Reveries of Camp Deerlands

by | History

There are 40,000 acres surrounding the Whitney’s camp (or is it 50,000?), but who’s counting when you’re in love?


As you drive north on Route 30,
between Long and Tupper lakes, you enter a tract of vast private woodlands extending all the way to the Adirondack Park Blue Line on the west. With the road stretching through dark boreal forests on either side, it looks like you could be driving through northern Ontario or Quebec. Here and there a tannin-stained creek or glacial pond bordered by cranberry and Labrador Tea. It is the land of the last moose and panther shot in New York State, of the old canoe routes made famous by George Washington Sears—Nessmuk—and now it is largely the land of Whitney Park, 51,000 acres of managed forest and 38 ponds and lakes. After the leaves fall, the signs of well-conducted timber harvesting are visible behind a wall of protected trees.

At Whitney Park’s southern extremity, 12 miles from the village of Long Lake, is Camp Deerlands, originally built and established by a cousin of William West Durant, and for 90 years the summer hideaway of one of the United States’ most revered and influential patrician dynasties. You might have seen Cor­nelius Vanderbilt (Sonny) Whitney and his wife Marylou on Life Styles of the Rich and Famous, or in the Clubhouse at the Saratoga Racetrack. Last summer Marylou was profiled for her reputation as a hostess in Vanity Fair and she was highly visible from Albany to Long Lake in her role as a sort of minister without portfolio for charities, benefits, balles des nuits, and as symbol and mascot of everything that summer in Saratoga Springs stands for—especially everything rich.

But the Whitney hegemony doesn’t end at Saratoga. As one of the largest landowners in the Adirondacks since 1897, the region’s history and development wouldn’t have taken place as it did without the family’s strong presence, and its culture would have been severely diminished. Sonny and Marylou are regarded warmly by the local population. In Long Lake you are as likely to find Marylou buying a quilt from the churchwomen as holding a tea. In 1960, the fami­ly donated the World War I Memorial sculpture that stands in front of the school. When they visit Snowshoe Five, their camp on Lake Placid, the Whitneys’ favorite restaurant in town is Howard Johnson’s. Such quaint aberrations of taste are the well-known prerogatives of wealth.

Last summer, I spent a few hours with Sonny and Marylou on the sun porch at Cady Hill, their Saratoga Springs head­quarters, formerly a stagecoach inn. Then 88 years old, Son­ny was sprightly though frail, dressed in golfer-green slacks and white sportshirt. Youthful at 61, Marylou’s skin was like porcelain and her voice strong enough to reach a theater’s back row. She seemed to control the conversation and Son­ny didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes she spoke for him. Sometimes they spoke at once in an exchange somewhat reminiscent of an old George Burns and Gracie Allen routine. The tenderness and humor they shared was clear.

Sonny: When I first came to Camp Deerlands, I was nine or five.

Marylou: Seven.

Sonny: I was seven. Every summer for years, both in school and in college, I spent the summer in the Adirondack Mountains. It was really my second home.

Marylou: It’s the only home you really own right now that you kept from your childhood.

Sonny: I still have in the Adiron­dacks my guide, Dave Short, who has been with me for 50 years now.

Marylou: More than that.

Sonny: No, 50.

Marylou: Oh no, darling, more than that. He was there when your father was alive, and your father died in 1930.

Sonny: He’s been my fishing and hunting guide since 1925. Something like that….

Sonny’s grandfather, William C. Whitney, Secretary of the Navy under President Cleveland and swashbuckling Wall Street attorney, first came to the Adirondacks as a member of the 35,000 acre Hamilton Park Club for sports­men, which then included Little Forked Lake, where Camp Deerlands now stands. A descendant of John Whitney, who landed in Boston in 1635, and distant relative of Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, W.C.’s appetite for acreage was legendary. In a lumbering partnership with the legendary Patrick “Dandy Pat” Moynehan, W.C. con­solidated the lands of the club and adjacent acreage into the 80,000 acre Whitney Park in 1897, for $ 1.50 an acre. It was one year after modern “scientific” forest management had been introduced on the adjoining 40,000 acre Ne-he-sa-ne Park of Adirondack Railroad czar Dr. W. Seward Webb. With the Vanderbilts, J.P. Morgans and Durants up the drainage on and around Raquette Lake, it was a cozy little neighborhood of prominence. Surveying his newly acquired fiefdom from a boat on formerly-public Little Tupper Lake in 1898, W.C. told Sonny’s father, Harry Payne, “This is one property I wish always to remain in the Whitney family.”

