It’s Jay Gould was a New York business man, reviled as a Jew by those who were of an anti-semite bent, but was a Scottish/English mongrel as I recall. He was one of the main stockholders of the Erie Railroad, and an associate of the infamous Boss Tweed.
“Just who was Boss Tweed?” Miss Bronwen asked.
“Corrupt New York politician of the time, so crooked he had to screw his pants on in the morning. Convicted, sent to prison, released, arrested again, thrown in prison, escaped, recaptured and later died in prison. Pneumonia,” I replied.
She handed the large, plastic shopping bag to me as we strolled across the lawn of Hempstead House and Castlegould, heading for the center of the expansive field of grass which separates the two buildings.
“Anyway, Gould had this brilliant idea. He and James Fisk, another lovable character started buying up gold, cornering the market, which in turn drove up the price of wheat. At that point the wheat futures were dismally low, so the western farmers were holding onto their crops. But once the prices went up due to Gould and Fisk’s manipulation, they began shipping it east, on, you guessed it, the railroads, which is where Gould made his fortune. Gould had a reputation as the dirtiest of the 19th century American robber barons. He invented the practice of declaring bankruptcy as a strategy, ala Donald Trump. The New York City press alleged that Gould’s dealings in the tanning business drove his partner Charles Leupp to suicide, which may or may not be true. After being forced out of the Erie Railroad, Gould started, in 1879, to build up a system of railroads in the midwest by gaining control of four western railroads, including the Union Pacific and the Missouri Pacific Railroad. In 1880, he was in control of 10,000 miles of railway, about one-ninth of the length of rail in the United States at that time, and, by 1882, he had controlling interest in 15% of the country’s tracks.”
“And this was his estate?” Miss B asked.
“Nope,” I continued to bore her, “Gould also obtained a controlling interest in the Western Union telegraph company, and, after 1881, in the elevated railways in New York City. Ultimately, he was connected with many of the largest railway financial operations in the United States from 1868-1888. During the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886 he hired strikebreakers. According to labor unionists, he said at the time, ‘I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.'”
“Gould was pretty much universally despised, considered at one time the most hated man in America, and eventually ended up ostracized by proper society, as well as most other levels of society in the country as well. At any rate, he spent most of the last ten years of his life coughing up blood and dying a horrible death from tuberculosis.”
“You enjoyed that part way too much to be considered healthy,” Miss Bronwen said, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand and scanning first to the stables, now known as Castlegould, and the main house, the fabled Hempstead House.
“Well there really isn’t any horror to this tale except for that I’m afraid. Scandal, yes, the golden age of Long Island of course, but nothing really gruesome or macabre,” I said, sounding a bit dejected at the thought. “And it’s a pity, as it’s a wonderful spot for it.”
She grunted her assent and held out her hand, I gave her the large bag which she had insisted I carry. I was expecting a picnic, and quite eagerly as I hadn’t eaten yet that day, so you can imagine my surprise when she hauled out what looked to be a mass of paper and wood. She knelt on the ground and worked intently, the tip of her little pink tongue poking out now and then in concentration, and before long I understood what it was. Suddenly she sprang to her feet, holding the device out in front of her, shoving it nearly in my face.
“A kite!” she exclaimed brightly.
I eyed it warily. I had never seen one quite of this design, and to be honest doubted greatly that it would get off the ground, and said as much.
She looked at me for a moment, looked at the kite then thrust it back in my face.
“Take it,” she said, “and run.”
I took the kite from her hands, I had little other choice. It was take it or wear it.
“I don’t run,” I replied, unless I’m being chased by something big and mean.
“Run,” she repeated again, this time more forcibly.
“Woman, I do not run for any woman. If you want to give this device some lift, I suggest you run with it yourself.”
She looked me in the eye. There was no mistaking the look. It wasn’t hurt, disappointment or sadness. It was menace. Her eyes locked on mine and I detected the glint of steel there, and once more she said, this time cooly and calmly, “Run.”
I’m no idiot. I ran. I felt like an idiot, clumsy and awkward. I had forgotten the technique, and it took a few attempts before I finally caught a breeze and the damn thing shot up, much to her delight, as her squeals and giggles attested to.
“You didn’t think it would work!” she laughed.
“I didn’t,” I replied.
“I made it myself, my own design,” she said proudly.
“I thought as much.”
“Yes Miss Bronwen, I scoffed”
“I told you so, I told you so,” she said in a sing-song fashion.
“You told me so,” I sighed.
“Nanner nanner,” she said and let out some more string. The breeze was stiff and the kite sailed higher. “Go on with your story, I’m listening.”
I watched the kite sail higher, still amazed it actually flew. But I shouldn’t be. Miss Bronwen is smarter than me. Smarter than about anyone I know, with the exception of a person or two that might hit genius status. But of course, they are cracked as an old teacup, lack anything resembling common sense, and are a menace to society, and probably themselves as well.
“So why the kite?” I asked.
