“What a piece of work is a man.”
— Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, Scene II
Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt was the first Roosevelt to live in Roosevelt Hall in Skaneateles, and easily one of the most colorful characters to ever grace our shores.
:: Early Years ::
Born in New York City in 1858, Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt was the son of a prosperous hardware merchant and importer, Samuel Roosevelt, and Mary Jane (Horton) Roosevelt, the only daughter of Stephen Horton of Skaneateles.
When Samuel Montgomery was six years old, his older brother, Nicholas Latrobe Roosevelt, went off to serve in the U.S. Navy and covered himself in glory as part of an 1871 naval expedition to Korea, in which Admiral John Rodgers set out to open “The Hermit Nation” to trade. When rebuffed, the Admiral’s men stormed and captured three forts, an action in which Nicholas Roosevelt was cited for bravery.
In contrast, Samuel Montgomery’s military career seems to have begun and ended at St. John’s School, a military academy in Ossining, N.Y. He may have picked up his hobby of fencing here, but afterward his only uniform would be a tuxedo. Eventually the sea would attract him, but it was better observed from a yacht (he had at least four: Tempest, Ishkoodah, Wenonah and Onondaga), while seated in the shade of a sail, as a young woman in a nearby deck chair strummed a guitar.
To prepare for civilian life, Samuel attended the Art Students League in the city of New York, and the Academy Julien in Paris where he studied painting under Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. Returning to the U.S.A., he went to Colorado in 1878, where he played at being a cowboy and accompanied an expedition of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, engaged in evicting the Ute Indians from their ancestral hunting grounds.
New York City, however, would be the center of his life. There Samuel was a member of the Knickerbocker Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Manhattan Club, the Lambs Club, the Fencers’ Club, the New York Yacht Club and the Larchmont Yacht Club.
And, of course, he was a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the United States from 1901 to 1909.
In January of 1885, Samuel was engaged to Augusta E. Boylston; they married in May, and honeymooned in Bermuda. Mrs. Boylston, the former Miss Shoemaker, had been widowed in 1880 with three children. Her father, whose fortune was worth $3 million, had died in 1884.
:: Merchant ::
Samuel had an inherited fortune of his own, and together with another cousin, Montgomery Roosevelt Schuyler, he was the sole agent in the U.S.A. for Haig & Haig Scots whisky and Ruinart champagne. In a display of loyalty, he bred French bulldogs, including one named “Ruinart.”
National Horse Show program, New York City, 1899
The company, Roosevelt & Schuyler, apparently ran smoothly in Samuel’s absence. In the 1890s, he and Augusta summered with society in Newport, Rhode Island. In April of 1902, Mrs. Roosevelt attended the Charleston (S.C.) Exposition when the President spoke. The couple traveled to Washington, D.C., for a White House tea, and as two of the 1000 guests at Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s White House wedding in 1906. The New York Times told its readers when Mr. & Mrs. Roosevelt attended the opening night of the New York Opera, and when they spent a few days in Tuxedo Park.
:: Soft Touch ::
Early in his business career, Roosevelt got caught up in a confidence scheme with a friend, George Lyttleton Upshur, who needed a quick $40,000 to buy a Colorado gold mine that was said to be worth millions. The seller would only part with the mine for cash, delivered to him at a hotel in Cleveland, Ohio. Upshur didn’t have the money, and approached Roosevelt, “a cousin of the two Presidents and a man of means,” who rounded up the necessary funds and took the train from New York to Cleveland the next night. Roosevelt met the seller at the appointed hour and paid the money. The deed, however, turned out to be worthless and the seller fled during the night, leaving behind a traveling case filled with bricks. Upshur later wrote, “It would have been such a screaming joke on us for other people that we agreed never to say anything about it.” Six months later, the same scheme fooled another New Yorker, who was taken for $100,000, and Upshur said, “This took the ban off of all of us, and we allowed our friends to have a laugh at our expense.” The ability to laugh off $40,000 gives us some indication of Roosevelt’s resources.
