A Close Call for Roosevelt Hall

On a clear August night in 1903, out on Long Island Sound, the future of Roosevelt Hall was in peril. S. Montgomery Roosevelt had bought his estate in Skaneateles just four summers earlier. He called it Roosevelt Hall, but there’s no telling whether the name had started to stick. And now, after a visit with his cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt at Oyster Bay, the owner of Roosevelt Hall was sailing to New London, Connecticut in his yacht Wenonah, dining with his guests in the stern.

The running lights were lit, but that didn’t stop the fishing steamer Falcon from crashing into Wenonah bow on, crushing the bow above the water line, and carrying away the mast and rigging. Tangled in the rigging, three members of the crew went overboard. In the cabins, oil lamps were torn from their mountings and shattered, covering the furnishings in broken glass and flaming oil. Roosevelt and his guests pulled the three crew members back into the boat while others doused the flames. In Roosevelt’s words, “It was a lively few minutes.”

Two Japanese servants in the galley were trapped by smoke and heat, and suffered burns. The ship stayed afloat, was taken in tow by the Falcon, and brought into New Haven, arriving a daybreak. A local doctor attended to bruises and burns, and one of the Japanese stewards was sent to hospital in New York. Roosevelt and his guests, New York financier J. Leslie Cotton and artist Sanford Pomeroy of Paris, completed their journey to New London by train and then went on to Newport, R.I. And Roosevelt Hall was able to spend 40 more years in the Roosevelt family.

The Wenonah, however, had to be scraped. It was valued at $37,000.

A Studio for Scandal

A summer resident of Skaneateles, S. Montgomery Roosevelt bought the De Zeng mansion in 1899 and renamed it Roosevelt Hall. He was an artist, based in New York City, and his studio there was more than just a spare room. While this essay may seem a bit far afield from Skaneateles, Mr. Roosevelt is an important part of our history, and the man is so much fun.

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The first scandals to emerge from the studio of S. Montgomery Roosevelt weren’t even his own. On earlier visits to New York City, Swedish portrait artist Anders Zorn had been pressed into using his hotel room and even a storage room at the Waldorf Astoria for a studio. In 1901, Roosevelt offered Zorn the use of his studio and the visiting artist painted two famous works there, both of which caused a stir.

The first was “Drömmer” (“Dreamer”) which sparked a scandal when it became known that Zorn’s nude model was a New York City doctor’s wife. (Models then were generally drawn from the anonymous lower classes.) Zorn, very much in character, wrote that the woman was perfectly comfortable posing and didn’t care who knew. (Later, when the painting was published on a postcard, the police in Berlin confiscated every copy.)

Zorn’s second painting was specifically dedicated “To My Friend Roosevelt” on the canvas, a corner of which is shown above. Called “Freyja,” the painting depicts the Norse goddess of love, beauty, fertility, war, and death, which covers a lot of ground. The conventions of the 19th century dictated that nude women be idealized and depicted as goddesses; Zorn outraged people by depicting a goddess as a naked woman, sprawled languorously on her throne, holding an empty chalice and giving no thought to modesty at all. None whatsoever. Even today the painting causes one to step back; I cannot imagine how high the eyebrows flew in 1901.

From Zorn’s paintings, you would not get an idea of what S. Montgomery Roosevelt’s studio was like, but fortunately a reporter for Broadway Weekly took the tour in 1906, and wrote the following:

“S. Montgomery Roosevelt has one of the most interesting studios in New York. The entrance hall is copied from a palace in Padua. The studio proper, which is on the floor above, is also entirely Italian in treatment, carved rafters supporting the roof and a large fireplace running to the ceiling. Off the studio is a circular dining room, the ceiling bas relief supported by columns with the intervals between the columns hung with silk, the whole giving a charming effect.”

Talk about having your own playhouse. And apparently there was room for an orchestra, too. In 1915, a reporter for the New York Herald wrote:

“Mr. S. Montgomery Roosevelt gave a small dance at his studio, at 44 West 77th Street, after the performance of “Androcles and the Lion” and “The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife” in Wallack’s [Theater]. Mrs. Granville Barker and several members of the Stage Society were among the guests.”