“Duh,” she replied affectionately. “As you no doubt know, one of the visitors who according to legend, on this very ground, nay, this very spot, taught the Guggenheim children to fly a kite, was Orville Wright.”
“This very spot?” I queried.
“Aye,” she rejoined. “This very spot.”
I looked at her skeptically, but one learns not to argue with Miss Bronwen.
“Alright, where was … no, this very spot?” I asked again. “How do you know …”
Her eyes darted towards me. “Are you scoffing again?”
“No, it’s just,” I looked around for a marker and saw none, and decided some things are best left unknown.
“Okay, so old man Gould had six children, one of whom was Howard. Now Howard doesn’t seem to be remembered for a whole lot, other than this house and his wives. Specifically his first wife.”
“Howard Gould, a yachtsman and globetrotting chum of European royalty who developed a weakness for actresses, married Katherine Clemmons, a.k.a. Viola Dayan in 1895. Miss Clemmons was an actress who had hitched a ride on William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s wagon, as an actress in his traveling show. And at some point, Buffalo Bill moved her into the bunkhouse with him. Cody and Clemmons had been together twelve years, but had split the sheets just prior. Cody had been the lady’s prime supporter, paying for her to attend the Boston School of Oratory when she was still an unknown, as well as bankrolling her in two stage flops – The Lady of Venice and Mrs. Dascot. At the time, having two flops in two seasons was considered extraordinary, and it was said that the stage was simply too expensive a hobby for Cody to continue to finance. It appears she dumped the old cowpoke, bemoaning that he had done nothing for her during her recent Fifth Avenue engagement short of picking up her $40,000 tab for assorted expenses. At any rate, people whispered that Buffalo Bill’s spiraling descent into illness, alcoholism and death was hurried along, if not suffered mainly at his despair of Katherine leaving him for Howard Gould. As Buffalo Bill was an American legend and icon, this did not endear Miss Clemmons to the general public.”
“One can imagine,” Miss Bronwen replied, pulling the kite into a perilous dive before letting the string out once more and squealing again as it climbed into the heavens.
“So anyway, the happy couple went through with their nuptials and set off for Europe aboard Howard’s yacht. Not a small boat, the Niagra was a steel, twin screw bark rigged vessel, 282 feet long and with a gross tonnage of 1,443.”
“Quite gross,” she said.
“Absolutely. And when fully decked out, she had a crew of 72. Something of a mutiny in 1905, as they were being served too much salt fish and boiled potatoes it seems, but at the time of the honeymoon, all was as right as rain.”
I continued, “Anyway, they toured Europe for some time, hobnobbing with royalty and the rich and famous, and somewhere along the line Mrs. Gould developed a fondness for castles. So when they returned to the states, she batted her eyes at Mr. Gould and he bought this land at Sands Point and built her a castle, which is the stables over yonder.”
“Howard grew up in Lyndhurst, the great gothic pile on the Hudson river over by Tarrytown, so he was no stranger to castles. This one was modelled after Kilkenny Castle in Ireland, though Howie scaled back the plans as originally proposed. Which might have been a mistake in hindsight. Mrs. Gould didn’t like scaling back. Anyway, she took look at the finished product when it was finished in 1904 and proclaimed ‘blech. It will make a nice stable, don’t you think?’ Just not up to her concept of snuff.”
“Well,” Miss Bronwen said, reeling in the kite. “It is a bit gauche, you have to admit. It looks like a stage set.”
“A bit over the top. yes. So they decided to try again. This time with a design based on an English Tudor mansion …”
“As opposed to a four door mansion,” Miss Bronwen smirked, folding the kite and putting it away. She handed me the bag and pointed towards Hempstead House. “Walk.”
I groaned, took the bag and walked with her toward the house. “But by then things were skidding out of control. Rumor has it that even though Mrs. Gould didn’t care for Castlegould, Mrs. Gould was more than fond of the architect. According to the story, she made him into her own little stable boy and mounted him like Roy Rogers mounted Trigger. Mr. Gould obviously didn’t care for this once he got wind of it. So he files for a separation, there’s a squabble, then other lovers start popping out of the medieval styled and very expensive woodwork. Pretty soon you have a full blown scandal, complete with feature articles in the New York Times. Back issues of the Port Washington News reports private detectives, charges of bigamy, infidelity, and according to one story, Katherine finally making off with the architect himself.”
“But still, Howard kept on building the manor house, at a cost of over a million bucks, which was unheard of at the time. As you entered the foyer, organ music played, and the sound didn’t come from the oaken pipes which were strictly for decoration, but was actually pumped through the floor. High above you hung a gothic chandelier. Medieval tapestries hung on the wall, oriental carpets on the floor. The sunken Palm Court once contained 150 species of rare orchids and other plants. An aviary housed exotic birds in ornate cages among the flowers. The walnut-paneled library was copied from the palace of King James I; relief portraits of literary figures still decorate the plaster ceiling. The billiard room featured a gold leaf ceiling, hand-tooled leather wall coverings, and carved oak woodwork from a 17th century Spanish palace.”
