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:

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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

 

 

 

Elda Castle

My training for this year’s NYC marathon officially starts this week.

It’s not my first marathon, nor even my first NYC marathon, so this year I’m going to try and finish in a particular time, not just hope to finish without soiling myself. Now, I’m not at all fast, but to hit the time I want, I know I need to incorporate more than just a lot of running into my training. I’ll need to do horrible things like Yasso 800s, tempo runs and hill repeats. Sounds like great fun in the heat of summer, right?

Blah blah blah, I know this is all boring to you non-runners, but I promise there’s a point to all this, because it’s those hill repeats that inspire today’s post . . .

The hill of choice for me is Allapartus Road, which is a narrow, windy road that connects Spring Valley Road up to Rt. 134/Croton Dam Road. As you run up it, you pass the Lutheran retreat on your left (once owned by Major Edward Bowes) and on your right, if you know exactly where to peek through the trees, an abandoned castle once known as Elda.

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Wait, what? A castle? There’s an abandoned castle right in our midst? (Maybe abandoned is the wrong word because apparently someone owns this castle. And if you try to get close enough to see it, you’ll probably be trespassing. So don’t do that, okay?)

Just know that at the crest of Allapartus, there’s a stone castle that was built by David Abercrombie, of Abercrombie & Fitch fame.

According to the NYC Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, the castle “was built in 1927 as the Elda Estate. The 60-acre estate included the large main house, a house barn, three small residences, a bathhouse and a large pond. The estate was carved from a W.W. Law property between 1911 and 1927. [The main house is] a massive, multi-level building based on the English Cottage style constructed of both cut granite and live rock (also granite.) The house is reminiscent of a Medieval Castle and designed to look in part like a ruin. The house features a number of intersecting gables as well as a section with a hipped roof and some areas that are not covered at all. The house features a number of arched doorways, arched windows, curved staircases, exposed stone chimneys, and vaulted spaced and covered masonry. Other features include an open patio with a fireplace, a covered patio with a hipped roof and other medieval inspired elements.”

Here’s the open patio:

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Here are some pictures of tiles that are inset into this gazebo:

Here are the tiles above the outdoor fireplace — they look like Henry Hudson’s Half-Moon, don’t they?

Elda Halfmoon tiles?

And here’s another open patio/courtyard (opinions differ on whether the castle was built like this, or whether a post-Abercrombie owner removed the roof on this part. The outline of a roof in the stone work makes me think this area was meant to be enclosed.)

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And here’s a photo that really gives the Medieval flavor of the place:249croton1

According to David Abercrombie’s obituary, the castle also “affords a view of the Hudson Valley and Long Island Sound.”  I guess that’s possible, if you stand on the very top of that tower.

Anyway, why was it called Elda, and who was David Abercrombie?

Well, Elda was an acronym for Elizabeth, Lucy, David, and Abbott, Abercrombie’s four children.

And David Abercrombie himself was a surveyor, civil engineer, and general all-around outdoorsman. Born in Baltimore in 1867, he began working for railroad and mining companies surveying land across America, living the outdoor life in rough camps and mining towns.

In 1892 he opened up Abercrombie Co., a top-drawer camping, fishing and hunting gear boutique at 36 South Street in downtown Manhattan. Financier Ezra Fitch was one of his best customers and, in 1900, Fitch bought a share of the store, renaming it — you guessed it —  “Abercrombie & Fitch.”Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 3.18.05 PM

(I’d love to know what the well-dressed prospector wore circa 1905! And what are outing garments?  Oh my!)

In those early days, Abercrombie & Fitch outfitted some of the most famous explorers of the day – like Arctic explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and Amelia Earhardt.  A far cry from today’s Abercrombie & Fitch that outfits teenagers with bikinis, perfumes and polo shirts.

During World War I, Abercrombie was commissioned as a Major in the Quartermaster corps and was in charge of packing and shipping all sorts of supplies to our boys overseas.  It seems that he basically invented compression packing, and figured out how to squeeze 20 cubic feet of material into 4 cubic feet.  (See this 1942 letter from wife Lucy Abercrombie to the New York Times extolling her husband’s skill in packing.)

At some point in the 1920s, the Abercrombies bought the estate’s land from Briarcliff Manor founder Walter Law.  Abercrombie’s wife Lucy supposedly designed the castle, and it was built using stone from the area.  No doubt the Abercrombies invited neighbors like Major Bowes, Margaret Illington, and maybe even Jeanne Eagels to their housewarming party!

According to an article written by Miguel Hernandez, Abercrombie was very active in local society.  He founded the Dirt Trails Association, which created a public bridle path through many of the adjoining estates in the area, all marked with “DTA.” (Funny that the initials for the Dirt Trail Association are the same as for David T. Abercrombie.  Coincidence?  I wonder.)

