The Ghost Of Sagamore Hill

There used to be a chain in front of the driveway at Sagamore Hill. My grandmother put it there to stop the hordes of curiosity seekers who came to Sagamore, thinking perhaps that no one lived there anymore. So, grumbling, my father would stop the car to let us in, and I could, for a moment, observe from a distance the old gray house brooding in its nest of stately elms.

I felt, with that peculiar instinct of a child, that this large Victorian structure had some kind of life of its own. And as we drove under the porte-cochère my sense of adventure quickened, for I always anticipated these visits with an excitement the late master of the house would have appreciated. I was lucky as a small boy to spend many weeks of my summer and winter vacations at Sagamore Hill, and adventure was always there.

We were a large family he left behind. Besides my immediate family—my parents and three sisters—there were my boisterous uncles Ted and Kermit, with their wives, the brilliant and elegant Auntie Eleanor and the glamorous Auntie Belle; my fairy godmother, Auntie Ethel (Derby), and her kindly doctor-husband Uncle Dick; and the mysterious and romantic figure of “Auntie Sister” (Alice Roosevelt Longworth), who lived far away in Washington and made a brief, queenly appearance from time to time. (We never quite understood as children how an aunt could be “Sister” as well, but eventually found out that she had always been called Sister by our parents’ generation. Her real name, Alice, was never used in the family.) And with all these came masses of cousins—a dozen or so—quite a few close to my age.

Grandmother was an awesome chatelaine. She ruled the house and its unruly visitors in her soft and precise voice, an iron hand scarcely hidden in the velvet glove. Only when we were older did we realize she was small and frail. To us she seemed eight feet tall, and although she never raised that quiet voice, it could take on an icy tone that made even the largest and strongest tremble.

Even so, she was not the absolute ruler of Sagamore Hill. My grandfather was—even though he had died many years before, when I was less than a year old. The house had been left exactly as it was the day he died, and his spirit permeated every corner of it, as well as the grounds outside. Now I realize the house was truly haunted, but we children would never have called it that, because our ghost was a kindly one who kept a jolly and benevolent eye on all of us, balancing Grandmother’s essential severity as he had in life. He was a beloved and familiar figure—our hero and our playmate. All the activities of the house followed the patterns he had set during his lifetime—the food, the games, the celebrations, the stories, and even the phrases and words he had made so much his own. He just had too much vitality to die and leave all those grandchildren deprived of his companionship.

I felt his presence strongly the minute I came through the door into a hall cluttered with his possessions—an elephant’s foot stuffed with his canes, the walls festooned with majestic heads of African beasts. His study was on the right, and I always liked to sit at his desk a minute and look out the large window at the elms. I was half afraid I might be trespassing, because he was there, all right. The room was crammed with books and pictures and memorabilia, but the lion rugs on the floor were the objects of our special affection. It was fun to lie on them and pretend they were alive. Grandmother used to read to us, generally from Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood or something else by him, because Pyle was one of Grandfather’s favorite authors, especially for reading to the children.

On the left was Grandmother’s parlor, where we children were not permitted. She secluded herself there to read and did not like to be disturbed. It was a “withdrawing” room in the true sense of the word. She had an endless curiosity, and when, in her seventies, she did leave Sagamore, it was to go on long voyages all over the world. However, we children really did not mind being excluded from her drawing room, since it contained only one item of interest to us—a luxurious polar-bear skin that we sneaked onto now and then.

Farther down the hall, on the right, was the dining room, its door flanked by a large gong used to summon us to meals. It was always rung by Clara, the waitress, Grandmother’s downstairs lieutenant. Clara was a distinguished-looking light-skinned Negro woman of a commanding authority that kept us in our place within her domain.

Grandfather definitely was with us at table. As in his lifetime, we consumed mounds of good food, running to rich, homemade soups and succulent roasts and always a delicious dessert. This last course was particularly exciting because of the importance of who got which doily under the finger bowl. There were only two that mattered—the red dragon was the best, but the green dragon was good, too. We often ate off dessert plates with holes around the sides and heard how our nearsighted grandfather used to pour the cream until it flowed through the holes and then look up guiltily to see if Grandmother had noticed. To us it was natural to suppose that he was a bit in awe of her himself.