a park.  If you walk around the pond today, you can still see some decaying wooden lifeguard chairs around the perimeter, no doubt left over from the 52 Association days.

And if you bushwhack around the rest of the property, you can see all sorts of ruins slowly being erased by the unchecked vines and trees.

Hard to believe it all once looked like this:

1920s fountain, south of Lakeview cottage

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Peter Fonda Shot – John Lennon writes song about it

  1. Fabulous history.  Once again…….spellbinding. So glad to kknow this hidden information. People are so weird……….including me.  Such a serendipitous species.

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  2. Nice article! I wrote a similar one last January (2106) for the Ossining Historical Society newsletter after my wife and I had a tour of the Kress estate from Steve Worthy. It seemed a little far-fetched until I got a hold of Peter Fonda himself, who confirmed everything! It wasn’t until after I discovered the NY Times article.

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  3. I have traipsed all over the grounds and wondered what stories could be told from the ruins. Now I know! Well done Carloline for leading me on this historical journey.

    Like

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