:: Diplomat ::
Ever the dabbler, Samuel turned his hand to behind-the-scenes diplomacy in September of 1905. Edward H. Harriman, a railroad baron, sought to built an empire circling the globe and had offered funds to cash-strapped Japan in return for a share in the management of their South Manchurian railroad in China.
The offer was on the verge of acceptance when Samuel Roosevelt chatted up Baron Kaneko Kentaru (shown above) in a quiet corner in New York. Kaneko was a Japanese diplomat and a Harvard graduate with a long list of American contacts. Samuel, the President’s cousin, told Kaneko he had a quiet word from Teddy to pass along: American financial support would be available even without Japan’s ceding partial control of the railroad to Harriman. And if the loans from American bankers were used to buy American railroad equipment, everyone would be happy.
Kaneko took Roosevelt’s tip back to Japan where he met with Foreign Minister Komura Jutaro, his roommate at Harvard. In October, the Japanese cabinet informed Harriman that there would be “a slight delay,” and then cut a quick deal with China that gave Japan total control of the railroad. The Japanese borrowed $30 million in London, and American interests were left out in the cold. This was the first and last episode of Roosevelt’s foray into diplomacy.
:: Artist ::
S. M. Roosevelt’s portrait of Alice Roosevelt Longworth
Educated in the arts, Samuel loved to paint and he loved the company of other painters. His specialty was portraits and his subjects included Theodore Roosevelt; the President’s daughter, Alice; Bishop James Darlington; socialite Oliver Belmont; banker Henry F. Shoemaker; French artist Antonio de la Gandara; Hudson Maxim, the inventor of smokeless gunpowder; and more elusive subjects such as “Miss J.H.,” “A Lady” and “The Adventuress.” His canvases were exhibited at galleries in New York City, Paris, Buffalo, Chicago and Philadelphia.
He was generous with his New York studio. Swedish artist Anders Zorn painted his “Dreams” (1901) there as a guest of Roosevelt, causing a minor scandal when it became known that Zorn’s nude model was a doctor’s wife.
However, as portrait painters went, Roosevelt was outshone by his contemporaries. Lewis Hardee in his book The Lambs Theatre Club noted that Roosevelt’s painting of Thomas Benedict Clark in the club gallery was “among the poorest in the collection. It is stiff and lacks personality, as if done from a paint-by-numbers kit.” A genealogist of the Roosevelt family noted that Samuel “studied under other Parisians, but it does not seem to have done him much good.”
Roosevelt’s portrait of Ethel Barrymore is the best of his work that I have ever seen. Barrymore was a friend of Alice Roosevelt, and Samuel really seems to have done her justice.
Samuel Roosevelt’s intended masterpiece, which he finished in 1919, was an allegorical war painting. Roosevelt said he was inspired by Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The International Studio noted:
“Roosevelt spent a year upon this work and performed it under great physical stress, for besides general ill health he was handicapped by a broken arm. This, however, is not mentioned in apology for the picture which fortunately needs none, but rather to emphasize the indomitable courage of the man, who has something to say and will say it at all costs.”
The painting shows Jesus Christ sharing the canvas with nude women, not at all a traditional grouping. At his feet, three subjects show fear and despair, while to the right, a group expresses joy, hope and welcome, with one woman holding her baby aloft for a blessing.
:: The Host ::
In 1912, Samuel was elected the President of the National Association of Portrait Painters, a post he held for the rest of his life. Whatever one might think of his talent as a painter, there was no denying his gifts as a host.
Samuel’s dinners were events, covered by the New York Times, and attended by artists such as John Singer Sargeant, George Bellows and Charles Dana Gibson. The guest list regularly included Irving R. Wiles, Cecilia Beaux, William T. Smedley, Ellen Emmet Rand, Ben Ali Haggin, Howard Gardiner Cushing, Louis Betts. Robert Henri and many, many more.
