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by Alfred G. Vanderbilt
It was like Brigadoon, the legendary village that appeared out of the mists only once every seven years, just to disappear again. And the people who lived in the village aged just one year of seven. And everyone was happy all the time. That’s how I remember Sagamore.
We never called it a: ‘Great Camp.’ Usually, we just said: ‘camp,’ or ‘Sagamore.’ “Are you coming up to camp? We hope you will.”
My grandfather, the first Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, bought it from William West Durant, in 1901.
The Vanderbilts were one of early America’s early success stories. Cornelius Vanderbilt (The Commodore) made the family’s fortune in shipping before the Civil War. By his 60s he was the richest man in America. At about 70 years of age, he sold all his shipping interests and began buying the independent railroads that had begun springing up in and around New York City. He unified them, built Grand Central Terminal and named the Vanderbilt railroad The New York Central.
For Alfred, who was newly-married and just 24 years old, Sagamore was a key part of an extraordinary life.
It’s not hard to imagine Alfred bringing Margaret to camp for the first time. They would have been 31 and 26 years old; he was handsome and she was beautiful. They would have taken his private rail car, the Wayfarer, traveling the long hours through the countryside from Grand Central Terminal.
Finally nearing the end of the two-day trip they would have come through the sweet pines at dusk. As the horse-drawn carriages drew near to camp, fires and Roman candles were lit all along the miles of road. It was part of a tradition; a drum roll of sorts, to alert people in camp that visitors were arriving and to tell the visitors that they were about to experience something extraordinary.
As the fires were lit, the woods would have come alive from the sound of the coach wheels, harnesses and the horses’ hooves striking gravel. Trail guides would have waved to the guests from their positions along the road. And then, as the carriages slowed, approaching the entrance to camp, the travelers would have felt the deep, healing peace of the Adirondacks.
And then as they came over the rise, Sagamore appears like a jewel. Those extraordinary wooden buildings set perfectly on the glittering lake with a manicured croquet lawn as its centerpiece. The lights in the Main Lodge, Dining Hall and cabins would have sent a warm glow across the compound; the smell of wood fires and delicious food wafting up from the kitchen. And at last, as the horses came to a rest, the weary travelers would know they had found heaven.
I was a small child when I came to camp. What I remember best are the deer walking through the compound to eat from our hands like pets, the sunlight on the Main Lodge, the mists every morning on the lake, and the atmosphere of fun and enthusiasm that pervaded Sagamore at all times. It was an honor to be in camp. I knew that even then.
In the eyes of the larger world, the Vanderbilt’s camp was a secret. For decades the family was hounded by the press; Sagamore was one place reporters could not go. Grandfather and grandmother felt safe bringing their family and closest friends. My father and mother felt the same way.
A typical letter from my grandfather’s secretary to Mr. Collins, the indispensable manager of Sagamore, would alert him that Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt would be arriving in a few days with a group of 16 or 20. That meant that bedrooms, food and service and activities for the guests and the family had to be ready and all had to be flawless. It was: service at Sagamore was far better than at any 5-star hotel. The family loved to spend not only August in camp, but Christmases at Sagamore were frequent, as were visits in the fall and spring.
In May of 1915, my grandfather embarked on what he thought was just another trip to London. He sailed aboard Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. After the explosion, the ship went down in 18 minutes, about the time it takes to finish a dry martini. The only outdoor sport my grandfather could not do was to swim. But he gave his life preserver to a panicked woman and hunted through the ship for children, putting many into lifeboats himself. Then, 37 years old, a vision of calm bravery, he stood by the railing waiting for the end.
After his death, grandmother decided to keep Sagamore. Her husband had loved it dearly; it had quite possibly been his favorite place in the world. And Margaret kept it as a tribute to him, because she had come to love it, too.
For several years her guest lists focused on her late husband’s family and friends, especially during the long summer polio outbreaks in the Northeast. Eventually, however, her guests became more diverse. She loved to be with interesting people and she loved to be outdoors. So, in the deep in the Adirondack woods, far from spying eyes, she brought together the most interesting people she could find in the world: artists and writers, scientists and statesmen, actors and musicians.
Notable guests at camp included General George Marshall, who won the Nobel Prize the year he visited camp for his reorganization of post-war Europe. Richard Rogers, the great Broadway songwriter and producer, came often. Howard Hughes, the aviation pioneer and motion picture tycoon, and movie stars like Gary Cooper, Clifton Webb and Gene Tierney. Like an invitation to the White House, being asked to visit Sagamore was an opportunity not to be missed.
Perhaps grandmother’s most notorious visitor was Madame Chiang Kai-Chek, wife of the Imperial Emperor of China. Madame Chiang’s visit, while social, was of international importance. To make room for her, grandmother vacated her own camp. Madame Chiang Kai-Chek came with 25 personal maids. Three maids were always assigned just to watch Madame Chiang’s bed sheets – even while she was out of the room. If even a breath of wind ruffled the sheets, they had to be changed immediately!
Despite Margaret Emerson’s social position she was never a slave to convention and always loved being outdoors. She was a crack shot, and while traveling through the American West she shot and killed a grizzly bear. She also shot an intruder in her house in Reno. She traveled worldwide and hunted rhinoceros, hippopotami and lions and tigers in Africa. She was a woman unafraid of her own life.
One night at camp a champion boxer became interested in one of the young women on staff. The girl explained to him that she was engaged to one of Sagamore’s trail guides, but the fighter would not leave her alone. Finally, after many warnings, the girl’s fiancée knocked the boxer unconscious, using the butt of his rifle.
The next morning Margaret fired the guide on the spot and apologized to her hung-over guest. As soon as he was gone from camp, she summoned the guide and rehired him. She knew that if one of her guests needed to be separated from his consciousness, no one would be a better judge of the situation. She cared deeply about the camp families for as long as she lived.
One day she called her sons together. “When I’m gone,” she said, “will you keep Sagamore Lodge up? Will you maintain it the way I have, the way it should be?”
She sustained camp and cared for its families for nearly half a century, through her youth, the death of her first husband, the birth of two sons and a daughter, three subsequent marriages, two World Wars and now, as she neared 70, an illness was gaining ground on her. When Alfred and George looked at each other silently, she knew the family’s time as stewards of Sagamore had come to an end.
Once the decision was made, she did everything that she could to see that camp and the camp families were cared for, and that Sagamore itself would be preserved, if such a thing was possible. It wasn’t. Sagamore passed though several owners, deteriorating under each, until it was finally rescued by a determined group of preservationists led by Barbara Glaser and Beverly Bridger, the Sagamore Institute.
I want to applaud the heroic job they have done maintaining and preserving what was left of camp when they got it. The outbuildings, the fields and farm, the flower gardens and greenhouses, vegetable gardens, softball fields and toboggan run and so much more have all given way to time and the inexorable march of the forest. Like Brigadoon, much of Sagamore has disappeared.
But even now, in its slightly diminished state, its magnificence is hardly dimmed. And after the long, sweet drive through the darkening woods, whenever I come over the rise and see those beautiful buildings perched on that perfect lake, I know what it must been like for Alfred and Margaret when they came to see it together for the first time.
It was like seeing Brigadoon rise from the mists. Coming to heaven.