In 1920, though a ocean apart, Anders Zorn and S. Montgomery Roosevelt died within three days of one another. But there was one more scandal to emerge from the studio both had graced.

In March of 1921, the millionaire owner of the Ansonia Hotel, W.E.D. Stokes, sued his wife, Helen Stokes, for divorce, and in the courtroom sought to characterize her as wanton and unfaithful. In support of that suit, Mr. Stoke’s attorney summoned Valentine Kubicke, the former chauffeur of S. Montgomery Roosevelt.

On the stand, Mr. Kubicke recalled that he once went to Mr. Roosevelt’s studio to deliver some paint. After knocking on the door, he entered and therein saw Mrs. Helen Stokes sitting on a chair, smoking a cigarette and clad only in a kimono robe. Mr. Roosevelt stood with several brushes in his hand; on his easel was a painting of a nude woman in the same pose Mrs. Stokes was holding, smoking a cigarette.

The finished painting may well have prompted a quote that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1919: “Montgomery Roosevelt paints a woman smoking a cigarette very knowingly.”

Indeed. I wish I’d had the chance to hang out at the studio, smell the linseed oil, go to a party. I would happily have emptied ashtrays and cleaned brushes for the privilege.

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Ander Zorn’s “Drömmer” is today in the collection of the Thielska Gallery, Stockholm.

“Freyja” has been around: In 2004, it was stolen from a family in Stockholm; six years later it popped up at Sotheby’s in London. The Swedish police halted the sale and hastened to question the Swiss collector who had consigned the painting; I don’t know if he said, “I found it,” or if he had a more believable tale.

I do not know what has become of Montgomery Roosevelt’s portrait of a woman with a cigarette.

A Dachshund at Roosevelt Hall

This is my favorite picture of Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt, who owned Roosevelt Hall between 1899 and 1920. I love it for many reasons; the dachshund, of course, the informality of it, and also the greenhouse, on the right. Roosevelt had a fabulous greenhouse, one of the things that made his estate special.

In the aerial photo below, taken in March of 1936, you can see Roosevelt Hall when it was an estate, not just a beautiful home with no room to breathe. The greenhouse is to the left of the main house.

The estate started out with 220 acres, and gradually shrank as new owners sold off parcels of land. Richard De Zeng, who built the present mansion in 1841, that same year sold off more than 100 acres to Francis M. Potter. In 1849, John Legg bought the house as an investment; at that time the estate included 112 acres of land. In 1850, Legg sold the property to a farmer, Peter Whittlesey, who quickly sold off another 100 acres, keeping the house and just 12 acres of land. In 1944, the estate passed from the Roosevelt family and began shrinking in earnest. In 1961, William Delavan sold to Kenneth Dunning (who had subdivided the lawn behind today’s The Athenaeum on Genesee Street to create Lake View Circle). In 1963, Dunning sold a portion of the land south of the house to Thomas Rich, who tore down the greenhouse, converted the carriage house into a residence, and subdivided his subdivision for another residence. And so it goes.

Edward M. Padelford

Of all the owners of Roosevelt Hall, Edward M. Padelford left the lightest of footprints in Skaneateles. We know he bought the mansion from William R. Willetts in 1892, and sold it to Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt in 1899. But he was hardly ever here. Who the heck was this guy?

In 1857, Edward Macomber Padelford was born in Savannah, Georgia, the son of Edward Padelford Jr. and Catherine Stenbergen. His brother Arthur was born in 1859. The boys’ grandfather, Edward Nathaniel Padelford, had come to Georgia from Massachusetts, made a fortune in cotton and founded a bank. When the Civil War erupted, he remained in Savannah, but did his best to distance his bank and other interests from the Confederate government. But his sons, including Edward and Arthur’s father, enlisted in the Confederate army. In June of 1863, the boys’ father, Edward Padelford Jr., died of typhoid while serving as a Lieutenant in a Confederate cavalry regiment. He was just 32 years old.

In June of 1870, when Edward and Arthur’s grandfather died, the boys, barely into their twenties, each inherited about $230,000 outright, and shared the income of a trust fund of about $500,000, the equivalent of millions today. The young men took their wealth and went north, living at various times in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, summering in the Berkshires or at Newport, and eventually voyaging to Europe whenever the whim seized them.