He had a firing range built on the property and allowed local police officers to use it freely for target practice (he was Police Commissioner of New Castle at one time.)  His estate was designated as a Reserve Officers Contact Camp and was used by groups like the Veteran Corps of Artillery and the Military Society of the War of 1812.  (Did they do re-enactments back then??)  He also encouraged the priests and brothers of Maryknoll to use his pond.  (I suppose it’s not that long a trek from Maryknoll to Elda, if you take the trails.)

Today, you can pretend to be a Maryknoll missionary and hike along part of the old estate grounds to the pond:

Park in the lot for New Castle’s Sunny Ridge Preserve (on Rt. 134/Croton Dam Road near Grace Lane.)

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Follow the white-blazed trail for about 5 minutes

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until you see a little trail lead off into the brush to your right.  Bushwhack along that trail a little bit until it opens up and you come to a pond down the hill to your left:

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There’s a small stone building on the edge of the pond (you have to look really hard at this picture to see it):

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Walk around the edge of the pond to go inside and take dramatic, shadowy photos:

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(I’ve no idea what the stone house was used for — perhaps a pump house of some kind?)

Walk past the stone house up a scrabbly hill – wait, first look back and see again how delightful this site is, and imagine the Abercrombie family enjoying this cool, shady spot on a blazing summer day.

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At the top of the hill, you’ll come across the ruins of an old stone toilet building,

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On top of the toilet, you find the ruins of an old stone fireplace:

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I imagine these are the ruins of the bathhouse mentioned earlier, in which one could enjoy hot cocoa in front of a roaring fire after a brisk morning swim.  Or perhaps to toast marshmallows in after a sunset dip?

Walk a little further past the toilet, the fireplace and the pond, along the path strewn with branches and fallen trees . . .

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and you’ll come across the driveway to the castle. Whatever you do, don’t take a left and walk up the driveway to the castle. Like I said earlier, it’s private property.

Here’s a photo of the great room in the castle, in its heyday:

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And here are some random photos of the castle today that I’ve lifted off the Internet:

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Check out these built-in bookshelves with hand-carved figurines:

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Close-up of bookshelf holding figurine:

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I’ve read somewhere that parts of the castle were shipped over from Scotland, and if you look closely at the beams, you can see the numbers carved into them for easy reassembly.  Not sure if that’s true, but it makes for an interesting story.

However, it does seem like the castle has been rather cursed.

In 1929, Abercrombie’s 30-year old daughter Lucy died horribly from burns she received while “engaged in a task on a preparation for waterproofing canvas compounded from a secret formula developed by her father many years ago.” A formula that involved powdered paraffin and gasoline.  And a formula that, as far as I can tell, blew up in her face and enveloped her in flames.  The New York Times article on this unhappy accident is opaque on whether the accident occurred at Elda or at some other Ossining location.  But still.

Soon after, in August 1931, David Abercrombie passed away from rheumatic fever at the relatively young age of 64. At the time, the castle had still not quite been completed.

In 1937, the Abercrombie’s oldest son David died from a horse kick on his Wyoming dude ranch.

Soon after (I’m guessing,) Mrs. Lucy Abercrombie moved out of the castle and in with her oldest daughter Elizabeth in Millbrook, NY.  Apparently, the castle sat empty until 1947 when the Centro Research Laboratories bought Elda from the Abercrombie estate. After a two-year zoning fight between the neighbors and Centro, “a new by-pass entrance was constructed into the estate, away from the privately-owned houses, built on the estate frontage on Croton Dam Road.”  I guess that’s when they built that driveway you shouldn’t walk on that leads from the castle to Rt. 134/Croton Dam Road.  The Centro laboratory was involved in working on “industrial applications of resins and plastics.”  No wonder the neighbors were fighting it!  Would you want that stuff in your neighborhood?  Hmm, I wonder how that parcel is zoned now . . .

It might have been during this time that the roof was blown off the now-open courtyard section of the castle.  Or it might not.  No one really seems to know.  (I’ve also heard the rumor that part of the Manhattan Project was housed there during WWII.  I don’t really believe it though.)

In the 1960s, Dr. N.J. Harrick of Harrick Scientific lived in the castle and apparently tried to rescue it from complete ruin.  There are some really interesting comments here from people who knew of/owned this property in the 1960s – 70s.  Apparently it’s been beset by vandals since the 1930s, and has been damaged and repaired many times over the years.

In the 1990s, the Half Moon Foundation of the Humanist Society purchased it to use for events and weddings.  (The Humanist Society was founded by Corliss Lamont, another local resident and subject of a future blog post.)  By then, it seems that the 60-acre estate had shrunk down to about 14-acres.

After they sold it, though, it seems the castle really fell into disrepair. Now, so I’ve heard, all the windows have been shattered by rocks, and all the rooms have been graffiti’d and are knee deep in garbage and broken glass. Apparently, the property was sold in 2011 for $3.75 million but the state of the buildings continue to deteriorate.

Isn’t it a shame to know that something so cool is just disintegrating in our midst?

Barnard College Camp on Journey’s End Road

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Did you know that Barnard College maintained a camp on Journey’s End Road from 1933 until 1991?  Not I, even though I graduated from Barnard in 1987!

