30 December 2015

Kate Claxton - She Didn't Start the Fire...

On December 5, 1876, actress Kate Claxton was thrust into her most terrifying role. It was on that day that the Somerville, NJ native and still-rising star rushed to the front of the stage at the Brooklyn Theater and attempted to prevent a panic in the audience as flames danced all around her and the building filled with smoke. More than 275 people perished as the roof collapsed in what is still one of the most devastating fires in New York history. This was the first of two killer fires involving Miss Claxton that season.

Brooklyn Theater, December 5, 1876. Kate Claxton  at the front of the stage,
trying to prevent a panic as the fire rages.
Born Kate Elizabeth Cone on August 24, 1848 to Spencer Wallace Cone and Josephine Martinez, young Kate was intent on entering show business - against her parents' wishes. It is not known how they felt about her marriage at the age of sixteen to New York businessman Isadore Lyon.

Cabinet Card photo of popular 19th century actress Kate Claxton.

After her marriage ended in divorce, she made her stage debut in Chicago in 1869, then had minor roles for the next three years in New York with the Fifth Avenue Theater Company. The general public did not begin to notice her until she joined the Union Square Theater in 1873.

Kate Claxton in costume for one of the many productions in which she was featured.
The next year saw Miss Claxton take on what would become her signature role, that of the blind girl Louise in "The Two Orphans", a part later played by Dorothy Gish in D.W, Griffith's silent screen adaptation "Orphans of the Storm". The role was highly emotional - and this type of acting became her trademark. Audiences loved it. She returned to the character again and again throughout her long career. By 1876 she had already started her own production company, and later purchased exclusive rights to "The Two Orphans" - touring with it off and on across the country right up until her retirement from the stage in 1903. What a testament to her talent that, already somewhat old for the role when she began playing it at the age of 26, she was still playing it convincingly for her fans at the age of 55!

Kate Claxton in her signature role as Louise in The Two Orphans

It was during a production of "The Two Orphans" that the fire broke out at the Brooklyn Theater. Miss Claxton was onstage at the time and noticed the fire in the wings - as did the other actors - but continued in character thinking that the flames would be extinguished quickly. There was no water available on stage, and attempts to beat out the fire only caused it to spread.

The actors pleaded with the audience to remain calm and proceed in an orderly fashion to the exits. This worked for a few minutes - but when the patrons in the balconies discovered they could not make it past the smoke-filled stairways, it was total chaos. It was reported that Kate Claxton was one of the last to flee the building, narrowly escaping with her life.

This Thomas Nast cartoon, which appeared in a June 1877 issue of Harper's Weekly, 
did much to rehabilitate Kate Claxton's reputation.
While on tour in St. Louis in April of the next year, the young actress was awakened by the Southern Hotel fire alarm at 2 am. She was able to escape the fire that claimed the lives of 40 hotel guests by wrapping herself in wet towels and rolling down the stairs. That second fire was all it took for the sensationalist press of the time to brand her as a token of "bad luck". Miss Claxton herself observed people taking extra precautions each time she checked into a hotel. Cartoonist Thomas Nast came to her defense with a drawing for Harper's Weekly portraying the press as torch-bearing donkeys, ready to destroy Kate Claxton's career for the sake of newspaper sales.

In fact, the publicity occasioned by the fires, the mudslinging, and Miss Claxton's pleas for restraint and fairness, generated a great amount of sympathy, only helping her career.

After a second marriage in 1878 to actor Charles Stephenson - which ended in a bizarre 1901 annulment - and the death by suicide of their son Harold in 1904, Kate Claxton retired to New York City, where she died in 1924.

15 December 2015

A Humble House in a Small World

When a reporter for South Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper visited the apartment of Roswell Gilbert in December of 1993 to interview the convicted mercy-killer three years after his 25-year prison sentence was commuted to the five-and-a-half years he had already served, she noticed the many oil paintings hung throughout the home. The paintings were done by Gilbert's mother, the artist Martha Gilbert Skougor. Perhaps the reporter spotted Skougor's most widely known work, "Humble House", conceived and completed while the artist lived in the home depicted in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey.

Hillsborough's "Humble House",
from the cover of the February 13, 1932, Literary Digest.
Soon after Ms. Skougor purchased the little house on the hill overlooking the South Branch of the Raritan River, it became an inspiration to her. About 1930, she added a studio wing where she could paint and develop her craft. With her children grown, she indulged her passions by traveling to South America, where she did many portraits of people in native dress. Landscapes. Portraits. In a 1933 review of one of her gallery showings, the New York Evening Post commented that "apparently everything else she looks on interests her".