Of one dining event, the New York Times (March 20, 1915) noted:
“S. Montgomery Roosevelt entertained at dinner last night at the Vanderbilt. A special feature of the decorations included a sunken garden, with a background of mirrors festooned with wistaria vines and blossoms, among which vari-colored electric bulbs gleamed.”
One of his favorite spots was the Café des Beaux Arts, and it was there that he hosted his most famous gathering of artists, on January 7, 1917. The following day, the New York Times reported:
“S.M. Roosevelt, uncle of the Colonel, and seventeen guests partook last night at the Beaux Arts of a dinner at which the piece de resistance was supplied by a baby lion, roasted whole. Mr. Roosevelt and his guests, among them Ben Ali Haggin, pronounced the lion, quarters, chops, saddle, and rack, to be delicious.”
Roosevelt had promised his guests something truly exotic, but the proprietor of the Beaux Arts was stumped, until a nephew appeared for the Christmas holidays with a lion in tow. A student at the Salisbury School in Connecticut, the boy had received the cub as a gift from a South African classmate, but as it grew larger and more than playful, it wore out its welcome. Living in a crate in the restaurant’s kitchen, it ate steaks at an alarming rate. And then the proprietor remembered Roosevelt’s request, and a mutually beneficial solution presented itself.
The evening of the feast, the lion entree was preceded by tomato Monaco soup, bisque d’écrevisse, riz de veau sous cloche, and followed by alligator pear salad, caroe de fraises, petit fours and café noir. The meal was pronounced a culinary triumph.
:: Roosevelt Hall ::
In 1899, Samuel purchased a mansion on the west shore of Skaneateles Lake. Named “Lake Home” by an earlier owner, Anson Lapham, the estate came with its own gardener, a Scotsman named George Stuart, who had tended to the large greenhouse, gardens and grounds since 1859. Here Samuel could keep his horses, his dogs, and most importantly, Mrs. Roosevelt.
The gardener died in 1903, and was replaced by Henry Treen, who for eight years had been a gardener for A.H. Benson, of Ankerwycke House, Wraysbury, Buckinghamshire. Samuel always went top shelf. (Treen went to work for C.D. Beebe at Lone Oak in 1910.)
In March of 1906, Samuel commissioned architects Gaggin & Gaggin of Syracuse to renovate and remodel Roosevelt Hall. The Gaggins, Edwin and Thomas, had graduated from the School of Architecture at Syracuse University; Edwin also studied at Columbia University, and Thomas had attended L’École des Beaux Arts in Paris, which probably gave him something to talk about with Samuel.
Here in Skaneateles, Samuel could entertain his friends, tend to his horses (Morgans) and gardens, sail on the lake, and enjoy himself far from the bustle of New York City and Newport.
In 1907, Samuel and Augusta, with their niece Virginia Roosevelt, were in residence for the Christmas holidays. Usually, however, the couple came and went separately. If she was at Roosevelt Hall, he was in New York. When she was in New York, he came to Roosevelt Hall.
:: Augusta ::
One is tempted to think of Augusta as sort of a Margaret Dumont character out of a Marx Brothers film, the frosty socialite. But she was her own woman.
In 1899, shortly after Samuel bought Roosevelt Hall, Augusta went on a two-year sojourn in Europe. September of 1900 found her at Zell am See in Austria, enjoying the beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. In July of 1901, she was in Germany at Langenschwalbach, a spa blessed with mineral springs, a casino and an aristocratic clientele. In October of 1901, she returned from Europe and went directly to Roosevelt Hall.
In July of 1912, just three years after Samuel had purchased a new four-in-hand coach for Roosevelt Hall, Augusta appeared in Skaneateles at the wheel of a new, seven-passenger Packard touring car. In 1915, she drove the Packard across America, from New York to San Francisco. She was just the 32nd person to motor across the country and received a Tiffany Silver Medal for her accomplishment.
