Monday, January 25, 2016

The Man Named After the House: Clermont Livingston, Part 2

When Clermont Livingston inherited Clermont the estate from his father in 1844, it seemed like he was set up to become a country gentleman with a cozy little family life.  Instead of pursuing a public legal career, as the past four generations of Livingston men had done, Clermont snuggled into his childhood home like a warm security blanket.  He married a Livingston cousin named Cornelia that same year, and their first daughter Mary (called "Mamie" by her family) was born the next year in 1845.  A son, John Henry (known as "Johnnie"), followed in 1848.

But that was to be the sum total of his children, and Clermont's marriage was cut short when his wife became ill.  He moved the family for some time to New York City in the hopes of getting better care for her there, but Cornelia died from a "prolonged and painful illness" in 1851.

"Johnnie" and "Mamie"
around 1851 or 1852
The family returned to the Hudson Valley for comfort.  It is during this time that his son John Henry remembered his father as a sort of aloof figure who sat by day reading on his sofa in the shady dining room.  The widower began keeping his detailed farm journal, with almost-daily entries about the temperature, wind direction and speed, even the barometric pressure.  He buried himself in the success of his crops, detailing which did well where, and when the fruit was ready to eat.

Sylvan Cottage, where Clermont's
children were schooled with the
DePeyster children.
They struck up a routine for daily life.  Clermont engaged a teacher for his children and set up a little school for them and their dePeyster cousins.  According to John Henry, the routine was strict.  The children rose early, did their homework by 9am and headed off to school.  The dePeysters "always came late and never did their lessons, but we always had the best of times," he recalled later.

Clermont and his second wife Mary
Somewhere between 1860 and 1862, Clermont found a new partner.  Mary Colden Swartout Livingston had lived next door for years in Arryl House married to his cousin Montgomery Livingston.  But Montgomery had died 1855, and the two seem to have gotten married, although she was still referred to in letters from the children as "Mrs. Swartout."

Johnnie as a teenager,
headed for Columbia University
School ended at the little cottage by the estate's gate not long after Mamie got married in 1864 to none other than her classmate Frederic dePeyster.  Her Oak Hill grandmothers practically swooned with joy that the 19-year-old's husband-to-be was someone she'd known so long and that he was a local who would not move the girl far away.

The next April, already down two students in his school, Mr. Wolf the tutor had to say goodbye to his employer of eight years.  Clermont's oldest son Johnnie was 17 and ready to leave the cozy little cottage school for college at Columbia University.  Before he left, Mr. Wolf wrote a heartfelt letter saying he'd enjoyed working with the children and found Mr. Livingston an "appreciative" employer (we should all be so lucky!).

Believed to be
Catherine Hammersly
Just before Christmas 1865, Clermont had his first granddaughter, also named Mary--but called "May" by the family to distinguish her from the other two Marys.  Three years late in 1868, he got a grandson, whom his daughter dutifully named "Clermont."

Johnnie was married too in November of 1871.  His bride was Catherine Livingston Hammersly.  He went on his honeymoon traveling around Europe in 1872, amusingly at the same time as Mamie and her husband were enjoying an extended European getaway themselves.  Their letters home to "Papa" describe hotels and crossings and adventures.

Catherine Livingston

After all this excitement, loss began to visit the family almost all at once.  Johnnie's wife Catherine died shortly after giving birth to the latest granddaughter in the family (of course named Catherine, after her mother) in 1873.  Then not long after, in 1874, Clermont's oldest granddaughter May died as well, followed by Mamie's husband Frederick that same year. The loss is made especially poignant by 9-year-old May's early attempt at letter-writing, preserved by her grandfather:

January 31st, Saturday [1874]

Dear Grandpapa,

I want to know whether the little creek is open.  How is Pussie and Hannah?  and Sport?  We are going to have Goodhue to dine with us today and Johnnie Pole too.  What are you doing?
Clermont and Mary "May" dePeyster
around 1869 or 1870

How is Ninnie?  How are you and what are they all doing?  We are going to the theatre next Saturday.  I am well.  Clermont is pretty well.  We have a nice time Clermont says to say we play cards and dominos before breakfast with Grandma.  Clermie and I send our love to your and Aunt Annie and Aunt Emily.

Your affect

Only two years later, Mamie died as well, leaving eight-year-old Clermont as the last standing member of the family.  And sometime during all of this, Clermont's wife Mary Swartout died too, leaving Clermont Sr. a widower twice over.

