Sunday, May 3, 2020

There Once Was A Family Called Livingston: Poetry in the Guest Books of Clermont and Staatsburgh

Guest books. They’re pretty familiar. Perhaps you’ve been asked to sign one at a wedding or a party. Maybe there was one in a hotel room you stayed in. Or it’s possible you visited a local historic site and found one in their Visitor’s Center. Guest books allow you to make your mark and to stand out amongst a crowd. You can leave best wishes, say what you liked best about your stay, or sign up for a mailing list.

Now imagine having one of those guest books in your home. Imagine everyone who comes to see you leaving their name and the date of their visit. It may seem oddly formal to us now but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was the norm amongst well-to-do families. For example, the Livingston Family.

When visiting Clermont, you may have noticed the guest book sitting on a table in the family’s drawing room. That particular book covers the years 1900-1935. During that time, John Henry Livingston lived in the house with his wife, Alice and their daughters Honoria and Janet. Depending on which page the book happens to be open to during your tour you might find more than names. For example, you may see the eight-year jump from 1919 to 1927
when the family spent most of their time in Florence, Italy. On later pages, you will see the name Rex or Reginald McVitty many times. Rex would go on to marry Honoria Livingston and clearly felt he had to leave his name every time he came to visit his intended.

If, after your Clermont tour you venture a ways down the road, there is a home that belonged to a cousin of the Clermont Livingstons. Gertrude Livingston (the Chancellor’s younger sister) married a man named Morgan Lewis and their home became known as Staatsburgh. In the early 20th Century, that house was inhabited by Ruth Livingston Mills, her husband Ogden, and their children: Beatrice, Gladys, and Ogden. The Staatsburgh guest book has an interesting story in that it was given (or returned) to the site a few years back. A woman in Virginia came across a book in her parents’ attic with the name “Staatsburgh” on it. No known connection exists between this family and the Mills’ but the site was very excited to get the book, which covers the years 1899-1908. Once again, you find more than a simple roster of guests. One page has all of the visitors using presidential surnames as middle names (ie Cleveland, Buchanan, even Andrew Jackson).
On another page it seems Ruth actually signed her own guest book!

There is one feature both of these books share (besides the names of some of New York society’s elite). They both have poems written in them.

In September of 1908, someone visiting Staatsburgh left the following message:

“There was a young Captain called Duds
Who fattened on pigs feet + spuds
At the restaurant Sherry
He got very merry
And burst his shirt collar + studs”

And below that:

“There was a young lady called Cutie (Cuty)
Who thought the above-named a beauty!
So she lunched him + dined him
And tea’d him + wined him
And thought he would then do his duty.”

No name follows these rhymes and it’s unclear whether they were written by the same hand. But one striking feature is how they seem to be limericks. They follow a very clear rhyme and syllable pattern. And more than that, they’re funny and even a little saucy.

Despite the fact that Ruth Livingston Mills was one of the Queens of Society and very proud of her Livingston heritage, it sort of makes sense that there would be silly poems in her guest book. After all, Staatsburgh was a home for entertaining. The family lived in it for a couple of months (usually September to October) and anyone who visited them was doing so to relax and take in a weekend in the country. During the day, folks would explore the grounds, play golf, go horseback riding, or any number of outdoor activities. At night, Ruth would host elaborate dinners and the guests would perhaps hear music after the meal or simply play cards and talk. It was a home for the upper class of New York Society to unwind (as much as they ever did). And apparently, writing silly poems was part of the relaxation.

The poem in Clermont’s book has a very different tone. On June 28th, 1909, E.M Livingston wrote:

“The Briton of old came with sword and with fire;
The Briton to-day comes with joy to admire,
For like the fabulous bird of the story
‘Clermont’ arose from its ashes in renewed glory.”

Unlike the poems in the Staatsburgh book, this one features no abbreviations and no “+” to mean “and”. It makes reference to the historic burning of Clermont in 1777 by the British during the American Revolution. And it even makes an allusion to the mythological phoenix. Certainly the tone is very different from that of the story of Captain Duds getting so large he bursts out of his clothes.

Why is this poem so formal? Most likely it has to do with the way the Clermont Livingstons viewed society. While Ruth attended and hosted parties for the Gilded Age Elite, John and Henry and Alice would be entertaining only close friends. For starters, their home was nowhere near as large as the 75-room Staatsburgh. Not only that but, unlike his cousin and her New Money husband, John Henry wasn’t exactly filthy rich. His branch of the Livingstons had lived off family money for years. And it’s almost certain the kinds of people John Henry would associate with would be nothing like the nouveau riche. They would be from Old Money like the Livingstons themselves. And, in visiting John Henry they were not only making a social call, they were seeing a home where a drafter of the Declaration of Independence had lived; a home that had stood in that exact spot since 1782. Not only that, remember the author of this poem is also a Livingston. The formality of the poem certainly befits a distant relative who is visiting the original home of the Livingstons.

None of this is to say that Staatsburgh served as a frivolous party house or Clermont was full of stodgy snobs who expected tribute. These branches of the Livingstons were both fun-loving and intensely proud and aware of the importance of their family in the local area and in the United States at large. The poems in their guest books reflect on the sorts of socializing the families did and the friends who left their marks. 

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