Edward was the first to marry, tying the knot in October of 1880, with Miss Florence McPheeters, said to be one of the most beautiful women in Baltimore. Around the same time, Edward acquired a yacht, the Nokomis. Yachting would be one of his lifelong passions. In 1882, Edward purchased a home in the Berkshire town of Lenox, Massachusetts, known as the “Inland Newport” thanks to its grand homes and the presence of ‘smart’ society.

In October of 1885, Arthur Padelford married Elizabeth “Bettina” Ordway and they went to Europe for their honeymoon trip. The daughter of a General, Miss Ordway was raised in a convent in Georgetown and privately tutored in several languages, manners, elocution and dance, before being presented to society. She was the season’s most celebrated debutante, and then mischief took over. Summering at the White Sulphur Springs resort, she became infamous for encouraging an admirer to drink champagne from her satin slipper. (It was easier to become infamous in those days.)

Arthur Padelford was a millionaire on his way to Vienna, and a hasty marriage was arranged. (The New York Times later suggested that Arthur Padelford consented to marry Miss Ordway when faced with the muzzle of General Ordway’s revolver.) The couple enjoyed the society in Vienna, but when Mrs. Padelford accepted a starring role in the four-poster of Carl Streitman, the leading tenor in the city’s light opera scene, an outraged Arthur hustled her off to Paris. In September of 1887, a daughter, Valerie Batthyány Padelford, was born. (Her godfather was a Duke, most probably from the Batthyány family, nobility in the Austro-Hungarian empire.)

After the christening, Arthur sent his wife and daughter back to the U.S., then returned to Vienna and began divorce proceedings. In the papers, Arthur stated that he wanted no share of his estate to go to his former wife or to her daughter, who was not his. (It would be 10 more years before the courts would establish her paternity.)

Valerie was raised by her grandparents in Washington and her mother went on the stage as Bettina Padelford, until Arthur gave her $20,000 to drop the use of his name, and she became Bettina Girard until a series of marriages (one of which lasted two weeks) lengthened her name to Bettina Girard Rafael Wolfe Beach Schuyler, and a series of bad choices destroyed her beauty and talent. (She died destitute in 1905.) Arthur escaped from the disaster with his fortune, if not his pride. For the rest of his life, and even after he died, any mention of him in the newspaper was accompanied by a biography of Bettina.

In 1886, brother Edward had a new yacht, the Ulidia brought over from England on the deck of a steamer. The boat’s crew arrived on the same boat. In August of that year, the summer at Newport took a bit of a downturn when Rebecca H. McPheeters, Florence’s mother, died of typhoid at Edward and Florence’s cottage.

Coaching was another of Edward’s passions; he was said to be “an enthusiastic whip” and drove a set of four matched bays. In May of 1888, he conveyed a party of gentlemen in the New York Coaching Club’s annual parade in Central Park. On the water in 1889, Edward sold the Ulidia and raced in his brother’s yacht, the Ileen. In October of 1890, at Newport, Edward drove his coach to Bristol Ferry with a party of friends and provided breakfast upon arrival.

However, yachting and coaching were not Edward’s only interests. In November of 1890, Florence Padelford sued for divorce and named Mrs. Edward Woolsey as the co-respondent in the suit. Florence was awarded alimony at the rate of $6,000 a year plus $2,000 in child support for their daughter, Florence Burne Padelford. Shortly after the divorce, Florence, Florence and the elder Florence’s unmarried sister, Ella McPheeters, moved to England.

Somehow, in the midst of this busy life, Edward Padelford found time in 1892 to buy a mansion in Skaneateles from William R. Willetts. I have no idea how or why. And there’s no indication that he was ever here for long.

In November of 1892, Mrs. Edward Woolsey secured a divorce from her husband, and three months later Edward and Frances “Fannie” Smythe Woolsey were wed aboard the Teutonic, en route to Paris. The new Mrs. Padelford was said to be “an unusually handsome woman.”

The following year, the mansion in Skaneateles did get some use. In November of 1893, Captain and Mrs. Edward Jaffrey were married in New York City and the mother of the bride was Fannie’s sister, for whom Fannie opened her “beautiful place at Skaneateles” for the couple’s honeymoon.