Sonny took the charge seriously. He remembers clearly traveling to Deerlands as a young boy in W.C.’s private railroad car, The Wanderer, then boarding the steamboat Sagamore for the trip to the foot of Raquette Lake, where they debarked for the mile and a half carry to Big Forked. Harry Payne was on the boards of the Marion River and Raquette Lake railroads, but his main interests lay in the paddocks and stables of the Saratoga Thoroughbred scene, in which the family has always retained a prominent posi­tion. But after graduating from Yale, Sonny proceeded to emulate his grandfather’s love of the Adirondacks, as well as his devotion to public life. He was decorated in world wars I and II, served as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force and Under Secretary of Commerce to President Truman, founded Pan American Airlines, ran for Congress, unsuccessfully, and took three successive trips to the altar and divorce court. But it was the Whitneys’ Hollywood connec­tions that led him eventually to his current, longest lasting, and, presumably, ultimate wife.

In the 1930’s, Sonny’s company, Selznick International financed some of the favorite films of an entertainment-starved nation, including A Star Is Born, Rebecca, and Gone With the Wind. In the 1950’s C.V. Whitney Pictures produced a film called Missouri Traveler, which starred the young Lee Marvin and a radio show ingenue from Kansas City named Marie Louise (Marylou) Shroeder. In his autobiography High Peaks, Sonny recalls, “She was blonde, petite, and very feminine, yet outgoing, outspoken and efficient; we fell in love during the making of the picture. She is a Capricorn and I am a Pisces, so I had to understand her practicality, and she had to learn about a dreamer who strove to bring his ideas to reality.”

Afterward, he signed her to star in a film based on Mar­tha Reben’s memoir The Healing Woods, to be filmed at Whitney Park.

Marylou: I first came to Whitney Park to do a movie of a marvelous book called The Healing Woods, by Martha Reben, who rented at Whitney Park. And she had—what do you call the consumption thing? Everyone went to Saranac Lake?—yes, tuberculosis. They said she was go­ing to die. She had a dream one night and it said she would go into the woods; the good clean air of the woods would heal her, and it did. Sonny had a cabin built for het at Flat­fish Pond and she went in with a guide (Fred Rice, of Saranac Lake) and she lived for many years. She loved the animals. It’s a charming book. I was under contract with V. Whitney Pictures and went up there to play the part of Martha Reben.

Sonny: (Mumbles in agreement.)

Marylou: The whole picture company went up and stayed about a week. I had to sit with Martha Reben in her little cottage and try to get the feel of how I was going to be. It was such an enchanting place. Sonny and I fell very much in love. The Adirondacks mean a great deal to us. It’s our special little place and it always has been, hasn’t it.

Sonny: Yes, it has been.

Marylou: Sonny said the reason he never made the picture is that he married me instead, (laughter) and he didn’t want his wife to be a movie star!

Sonny: I think I chose correctly.

The Whitneys honeymooned in far-northern Flin Flon, Manitoba, headquarters of the Hudson Bay Mining & Smelting Company, which Sonny founded. It wasn’t your typical honeymoon. “We traveled three days and three nights by dogsled,” Sonny said. “It was 60 below.” After­wards, the couple returned and settled at Camp Deerlands, where they enrolled Marylou’s four children from her previous marriage in the Long Lake Central School.

“We’re nine miles back in the woods,” said Marylou. “I had to take the children to school in a Jeep every morning. It was a lumber road and the children and I always said it was like Russian Roulette not knowing whether we were going to be run off into a snowdrift when the lumber truck came. We lived up there for the whole year. The children had a marvelous education. The classes were small and the children really enjoyed life. But it was a difficult life, so we regretfully left in the summer of 1959.”

