April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
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.
The best times were the Christmas holidays, when all the family gathered to eat the great Christmas dinner, with its turkey and suckling pig that fathers and uncles vied with each other to carve. After lunch we would go through the pantry, admiring its archaic wooden icebox, to the huge kitchen to congratulate Bridget, the cook, a merry miniature of a woman with a lovely, lilting brogue.
Following this heavy meal we were sent upstairs to nap. The stairs themselves were in Stygian blackness, and we had to feel our way along. This caused much talk among our parents of the dangers of falling, but we children got a certain thrill from these dark, mysterious stairs. The second-floor hall surrounding the stairwell, which gave into the bedrooms, was equally dark and was hung with pictures of vaguely threatening ancestors. It took a bit of courage to cross this hall to the bathroom during the night, especially when I looked at an ancestress known as “The Lady with Eyes.” Her eyes followed me malevolently as I crept along guided only by a tallow light flickering on a table. (This had been placed there years ago for Uncle Quentin—the other ghost in the house—who as a small boy had been afraid of the dark. He was later killed in World War I.) Occasionally I had a nightmare in which that light slowly flickered out, leaving me in the dark hall alone!
There are ten bedrooms on that floor, counting Grandfather’s dressing room, and as a child I slept in every one except, of course, the master bedroom. Each had a distinct character and history, as did the big bathroom that for a long time had been the only one in the house. Its huge antique tub stood magnificently on a pedestal, and the old-fashioned washbowls still sat in various spots, unused since Grandfather’s day.
The ancient facilities of the house, commonplace to our parents, were a constant source of fascination. We discovered the speaking tubes, stuffed up with paper and no longer in use. We soon corrected that and for a day or two amused ourselves by exchanging messages from distant parts of the house until the tubes were stopped up again by a grandmotherly ukase. Then we found the dumbwaiter, used primarily to transport wood to the fireplaces on the upper floors. For us it turned out to be a delightful mode of transportation up and down, until we got a bad fright when cousin Quentin lost control of the pulleys and crashed to the cellar, shaking the whole house and thereby producing another ukase.
And best of all, at the end of a dark hall on the third floor, was the gun room. Here—amid shelves of books about exploration and big game and a large collection of guns—Grandfather came on strongest of all, especially at his desk, where he once looked out the window over a broad panorama of Long Island Sound. It was very much his room. Grandmother—and even our parents—almost never went up there, and our ghost very kindly did not object to our playing with his weapons. The prize one for use was a wonderful rusting six-shooter, and we played the sort of games that nowadays would not meet with general approval. I once came to grief acting out the part of a Chinese general. My prop was an old sword—possibly the one Grandfather used as a Rough Rider. Its scabbard had rotted, and when I drew it to charge, I nearly cut off my fingers.
We did not mind which bedroom was assigned to us, but our parents did. They complained of the hardness of the mattresses, especially that of one bed, which for its stoniness was known as “Pharaoh’s Heart.” But we could hot tell the difference. I felt Grandfather particularly haunted two of the rooms. One was the bedroom in the southwest corner where he died, which had a bedspread designed as an American flag. So strongly did I sense his presence that I once had a conversation with him there in which I asked him to help me be worthy of him. He never answered, but I thought he might be listening. The other room was his small dressing room on the north side, where the wind, whistling eerily in the winter night, made it easy for spirits to return.
Oddly enough, I never felt his presence in the master bedroom. This was so much Grandmother’s domain, with Irish Mary, the upstairs maid, hovering in the background. We would go in there only occasionally for a brief levee, when she would receive us after breakfast, sitting up in the massive double bed.
The largest room in the house, the North Room, was closed off and absolutely forbidden to us except on holidays. Grandfather had built this room to hold his game trophies and various presents from potentates all over the world, and to serve as a family feast room. We made the most of the rare occasions when we were allowed in. It was the most fascinating room of all, with its skins of lions and other beasts, two great bison heads over the fireplaces, and a pair of huge, splendid elephant tusks given him by the Emperor of Ethiopia. The ceiling was twenty feet high, and I remember the room as very cold, so that much of the time we huddled in front of a roaring fire in its wide fireplace. Once a year a tall Christmas tree was brought in, and after Christmas lunch the whole family would gather to collect their spoils. To me the most evocative thing in the room today is the Rough Rider’s hat, thrown casually over the horns of an elk.
I haven’t said anything about nostalgia or the sadness of his loss, but of course we all felt that. I always missed the grandfather I never really had. There is a picture of him beaming down on me as he held his latest grandchild in his arms [see page 73], but I was still far too young to know he was about to leave me. I used to feel saddest about this on the porch in the evening, sitting in an old rocking chair as he must have done, looking down over the broad fields toward the woods, listening to the katydids.
For his presence was almost as strong outside the house as in it. Outside the North Room we played on the cannon from the Spanish-American War, then tramped through the autumn leaves to the garage. This was the domain of Grandfather’s genial black coachman, Charlie Lee. He was Clara’s husband, and he now drove Grandmother’s limousine for her trips to church and her other infrequent sallies away from Sagamore Hill.
I shall never forget the delights of Grandfather’s farm, with its fruits and chickens and cows, to say nothing of the wonderful old barn where, burrowing through the hay, he used to play hide-and-go-seek with his children, just as our fathers did with us.
The fields were perfect for playing, and my father and uncles led us in the same strenuous games Grandfather had played with them. To work off a big meal, there was “shinny”—ground hockey, well named for the many blows borne by the shins. I remember a sort of blindman’s buff we called “Still Pond No More Moving.” One field was reserved for rifle practice, and all of us male children were taken there by our fathers to learn to shoot, just as their father had taught them.
Farther afield were other holiday pastimes of Grandfather’s—the point-to-point walk, the paper-chase, and the run to the seashore down Cooper’s Bluff. We were left in freedom in the lovely woods surrounding Sagamore, just made for children. Grandmother never ventured far, preferring the rose arbor, where she cut a Victorian figure, dressed in white chiffon, basket in hand, and accompanied by her aged, nasty-tempered little dog, Shady.
And then there was the beach. We walked down an overgrown path, passing through an orchard gone to seed—the “Fairy Apple Orchard”—where we could still see little gardens laid out by our parents when they were our age. Before we got to the beach, we passed a long, somewhat smelly salt-water creek, where we used to roll in the mud and chase fiddler crabs. We could also dig clams on the beach, or more exciting, seine for shiners, flounders, and eels. And we knew the joys of an oldfashioned picnic just as Grandfather had loved it—a nice bonfire, steak, and potatoes roasting in the coals, with plenty of sandwiches thrown in and a little sand in everything. At nighttime Grandfather used to tell ghost stories. My father inherited the talent, building up suspense by the tone of his voice, which grew lower and more ominous as the story reached its climax, until we all shivered in excitement and not a little fear. On those nights a susceptible younger sister would have nightmares, and Father would be reprimanded by Mother, as his father must have been before him—with just as little effect.
So, though I passed a youth without grandfathers—my other grandfather died at almost the same time—this was in the physical sense only. Actually my Sagamore Hill grandfather was with us all the time and enlivened our young lives with his gay spirit even after death. We never knew him except as a ghost—but what a merry, vital, and energetic ghost he was. And how much encouragement and strength he left behind to help us face the terrible half century that has passed since his death.