Emily Evans Livingston
And so the Livingston family was left to regroup again.  Clermont Sr. began vacationing in Bar Harbor and at some point remarried a woman whom the family called "Aunt Annie."  He made updates to the family mansion, adding a towering mansard roof.  Johnnie pursued his legal career in New York.  Baby Catherine was sent to her maiden Hammersly aunts, and Clermont the little boy became Uncle Johnnie's charge at some point.

When John Henry married Emily Evans in 1880, something happened to the family dynamic that caused a permanent rift.  There isn't any record of it in Clermont's surviving documents, and descendants are still scouring family histories.

When Johnnie remarried, Clermont changed his will so that the Livingston mansion would go to his granddaughter Catherine, skipping over his son.  The mansion remained Johnnie's for life, but nevertheless he took his daughter, nephew, and new wife to live in Philadelphia for a while--far away from his father and any strife at his childhood home.  The family seems to have come back to the Hudson Valley for somethings--at the very least, they made some stylish new updates to the mansion's main rooms, but the estrangement seems to have been a deep one.  But we don't know why.

What happened that made Clermont Sr. so mad?  Why did he essentially cut off his only son?  Some descendants think it likely that Clermont Sr. wanted to make sure his granddaughter Catherine (a "true" Livingston) would inherit the home, instead of any potential children that Emily might have had.  The Livingston pride in their ancestral family home is not to be underestimated.  There are also some unpleasant suggestions that Clermont disliked his new daughter-in-law intensely and others that his relationship with his son was strained and critical.  None of these can be completely confirmed or denied.  Perhaps if his grandson Clermont had survived, the problem may have been solved differently, but the boy had died suddenly in 1889.

Either way, the intrigue was not put aside when Emily died in 1894 (leaving Johnnie a widower twice over, just like his dad).  Even with her out of the picture, the will continued to dictate that the family's estate would be given to Catherine (who was now going by "Kitty" and spelling her name Katharine).

Clermont passed away in 1895, leaving behind the muddy confusion of inheritance and estate management and all the rest of it.

Two years later, in 1897, twenty-four-year-old Katherine formally sold the mansion back to her father for one dollar "in consideration of love and affection," According to her children, this was "over the objections of her father" so perhaps Johnnie had accepted his father's will after all.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Man Named After the House: Clermont Livingston, part 1

For a long time all I knew about Clermont Livingston was that he was named after the house and that he kept a very detailed garden journal.

Clermont Livingston (pronounced like "Clement")  was the head of Clermont the estate from 1844 when his father died and officially through his own death in 1895--though during the last few decades, the family mansion was largely occupied by his children and their families, while he moved over to neighboring Arryl House.  I have long thought of Clermont through his son's eyes, since at Clermont we focus a great deal on that generation.  But of course he wasn't born old, and he is best connection to our Victorian-era past.

He was the privileged son of a wealthy NY statesman, the inheritor of the lost Steamboat legacy (the monopoly was broken in 1824), and the grandson of a founding father.  There was a lot of family pride.

Clermont in 1796, overlooking the Hudson River
But Clermont grew up to be much more reserved than other Livingston heads of household.  He was the only head of Clermont who never obtained a public office.  Who was this guy?  And why is era of leadership at Clermont the quietest in our records?

Clermont, the boy, was born in 1817 and grew up splitting his time between the Livingston estate on the Hudson River, Albany, and presumably New York City.  By the time he was born, his parents had lost four of his elder siblings, all under the age of five, and two years later in 1919 his teenage sister Mary died as well.  The surviving siblings that Clermont grew up with were:

-Margaret, 9 years his senior
-Elizabeth, 4 years his senior
-Emma, 2 years old, but died in 1828
-Robert E., 3 years younger
-Mary (again), 6 years younger

Betsy Stevens Livingston
was Clermont's mother
When Clermont was 12, his mother Betsy passed away at the age of 49.

At some point his father married Marry C. Broome, perhaps a contentious decision considering that Mary (b. 1810) was actually younger than his oldest daughter Margaret (b. 1808), and there are a few indications of weak relations which I'll mention later.

So Clermont's early tween years were marked by some pretty big upheavals.  Though certainly not uncommon for the time, the death of sister, followed quickly by that of his mother, and then accepting a new step mother couldn't have been easy for a kid.  Nevertheless, a little collection of 9 letters from his bachelor years suggest that Clermont had built some pretty close relationships with friends and family.