So, follow me back through time to learn more about this well-kept secret . . .

On February 19, 1933, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran this tiny story:

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According to the Barnard College archive,  the College was able to pay the Depression-era price of $9,000 for the above 10 acres of land thanks to a gift from the Alumnae Association:

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(Snort! I love the boilerplate language above: “Know all men by these present . . .”  Ha!  It’s a women’s college, with money all coming from alumnae, presented at an alumnae luncheon!  Oh English language, why so binary?)

A simple log cabin was built by the Adirondack Log Cabin Company, and the camp officially opened on October 15, 1933.

Check out these cool photos of the cabin being built:

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Able to sleep 10 – 15 students in two bunkrooms, everything about the camp was rustic in the extreme.  The only heat came from wood stoves and a stone fireplace, with all firewood chopped by the students:

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I did not expect this when I applied to Barnard!

and carried to the cabin:

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Hey, winter is FUN!

All food was cooked by students over fire pits:

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 Mmm, Yum! I love squirrel

or on a stove that was probably old-fashioned even then:

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Ooh, lovely, this kettle should be boiling in just under an hour!

Every drop of water was hauled by students from an outdoor pump:

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                        Why am I always the one elected to do this?

And with no running water in the cabin, bathing took place in a nearby lake (when it wasn’t frozen, I assume,) and outhouses were the only waste facilities.

Sounds kind of delightful in the Spring and Fall, doesn’t it?  However, these hardy Barnard women enjoyed the cabin year round!

Later on, three campsites with shelters were added for the truly stalwart who found the whole cabin experience too soft:

camp_hemlock50    We don’t need no stinking walls!

The Administration was thrilled with their new camp, the fruition of a ten-year quest.

(I could go on to document the previous incarnations of the Barnard Camp, which dated back to 1917 and World War I.  With able-bodied men being sent overseas to fight, the shortage of male farm workers affected food production.   So Dr. Ida Ogilvie, a Barnard geology professor, formed a chapter of the “Women’s Land Army” on her Bedford Hills farm.  Barnard students, dubbed “Farmerettes,” spent weekends in the fresh country air tilling the soil and harvesting crops.  Later, other outdoorsy weekend retreats were held at a farmhouse in Ossining, and at the Bear Mountain Inn.  But I’ll stop here before your eyes completely glaze over.)

On Oct. 6, 1933, a special “Camp Supplement” issue of the school newspaper, the Barnard Bulletin, was published, which sang the praises of the new retreat: “Strangely and fittingly enough,” wrote Professor Agnes Wayman in the lead article, “The road that passes the property and ends at a private lake is called ‘Journey’s End,’ and so, the trail has led us to our journey’s end.”

How poetic!

Professor Wayman went on to say that “Camp now deliberately reaches out for the book-worm, the bridge fiend, the indoor girl, the weak sister…each may find friends and activities and peace and quiet and ‘unlax’ in her own way. Camp is the place for the student who wants a change from city life, for the student who wants to get away from It.”

The “bridge fiend?” In college? Goodness gracious me! Times have changed, no?  And I’d hate to be a “weak sister” in that wood-chopping, water-carrying, outhouse-using milieu. But, still, doesn’t it look rather idyllic in the pictures?  (Despite the possible squirrel-grilling.)  In fact, I wouldn’t at all mind  “unlaxing” there for only $5 a weekend!

Sadly, interest for the healthy outdoor life began to dwindle after World War II, and by 1961 a Barnard Camp Report noted that “Past reports have attempted to analyze the limited use of the camp. School pressures; absence of cohesive groups who socialize together; travel time, cost, and difficulty; lack of inside plumbing and adequate heating are valid explanations. The changing nature of the student, as several students have pointed out, accounts in part for their not participating in the experiences that the camp offers. Apparently few are interested in spending a weekend of group living with girls, especially when there are chores and some discomfort.”

Harumpf.  Those soft baby boomers.

Because look how cozy it seemed:

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And see what fun they had!

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Can you believe it only cost $1.30 to take the train up to Ossining from NYC?

In December 1968, an editorial in the Barnard Bulletin bemoaned the fact that “People have lost their taste for the shared pleasures of fire-building and massive pancake breakfasts. Nowadays the cabin is less often visited than it was in the past, and large groups seldom get together there for a weekend. The times have changed, but, thank God, Holly House remains the same.” (The camp was renamed Holly House in 1963 at the retirement of Margaret Holland, the long-time Physical Education Department Chair and first camp counselor.)

The College kept the camp going for decades, mostly using it for retreats and alumnae events, although students were still supposedly allowed to go there.  If they knew about it.

By 1991, student trips were no longer listed in the student handbook. (I swear, I never saw anything about the camp in my student handbook! Well, truthfully, I probably never read my student handbook.  But still.)

The land was reportedly sold by the college in 1992 — so much for the “in perpetuity” of the existence of a Barnard College Camp. It kills me to think I could have visited the camp in its waning days! But, I confess, I’m not sure how much my well-coddled, 18-year old self would have appreciated bathing in a lake or using an outhouse.

