To The Manor Born

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A tragedy in February, 1844, interrupted their courtship momentarily. She and her father, a New York politician, had been invited, along with numerous dignitaries such as Dolley Madison, Thomas Hart Benton, and the President, aboard the new propeller-driven warship Princeton , built by John Ericsson, the designer of the Monitor in the Civil War. [See “‘The beauty and chivalry of the United States assembled,’” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , December, 1965.] Salutes were being fired from the Peacemaker gun on the forward deck. While Julia and President Tyler were enjoying a glass of champagne belowdecks there was a sudden terrible explosion above: the gun had burst asunder, killing her father and two members of Tyler’s Cabinet, four months later, however, Julia Gardiner and President John Tyler were secretly married in New York. The dour John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary: “Captain Tyler and his bride are the laughing stock of the city.” He was fifty-four, she twenty-four. But President-to-be James Buchanan was envious: “The President is the most lucky man who ever lived. Both a belle and a fortune to crown his Presidential career.”

An earlier Jacqueline Kennedy, she set a style of elegance in the White House, introducing French cooking, dancing, and the playing of “Hail to the Chief when the President entered with his bride on his arm. One historian said she held court like an empress. Involving herself politically as well, she helped Tyler bring Texas into the Union with fervent speeches to senators and their wives. After signing the order of annexation her husband handed her the pen, and she wore it as a charm around her neck the rest of her life. After Tyler’s withdrawal from the election of 1844 they retired to his Virginia estate, where Julia mothered seven children and became a passionate Southerner. Although she never returned to Gardiners Island, her father’s house in East Hampton was used as the summer White House by President Tyler and herself.

John Lyon Gardiner, the second son of Samuel Buell, took over as the eleventh proprietor after serving as a colonel in the Civil War. His successor in 1910 was his son, another Lion Gardiner, a banker with J. P. Morgan. This Lion leased the island to Clarence Mackay, head of Postal Telegraph, who used it mostly for hunting parties. Other lessees were the sportsman Winston Guest and the Sperry Rand Corporation, which made it an executive retreat. During Guest’s lease the hurricane of 1938 swept over the island and demolished halfDf the oak forest. Misfortune struck again in 1947, when the old manor house built by David Gardiner in 1774, with its beautiful panelled walls and columned porches, burned to the ground. Valuable antiques were destroyed, and the caretaker saved his life only by jumping from a window. It is thought that the fire was started by a guest falling asleep in bed while smoking a cigarette.

After two more proprietors, Jonathan and Winthrop, the Gardiners, somewhat impoverished by the depression of the iQSo’s, considered selling the island. But a peppery old spinster, Sarah Diodati Gardiner, who was descended from Lion the First three ways, came to the rescue and paid off the mortgage in 1937 so that it would remain in the family. Both her mother and father had Gardiner blood. As a young girl she had visited the island and was enraptured by its beauty a half century before she became its first female owner. After the fire Aunt Sarah erected a new twenty-eight-room manor house in Georgian style. Still unmarried at her death in 1953 at the age of ninety, a multimillionairess, she left it to her nephew, Robert David Lion Gardiner, and his sister, Alexandra Gardiner Creel, who took possession at the expiration of Sperry Rand’s lease in 1963.

Today Gardiners Island is little changed from the time Lion Gardiner came upon it and made it his home 336 years ago. There are still 250 acres of white oak in Bostwick Woods never touched hy an axe, the only such stand of timber in the world. The osprey still arrives and departs on schedule, building his six-foot nest in the crotches of dead trees. Elsewhere the fish hawk has almost become extinct due to pollution, and the hundred or more on Gardiners are probably the largest such colony in North America. Wild turkey and deer still roam; swans and other fowl make Tobacco Lot Pond their home. Bird watchers have identified several hundred species.

The sixteenth proprietor, who has inherited three Gardiner fortunes (from his father, his uncle, and his aunt), feels very strongly about retaining ownership in the family; Gardiner has a nephew but no children of his own. Maintenance costs him over a hundred thousand dollars a year, and though it is assessed as open space, the island was recently valued at eight million dollars; furthermore, government officials have been eyeing it greedily for public use, while environmentalists fervently hope it will some day become a wildlife sanctuary. Even without Gardiners Island Robert Gardiner would have substantial holdings; in fact, he may be New York’s biggest landowner. He personally owns a twenty-million-dollar shopping plaza in Islip (which he intends to turn into a mall, with a statue of Lion Gardiner in the center); five thousand acres on the south shore, including another Gardiner manor in Bay Shore; the twenty-five-room “summer White House”; and a five-acre marina in East Hampton.