In 1835, at age 17 he was corresponding with his brother-in-law Edward Ludlow (Elizabeth's husband) about finding a housekeeper for their New York home, current events, and sharing gossip about neighbors and acquaintances.  He also kept up with his older sister Margaret, but he complained that Elizabeth did not write him directly.  Margaret's letters to her younger brother were newsy and familiar.  She referenced New Year's Day Visiting (interestingly using her sister Mary's first name, but giving the formal and distant title of "Mrs. Livingston" to her step mother).  She lamented that there was not enough snow for sleighing.  She bid her brother write her about their activities in Albany, where their father was a New York State senator.  And she updated him on her day-to-day:  

I have been very busy hunting up little knick nacks for the children's stockings, dressing dolls so Christmas day was a very merry one for the children, during the holidays they do nothing but play, at this moment there is such a noise that I scarcely know what I am writing about...and just now [they] nearly upset the ink stand over this paper..."

He talked about riding steamboats to and from Albany with his younger brother Robert in the summer to make "a few perchase's (sic)."  And cousin Edward Macomb reminded him of a promise Clermont'd made last fall when riding the steamboat up from New York that he'd be groomsman at an upcoming wedding.  Edward assured Clermont that although he did not yet know who the bridesmaids would be, "they will be without doubt very charming."

Clermont's relationship with Edward seems to have been one that was a little less formal than the ones he shared with his sisters.  The reference to "charming ladies" suggests a shared interest in women, and in a letter the next month (in February after the wedding) Edward described a "delightful dinner party at Mrs Gates" where "each gentleman had a fair lady on his right and left..."  While Edward was planning to move to Washington for business, he mused, "I have had many pleasant days at your delightful residence & hope to have many more."  Oh--and by the way, there's another wedding coming up in April, "when I suppose we shall have the pleasure of seeing you again."

Although the year is uncertain, Clermont responded to a "Ned" in February--and it seems possible that it was to Edward Macomb--when he wrote lamenting the news that "Strats" had "been so soon allured by the charms of the fair sex to desert the ranks of the bachelors."  He then wrote a little ditty, expecting his friend to set to music himself.  The slightly ribald poem ended with the lines:

Now on Matrimony's stream he floats
May he in short have his sport
Beneath the shade of the petticoats

And he signed it "Bunderbus."

By far the most jovial letters came from Clermont's friend William Tallmadge.  I can't seem to find anything about this young man, but he seems to be a peer who knew Clermont from their time in Albany, where Clermont's father served in state government.  He may even have been related to contemporary Albany statesman and abolitionist James Tallmadge Jr., but I can't be sure.

Anyway, William was full of jokes, and his letters are tinged with a youthful and good-natured sarcasm.  "This City is as void of news, as Connecticut is of Democrats," he wrote in April of 1838.  He too gossips about the interesting ladies in their acquaintance: "I saw Miss Caroline King yesterday in the street, she continues to look very handsome, and was particularly interesting..."  "Miss Boswick is very well at present." And he signs off his letter of April 27 remembering his care for Clermont's parents and then, inexplicably, "Give my best respect to friend Robert and tell him not to hang himself."

Subsequent letters continue to reference young ladies.  "Miss Skinner has just arrived in town and of course I shall treat her as she ought to be, she will visit our house this evening, and if you were here we might make quite a pleasant party..." he wrote in July of the same year..

The two shared more than just an interest in The Ladies though.  When William took ill in 1840, Clermont's letter revived and comforted him:  "I assure you...I have never received a word from a friend which gratified me so much..."  It seems the friends had made plans for yet another excursion to Saratoga Springs, but Tallmadge's "Billious attack" made him too weak and sick to join his friend.  Even sick, though, William was not without jokes:
Clermont Livingston eventually
grew his own "astonishing whiskers."

How is Mr. Robert, is he flourishing - has he that huge pair of whiskers you were speaking about - if he has, tell him to keep them until I come up.  I have a pair that may astonish the natives in your part of the country.

Clermont's life was not all ladies.  Both Margaret and Tallmadge mention Clermont being busy with his studies (although Margaret follows it up with "dancing in the evening").

Clermont continued to live with his father, at least through 1840; letters to him from his friend Tallmadge were address care of his dad Edward P. Livingston.  But he sometimes stayed with his sister Elizabeth and her husband Edward Ludlow in New York City, where the night life was surely more interesting.  Ludlow's letter to his brother-in-law in 1835 or 1840 (the two years in this timeframe in which December 10th, fell on a Thursday) indicated that he hoped Clermont and younger brother Robert would come stay with them again that winter.  And later in 1841, Clermont spent the Christmas holidays there again.