So, file the above under history I’ve run by for years but never knew about until now.

You’re welcome.

 

All photos from the Barnard Archives and Special Collections

 

 

 

Journey’s End Road

Journey’s End Road, Croton-on-Hudson, NY

You know it, you love it, it’s Journey’s End Road! For you Taconic runners, it’s that road you pass that intersects with Blinn Road, near John Hand Park. For everyone else, unless you live on or near it, it’s a road you’ve probably driven by but never really noticed.

A few years ago, I went to a talk given by a local historian about Journey’s End Road, during which he kept mentioning the influence of the war on the area. It took me awhile to realize that he was talking about the Revolutionary War, not some pesky modern conflict.    He also told us that some of the houses still standing today (well, at least parts of them,) date as far back as Colonial times.  In fact, if my reading of Lincoln Diamant’s “Teatown Lake Reservation” is accurate, some or all of this area was part of Stephan’s Van Cortlandt’s original Dutch patent.

So yeah, this area has been settled by Europeans at least since the 1700s, and probably even longer.

Imagine that!

Now, according to an unpublished history by Patrick Persons, a descendent of original settlers, Journey’s End Road and its environs were quite bustling in the 1800s:

“This region south of the reservoir, east of the Croton River and north of New Castle was a bustling community of dairy farms and orchards and families interconnected for generations through marriage, church and proximity.  This particular intersection of roads (or highways, as the old records refer to them) was in many ways a hub of the neighborhood.  Here were the local schoolhouse and the Methodist Church, the Justice of the Peace who attended to the residents’ legal matters and also the location where each year folks came to pay their taxes.“

By the 20th century, many of the farms had been broken up and sold to wealthy actors, writers and industrialists who turned them into elegant country estates. While time has taken the luster of celebrity from most of these names, they were the Lin-Manuel Mirandas, the James Pattersons and the Steve Jobs’ of their time  — you know, the ones you read about in the New York Times today.  (Oh, wait, actually, I think James Patterson lives in Briarcliff.  Anyway . . .)

Some of the early 20th century notables (and subjects of future blog posts) who lived on and around Journey’s End were:

Holbrook Blinn, namer of Blinn Road and a famous actor/producer

Margaret Illington and Major Edward Bowes

Irvin S. Cobb, writer

George Doran, book publisher

Arthur S. Vernay – a very well-respected antiques dealer who specialized in items from England.  You know that house across the street from Teatown?  It’s called “The Croft” and was built by Vernay in 1913.

Dan Hanna, son of Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, and a wealthy real estate/newpaper magnate in his own right (he bought “The Croft” from Arthur Vernay.)

Michael Todd Jr. (son of Michael Todd, one of Liz Taylor’s husbands)

And Barnard College maintained a camp for its students on Journey’s End Road from 1938 to 1998. (DEFINITELY a blog post on this coming soon.  I graduated from Barnard in 1987 and don’t ever remember hearing about this camp.)

But more about Journey’s End Road itself:

You know those two houses you run by at the intersection of Journey’s End and Blinn Road?  The one on the north side is the site of the old schoolhouse, and the one on the south was the Yorktown Methodist Church.  Or maybe it’s the other way around — I’ve seen several maps that contradict each other on this point.  But know that you’re running by buildings that have had many lives.

The church, a simple wooden building, was built in the 1880s, and converted into a single family home by Ruth and Holbrook Blinn in about 1920.

The school was built in about the 1820s, and was active on the site through the 1880s. It was torn down in about 1928 by Ruth Blinn, who built the current house on the schoolhouse foundation after her husband passed away.

Now, indulge me while I take you down a little rabbit hole about the history of the schoolhouse — the above-referenced Patrick Persons did his research so deeply and scrupulously that I’m just going to share some more of what he wrote, verbatim:

“The 1859 Report of the Trustees of School District No. 10 in the Town of Yorktown reveals that there were sixty-four children between the ages of four and twenty-one living in the district.  Of these, thirty-five attended the school, though sporadically; only twelve of them attended for more than four months. Aaron L. Young was their teacher from November 1, 1858 to February 28, 1859 and Mary D. Hunter taught from May 1, 1859 to August 1, 1859. Together, they earned $131. Their school was a frame structure and they had a library with two hundred and sixty volumes.

A former student who attended “the old District School at the foot of what was then called Squeelberry Hill – now called Journeys End” shared his memories of the teaching methods of the 1870s.  He relates that in 1871 they had a male teacher who used the McGuffey Readers, Ray’s Practical Arithmetic and Brown’s English Grammar.  For grammar, the students were called to stand in rows and, one at a time, conjugate a given verb in the tense he requested.  This teacher stayed only a year and the following fall was replaced by a young female teacher with a much different teaching style.  She wrote a poem on the classroom blackboard for the students to memorize.  An excerpt follows below:

“I kiss, thou kissest” – don’t start, dear
Indicative plural, “we kiss.”
Clearly to fixe these examples,
Once more o’er the tense let us go:
“I kiss” – dear me, how imprudent!
I kiss, and you answer with, “Oh?”
Now, just at the moment of action,
Present gives way to the past;
You kissed and the verb is imperfect,
So short does your kissing act last.
“If I kiss” is present subjunctive –
I doubt if a kiss is my due –
“May I kiss?” I ask, in potential,
You answer imperative, “Do?”
Pluperfect “had” has no interest
Future with “shall” is for fools;
Perfect “I have” is prosate
I kiss, thou kissest, we kiss, dear,
Now, as we sit, seems so true
That I really think that the “present”
Is the best tense at present – don’t you?