“But the problems with the trial piled up. Way too much information was put out in the papers, much to Howard’s chagrin. Two maids of the Bellevue Stratford hotel testified that they had seen a man, one Dustin Farnum coming from her suite at the hotel. Gould started refusing to pay her bills, and she bemoaned in court that it was hard to dress well in Manhattan on $40,000 a year.”
“I run into that problem all the time,” Miss Bronwen said. We looked up at the entry to Hempstead House. “What are all these faces about?”
I gazed up with her at all the faces gazing down on us. “I don’t know, I haven’t been able to find out. They go all along up there, and are scattered hither and thither all over the place. The strangest ones are over the entrance, weird monks, serpents and a very strange figure of death on the other side. Whoever designed these, I’m guessing, wasn’t a very happy person.”
“I’d say the product of a rather grotesque imagination,” she said inspecting the little figures, walking around the porch, engrossed in it all.
“Eventually the divorce was finalized, 1909 I believe. Howard Gould didn’t stick around long at Hempstead House though, and you have to wonder how much being America’s most famous cuckold had to do with it, and he ultimately sold the estate to Daniel Guggenheim in 1917 and set off for the continent. He had put over a million dollars into its construction, who knows how much furnishing it, and sold the whole kit and kaboodle for just over half a million,” I said as I led her towards the back, where the view over the lawn, which was once a formal garden, at a spectacular view of Long Island Sound.
“How pretty!” she said, a smile breaking out across her face.
“Quite so. And by all accounts, the Guggenheims were quite happy here. They kept on decorating, their touches included stained and leaded glass, red velvet draperies, Flemish tapestries, and artwork by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Rubens. In its prime, the estate employed 17 house servants, numerous farmers and groundskeepers, a golf pro, tennis pro, and a riding master. And of course there was all of Gould’s little touches still around. TIffany-style glass ceilings, a library which was a replica of the Bromley room at South Kensington Museum, and the great hall was in the style of a railroad station in Paris. In addition, Gould had built a bowling alley, guestrooms and an underground swimming pool for his guests. And we passed the stone carriage house which still contains a guilded carriage, now decaying on wooden blocks. Gould threw down another million bucks on a casino which stood near the water – where it can be assumed he found a bit of luck. That’s long gone now of course.”
“So the place did finally bring happiness? Finally, you’ve come across a happy ending,” she said as she smiled and leaned over the balcony at the far end of the yard, looking down towards the beach. “I could get used to this place I believe.”
“It was party central during the jazz age. Guggenheim who had a bit of luck in copper mining, re-christened the place Hempstead House, trying to purge the estate of the Gould baggage. In addition to Orville of the Wright brothers, the guest list included Lindbergh, and Herbert Hoover,” I said as I leaned over the balustrade as well, far out and spit, watching it fall to the sand far below.
“You’re really quite disturbing you know? What about Fitzgerald? I heard he was catting about the whole area at one time,” she turned and started back towards the house. “You didn’t spit out here too did you?”
I ignored the question. “Oh yes. I’ve heard F. Scott and Zelda both barfed all over the shrubbery on several occasions. The house he used as a model for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s house, Land’s End is just down the beach there, slowly falling into ruin the last time I saw it. About $24 million and described as a real fixer-upper. Beacon’s Towers, the inspiration for Gatsby’s House, is just a few minutes down the road,” I said as I hurried to catch up with her.
“Say, we could go down into the preserve. There’s a nice little lake there with trails. Quite private,” I waggled my eyebrows suggestively.
“That could be quite nice,” she answered. “You can make your move, I’ll throttle you, weight you down with stones and dump your body in the deepest part,” she smiled sweetly and I swooned. You’ve gotta love a woman who issues death threats when you make a pass at her. We started down the trail and into the forest.
“Guggenheim lived here with his wife, Florence, until his death in 1930. Florence Guggenheim opened Hempstead House to child refugees from the Battle of Britain in 1940, and its high tower served as a 24-hour local aircraft warning observation post during World War II. After the war, the U.S. Naval Training Devices Center used the property to design and test electronic equipment used for training fleet personnel in the use of new weapons. In 1971, when Daniel Guggenheim’s son Harry kicked the bucket, the estate, including Harry’s home Falaise, was turned over to Nassau County as a museum. Since then it’s opened on occasion for tours, and has been the setting for a few movies. Parts of the Godfather was filmed here. Pacino in The Scent of a Woman. That truly awful version of Great Expections with Gwyneth Paltrow naked all over the place. And oddly enough, Malcolm X.”
“Malcolm X?” she asked. I doubt that there was a ever black person here back in the day who wasn’t wearing a white jacket and carrying a drink or hors d’oevre tray. Or perhaps, playing the trumpet. And a naked Gwyneth? I feel so dirty now.”
“While you’re feeling dirty …” I said and moved closer.
“I believe we’re about to have a murder to add to the story of Hempstead House,” Miss Bronwen said with a smile, pulling the straight razor from her purse …