Sonny: That’s when we moved to Kentucky. The horse business was big with me then and we moved down there.

Marylou: It’s lovely to live so far back in the woods, but we also felt there was a little more to life than that. It’s too remote really. News­papers are two days old. You don’t realize what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Sonny: That’s true.

In the intervening 30 or so years, Camp Deerlands has reverted to its function as summer haven for the Whitneys and their children and grandchildren. It retains an exalted place in the family lore, to such an
extent that no one but family and their personal guests have been invited there for over 20 years. The original camp was part of Little Forked Camp, a complex built by Howard Marion Durant before 1885. Adjacent Camp Cedars, once owned by Sonny’s mother Gertrude Payne Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum, was demolished by or as a result of the Great Blowdown of 1950. The only vestige of Camp Cedars is the Sunrise Cottage, which Dave Short, of Long Lake, dragged across the ice to Deerlands after demolishing the main building.

Marylou: We have it on the beach at Deerlands. It’s adorable, made out of all those little sticks. We use it as our changing house. Someday, with Sonny’s permission, I’d like to give it to the Adirondack Museum because I think that’s where it belongs. Camp Deerlands isn’t as “campy” as some of the other buildings on Whitney Park. It’s not as elegant as Cady Hill, but it’s done in a very comfortable way. We have one room that’s done in a very Adirondacky way. The trophy room has deerheads and a moosehead Son­ny shot up in Alaska. The A-frame has a lot of Indian things we collected, like Navajo rugs, from living in the west.

Sonny: I have two rugs; one a grizzly and one a polar bear.

Marylou: There were two enormous polar bear rugs, one your grandfather had. It went with Admiral Perry to —which Pole?

Sonny: I’ve forgotten.

Marylou: I guess the North Pole. We have one in our little lodge in Lake Placid, the other in the A-frame. It’s nice to see the grandchildren taking naps on the bear.

The management of Whitney Park and his interest in the National Museum of Dance, in Saratoga Springs, are now Sonny’s primary occupations. “I’m out of horses, out of pic­tures and mining.” As a business, Whitney Park has been a leader in forest management techniques, though it has seen better days. As the taxes on timberland have increas­ed, the business has been forced to sell a large percent of its former holding to International Paper Company. In con­cert with other large landowners and forest industry leaders, Marylou, if not Sonny, is fairly outspoken on the subject.

Marylou: When we were married, Whitney Park was over 100,000 acres.

Sonny: Now it’s down to 34,000.

Marylou: That’s without the lakes. I think it’s 48,000.

Sonny: No, it’s 34.

Marylou: Well, we’re not going to argue about it. I really think it’s in the 40’s someplace, darling, but who cares? In New York State, we’re in Hamilton County, every time you sell off a piece of land, they double your taxes and it never goes down. It keeps going up, up, up. Almost all the parks up here are selling off their land. Most have been lumbering to try to pay their taxes, but you just can’t do it. I’ve talked to Orin Lehman of the Department of Parks and I said, ‘what are you trying to do, take everything away for the state?’ You’re not going to tell me that New York State is going to do any lumbering. Lumbering is like weeding a garden. It opens up the land and let’s the sun come through. The state lets it get very dark. They don’t do anything to improve their land.

Sonny: Don’t criticize the state.

Marylou: Oh, I do all the time, darl­ing, don’t be silly. Orin’s on the board of our museum. I’ve known him since I was a child. I’ll criticize him if I wish.

Marylou forgets that development in the Adirondack Park is regulated by the Adirondack Park Agency and the Department of Environmental Conser­vation rather than Lehman’s Depart­ment of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. She thinks the Adiron­dacks should be managed like the parks near their home in Kentucky, where facilities for camping and recreation are provided by the state, and managed for the pleasure of the people. She says the Adirondack Park is one of the most beautiful in the world, and “if the state’s going to take it over, which they’re doing, what are they going to do with all that land if they’re not go­ing to utilize it for the public? Why shouldn’t the little man in the city be able to come up and enjoy what he has paid for instead of letting it get dark, rank and moldy?”