The student claims that grammar improved that year due to the teacher’s clever method. This teacher was also unique in that she would walk home with her students to meet their parents and get to know the students’ ambitions. Another poem she shared with the class that sparked many conversations about their futures was:

I’d like to be a could-be
If I could not be an are.
For a could-be is a may-be
With a chance of touching par.
I’d rather be a has-been
Than a might-have-been by far.
For a might-have-been has never been,
But a has-been was an are.

Okay, if you made it this far, bravo! I think I’ve indulged myself at your expense long enough.  But those are some teaching methods, eh?

Isn’t it amazing the history you can discover if you dig just a little?

Margaret Illington (Or, another famous actress that lived in Ossining.)

 

Margaret Illington Frohman

So, have you heard of Illington Road? It’s off Route 134, just past the Taconic South Ossining exit. It’s a favorite on the Saturday morning group run of the Taconic Road Runners Club when the reservoir road is too icy or snowy, or just when they want to mix it up a little.

Anyway,  until I started writing about Major Bowes , I had no idea that it was likely named after his wife, Margaret Illington. And that Margaret Illington was another famous actress from the early 1900s who lived in our area. (Jeanne Eagels is the other one I’ve uncovered so far.)

It’s hard to imagine that pre-film and pre-TV era when theater actors were THE entertainment stars, but trust me when I tell you that Margaret Illington was a big, big star. No doubt it didn’t hurt her career one bit to marry Daniel Frohman, one of the big Broadway producers of the time.

So, follow me down a rather winding post to learn more about Illington Road, Margaret Illington and Broadway in the 1900s.

I suppose we should start with Daniel Frohman, her first husband:  A good 25 years older than young Margaret, he, along with his brothers Charles & Gustave, pretty much started the Broadway road touring circuit back in the 1880s.  They also managed and booked shows into many Broadway theaters, one of which, the Lyceum, is still in use today.

I was reminded of all this when I went to see “Fully Committed” last weekend at the Lyceum:

Fully comittted

Now, several years ago, I just happened to visit the Shubert Archives which are housed high above that theater in Daniel Frohman’s old apartment. And on that visit, I was shown the small doorway that opens into the ceiling of the theater through which Frohman used to peek and watch his shows from the comfort of his penthouse. Even better, I read in the “About This Theater” section of the Playbill that “Legend has it that Frohman waved a white handkerchief out the open door to tell his wife, the actress Margaret Illington, that she was overacting.”  (Check out this link for a picture of what I’m talking about.)

Okay, well, first the idea that big Broadway producers had luxurious penthouse offices above their own theaters has always fascinated me. David Belasco had one above the Belasco Theater, as did the Shubert Brothers above the Shubert Theater.

Second, Margaret Illington!!

Her story begins in 1879 in Bloomington, Illinois where she was born Maude Ellen Light.  She attended Ohio Wesleyan College then Conway’s Dramatic School in Chicago,  making her way to New York at the age of 18.

(Her stage name, Illington, was said to have been a combination of her hometown of Bloomington, Illinois.  Seems plausible enough: Illington certainly sounds better than Bloominois.)

Playing small roles here and there, she attracted the notice of Daniel Frohman, who cast her in the completely forgotten folly called “Frocks and Frills” that played at Daly’s, a New York theater he just happened to manage. Her career skyrocketed after that, and she appeared in twelve more Broadway shows (and an unknown number of tours) over the next seven years.

But a recurring theme in all the articles I’ve found about her is that she constantly said she was “retiring from the stage.” When she married Daniel Frohman, she declared that her plan was to retire when her show closed.  (Back in those days, a hit show ran weeks, not years, so she didn’t have long to wait.)

However, she went on to star in play after play.  And much of her press discusses her chronic overexertion and exhaustion.

On tour in April, 1907, it was reported that Illington, “Leading woman with John Drew in ‘His House in Order,’ fainted on the stage of the New Grand Theatre to-night, and kept the audience waiting thirty minutes while doctors worked over her. She had a serious case of crying hysteria.”

I wonder if they brought the curtain down while the doctors “worked over her.” And what could they have been doing for thirty minutes allowed her to get back up and finish the show??   And what the heck is “crying hysteria” other than, well, crying hysteria?  I can’t help but put myself in that stage manager’s shoes . . .

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 2.28.52 PM                          She doesn’t look too happy, does she?