When Clermont's father died at the end of 1843, it was time to settle down.  Edward P. Livingston died intestate, making the process of sorting the estate decidedly more complex.  There seems to have been some confusion about what belonged to the step mother Mary Broome and what should have gone to Clermont's younger sister Mary.  Although the Widow Mary had taken a sizable inventory of household goods, little or nothing was left for the 21-year-old daughter.  If the relationship with the Livingston children's step mother had been strained before, having to engage the legal consultation of cousin Livingston Livingston (no, it's not a typo.  That's really his name) three months later probably didn't help matters.  For the record, cousin Livingston said Mary the Widow should have given a lot more to Mary the daughter.

In 1844, it seems that Clermont's youth was done, and it was time to settle down and become a gentleman farmer.  He got married that year to his pretty cousin Cornelia Livingston from Oak Hill and got down to the business of running the estate.  He saved his family estate from the Anti-Rent mess by selling off some land.  He saw to it his little sister Mary was taken care of (since her step mother was gone by now), and became the de facto head of the Livingston family at Clermont.

But of course, there was much still ahead of him.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Black Walnut Tree: Trying to Find the History of a Tree

If you've been here, you've seen; you just might not realize it.  Clermont is home to one of the oldest black walnut trees in New York State.  Depending on who you talk to you, it might be the oldest, the second oldest, or possibly the third oldest.

Either way--it's old!  It's been estimated that it's somewhere around 240 years old, which means it was a little sapling when Margaret Beekman Livingston was watching her house get rebuilt in 1778.

This monster of a tree reaches its craggy branches up over the towering roof of the mansion's South Wing, offering shade in the summer, and dropping great big green-coated walnuts down from the sky every fall (Honoria used to wear a hard hat near there when she got older to protect her head!).  It is natural landmark and one of the first things you see when you come walking down the Lilac Walk on your way to the house.  It's a bit of a natural wonder to stand at the foot of it and realize how very big it really is.

We love this tree.  But it's a living thing, and well--it's getting old.  Almost every year, we have the tree examined by arborists to ensure that it is still safe, and we know that it's life is running out.  The time will come when the tree will have to be removed for safety's sake.

Thinking about this made me think about looking for the tree in historic documentation.  What history can you find about a tree?

The easiest image to spot was this one from around 1908 to 1910.  Alice photographed her newly-turned patch of dirt that would become the Spring Garden, and there is our old friend the Black Walnut.  Even over 100 years ago, it is tall enough to tower above 5 stories of house (since it sits on level with the basement).

Some 30 years earlier around 1775, the second-story addition to Clermont's south wing had not yet been built.  The walnut tree stands proudly shading the bedrooms below it while someone--maybe John Henry?--relaxes on a bench overlooking the river.

Now we are treading into territory where photographs are few.  The only photo I have of the house in the 1860s id from the wrong angle, and you can't see the tree at all.  Nevertheless, if you're will to trust a drawing, there is an image from around the same time that may show the black walnut, tall and proud off the southern corner of the house.  In the 19th century, it was clearly old, but not quite the Grande Dame that it is now.

My last possible "spotting" is from the 1790s.  A drawing by a visitor captured a clutch of trees off the mansion's south corner.  Could one of these possibly be our Black Walnut tree?  Was it once surrounded by other walnuts waving in the breeze and dropping little bombs on passers-by every fall?  I like to think so.

So there you have it--the history of a tree.  There is something a little comforting in following the history of our tree friend--even if we know that we will have to let go in a few years.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Livingstons Get Inked: Clermont’s Tribute to an All-American Art Form.

Comic books and historic homes.

At a glance, there aren’t a lot of correlations between the two; comics are low brow, for the masses, easily accessible and disposable. Historic homes are protected, cherished, define highbrow and are for those who can afford the ticket price. They draw polar opposite crowds, but they aren’t as unrelated you may think! They are both national treasures. Comic books are one of the five “purely American” art forms (alongside jazz, musical theatre, mystery novels and the modern banjo) and carry major cultural value.

The first comic book was published in New York City in 1934. Famous Funnies was a truly American spectacle, the product of first generation high school drop outs who used their talents in design, drafting and writing to create a literary art form that was accessible to the masses. Using the ideals of hard work and skilled craftsmanship they had inherited from their parents, young hopefuls like Will Eisner and Walt Disney created a market that was instantly successful.

By the end of World War II, more than a third of all comic book readers were adults. Stories had matured with the first crop of readers, who had spent their dimes as kids in the 30s and had grown up to serve their country in Europe and the Pacific. By the early 1950s, 20 different comic publishers were producing nearly 650 different titles a month in genres such as superheroes, comedy, crime noir, mystery, sci-fi, and romance. They employed over a thousand writers, inkers, artists, letterers and editors—many of them women and people of color—who had turned to comics because their ideas would be unwelcome in other spheres of publishing and entertainment.  