A few weeks after my visit to Cady Hill, I chatted for a while with Dave Short, former manager of Whitney Industries, and his wife Marjorie at their house in Long Lake. Mr. Short, 85, wore a tartan shirt, string tie and a felt hat with a feather in it. An Adiron­dack landscape painted by Sonny Whitney hung in the dining room, a pre­sent to the Shorts on retirement. An old chandelier from Camp Deerlands was suspended from the ceiling —a gift from Marylou. “She’s the nicest lady in the world,” said Mrs. Short.

Short was Sonny’s personal guide for 65 years and is still spry enough to have shot a 147 pound buck last hunting season. “He’s one of my oldest friends. I knew him when he was really rugged. We’d walk all day in the woods in the snow, in the rain. We’d never stop for the weather.”

He showed me the shotgun he car­ried while fishing with 10 year-old Gloria Vanderbilt when she stayed in seclusion at Deerlands during the sen­sational 1934 custody battle between her widowed mother and her aunt, when her kidnapping was considered a possibility. His copy of Martha Reben’s The Healing Woods was signed, “To Dave Short: Without whose help we could hardly have spent our happy summer here on Flatfish Pond. Martha Reben and Fred Rice. October 25, 1956.”

“The camp is still there,” Mr. Short said. “It’s never been used since they left.”

Photos of the Whitney children at weddings, birthdays and Christmas adorn the walls. In their scrapbook, the Shorts keep a 1959 telegram announcing the birth of the Whitney’s daughter Cornelia, a graphic artist in Ithaca, along with numerous photos of Marylou’s four children. “They call me Aunt Marge,” says Mrs. Short.

Mrs. Short has known all the Whitney wives, who are included in photos on the piano. “When Mr. Whitney would call up and say he was going to bring down a new Mrs. Whitney, I’d hurry up and put everybody into the piano bench.

“Everybody in Long Lake loves the fourth Mrs. Whitney,” Mrs. Short said. “When the ladies in the church tried for a long time to sell a quilt, she paid $500 for it. She’s very good to us.”

Before I left Cady Hill, theWhitneys were kind enough to sit for a photo session. A moment of con­fusion ensued when Sonny searched for a hat to wear for the pictures. Whenever Marylou left the room, Sonny, still the old roué, would tell a mildly off-color joke. “We all need a lit­tle bit of a laugh,” he said.

The pool house is a trove of memorabilia from more than over a century lived at the heart of American public life: a seashell chandelier from Imelda Marcos, photos of dignitaries and celebrities, honorary degrees.

After the shoot and tour, Marylou talked about family tradition and ritual at Camp Deerlands, especially the an­nual sailboat races, when Marylou hap­pily serves dinner to 30 family members and guests.

Marylou: After dinner we sit in a marvelous room around a big fire and Sonny reads from Robert W. Service, all the wonderful stories of Alaska and Sam McGee from Tennessee.

Sonny: There’s one called “My Madon­na,” which I think is the greatest poem ever written. (He lights a cigarette.) I smoke seven cigarettes a day.

Marylou: We grow tobacco in Kentucky.

Sonny: I do it religiously: seven a day. They calm me down if I have an impor­tant business thing. It calms my mind.

Marylou: Sonny’s 88 years old.

Sonny: Just a young man.

Marylou: Are you going to say your poem now?

Sonny: It’s called “My Madonna.”

I haled me a woman from the street,
Passing, but oh, so fair!
I bade her sit in the model’s seat
And I painted her sitting there.
I hid all trace of her heart unclean;
I painted a babe at her breast;
I painted her as she might have been
If the worst had been the best.
When she saw it she laughed and went away.
Then came with a knowing nod,
A connoisseur, who said;
“Tis Mary, the Mother of God.”
So I painted a halo round her head,
And paid her and took my fee.
Now she hangs in the church of Saint Hillaire,
Where you and all may see.


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