By 1908, the New York Times was reporting that “Her Part in ‘The Thief’ Wrecked Her Health and She Will Never Act Again. Daniel Frohman Says So . . . Henceforth, He Says, His Wife Will Be A Hausfrau.”

In February of 1909, Daniel Frohman coolly announced that they were separating, but that “There is no scandal involved in our disagreement; no man or woman figures in it. The arrangement is amicable rather than hostile.”   By June, Margaret had moved to Reno, Nevada to establish the six months of residency needed in those days in order to divorce Daniel Frohman. Yet even there she suffered from attacks of nerves:  “She has adopted a plan of exercise in the hope of regaining her health, and, accompanied by her mother, with whom she lives in seclusion, she frequently takes walks as far as her strength will permit.”

Whatever was her problem???

Finally, on November 15, 1909, the New York Times reported that “Margaret Illington Weds New Husband. Actress Divorced Last Week from Daniel Frohman Now Wife of Edward J. Bowes.”

 In the article, Illington was quoted as saying:

“From the first I told Mr. Frohman that I wanted a home, a domestic life. But he wanted to make a great star out of me. I wanted to stay at home and darn his socks. Always, I wanted domestic life and children. I wanted to lead the life of a normal woman. The stage life might be well for the woman born to it, but it is abnormal. When I found that Mr. Frohman intended to keep me on the stage always, my love died . . . As soon as I am freed I shall settle down with the man whose ideals accord with mine. He is wealthy, but he is a domestic man. We shall have our own little home, and I shall try to forget there is a world. I want the world to forget there ever was a Margaret Illington. What I want is babies, my own little babies to nestle to my heart and call me mother. I have been cheated out of my home and babies for so long that I want all of them I can have. I am hungry for them. Whether I have genius or not, I consider I have the right of any woman to make what she thinks is the most of her life. I have the right to be happy. I am not happy on the stage. I yearned all the time for the simple joys of motherhood.”

There’s a story here we’re not seeing, right? But what could it be?

Because just six months later, the New York Times reported “Back to Stage Goes Miss Illington”  In a show produced by her new husband, our very own Major Edward Bowes of Allapartus Road, she was to tour the country before arriving back on Broadway. She then went on to star in more tours and Broadway plays for the next few years to respectful reviews. Then in 1915, she announced her retirement from the stage again. (She retired more often than Cher had Final Concert Tours!):

“I am having such fun, planting seeds and trees and things at my place near Ossining. We have an apple orchard, which is very lovely when it is bloom, but for the rest of the Summer we want more decoration. So every morning I get on my horse and direct the operations of six or seven Italians in digging up trees from the hillsides.”

Yet, in 1916 she opened on Broadway in “Our Little Wife” to mediocre reviews:  “Miss Illington out of her element”

And in 1917 she appeared in several films produced by Famous Players – Lasky where, interestingly, her first husband Daniel Frohman, was a part owner and producer with Adolf Zukor.   Hmmm . . .

But she really does seem to have finally gotten her wish to retire from the stage – her last Broadway show seems to have been “A Good Bad Woman,” which closed in May 1919.

At some point in here, Major Bowes and Margaret Illington bought property in Ossining.   In 1920, the New York Times reported that she (not Major Bowes, but just her) sold an estate called Dreamlake, “Near Grant’s Corners in the town of Yorktown, and adjoins the estate of Holbrook Blinn . . . The property consists of 123 acres of land and is developed along the lines of an Adirondack camp. There is a main residence of Colonial farmhouse design and numerous outbuildings. One of the most notable features of this property is the thirty-acre lake, which was created by damming up a valley.”

I’d love to know exactly where this was.

The very next year, she bought another estate right next to Dreamlake.

I have no idea if or when Illington Road was named after her, but it seems fairly likely, yes?  (I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about this.)

She spent the last fifteen years of her life out of the limelight (literally!) and died in 1934, at the age of 55.  Sadly, she never had the babies she said she wanted.  Not sure about the sock darning.

Here’s her New York Times obituary.

She is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, next to her second husband Major Edward Bowes.

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 2.27.20 PM

 

 

John Cheever lived at 197 Cedar Lane (and it’s for sale!)

 

In addition to being a runner, I’m also a stage manager. I got my Equity card in 1994 on a production of A. R. Gurney’s “A Cheever Evening”, a play that adapted several short stories by John Cheever.

Cheever Playbill

As is so often the case when I do a show, I get obsessed with everything to do with its subject. For this one, I devoured all of Cheever’s work, starting with his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Stories of John Cheever”:

Cheever Stories

Now, you may be asking what the connection is between John Cheever and this blog? Well, his old house is a perfect 1.8 miles from mine, and the “John Cheever” is my go-to short run. I run there, peer at the house through the trees at the top of the driveway and run home. I also like to tap this battered mailbox to mark the official halfway point of my run.

IMG_3885

Now, I won’t pretend I moved to Ossining because of John Cheever, but it is a nice little bit of synergy in my life.