Margaret Sullavan and husband Leland Hayward
In November 1936, Ms. Skougor sold Humble House to Hollywood film star Margaret Sullavan, who had just married Broadway agent/producer Leland Hayward. The Haywards fell in love with the house and intended to use it as a summer retreat. Alas, Sullavan, best known for her 1930s film roles starring opposite James Stewart, was too busy working to spend any time in the home, and they sold it two years later having never spent a single night there!

Margaret Sullavan and Robert Young in The Mortal Storm

Another of Margaret Sullavan's favorite costars was Robert Young - later of "Father Knows Best" and "Marcus Welby" fame. She appeared with him in two films of the late 1930s - "The Three Comrades", concerning World War I, and "The Mortal Storm", set during the beginning of the second World War. In each film, Robert Young plays a German soldier. But his most controversial role was yet to come.

Ad for the 1987 TV movie Mercy or Murder

Near the end of his career - eleven years after the final episode of "Marcus Welby, MD" - Robert Young returned to television to play the real-life role of Roswell Gilbert in a made-for-TV-movie of the 1985 mercy killing that gripped a nation. Suffering from dementia, osteoporosis, and other painful ailments that made her life unbearable, Gilbert's wife pleaded with him to do something to help her. Although she never asked him specifically to end her life, Gilbert could see no other way - and killed her by putting two bullets in her head while she lay unawares on the couch in their apartment, surrounded by the portraits and landscapes inspired by Hillsborough's Humble House.

12 December 2015

Choose and Cut Your Memories - 2015 Update

Here's a 2015 update to a post I first wrote in 2008 about our annual trip to Shadow Hill Farm.

One of the nice things about having the Christmas tree in the family room - in the corner between the fireplace and the T.V. - instead of the living room where we used to put it, is that we are able to enjoy it more. And not just during the commercials!

As I have been sitting here looking at the tree, it occurs to me that in the last several years, we've never had a bad one. I can't remember one scrawny, needle dropping, flimsy-limbed fir in at least the last ten years. [almost 20 years now!]

The reason must be that we always choose and cut our tree at Shadow Hill Farm on Grandview Road in Skillman. I can only think of maybe two years since the mid 90s when we purchased a tree elsewhere - and in at least one of those years I believe it was because the farm didn't open!

The setting - at the top a hill at the edge of the Sourlands - is gorgeous and serene, the proprietors are friendly and helpful, and the trees are top-notch!

But, of course, as I sit here and look at the tree - all trimmed out, and tricked out, with ornaments and lights - I don't really see the Christmas tree at all.








25 November 2015

Somerville Lion on the Loose, 1921

Lion, tiger, polecat, leopard. panther - or whale?!?!? Something was terrorizing Somerville's East-Enders in the summer of 1921, though no one was quite sure what it could be.  When the beast began showing itself in the evenings in the vicinity of Peter's Brook, townsfolk who were caught unawares fled in panic at the sight, later recalling that a few months previous a Barnum & Bailey animal trainer had been scouring the wooded areas about the town on a mission for which he would not answer. Now it was supposed that a lion had escaped from a passing circus train, and had not been retrieved.

New York Evening Telegram, Saturday, July 30, 1921

Here's what Mrs. Henry Stenger told the New York Evening Telegram about the encounter she and her four-year-old daughter had with the animal:

"Beatrice and I were walking by the bridge [over Peter's Brook]. The trees along the water's edge form a rather thick screen, but the clear water, reflecting the moonlight, makes it fairly easy to distinguish objects. As I was glancing casually along the bridge. I saw a large animal bound out of the darkness, jump over a hedge at least three and a half feet high, and disappear in the shrubbery by the brook. Beatrice screamed when she saw it, and no ordinary dog would have caused her to do so. The animal, I feel confident, was not a dog. It resembles a lion, for its head seemed large for its body and it had a bushy tail."
Despite the fact that she did not hear it roar, Mrs. Stenger vowed to not let her child out after dark until the beast was caught.

Postcard circa 1906

Mr. Stenger quickly roused the Cline brothers, Sam Hall, the Hoffman brothers, and others into a sort of posse, but came up empty. "We found nothing", he said, "but naturally such a creature would not wait around to be hunted."

Maon Street Somerville, 1920s

Sightings continued for the next two weeks. Edward Fialka who lived on Davenport St. saw the lion on his way home from work one evening, and his two young daughters also reported seeing "a big animal." Even the Brokaws, who were said to have "an excellent reputation for conservatism and common sense" were confident that they had seen something.

