BLOG POST: 116 Hawkes Avenue — The Corliss Lamont Estate
116 Hawkes Avenue is for sale. 13 bedrooms, 8 baths for $1,999,222. Check out the link here.
This is also informally known as the “Lamont Estate,” once owned by the progressive activist and intellectual Corliss Lamont. It’s funny – I’ve had a draft of this post simmering for about a year now, ever since I joined the American Civil Liberties Union, but it wasn’t until this “For Sale” sign went up that I was inspired to post.
The realtor is pitching this as a “Wonderful opportunity to develop over 19 acres of rolling property. . .” – GRRR! Like Hawkes Avenue needs any more development right now! (See my blog 87HawkesAvenue.com for more on the topic.)
But the story of Corliss Lamont is one that deserves telling. Something about the idea of sub-dividing this estate makes me feel (irrationally, I admit) like his legacy is somehow being diminished. I mean, he was a deep thinking activist who fought long and hard to protect those liberties enshrined in our Constitution, as well as an intellectual who was forever striving to improve humanity. His reach was long and his connections were extensive.
I’ll let his website start us off:
Corliss Lamont (1902-1995) was a 20th century American hero whose independent thinking challenged prevailing ideas in philosophy, economics, religion, patriotism, world peace and the exercise of our cherished civil liberties.
Corliss Lamont was born to Wall Street wealth, yet he championed the cause of the working class, and was derided as a “Socialist” and a “traitor to his class.”
Corliss Lamont’s Humanist belief that earthlings have evolved without supernatural intervention and are responsible for their own survival on this planet caused traditionalists to label him a “godless atheist.”
Okay, first, how ironic is it that that Dr. Andrija Puharich lived right across the street at 87 Hawkes Avenue – a man whose life work involved proving that extraterrestrials have intervened over the centuries to help human beings evolve and survive. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Check out my blog post on Puharich here.) You have to wonder if Corliss and Andrija ever hung out in the 1960s and ’70s and just rapped until the wee hours . . . Can you imagine it? Boy, would I ever have liked to have been a fly on that wall!
Anyway, let’s unpack the information from Lamont’s website: “Born to Wall Street wealth,” it asserts. Well, yes sir, that is no less than the truth. His father was none other than Thomas Lamont, a partner and later Chairman at J.P. Morgan. In fact, he was the acting head of J.P. Morgan the day the stock market began crashing in 1929, and famously rallied other Wall Street firms to join forces with him and purchase massive amounts of stocks in an attempt to stabilize the market. Alas, the market was too far gone. (Earlier, in 1910, Thomas Lamont took part in a secret meeting on Jekyll Island to help create the Federal Reserve System. I know, financial history is a snooze, but Frank Vanderlip was there and he lived nearby in Scarborough! Blog post on him to come soon.) Let’s just say money was in the blood.
Son Corliss followed in his father’s footsteps to Phillips Exeter Academy and thence to Harvard, but that’s where the similarities end. No doubt Thomas would have welcomed his son to Wall Street, but Corliss had other interests. After Harvard, he studied at Oxford University (where he roomed with Aldous Huxley’s brother Julian), earned a Ph.D from Columbia University, and went on to teach philosophy at various Ivy League universities. Philosophy was also in his blood — his mother, Florence Corliss Lamont, earned an M.A. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1898. She later donated the estate that today houses the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory in Palisades, N.Y.
Now’s as good a time as any to talk about Corliss’ avowed Socialist/Communist/Marxist leanings. It is true that in Corliss wrote an admiring book about the USSR describing how they had turned their feudal society into a modern one in a remarkably short time. It is also true that in 1937 he helped found a short-lived magazine called the Marxist Quarterly that delved into the theory and practice of socialism and communism. It is further true that he was the Chairman of the group “Friends of the Soviet Union.” But here’s some context on all this: the seeming failure of capitalism in the West, as evidenced by the enduring hardships of the Depression, caused many intellectuals to look positively at the Soviet Union and communism in general in the 1930s and ‘40s. Worker’s rights and the ideal of a more equitable society was very appealing at the time. However, Corliss and others gradually became disenchanted with the Soviet Union as stories of Josef Stalin’s brutality and events like the Moscow Trials came to light.
(Another Fun Fact: Corliss was a prolific pamphlet writer and one of them, “Basic Pamphlet 14, The Crime Against Cuba,” was distributed by none other than Lee Harvey Oswald on the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana, during the summer of 1963! According to the Corliss Lamont website, the CIA purchased 45 copies of the pamphlet and it was ended up as Exhibit No. 3120 in the Warren Commission Report on JFK’s assassination. Want to know more? Click on this link.)
Okay, back to the chronology: In the 1930s, Corliss became director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.) You must have heard of it — it’s a non-profit organization founded in 1920 to, as their website says, “Defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” They’ve defended the rights of anti-war protesters, striking workers, teachers who teach about evolution (the Scopes Monkey trial anyone?) the Ku Klux Klan, refugees – basically anyone anywhere in the United States whose civil liberties are threatened.
In the 1950s, Corliss (and many others) were hauled in front of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s infamous committee and asked the notorious question “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?” Refusing to answer, Lamont creatively invoked not the usual Fifth Amendment that protects a citizen from incriminating himself, but the First Amendment that guarantees free speech. He was cited for contempt of Congress and faced prison time. He sued the government and remarkably, after several years, won. In fact, he successfully sued the government several more times, taking at least two of these cases to the Supreme Court. (Yet another Fun Fact: according to a neighbor, in the 1960s unmarked cars were often seen parked near the driveway entrance to 116 – keeping Corliss under surveillance for his anti-Vietnam war stance, and pro-Cuba leanings, I guess.)
In later years, 116 Hawkes Avenue was the location for anti-war concerts and gatherings – I’m told Pete Seeger played here, along with other like-minded folk artists. His foundation, the Half-Moon, hosted Humanist weddings and events there up until the 1990s.
Corliss Lamont passed away at 116 Hawkes in 1995.