Located at 197 Cedar Lane, the house was originally built in 1795. Renovated in the 1920s by architect Eric Gugler (who apparently redesigned the Oval Office for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s), Cheever purchased it in 1961. At the time, he wrote:

The closing; and so I have at last bought a house. Coming home on the train, Mary speaks of the complexity of our lives … and it does seem rich and vast, like the history of China. We move books. To Holy Communion, where I first express my gratitude for safe travels, luck with money, love, and children. I pray that our life in the new house will be peaceful and full. I pray to be absolved of my foolishness and to be returned to the liveliness, the acuteness of feeling, that seems to be my best approach to things.

Cheever wrote some of his most famous works in that house – the short story “The Swimmer” (which became a film starring Burt Lancaster in 1968) and “The Wapshot Scandal,” a novel, just to name a very few.

By the mid-1960s, he was arguably one of the most famous living American writers. In 1964, he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as “The Ovid of Ossining”, and later that year was also dubbed “The Chekhov of the Suburbs” by the New York Times Book Review.

Born in Massachusetts in 1912, Cheever spent much of his adult life in New York, moving to Westchester in the early 1950s. He rented his first house here, a small cottage in Beechwood, the old Frank Vanderlip estate in Scarborough, moving to the Ossining house from there.

He was an active member of the community – Wikipedia says that he was even a volunteer fireman for the Briarcliff Manor Fire Department. A neighbor of mine remembers seeing him walking along Cedar Lane to eat lunch at the old Highland Diner (now DD’s Diner) on North Highland Avenue where he was a regular.  Several other friends of mine were given autographed books by Cheever himself just because they crossed his path in different ways.

In the 1970s, Cheever taught writing to inmates at Sing Sing, using that experience as a springboard to write “Falconer,” a novel that came out in 1977 to great fanfare.  (Rumor has it that some inmates were annoyed by that, though, feeling he only volunteered to teach them in order to use their life stories in his own work.)

In 1979 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Cheever was a complicated man — a depressive and an alcoholic who struggled with his bisexuality. Yet he still managed to write regularly and productively. His daughter Susan wrote about this in-depth in her memoir “Home Before Dark,” which is definitely worth reading if you have any interest at all in Cheever.

Fittingly, the Reading Room at the Ossining Public Library is named after him. Read Library Trustee Bob Minzesheimer’s thumbnail bio of Cheever here.

John Cheever passed away in 1982, and his widow Mary remained in the Cedar Lane house until her death in 2014. A poet, essayist, and historian in her own right, she is perhaps best known for her excellent local history of our area called “The Changing Landscape: A History of Briarcliff Manor – Scarborough.”  (You can find it in the Ossining library or buy it here.) 

Last summer, just after Mary Cheever passed away at the age of 95, the house came on the market.

I couldn’t help myself, I HAD to go see it.

It was an amazing time capsule both of Mary Cheever’s widowhood and, just a little bit, of John Cheever’s life. At the time, the house was still completely furnished — everything comfortably worn, looking like it had been purchased new in 1961 and never replaced. Magazines were stacked on side tables, books filled the built-in bookcases, and I could imagine John Cheever padding into the room in his slippers to take one off the shelf, a glass of scotch tinkling in the other hand. An old manual typewriter sat uncovered on a small wooden table near a window, as if Cheever was just taking a short break before sitting down to write some more.

A double height porch covers the front of the house, the second story of which is screened in and would be a lovely place to sleep on a hot summer night. But the general layout is strange and old, with very low ceilings, small windows with shutters, and fireplaces throughout. But the house and grounds lend themselves to entertaining, and the Cheevers were said to give great parties.  Susan Cheever describes them as “the kind of party that Jay Gatsby should have had. Every writer imaginable was at the house, including Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow and John Updike. I still remember Ralph Ellison playing Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on the alto recorder.”

Oh yeah, I can see all that and then some!

At some point, the Cheevers built an attached writing studio – sadly, it is not at all in keeping with the rustic Dutch Colonial feel, looking more like a mindless 1980s liberal arts college building plunked up against an elegant, historical structure.

The house sits on several acres of land that was once so very carefully landscaped, it is said, that the shrubs bloomed red, white and blue by July 4.

I think the property will require a great deal of love and money to bring it back to its former glory. Now owned by the bank, the asking price has dropped to a bargain basement one of $340K. Check out the listing and slideshow here.   (Thanks Valerie Cascione!)

As far as I know, the house is not listed on the National Historical Register, which means there’s a very real chance this building will be bulldozed by the next owner. But shouldn’t it be saved so that the legacy of one America’s great writers can be preserved for future generations? Imagine the John Cheever Artist’s Retreat right here in Ossining!

 

 

 

Major Bowes, 1930s Radio King

Have you ever noticed how many plaques you can find in stone gateways in this area?  I’ve see these ones all within about three miles of each other:Bowes
At the corner of Allapartus and Spring Valley Roads.

 

Lichstern
On Spring Valley Road

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 2.40.48 PM
On Cedar Lane 

Well, settle in, because I’m going to tell you the story of BOWES.  (I’ll save the other two for later posts.)

My regular-I-just-need-to-get-out-and-run run goes right past this particular plaque.  What does “Bowes” mean, I wonder each time I pass it.  Then I just keep running and forget about it until next time.

Now, thanks to writing this blog, I’ve finally taken the time to research it and discovered that it’s the ghost of the Ossining estate called “Laurel Hill” once owned by Major Edward Bowes.

Bowes was best-known as a radio star who hosted an American Idol/Gong Show-type of talent show called “The Major Bowes Amateur Hour” in the 1930s and 1940s  (You can buy CDs of it here.)

Major Bowes at NBC

His Sunday night show was tremendously popular – according to a December 1, 1935  article in the New York Times, its popularity was “reported to be the highest ever attained since telephone surveys in 40 key cities was first tabulated.”

The format is something we’re very familiar with now, but at the time it was ground-breaking —  amateurs came from all over the country to audition and the lucky few appeared on Major Bowes’ show.   The gimmick of the show was in its audience participation — the performances on the show were voted on via telephone for each episode.   Many of the winners then went on to tour the dying vaudeville circuit in “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hours” units for a pittance and thence into obscurity.

The show began in 1934 and ran until the early 1940s, when wartime restrictions on telephone usage cut into Bowes’ reliance on the audience vote.  Soon after, the show went off the air.

His New York Times obituary noted that:

“The possibility of success attracted ambitious amateurs from all over the country, from one-man bands to singers, from tap dancers to harmonica viruosi.”  The pilgrimage soon became too popular, and in 1935 the Emergency Relief Bureau put up the storm signals disclosing that each week more than 300 penniless would-be radio amateurs were stranded in this city. Major Bowes stemmed the cityward trek by establishing quarter-annual auditions in the hinterlands, winners of which were brought to New York.”

A few contestants did go on to fame and fortune, like opera singers Beverly Sills & Lily Pons.  Others on that short list include Robert Merrill, Redd Foxx & Glady Knight.   Frank Sinatra made an appearance in September of 1935, singing with a group called the Hoboken Four.  They received over 40,000 phone calls, the most of any act in the history of the show up until then.  (They then went on to make a couple of short films for Major Bowes, one called “The Big Minstrel Act” in which they all wore blackface.  Things were different back then . . .)

By 1937, according to a US Treasury Department report to Congress detailing the salaries of  the 15,000 wealthiest Americans, Major Bowes was making $427,817 from his radio show and its spin-offs.  (The man with the highest salary was movie producer Louis B. Mayer, with $1,161,753. But our very own Major Edward Bowes was sixth on the list – behind the likes of Frederic March and Greta Garbo, among others.)  Just FYI, Bowes’ salary equals about $7.2 million in 2016 dollars.

But radio wasn’t his first, or even second, successful career.  No, Bowes got his start in San Francisco real estate, apparently amassing quite a personal fortune which was decimated by the 1906 earthquake.  But he bounced back quickly, finding opportunity in the rubble, and then moved to New York where he ventured into theatrical real estate and producing.  By the 1920s, he was managing director of the Capitol Theater, one of the first movie palaces in New York City.

It was then that he started insisting on be addressed as “Major” Bowes, a rank he apparently attained in the US Army Reserves.

“The Original Amateur Hour” grew out of his interest in the Capitol Theater. In the early days of radio, as a promotion feature for the theatre, Bowes started a Sunday noon hour broadcast over local radio station WHN. By 1934, the idea of the Amateur Hour had evolved and the program was presented nationally as “The Major Bowes Amateur Hour.”

In the middle of the Depression, Major Bowes did very well for himself.   In addition to his princely salary, I found stories on the Internet about his 61-ton yacht called the Edmar, which he donated to the US Navy in 1940.  Then there was the story of his “specially built car with a dining space for six persons” that had been burgled in its garage on West 53rd Street in 1941, and various gold rimmed glassware, gold cutlery and gold corkscrews were stolen, in addition to a fox fur automobile robe. My, my!   An art connoisseur, his collection was sold at auction after his death, to the tune of $121,399, not to mention the Andrea del Sartos and El Grecos he had previously donated to the Catholic Church.  A former real estate man, he also amassed quite a real estate portfolio, the details of which didn’t really interest me enough to Google, but you should feel free to.

Major Bowes married the actress (and Daniel Frohman’s ex-wife) Margaret Illington in 1910 (more on her in a future post.) At some point, they purchased Laurel Hill and it became famous for its 14,000 laurel bushes and large, old trees.  At its height, it boasted a main house of ten rooms, several guest houses and a swimming pool. Sadly, the main house was destroyed by fire in 1937.  I suppose Bowes did some rebuilding, because in 1940, he donated his estate to the Lutheran Church for use as a retreat and it is still in use today.  (See link.)

Bowes died at the age of 72, and it was reported that his last rites were performed by none other than Francis Cardinal Spellman.  Widowed in 1934, he had no children, and left most of his money to the Catholic Church.