But the good times wouldn’t last. The comic book success story was an American dream come to fruition that was ultimately failed by the same America that produced it.

In 1952 Senator Joseph McCarthy began probing the artistic community for communists. Anyone who read as “other” was accused of having communist ties. The comic book industry, filled with social minorities creating stories about crime, sex and violence, was an easy target.     

Comics were burned in the streets by churches and boy scouts.  Publishers shut their doors. Thousands of people lost their jobs, over 900 of them branded communists and blacklisted from ever working in the arts or entertainment industries again. Heavy censorship under the Comics Code Authority restricted the once free art form and public stigma drove down sales. Comic books were defanged and defamed in their birthplace.

But comic books weren’t going down without a fight! While publishers like DC, Marvel and Archie Comics continued publishing books neutered by the Comics Code Authority, underground comic scenes popped up across the country. Uninhibited by public stigma or pressure from politics and advertisers, they continued to produce books with mature themes, giving them away or selling them at conventions. This tradition exists today, with yearly Alternative Comics and Zine conventions in cities across the country, not to mention webcomics.   

Drawing by Kevin Nordstrom
How might the Livingstons feel about being represented as comic book characters? We don’t know. Janet and Honoria Livingston were not part of the first crop of comic book readers in the 1930s and 40s, they were in their 20s when Famous Funnies appeared in newsstands. Their ancestors would have been aware of political cartoons (and probably none too happy about appearing in one). But through Livingstons Get Inked we are looking to bridge a gap in American culture using their stories. In recent years, museums are looking for new and creative ways to connect with the community and squash public stigma about who museums are for. Comic books are a valuable teaching tool; earlier this year we implemented a short comic about the Livingston’s dog Punchy as a preliminary teaching aid for visiting elementary school students. The comic has been wildly successful; even though they read the book the day before, students remembered facts and were enthusiastic to see the artifacts that Punchy the dog introduced them to.

Through Livingstons Get Inked, we are appealing to young adults, an audience who make up more than 70% of all comic readers and whose visitation all museums are looking to cultivate. The panels were created by independent comic artists from across the country who are using their art and story-telling skills to bring new life to cherished Livingston stories. We hope to inspire new interest in our history and continue bridging the societal gap between high and low culture.    

*Livingstons Get Inked opens in Clermont's Visitors Center on October 3rd, 2015.  It can be viewed throughout the month of October from Wednesdays through Sundays 11am to 4pm.  

**Author Emily Robinson is Clermont's Education Assistant and holds a bachelors in Fine Art.  Her work has been featured in Clermont's education materials and will be on exhibit as part of "The Livingstons Get Inked."

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Themes Like a Good Idea: Decorating for Clermont's Historic Halloween

Here at Clermont, we love Halloween.  It's a good thing too, because it takes some 10 weeks to plan our vary popular Legends by Candlelight Ghost Tours.  Beginning sometime in August, when almost everyone else is still beach umbrellas and summer vacations, we are already thinking orange and black.  Or red and black.  Or maybe black and white...  It's so hard to choose.

In short, we are already making plans for Halloween.

Decorating the mansion for Halloween takes quite a bit of planning.  You see, we work hard to keep it all looking appropriate for the 1920s, and that means researching the right look and where on earth to get the right products.  Luckily for us, the aesthetic for the 1920s called for tons of crepe paper, streamers, and balloons, all carefully put together to form hanging confections of decoration.

After eight years, we've gotten pretty good at it, and we're starting to get more into it.  Last year, we worked around a Edgar Allen Poe theme with "The Raven."  Quotes posted above doors and windows complemented our many feathered ravens (okay, they were really crows--but it's pretty hard to find affordable decorative ravens right now).

This year, we were inspired by this image:

And voila! our theme is now a Commedia dell'Arte Masquerade with Harlequins, Columbinas, Pierrots--all filtered through the lens of the 1920s.  It turns out these were pretty popular costumes beginning in the first part of the century, and they show up a lot during the period if you know what you're looking at. The diamond motif can be found all over Halloween imagery of the period, and the pom poms, neck ruffs, and masks were usually enough to give the viewer the desired impression.

So now it's just putting our plan into action: finding fabrics and paper, making pom poms and neck ruffles.  There is so much left to do!

*Clermont's Legends by Candlelight Ghost Tours will take place on October 16 & 17, 23 & 24 this year.  Tickets are $10 for adults $5 for children or Friends of Clermont.  Reservations open October 1st.  Call early to get your spot as our tours do fill up!  (518) 537-4240