Of all the writers to grace Skaneateles Lake, Harold MacGrath (1871-1932) may well hold the record for bestsellers and the fame that accompanies them. MacGrath was born in Syracuse; as a young man, he worked as a reporter and columnist for the Syracuse Herald. In 1899, he published his first novel, Arms and the Woman, and two years later his second book was a success, prompting him to leave journalism and focus on writing fiction – stories about romance, adventure, mystery, espionage.
Of his beginnings, he said, “My advice to all those who wish to write is broil a little while on the grill of newspaper work. You learn brevity, directness; you learn to make words count; you learn the art of holding your reader in suspense. And over and above that, you have seen life, on the mounts and in the pits.”
In the years to come, it was not unusual for MacGrath to have three books listed in the top ten bestsellers at any time. He wrote 40 novels in all, and short stories for The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and Red Book; he also serialized his novels in magazines, spreading his fame and multiplying his money.
In 1905, just six years into his career as a novelist, and a few months after their wedding, Harold and his wife Alma spent part of August at Glen Haven. He was famous enough for the newspaper to notice his presence, but soon he would be wealthy enough to forsake Skaneateles for the pleasure spots of Europe.
In 1906, MacGrath was in Naples with his wife, and fellow writer/explorer E. Alexander Powell and his wife; together they witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. And they spent time at Lake Como, which Harold and Alma MacGrath said was their favorite place in the world. (Mrs. MacGrath was especially partial to the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, where you can make reservations should you wish to do further research.)
In 1912, Harold MacGrath wrote his first screenplay, for a western, The Vengeance That Failed. In all, 30 of MacGrath’s stories were made into films; the rights for Drums of Jeopardy alone brought $27,500 from Louis B. Mayer. Other MacGrath stories were adapted for the stage, running on Broadway and with touring companies.
As a writer, MacGrath was both disciplined and shrewd. One of the films made from MacGrath’s writings was a 1913 movie serial, The Adventures of Kathlyn. While writing the screenplay, he simultaneously wrote the novel so it could be published in time for the theater premiere of the first episode, and on sale in book stores during the serial’s 13-episode run.
In spite of his success, MacGrath maintained Syracuse as his home; in 1912 he built an English country-style mansion at 1618 James Street, a home that became renowned for its landscaped garden surrounded by a poplar hedge, with ponds, rock gardens, pools, and flowering shrubbery. Alma MacGrath often visited the Parker Peony Farm in Fayetteville, N.Y., to purchase new plants.
Two images of MacGrath’s garden, the first in a magazine article, the second in an ad with child star Jackie Coogan, in 1923.
The MacGrath house was known as “Hadhaven,” probably from Alma’s pet name for her husband, “Haddie.” Inside the house were paintings, carvings, old glass and tapestries collected during travels around the world, and artwork from the illustrations done for MacGrath’s books.
Harold and Alma MacGrath shared their home with others. A garden party was held in June, when the peonies bloomed. An annual open house on New Year’s Day drew hundreds of guests. And whenever the G.A.R., the Grand Army of the Republic, held a convention in Syracuse, the gathered veterans of the Civil War were welcomed at a reception at Hadhaven.
(The connection to Civil War veterans was through Alma MacGrath. Her father, John S. Kenyon, enlisted in the Union army at the beginning of the war. At the age of 19, as a member of the Third N.Y. Cavalry, his unit engaged Confederate troops along the Trent River in North Carolina. After three futile assaults on a Confederate line, they were given orders to withdraw, but in the retreat, a fellow horseman was shot, fell from the saddle, and was being left behind. Kenyon turned, rode back, put the man on his own horse, and then shielded him from gunfire with his own body, running alongside the horse, bringing the wounded man to safety. He never spoke of the incident, but years later his comrades lobbied for recognition of his bravery, and in 1897 he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.)
The MacGrath’s love of Syracuse was not always repaid with kindness. Given their wealth, they were something of a target. More than once, their dogs were kidnapped and held for ransom; I don’t know if they were all returned.
In 1937, Alma MacGrath’s pigeons were stolen by three boys who found a few of them on the front lawn, and decided to go for the whole flock, until the theft appeared in the newspapers and the boys panicked, releasing the birds who promptly flew home. Jewel thieves hit the MacGrath home twice, in 1924 and 1933. In 1937, Alma MacGrath’s summer cottage in Cazenovia was “plundered” over the winter by two 17-year-old boys who sold all of the furniture and valuables they could carry away. And in 1939, the garden was vandalized, its stone bridge, ornaments, seats and dovecote smashed and destroyed.
But on better days, Hadhaven was indeed a haven, where Harold MacGrath could sit undisturbed and write his novels in longhand, with Alma MacGrath stopping all callers at the door. And there were frequent vacations; Harold enjoyed taking several weeks off to go fishing in the Thousand Islands, and Alma once noted that she had made 32 trips to Europe.
Alma and Harold, bound for Europe.
And not to forget Skaneateles, Alma MacGrath had a link with the village that lasted for a lifetime. Her cousin, Clara (Mrs. Leonard) Haight, lived here and was often a guest at Alma’s parties and receptions in Syracuse. And when there was a celebration in Skaneateles, such as a birthday party at the Krebs for Clara’s daughter, Alma motored out for the festivities.
Harold MacGrath’s novels are as forgotten today as they were popular a century ago. He wrote in a casual romantic manner, at a time when writers like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Willa Cather were creating a new kind of American fiction. If read today, MacGrath’s novels require a willing suspension of judgment, but can reward you with some amusement, exotic locales and even some thrills. One of my favorite reviews, from 1919, pretty much says it all:
“Harold MacGrath’s new book, The Yellow Typhoon, is widely exciting. The story revolves around a mysterious murder and the scene shifts from Manila to the Adirondack Mountains. There are two strangely beautiful women in this story and one is good and the other is bad; $1.60.”