“So what you’re saying then,” said Miss Bronwen, “is that Santa Claus is a ghost?”
“Maybe not a ghost,” I replied, “But certainly what would be called an agent of the supernatural.”
“Oh,” she answered, stifling a laugh, “that makes all the difference in the world.”
“Well yeah,” I continued as we walked down the lane in the snow, coming up upon the sprawling carriage house of Chelsea Manor, “at the very least, a superhero.”
“You mean like Batman and Robin?”” she asked.
“Well no, more like Superman, Spiderman, or Wonder Woman, not to neglect your fair sex.”
“Oh but of course”, she laughed, “There’s no reason why men should get all the action.”
“What all those folks have, like Santa Claus, is super human powers. Santa Claus can obviously either move at super sonic speeds, or at least his reindeer can, and Santa is able to survive moving at those speeds, which should in reality tear him apart.” We continued past the carriage house and made the curve and there was the sprawling hulk of Chelsea lying beyond. “There it is, I puffed, feeling my nose running a bit from the cold.”
“Oh you’re right,” she replied, “it certainly is very pretty in the snow.”
And it is. As Gold Coast mansions go, Chelsea isn’t the largest, nor the most interesting design. Nor is it in the most picturesque location. Chelsea was first and foremost a home.
Alexandra Emery married Benjamin Moore in 1920, and for their honeymoon they made a visit to China. Mrs. Moore seems to have first envisioned the design for Chelsea whilst floating on a houseboat, inspired by a black and white farmhouse she saw framed by the Yangtze River. When they returned to the states, she worked with noted architect, William Adams Delano. What she wanted was a relatively simple design for the time and for the area, at least on the outside. The building is made of concrete block, painted stark white, an undulating black tiled roof, turrets, porthole windows along the front of the house, a moat enclosing two sides, stairs which form a bridge across, a long white wall which leads to another turret which overlooks the pond, a moon gate and some very lovely gardens. Inside the house was eclectic but of the highest taste – black slate floors, carved doors from a Chinese summer palace, paneling from the breakfast room of the Duke of Wellington, rosewood, mohagany and Biedermeier wood furniture, leather screens, Delft and Chinese porcelain, all bearing the stamp of Mrs. Moore’s refined taste, and most gathered on her trips abroad. Most impressive perhaps is the mural of life on the Mediterranean, which took about a year to complete and was shipped to Chelsea from Europe.
The best way to approach Chelsea is from the lawn, rather than the drive, so we cut across the trees to approach from there. Behind us the long wall which shields the view of the carriage house acting almost as a reflection of the main house. We tromped through the snow, and were only slightly disappointed to reach the front door only to find that there were no tours today. Now owned by Nassau county, a lot of effort is made to ensure that the house serves the public, and is open whenever possible for events and for viewing. We cut through the gate in the wall and found ourselves along the side of the house, the pond to our left, frozen and glistening. It is the side and the back view of Chelsea which is most picturesque, the moat, frozen over today, lined with stone and still kept amazingly clean, as it was in the days when Mrs. Moore raised a family here
Benjamin Moore died in 1938, and Alexandra married Robert McKay in 1956. There she raised her three children, and there was plenty of room for that. In addition to the large drawing room, dining room, loggia and library, there was a wing for the children, guest rooms, both night and day nurseries, a room for the tutor, classroom and of course, quarters for the staff. All this was set on 100 acres of park, which is now part of Muttontown Preserve in East Norwich, joining two other former estates.
“So aside from it being pretty in the snow,” Miss Bronwen asked, “why exactly are we here? What creepy story are you going to tell me about this place?”
“As far as I know” I answered, “there are no creepy stories. They all seemed to have led a very peaceful life here. I spoke to a gentleman who has a photography studio in the house, and he said he expected that it might be a bit frightening when he would find himself here alone. But he said there are no footsteps, no creaking or slamming doors, no rattling chains. It’s just quiet. He did tell me a story about when he grew up in Russia if you’d like to hear it?”
“Yes, please,” she answered without looking up.
“Well it seems he was at his grandmother’s house, which was rather old, and being a little boy, he was banging on the wall of the bedroom and yelling, making all kinds of noise. And he was alone in the house at the time, something he was quite certain of. Anyway, suddenly there came a banging from the other side of the wall, like someone banging back, telling him to be quiet.”
“Now that’s rather frightening,” she said, as she brushed the snow from the park bench over looking the pond.
“Aye,” I said. “Then the banging quit, and through the door came an old woman, who I suppose glared at him before disappearing.”
Miss Bronwen laughed, “Crabby old ghost woman. I imagine that kept him quiet for a while.”
“Yeah, he didn’t seem to excited for a repeat performance.
And so we wandered a while through the gardens, the evergreens heavy with snow. We crossed the vast expanse of lawn towards the back gates. The snow was deeper and it was a bit of a trudge, and with Miss Bronwen’s lack of height, I suspected that it was a bit colder and more of an effort.
“And why exactly are we going back here, she asked, “for the view? I mean I’m okay, I just don’t want you to have a heart attack or anything and then expect me to drag you back to the car.”
“I’ll be just fine,” I replied, “besides, I have an early Christmas present for you.”
We reached the gates and I made her close her eyes and led her by her hand through them, then positioned her at just the right angle to view the house through the iron hearts formed into the gate.
“There, now you can open your eyes,” I said.