New York Evening Telegram, Sunday, July 31, 1921

The most famous eyewitness was none other than millionaire entrepreneur James B. Duke, who just missed bagging the trophy as he had to dash back to the house for his rifle. How the lion was able to cross the Raritan unobserved, either by water or one of the few bridges, remains a mystery.

In any case, Somerville police chief Lewis Bellis was not buying any of it. "These persons, I have no doubt, are sincere, but they are impressionable. At night almost any animal appearing suddenly may frighten one - even your own pet cat."

Main Street Somerville, 1920s

The chief's theory was that the "lion" was in actuality a giant mastiff named Nero - well known to the East End neighborhoods, but perhaps a bit scarier after dark.

It can be supposed that Chief Bellis was attempting to create an impression of his own - and since the newspapers appear to be silent on the subject after his pronouncements, we can assume that this did the trick, and everyone soon had a good laugh about the weeks they were terrorized by the lion, polecat, leopard, panther, and whale!

15 November 2015

No Solutions Yet

If there is one thing that we should take away from Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, it is that we have no solutions. Attacks will continue until we find one. Don't despair - the problem will be solved in time if we ask the right questions.

The first question we should ask is, Who is the enemy? And perhaps, Who is not the enemy? The second is easier - Muslims are not the enemy. Our friends and neighbors, in your classroom or in the next cubicle, down the block or at the convenience store - they are not the enemy.

Conservatives have universally called for President Obama to name the enemy as "radical Islam". He has insisted on using the term "violent extremism". President Obama is correct, but not for the reasons he thinks.

What most of the world today refers to as "radical Islam" is not radical at all. By definition, because they adhere most strictly to the tenets prescribed in the Koran and other ancient holy texts, they should properly be described as orthodox, not radical. The real Islamic radicals are the reformers who we call moderates.

It is important to make this distinction because it will ultimately lead us to the solution.

Many have suggested that the answer lies within the Islamic community. I think that is correct. But when we ask, Why aren't the moderate Muslims doing more to stop the violence and terror? Why isn't Saudi Arabia doing all it can? we are showing a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between orthodox (radical) and reform (moderate) Muslims.

The essence of the relationship is that it is difficult to win a theological debate when confronted with an orthodox adherent. And would you enter into one when you risk beheading at the conclusion? Orthodox and reform Jews can have these kinds of debates, as can the various Christian sects, and everyone walks away intact. But can a moderate, reformed Muslim confront an orthodox Muslim knowing they will have to disavow parts of the Koran?

Seems unlikely, for individuals, and nations.

Let's keep thinking.

05 November 2015

J.B. Duke Works the Polls, 1908

Imagine going to your local polling place Tuesday and being greeted by Steve Forbes, or Steve Kalafer, or one of the several hedge fund millionaires and billionaires whose homes dot the Somerset Hills. Could you have been cajoled or intimidated into supporting their chosen candidate?

James B. Duke
On November 3, 1908, James B. Duke, Hillsborough resident and millionaire president of the American Tobacco Company set out to do just that - win votes for Colonel Nelson Y. Dungan in his bid to unseat state senator Joseph S. Frelinghuysen of Raritan.

Colonel Nelson Y. Dungan

Duke, irritated that the Republican (Republican!) Frelinghuysen had called out the wealthiest Somerset County residents for not paying their fair share in taxes, enlisted the help of Alexander W. Mack, manager of the Raritan Woolen Mills, in organizing the opposition to the first term legislator. Both men directed their hundreds of employees to "vote against Frelinghuysen".
Trenton Evening Times headline, November 5, 1908

Duke personally visited several polling places in and around Raritan hoping that either the force of his personality, or his unflinching stare would win the day.

Senator Joseph S. Frelinghuysen
It wasn't enough. Frelinghuysen was swept up in a wave of Republican support, winning by 150 in Raritan and 725 across the district. He eventually became New Jersey's first directly elected US Senator in 1916 after the ratification of the 17th amendment, serving one term before returning to the insurance business and retiring to Arizona.

28 October 2015

Run, Rabbit

When James B. Duke decided to turn his sprawling farm along the Raritan River in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey into a grand estate and public park, one of the first things he did was to ban hunting. Sure, poaching was always strictly discouraged right from the time the tobacco tycoon began to acquire the lots that would make up Duke Farms in 1893. Now, nine years later, the taking of game was to be outlawed.

Bronze statue on the estate of James B. Duke in Hillsborough, NJ, circa 1904

It didn't take New Jersey rabbits very long to learn of the ban. No doubt the furry creatures had already heard about the hundreds of thousands of delicious trees and shrubs being planted on the grounds, now the news that bunnies were permanently "out of season" sent them scurrying by the hundreds across the stone bridges of Duke's Brook into the heart of the estate.