In March of 1895, Arthur Padelford married for a second time, to Miss Edythe Scott Grant, daughter of New York financier Beach Grant. The wedding was in Rome; the couple honeymooned on the Riviera. Sadly, in June of 1896, Arthur Padelford died in Paris, and the newspapers used the occasion of his death notice to detail the life of Bettina Ordway. (Edythe later remarried, becoming the Viscountess de Breteuil; her sister, Adele, was already the Countess of Essex.)

A month after Arthur’s death, Edward and Fannie Padelford sailed to Europe, saying that they planned to stay until May of 1897. And it was that month that the following ad for two properties ran in the Syracuse Daily Journal:

Padelford Place

This is the first and only time I have seen the estate referred to as “Lakota.” The ad attracted no buyers. But on April 4, 1899, two notes ran in the Skaneateles Free Press:

“It has been reported that the Padelford place has been sold through H.J. Hubbard’s real estate agency to Samuel M. Roosevelt of New York. We hear the consideration is $20,000.”

“Samuel M. Roosevelt of New York who is said to have bought the Padelford or Lapham place is no stranger to Skaneateles. His father was brother of the late H. Latrobe Roosevelt of this village and his mother was a member of the former well-known Horton family of this place. Mr. Roosevelt spent many of his boyhood days in Skaneateles. Mrs. Roosevelt is a Maryland lady whose father is one of the wealthiest men of that State.”

Roosevelt’s Skaneateles connections were relevant, but more importantly he was a friend of Edward Padelford; the two shared a passion for coaching and yachting, and were members of the same yacht club and of the Knickerbocker Club in New York City. In May, the two men came to Skaneateles together to look over the house; Fannie Padelford accompanied them, and it was announced that Mr. Roosevelt would take possession about July 1st.

But this was not the end of the Padelford connection to Roosevelt Hall. In the tussle over Arthur Padelford’s estate, the bank representing Valerie Padelford, who Arthur had finally accepted as his daughter, wanted an accounting of “certain items of bric-a-brac left in Skaneateles by the late Arthur Padelford of Philadelphia, the first husband of Bettina Girard.” (The poor sap; he’d been dead four years, and the newspapers were still talking about his first wife.) In 1900, the bank was granted “ancillary letters of administration” over such bric-a-brac; I don’t know if it did them any good since the Padelfords had left Skaneateles the year before. (Arthur’s daughter Valerie and widow Edythe eventually split the estate, scoring about $230,000 each.)

After the sale of his mansion in Skaneateles, Edward’s life continued in the manner to which he had become accustomed, with boats, travel and legal complications.

In July of 1901, he raced the yacht Zinita at Newport. In February of 1903, his first wife, Florence Padelford, married Ernest Cunard in London. In England, she had billed herself as a widow, rather than a divorcée. Two months later, in spite of the fact that she was calling herself a widow and had married into the wealth of the Cunard shipping family, Florence sued her supposedly dead former husband for “perpetual alimony.” In November of 1903, she lodged a formal complaint that her alimony had stopped. And in February of 1905, she sued for $23,000 in back alimony. What a gal. But in spite of her frustration with her first husband, she did see her daughter marry well.

Baroness Ebury; photo by Bassano Studios, London

In February of 1908, Florence Burne Padelford, Edward’s daughter, married Robert “Bertie” Grosvenor, the 3rd Baron Ebury, and ascended into the peerage. But since Edward had been portrayed as dead in the U.K. and as a deadbeat in the U.S., the bride was given away by her stepfather.

Life continued to hold both joy and sorrow. In January of 1911, while sailing on the Frances, Edward caught a 15-pound tarpon off the shores of Miami. In December, Edward’s wife, Frances “Fannie” Padelford, died at home in Paris.

In July of 1913, there was one more trip to Roosevelt Hall. Edward Padelford and Leslie Cotton, another wealthy yachtsman from New York, visited Skaneateles as guests of S. Montgomery Roosevelt.

August of 1914 found Edward Padelford in Bar Harbor, Maine, having arrived on his yacht Osana from New York. One more boat, and then one more wedding. In January of 1915, newspapers announced the marriage of Sophia Dallas Borda Bigelow, recently divorced from Nelson Bigelow, to Edward Padelford. The newlyweds went south to Palm Beach and Miami for the winter. In July of 1920, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Padelford arrived in Newport for the season, and settled in at “Clover Patch.” They had as their guest Mrs. Herbert Pell Jr. (Matilda Bigelow Pell), Mrs. Padelford’s daughter.