“Awwww, how sweet,” she said, smiling. Then she looked over to me, her eyebrow arching. “Hey, what about the iPod I was promised. I’ve been a good girl I have!”
“I’m sure you have,” I answered. “But wouldn’t you rather have a gift like this, from the heart?”
“You know I would,” she answered, her smile broadening, and she took my hand as we started back across the lawn, wandering a bit before finally finding our way back to the park bench.
The bench was still a bit snowy, and so I spread my cloak on it for us to sit on, and she turned towards me.
“So why I chose this place today … I began,” but she interrupted.
“Is because this estate is named Chelsea, after his great, great grandfather’s estate which was on the then somewhat rural island of Manhattan, which was also called Chelsea. In fact some of the flagstones over there are from the streets of what is now the Chelsea district. This ancient forebear of Bennie was one Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, otherwise known as ˜Twas the Night Before Christmas.’ She beamed with pride.”
“You know er, Moore about this place than I thought,” I said.
She winced, “Well duh? I don’t live that far from here.”
“And actually it’s thought by many that Moore didn’t actually write the poem,” I continued, “that instead he nicked it from some Scottish bloke. Can you say that? Bloke.”
“Bloke,” she said, giggling.
“No no no, it’s got to sound more gutteral, like you’re throwing up the K in the word. Bloke!”
She tried again and sounded much better, before ending with a retching sound which was a bit over the top, and in my opinion, not very ladylike.
“So it’s not very Gothic though, the whole Night Before Christmas thing,” she went on teasingly, “I have to say, I’m kind of disappointed in you.”
“Well Long Island doesn’t seem to have much in the way of Christmas gothic,” I replied. “Of course in the poem, Santa comes down the chimney. And what you might not have known is that in Victorian times, small boys were forced to become chimney sweeps, which was a very hazardous profession. In addition to the possibility of lung disease, quite often the boys would become stuck, and would often die inside the chimneys.”
“That’s just terrible,” she said, looking outraged.
“And it’s said that frequently the ghosts of babies and other children who died young, would rescue the chimney sweeps,” I continued. “Either by keeping them awake, as it was essential for a child trapped in a chimney to stay awake to avoid asphyxiation, or by even pushing them free again.”
“Okay, so that’s gruesome,” she said, “but still not particularly too Long Island or Christmas. Let’s face it, Christmas just isn’t big on frights.”
“That’s where you are wrong, dear lady,” I countered. “For instance, one of the best known ghost stories of all time, populated by four spooks is set at Christmas.”
“Oh yeah? she asked.
“Yes ma’am. A Christmas Carol. Okay, two of them aren’t too scary, but Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, in particular, is scary as shit.”
“Agreed,” she said. “And I remember he wrote a few Christmas ghost stories I believe?”
“Aye, that’s true, I answered. “It seems Christmas ghost stories are a bit of a tradition in Britain. The BBC even ran a series of them, mainly M.R. James stories some years ago. And then there’s the song, ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time Of the Year.’”
“I agree Andy Williams is frightening,” she said, “but what do you mean?”
“There’ll be parties for hosting Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago”
“Ah, I see,” she said nodding.
“And then there’s the haunted lighthouse, Penfield Reef Light out in Long Island Sound. 1916, three days before Christmas, Fred Jordan, the keeper, leaves for shore, leaving his assistant, Rudy Iten, in charge. The boat capsizes and Jordan drowns. Iten tried to save him but he’s too late. A couple weeks later, Iten first sees Jordan’s ghost, coming down the tower steps in the lighthouse. Several later keepers saw his ghost later on. And then in the early forties, two kids were fishing near the lighthouse when their boat capsized, and they were pulled to safety by a pale faced man, whom they later identified as Fred Jordan. Jordan has also rescued a couple others as well out there,” I sat back, satisfied.
“Ah, but Penfield is off Connecticut,” she smiled. “Do try again, please.”
“December 26, 1738, calm seas on Long Island Sound, I started again, “the Princess Augusta is at anchor 12 miles off the coast on Long Island Sound, carrying 158 passengers and crew, survivors from the Palatines of Germany, looking for a new life in Philadelphia. Free from religious persecution. The ships casts off, a heavy gale is now coming from the northwest, and the ship begins to break apart. It goes aground near Sandy Point, with great loss of life. Some say the people on shore acted valiantly to save the injured, others that they intentionally lit fires to draw it to the rocks. And that once it was there, they plundered it like birds of prey. And it’s said between Christmas and New Year’s day, the ghost of the ship is still haunting those waters.”
She shook her head, “Sandy Point is off of Block Island, which is part of Rhode Island.”
I leaned back against the park bench. The sun was starting to go down and it was getting colder. We would have to go back soon. I decided to try one more.
“Billy Joel still spends part of his time on Centre Island, just past where you live around Oyster Bay I believe?”
She nodded in the affirmative.
“It’s Christmas, he could go off the wagon and come careening through your living room at any time on his way to pick up a pizza,” I said, alluding to one of his more infamous nocturnal drives. “Or at the very least, rearrange your landscaping.”
She laughed, “Or more likely, he’ll sue you for writing that.”
“That’s true,” I answered. “So there’s nothing left to do but end this in a cheesy fashion.”
“Merry Christmas to all?” she asked.
“And to all a good night,” I replied.
* * * * *
“He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol