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.

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