In 1921, Edward Macomber Padelford died in New York City at the age of 61, following an operation for appendicitis. He was survived by his beloved wife, Sophia, and was noted as the owner of the yacht Osana.

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In the event the narrative above left you wanting more on the wedding of the Baroness Ebury, here’s a piece that ran the day before:

London, Jan. 31. – For some weeks the coming marriage of Miss Florence Padelford, daughter of Mrs. Ernest Cunard by her first marriage, and the Hon. Bertie Grosvenor, eldest son of the Lord and Lady Ebury, of Moor Park, has been the subject of considerable interest. Miss Florence Padelford, although a great favorite in society, and among the girls of her own age, has always avoided publicity of every description, and in this her fiance’s views thoroughly coincide with hers. The wedding, I understand is to take place at St. Margaret’s Westminster, Saturday, February 1. Miss Padelford spent most of the autumn at her mother’s and step-father’s country place. Red Rice, Andover, helping to entertain house parties, and only coming up to London occasionally to attend matters connected with her trousseau.

“She has received many handsome presents from members of the family, including a magnificent diamond tiara. From Lord Ebury she received a diamond and emerald ring which is one of the family heirlooms, being the gift of the duke of Wellington to the late Lady Ebury. Mr. Ernest Cunard has given his stepdaughter a handsome diamond corsage ornament. Her mother’s gift is a pearl and diamond dog collar. Among Mr. Grosvenor’s presents to his fiance are a traveling bag, a diamond and emerald ring and a rope of lovely pearls, and he has received from Miss Padelford a gold watch and an enamel cigarette case.

“The bride’s dress is of soft white satin with a long train, entirely covered with old Brussels lace, the gift of Lady Ebury, who also presented her future daughter-in-law with an old Honiton lace veil which has been worn by several members of the family for many years. Master Ivor Guest and Master Martin Glynn, nephews of the bridegroom, will act as pages. They will wear little Van Dyke costumes of white satin edged with pink velvet tape to match the color of the bridesmaids’ gown.

“The six bridesmaids… dresses are of Rose du Barry chiffon trimmed with soft silk of the same shade, and although it is not yet decided upon, it is probable that they will wear only large bows in their hair. Mr. Ernest Cunard will give the bride away, and after the ceremony he and Mrs. Cunard will hold a reception at their place in Portman Square, after which the bride and bridegroom will leave for the manor house. Ashby St. Ledgers, Rugby, kindly lent them by Mrs. and Mrs. Ivor Guest, to spend their honeymoon.”

Bette Davis in Skaneateles, 1935

 Bette Davis, photographed by Maurice Goldberg in 1935 for Vanity Fair

On Thursday, August 15, 1935, Bette Davis had lunch at the Kan-Ya-To Inn (today’s Sherwood Inn). On the lake, the Central New York Yacht Racing Association’s regatta was in its first day, and Miss Davis was delighted by the sight of more than 80 sails. Before leaving, she signed a menu for proprietor Bert Sellen. Newspaper accounts noted that she was accompanied by C. Harold Lewis, said to be her “manager,” and a cameraman; the three had been in Cazenovia earlier in the day, scouting locations, and were on their way to Fall Creek in Ithaca to shoot outdoor scenes for a film.

Although Bette Davis had been making films for just four years, at least two of her movies had already graced the screen of the Huxford Theatre at Legg Hall, and others had played at the Jefferson and the Palace in Auburn; she was easily famous enough to be recognized here, and she was. But the published account, virtually the same in Auburn, Rochester, Syracuse and Skaneateles newspapers, left many questions unanswered. Bette Davis made five films in 1935; which one was this? All of her films that year were based in Hollywood; why had they come so far east for location shots? Who was C. Harold Lewis, besides someone who wanted to be sure the reporter got his name right? Who was the unnamed cameraman? And, least of my curiosities but still a cause for wonder: Was there any special reason they stopped at the Kan-Ya-To for lunch?