:: The Last Puff ::
It was, fittingly, at the Knickerbocker Club in New York City that Samuel Roosevelt breathed his last, on August 20, 1920. The New York Times noted:
“Mr. Roosevelt had just descended the stairs of the club. At the bottom he dropped his cigar. He was stooping to pick it up to throw it away, club members said, when he was seized suddenly.”
Augusta was in Skaneateles when he died, at a home on West Lake Street taking tea with friends. According to servants, Roosevelt’s portrait in Roosevelt Hall crashed to the floor at the moment of his death. His body was brought to Skaneateles and buried here in Lake View cemetery with Roosevelt family members who had gone before.
:: The Will ::
Samuel Roosevelt’s last will and testament left a New York town house and Roosevelt Hall for the use of his wife for her lifetime. And that was it for Augusta.
His money went to his nephew, Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, son of his brother Nicholas, who would inherit Roosevelt Hall when Augusta Roosevelt died. Henry also inherited the Mingo Lodge Annex for his immediate use, and a 200-acre farm. Ten other relatives, including three children, received generous bequests.
And as the cherry on top of the legal sundae, there was an unexplained and deliciously interesting bequest to Eleanor Kent, of whom the New York Times discreetly said, “whose relationship is not shown in the will.” Miss Kent received, “the house she occupies, which becomes part of the residuary estate upon her death. A trust fund to yield $4,000 a year is also provided for.”
Eleanor Kent, who I cannot think of without smiling, was a singer who enchanted her audiences, and Roosevelt especially. Born in San Francisco, she sang first in church, but her voice carried her to Paris for lessons under Victor Capoul of the Grand Opera and Edmond Duverney of the Conservatoire Paris. She returned to the U.S. and sang grand opera in Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago, but found her true niche in light opera and musical comedy. She ruled the stage in no fewer than 75 productions, including The Billionaire (as Flora she sang “Without Your Love, Ah!, Let Me Die”), Foxy Quiller, The Silver Slipper, The Parisian Model and King Dodo, in which she played a young soldier of fortune, Piola, in a luminous white costume.
With touring companies, she sang in cities large and small across the United States. She sang at Berlin’s Wintergarten and in Johannesburg, South Africa, with the Nelson Opera Company. Surprised critics referred to her voice as “silvery” and “unusually sweet.” One smitten reporter noted, “Her voice has a beautiful quality, high and clear, and she executes with a fine finish.” She was also a composer, writing the music many songs, including “Dorothy’s Rose,” “In the Land of Sunshine,” “The Lost Lover,” and a lullaby, “To and Fro, So Soft and Slow.”
A few weeks after readers learned of her inclusion in Samuel’s will, The New York Times announced that “some of the mystery” had been solved: Eleanor Kent had modeled for Samuel Roosevelt on several occasions. Miss Kent was traveling in Europe and unavailable for comment, but most readers had already figured it out.
In 1921, Roosevelt’s name appeared in the New York Times again, in connection with a divorce proceeding between Mr. & Mrs. Stokes. A witness for Mr. Stokes claimed that he found Mrs. Stokes “in the studio of the late S. M. Roosevelt clad in a kimono, smoking a cigarette.” Mrs. Stokes said this was not true; she posed for the artist in conventional attire and paid him for his work.
And then, the other shoe dropped. In January of 1922, Augusta Roosevelt went to the New York State Supreme Court to “amend her dower” — cutting out the eleven Roosevelt relatives and, of course, Miss Kent — so that the entire estate might pass to her and thence to her children. Her efforts failed, but she went down swinging.
:: A Parting Gift ::
There is one Roosevelt painting that I know of in Skaneateles. Hanging over the entrance to the Barrow Gallery, you will find Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt’s portrait of John Barrow, which Roosevelt donated to the library in 1906. It is the only non-Barrow painting in the gallery, and it seems the perfect place to commune with his spirit.