New York Evening Herald, January 20, 1904

With no competition at the buffet (New Jersey was in the first year of a nine year program to import deer from Pennsylvania and Michigan because the herd was at zero, if you can imagine that!) the rabbits quickly multiplied and were overrunning the place within two years. After expensive plants were destroyed by the voracious chompers, Duke decided a hunt was in order.

The newspapers had a good laugh when it turned out that Duke was going to be subject to a fine of $20 per rabbit for hunting out of season. The four hired sharpshooters took 37 in less than two hours, resulting in a whopping fine of $740 for the multi-millionaire!

There was no report that Mr. Duke himself joined in the hunt, but he did almost bag an escaped circus tiger on his estate in 1921 - but that's another story.

20 October 2015

It All Went Down, On the Farm

Not every gilded-age millionaire had a house and farm on River Road in Hillsborough in the first decade of the 20th century - just those named James Buchanan. We all know about James Buchanan Duke, whose Duke's Farm lives on today as Duke Farms, but much less has been written about the far more flamboyant J.B., James Buchanan Brady, better known then and today as Diamond Jim.

Ellesdale Manor, in its later incarnation as the South Branch Hotel

Diamond Jim is said to have made his fortune in business by being the best salesman of his era. Unable to take "no" for an answer, he was known to sit in a buyer's ante-room for days waiting to be seen. When it came to selling steel railroad cars or a stable of thoroughbred racehorses, he was always able to close the deal.

Larger-than-life millionaire businessman, gambler,
and gourmand, Diamond Jim Brady.

In matters of the heart, it was a different matter altogether. His marriage proposals were repeatedly rebuffed by the two women in his life - New York stage actress Lillian Russell, and live-in companion Edna McCauley. After summering with McCauley at popular turn-of-the-century vacation spots such as Atlantic City, Belmar, and Long Branch, he decided he needed a New Jersey country retreat of his own. Since eating was one of his favorite and legendary hobbies, why not purchase a farm where he could grow crops and raise cows, pigs, and chickens?

Edna McCauley, Diamond Jim's sometimes niece,
sometimes daughter, constant companion.

Brady found the perfect location just north of the village of South Branch - a farm on the Raritan River called Ellesdale Manor, previously owned by New Jersey State Senator William Keys. The design firm of Collins Marsh was called in to decorate and furnish the home with the trendiest of rustic decor. After many months of consultation with Diamond Jim and Edna, designs were approved and remodeling began on the three-story second empire house. Walls were torn down to provide space for a ballroom, wine cellar, and most importantly a gaming room.

23 November 1906 Home News

Attention was next paid to the farm. Brady purchased twenty-seven Guernsey cows - just enough to give the place the all-important pastoral look - as well as pigs, horses, chickens, dogs, and ten thousand squab pigeons.

Actress Lillian Russell

Money was no object when it came to outfitting the farm. Expensive fertilizers, the very best farm machinery, and enameled milking pails delighted Brady's farm manager. According to biographer Parker Morell, "every vegetable and every animal grown or raised on the place cost at least five times as much as its duplicate could have been obtained for in the open market." But that wasn't the point. Brady thought that the food he grew tasted better, and that's all that mattered.

Financier Jesse Lewisohn

In short order, friends from the New York business and theater worlds began to descend on the farm each weekend. Frequent visitors to Jim and Edna's were impresario Florence Ziegfeld, singer Anna Held, and of course Brady's good friend and second love interest Lillian Russell. Also from New York came merchant banker Jesse Lewisohn, a consort of Miss Russell's, and a close friend of Brady's.

Stairway to the second-floor bedrooms, March 2020

Yes, things sometimes got complicated "down on the farm". Guests shared rooms, and people looked the other way. But there was no looking the other way when Diamond Jim returned from a business trip a few years later and was met by Edna and Lewisohn, who told him that in his absence they had fallen in love and were to be married! His common-law wife and his best friend! And for Lewisohn to betray Lillian Russell this way!

2 July 1910 Washington Post

Perhaps the pain of how it all went downplayed a part in Diamond Jim's decision to sell the farm and return to New York - leaving Hillsborough with only one millionaire J.B., but with a lasting impression of the flashy man with the flashy farm.

08 October 2015

Three Towers, 1937

With all of the talk about the Off Track Wagering facility just approved for the old Maestro 206 site, I thought I'd share this 1937 advertising postcard of one of the first establishments to do business at that location. The Three Towers was a banquet hall, nightclub, dance hall, etc. for at least a couple of decades from the 30s through the 50s. It was a tour stop for many nationally and regionally known big bands of the era, and later rock and roll groups.