None of the answers were to be found in the seven biographies of Bette Davis I studied. This story was a jigsaw puzzle, but when the last piece fell into place, I was very satisfied that I’d found the right answers.

The film for which they were shooting was Dangerous, and Davis’s co-star was Franchot Tone. The producer, or “supervisor,” of the film was Harry Joe Brown, and he was feeling decidedly uncomfortable with his stars. Davis, who was married, had a crush on Tone, who was engaged to Joan Crawford. And neither actor seemed to care what anyone else thought. During shooting, Brown stepped into Tone’s dressing room to discover Davis putting a dreamy smile on Tone’s face, and all Tone said, while laughing, was, “Close the door on your way out.”

Bette Davis and Franchot Tone in Dangerous (1935)

Perhaps it was Tone who suggested Ithaca for the exteriors of Dangerous. The scenes were supposed to be set on a “gentleman’s farm” in Connecticut. One scene took place on a bridge over a gorge. Ithaca has gorges. Franchot Tone was an alum of Cornell University, Class of ’27, and may have seen a chance to visit his alma mater while getting away from Los Angeles with his current flame.

One can see how Brown might have been uneasy with the road trip. And how he might have reached out to someone he could trust, an old friend, someone with some free time, someone who owed him a favor, someone who knew upstate New York. And that, in every way, was C. Harold Lewis.

Their friendship began at Syracuse University, where both men, Harry Joe Brown, Class of 1914, and C. Harold Lewis, Class of ‘15, were in Tambourine and Bones, a campus organization devoted to music and dramatics. Lewis was a piano player and composer, and by every account an extraordinary talent. Known on campus as Lefty Lewis (a nickname possibly picked up from Louis “Lefty Louis” Rosenberg, a New York gangster of the era), he was written up as “the Hill composer and poet,” “the crack piano player” and “the ragtime artist.” If there was a skit, a show, a banquet or a pep rally, Lefty Lewis was conducting, playing or leading the cheers. With fellow Tambourine and Bones member Ralph Murphy providing the lyrics, Lewis wrote “Down the Field,” a pep song that is still played at Syracuse University.

During World War I, a correspondent for the Syracuse Journal wrote from France, “At present the writer is enjoying a passing visit from ‘Lefty’ Lewis who is here resting after some strenuous work up in one of the most lively sectors. It seems like old times to hear the Lieutenant ‘tickle the ivories’ even though the piano is sadly in need of tuning and is of the vintage of ‘76.”

After the war, Tambourine and Bones put on one more play, “I’ll Say She Does,” written by Ralph Murphy with “musical interruptions” by C. Harold Lewis  and William R. Mills. And then Harry Joe Brown, now a producer working with Darryl F. Zanuck, swept Ralph Murphy and Lefty Lewis off to Hollywood and the movies. Brown was a prolific producer; Murphy directed; Lefty Lewis wrote music for the movies, composing scores, songs and playing on the soundtracks of more than 25 films.

And in 1935, Lefty Lewis came to the aid of an old friend. But he was not working as Betty Davis’ manager — he was her minder, her chaperone, Harry Joe Brown’s insurance policy.

The anonymous third man was, almost without a doubt, Ernest Haller, the cameraman on 14 of Bette Davis’ pictures, including Dangerous. “Ernie” Haller was her favorite, and she won Oscars for Dangerous and Jezebel (1938), both shot by Haller. He did well on other films as well, including Captain Blood (1935), Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Lilies of the Field (1966). He won an Oscar for his cinematography on Gone with the Wind (1939).

So there were two future Oscar winners at the table, and Lefty Lewis. And why did they stop at the Kan-Ya-To Inn? Here’s my guess: Because Lefty Lewis had been there before. In 1916, when the Syracuse University football team was about to take on Walter Camp’s mighty Pittsburgh gridiron eleven, the Syracuse coach decided to prepare by taking his team to Skaneateles. They practiced at the high school football field, and then were ushered into the Packwood House for a banquet and entertainment by Lefty Lewis, followed by an early bed-check. The practice went well, and Lefty was, as always, fabulous. (Unfortunately, the team was doomed to lose the next day, 30-0.)

