Saratoga Springs, New York

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Photographs by ROBERT BENSON

 
 

GENE SMITH VISITS—and revisits—a place resonant with significance personal, local, and national, a place that tempered the Gilded Age’s ostentation with a boisterous egalitarianism, a place where King George’s hopes for an end to his colonial rebellion came to grief, a place where generations of Americans sought healing waters or instantaneous wealth, a place that has gone through bitter times yet still draws the attention of the world every August and offers superb natural beauty (along with an exuberant architectural legacy) the year round, a place very much aware that its present fortunes depend largely on the imaginative exploitation of its past

GEORGE WASHINGTON wanted to buy land for a summer place here. But then, he had good reason to think well of Saratoga.

Someone once said every man’s life is worth a book. I wrote mine in 1987. In its early pages I told of my 1948 Adirondack Mountains busboy employment. “The hotel was magnificent, a relic of the General Grant and Second Empire style of the last century fast going to seed, its doom written in the stars by the airplane and the Caribbean or European vacation. It was the sunset, the last breath, of upper-middle-class America with wardrobe trunks. The money was awful. I remember one man, literate, clubbish, a gentleman’s ‘C’ at Princeton in 1928, I am sure.” For six weeks I set and cleared the table for him and the daughter and wife. In knickers and cleats off the golf links he talked with me about the year’s big book, Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions . He said when he left he would take care of me. He took care of me all right. A firm handshake and he was gone. Then there was the Quarter Woman. At luncheon busboys used to shove the relish trays at guests. The Quarter Woman each day searched through her purse for a coin of that denomination, found one, and gingerly dropped it onto the tray. “Thank you, madam, thank you.”

 

But everything was worthwhile, I wrote, because on a direct line home for me and my pal Bob, whose destiny it was to abandon busboydom in favor of becoming a doctor, lay Saratoga Springs. “August at Saratoga, where the great and legendary hotels were still standing, with those endless verandas and columns and noble trees. All gone now, of course. August at Saratoga, where you could stand in the park where the saddling enclosure was and be ten feet away from the finest horses and the best jockeys in the land, in the world. We saw the brilliant silks and shining boots, the jocks spinning and slapping their whips, the trainers talking with handsome grey-haired owners in summer suits with elegantly cased field glasses negligently dangling. We saw Gallorette saddled, maybe the best filly of the decade, lightning. But so graceful, so lean, so sweetly feminine, that head so long and delicate; we saw her dance around when they put the bit in, she danced for us in that long-ago August under Saratoga’s trees. We blew away half of the money earned by The Quarter Woman’s stipends and unadded to when Mr. The Young Lions stiffed me. It didn’t matter.”

The place isn’t just horses, never was. Iroquois and Mohawks took note of the reputed healing power of shale- and limestone-trapped waters geysering from glacial-era springs, and as early as 1535 the French navigator-explorer Jacques Cartier was told of miraculous liquids. Charged waters still come up from under pavilions, open Ionic-columned temples, cupolas with golden urns and cherubs: Columbian Spring, Hayes Springs, Island Spouter, Hathorn, Peerless, Governor, others. Enthusiasts used to ascribe particular curative capabilities to each: One aided skin disorders, another inflammation of the eyes; a third alleviated nervous conditions; the next took care of heart problems. (What can I tell you; some seem to me slightly less horrid to the taste and nose than others.) George Washington was so taken with High Rock Spring’s output that he wanted to buy land for a summer residence.

But then Washington had good reason to think well of Saratoga. The fall of 1777 fight there between the British under “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and the colonists under Horatio Gates has come to be recognized as one of the decisive battles of history, ranking with Marathon, Hastings, and Blenheim.

In the days that followed the battle and the eventual winning of American independence, it was the waters that drew people to Saratoga, modest tavern-lodging places rising to accommodate them, with wolves, panthers, bears, and rattlesnake dens nearby. Today the waters aren’t so much in the forefront of visitors’ minds, save for people headed to the Saratoga Spa State Park just south of the center of town, where great arched and colonnaded bathhouses offer bubbling immersion and imbibing opportunities. There is some irony available to those regarding these last traces of the largely vanished urge to take the waters. (But who can say? Perhaps alternative-medicine gurus will tomorrow embrace the concept.) The guiding spirit of the Hall of Springs was Dr. Simon Baruch, late surgeon of the Confederate Army, and the buildings were erected in 1935 under the direction of his son, the adviser to Presidents and financier Bernard M. Baruch. Father and son were Jews, and a twenty-minute walk from here anti-Semitism as America knew it for nearly a century was invented.