Three Towers - Entertainment, Dining, Dancing - postcard circa 1937
I have seen some posts on Facebook putting forth the idea that this spot on 206 is a bad location for a restaurant because nothing ever lasts there. I am of the opposite opinion. I believe the OTW folks chose this location because it has proven itself for decades. Yes, the businesses have changed over the years - from The Three Towers to the Jolly Ox, Duke's Farm Inn, Jaspers, the brewing company (forget the name) CocoLa, Maestro 206 - but that's to be expected. It would be more of a surprise if the same business had been there for the past 75 years. Just my opinion.

07 October 2015

Christmas Dinner, 1912

Now that the weather is turning cooler, the most wonderful time of the year can't be far off. Nothing's better than sitting down to Christmas dinner with your loved ones - as long as dad doesn't attack you with the kitchen utensils, a pitchfork, and a shotgun!

New York Tribune headline, December 27, 1912

The Balas family had only been living in Bernardsville a few months when the headline above appeared in The New York Tribune. They moved from New York City earlier that year of 1912 in the hopes that a change of scenery might cure Andrew Balas of his violent alcoholism. Apparently, the cure didn't take as dad continued to drink heavily, appearing at the Christmas dinner table already heavily intoxicated. He reacted to a reprimand from Mrs. Balas by attempting to stab her with the carving fork, which was wrestled away by eighteen-year-old son John.

New York Tribune headline, December 27, 1912

When John forced his father out of the house, dad returned with an even larger fork - a pitchfork - but was again overpowered by the youth with mom's help. Balas then retrieved a shotgun from his bedroom and pointed it at his wife, beginning a frantic struggle by all three for possession of the firearm, which then discharged, wounding Balas and his wife.

The parents ended up at the hospital in Morristown, while John celebrated what was left of Christmas from a cell in Somerville. Ah, the holidays. Don't you just love 'em!

11 September 2015

Eagle Gate, Then and Now

In a previous post I commented on the fact that the original entrances to Duke's Park, the Hillsborough, N.J. estate of James B. Duke, were not gated during the heyday of public access to the grounds between 1905 and 1915. This is in evidence below in the 1910 depiction of the Eagle Gate entrance from Duke's Parkway.

The Eagle Gate at Duke's Park, postcard circa 1910
And the Eagle Gate today, below. The Eagles were restored to this location just a few years ago.

The Eagle Gate at Duke Farms, 2015

09 September 2015

"Mountain Air, Mother's Care"

New Yorkers have been sending their tykes out to "the country" for decades, centuries even. Entire institutions, such as the Fresh Air Fund - which began in 1877 - have grown up around the concept that kids need to spend their summer vacation away from city life in the Adirondacks, on Long Island, or even right here in the Sourland Mountains of Somerset County, N.J.

5 August 1923 Brooklyn Daily Eagle

One such camp was opened in 1917 by Mrs. Carrie Closson and her veterinarian husband on East Mountain Road in Hillsborough. With good intentions, she placed tiny three-line ads, such as the one above, in New York newspapers, hoping to attract clients with the tagline: mountain air, mother's care. But when Henrietta Honius from the New Jersey Bureau of Child Hygiene made an inspection of the property in the summer of 1919, she found the children were barely receiving one of the two touted benefits.

9 September 1919 Trenton Evening Times

In a word, conditions at the camp were appalling. Seventeen children were living and sleeping in just a few rooms of the ten-room house - as many as eight to a room - in homemade berths or straw mattresses on the floor, with little ventilation. No indoor sanitary facilities were provided, and the house was found to be "generally unclean". Mrs. Honius reported to her boss, Dr. Julius Levy, that "Mrs. Closson is an unintelligent person, whose motive for conducting the place is entirely mercenary". The Clossons were receiving $4.50 per week per child in 1919.

The inspection came after parents complained that their children were returning to the city malnourished and with bedsores. Indeed Mrs. Honius further reported that "Mrs. Closson knows nothing about the proper diet for children and.... she should not be permitted to conduct such an establishment."

From the August 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle Camp directory.
The Closson Kiddie Kamp is also listed under Boys' Camps.

Ironically, it may have been this inspection that saved the camp. Upon review of the report, Dr. Levy recommended to the state that private kiddie camps should be licensed and inspected on a regular basis. One-year licenses would not be renewed if conditions were unsatisfactory.

4 May 1931 Courier News

Mrs. Closson must have taken heed. She cleaned up her act, hired an assistant, and profitably operated the Kiddie Kamp into the following decade and beyond. Hundreds of city kids enjoyed the Sourland Mountain air - and Mother Closson's care - until she succumbed to a severe case of influenza in February 1931.