But Lefty Lewis had done his best and because he had no curfew, he chose to take to the streets of Skaneateles with a ukulele. Joined by “Speed” Ellis, a Varsity hurdler, and Jake Vandish, he serenaded the village. The Packwood House, of course, became the Kan-Ya-To Inn, and one afternoon at lunchtime hosted Bette Davis, Ernie Haller and a figure from its past, Lefty Lewis. What fun to have watched and listened from a nearby table.

Eleanor Katherine Roosevelt

It was Eleanor Katherine Roosevelt’s lot in life to reside in homes that had names rather than addresses. Born in 1915, the daughter of Henry Latrobe Roosevelt and Eleanor Morrow Roosevelt, she summered at Roosevelt Hall during the family’s time here.

Henry Roosevelt had inherited the mansion from his uncle, S. Montgomery Roosevelt, in 1920, but the family spent much of the 1920s in Europe, where Henry was the European representative of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). They reopened the mansion in 1930 and summered there until Henry’s death in 1936. New York’s Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited twice in 1932, once in April and again in September, when he was campaigning for President.

In 1937, Eleanor married Reverdy Wadsworth of Washington, the son of U.S. Rep. James Wadsworth. Reverdy was a grandson of John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, so history at least had already linked him with the Roosevelt family.

In 1952, after his father’s death, Reverdy inherited Hartford House in Geneseo, N.Y. The Wadsworth family had founded the town of Geneseo, and Hartford House had been theirs since 1835. Eleanor lived there for much of her life. In February of 1956, Reverdy and Eleanor hosted the Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of President Roosevelt, while she was on a speaking tour.

As a young woman, Eleanor Katherine Roosevelt appeared in a 1937 magazine ad for Pond’s skin cream, with Roosevelt Hall and Skaneateles Lake as a scenic backdrop.

But my favorite picture of her comes from a family album in the Roosevelt Hall collection of the Skaneateles Historical Society, a photo taken during a visit in the winter of 1930-31, in which a far more natural Eleanor steadies the family’s camera-shy dog for a photo.

Katherine by the Window

One morning in 1888, three-year old Katherine Willetts posed with her dolls in a sitting room of her parents’ mansion. The sun that shone on Skaneateles Lake glowed in her face and dress. She was born in this house. Her parents, Louisa Frost Willetts and William Russell Willetts, owned the mansion between 1878 and 1892.

William R. Willetts had purchased the mansion from his mother, Amie Willetts Lapham. She was the widow of  Anson Lapham, who had died in 1876. He called the mansion “Lake Home.” It was originally built by Richard De Zeng.

On February 18, 1879, William R. Willetts married Mary Hill Prentice of Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. She was the sister of his brother’s wife, Emma Prentice, who had married Joseph C. Willetts in 1872. William and Mary made their home in Skaneateles. Her parents, a couple of wealth and position in Brooklyn Heights, visited in 1880. Sadly, Mary Willetts died on February 16, 1881, two days before the couple’s second wedding anniversary.

On September 8, 1884, William R. Willetts married Louisa Frost of Delhi, N.Y. The couple at first lived abroad, but then returned to Skaneateles. Their first daughter, Katherine Willetts, was born at home on November 14, 1885, and spent the first seven years of her life at the mansion, before the family moved to a house on West Academy Street. The mansion changed hands again before being bought by S. Montgomery Roosevelt, who renamed it Roosevelt Hall.

After graduating from the Skaneateles Academy in 1905, Katherine Willetts attended the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (which in 1944 became the Rochester Institute of Technology). In 1906, she had her own summer cottage on the lake. A news account of one weekend’s activities ended with the phrase, “A jolly time was had by all.” In 1908, Katherine was one of the original members of the Monday Evening Club, a book group started by Elizabeth Cobane; the club still meets in Skaneateles.

On June 15, 1910, Katherine married John Kneeland Thorne at her parents’ home. The couple’s life together was not without sadness; their three sons each died in infancy, in 1912, 1913 and 1915. In 1956, at the age of 70, Katherine Willetts Thorne died in Skaneateles. With the exception of her time in college, she lived here all her life. She was survived by a sister, Louise Willetts, of Nice, France, and by a photograph taken when the light was just right.

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My thanks to the Skaneateles Historical Society for the photo, and to Dennis Owen for the encouragement.