Getting to know Margo through her things
Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 2011, senior editor Lisa Bramen wrote about living among the mementos of a stranger’s life.
Here’s what I know, or at least what I think I know, about Marguerite Ashley Morhouse: She was born in Au Sable Forks in 1918. Friends called her Margo. She was a bank worker, president of a plumbing-supply company and vice-chairman of the Essex County Republican Committee, a politician’s wife and mother of five. She enjoyed skiing, cooking, reading, needlework and, I surmise, the occasional cocktail. She died in 2008, the year before I bought her Upper Jay house and all its contents.
I never met Margo, but I’ve accumulated enough of her biographical details to almost feel as if I did—enough, even, to take the liberty of referring to her in the familiar. I’ve learned about her life from her obituary, from newspaper articles about her prominent husband, and from neighbors. But I like to think that what I really know about Margo, what has made me grow fond of her over the last two years, has come from using the everyday items that were once hers.
I didn’t need her obituary, for instance, to tell me that she was “a gracious hostess in her public life as well as in her home” and “an excellent cook.” I had gleaned as much from her kitchen, which contained everything a domestic goddess of the 1960s might need: cast-iron skillets, roasting pans, a meat grinder and other assorted gadgets, all of them well used.
I may never know whether the lovely embroidered wall hanging or cheery quilt she left behind were done by her own hand, but it was no surprise to read that Margo was “most noted for her prolific, beautiful needlework.”
After Margo’s death, her son put the house on the market. The children had grown up in Ticonderoga and retained the family’s lakefront property there. The second home in Upper Jay was used for ski vacations, Thanksgiving gatherings and an annual New Year’s Eve bash. It was also where Margo could visit with her close childhood friend, Arto Monaco’s wife, Gladys, who lived down the road.
After several months on the market, the seller reduced the price significantly enough to drop it within the search parameters in the online listings my then-fiancé, Matt, and I had been obsessively scouring as we looked for our first home.
The pictures weren’t promising: they showed a dull blue-gray exterior done no favors by winter gloom, and an interior with shabby red curtains and an equally threadbare couch. Still, the house was close to work, came with a few acres and, most important, fit our budget. I drove by on the way home one day and decided it was worth a visit with a Realtor.
We were instantly smitten. Aside from the roof and a rotting window frame, the structure of the wood-sided farmhouse, built in 1850, was in excellent shape. Once we looked past the tattered curtains and couch, the decor was charmingly vintage-country, with old-fashioned ﬂoral wallpaper, braided rugs, antique furniture and assorted retro doodads.
Matt was excited about the hand-hewn exposed beams, the view of Whiteface Mountain from the yard and the saloon doors that led to a wet bar off the living room—well stocked with cocktail shakers, tumblers and a sign saying, “A drink in time saves a dull party.”
I swooned over the kitchen, a midcentury marvel that might be a little kitsch for some. Its butter-yellow aluminum cabinets and robin’s-egg-blue Formica countertops were in near-mint condition, as were a farm table and a hutch stuffed with matching blue and yellow Fiestaware, whose Art Deco lines I have always loved.
We agreed the house was just right for us, but another couple outbid us and our dream home slipped away—or so we thought. A few weeks later we learned that their deal had fallen through.
Matt and I had very little furniture between us, and one of the reasons we liked the house, we realized, was the stuff inside—it seemed so much a part of it. So in our ﬁnal offer we asked for all the contents. The seller accepted.
Going through the drawers and closets of our new home was like a treasure hunt. Not that anything valuable was found, but among the mothballed blankets (which we tossed) and trinkets that were not to our taste (which we put aside for a garage sale or to donate), we discovered interesting artifacts.
A catalog for Lewis Woodshop, in Lewis, was dated 1962—the year, according to the deed, that Margo had bought the house. It seemed she purchased at least one of nearly every item listed, including a butternut hutch cabinet ($72), kidney coffee table ($20) and a half-dozen “milking stools” ($5 each), used, we guessed, as seats at the children’s table or as footrests. Other than the worn-out couch—which we traded for a more comfortable upholstered model—it’s all still there.
Neighbors told us that Arto Monaco, the Upper Jay toy designer and theme-park pioneer, helped decorate the house. Touches of his storybook aesthetic are apparent throughout, especially in the kitchen and those saloon doors. I
kept the set of hand-painted teacups from Italy and the Esso Happy Motoring Touring Guides for a dozen states—souvenirs of vacations I didn’t take. Matt and I repurposed the decks of Land of Makebelieve and Whiteface Mountain playing cards that we found in a drawer, using them as table numbers at our wedding the following summer (a nod to how we’d met, at a poker game). A friend who is a talented seamstress expanded the cheery quilt, which now covers our bed.
I’ve often felt shortchanged in the family-heirloom department: the ﬁne inlaid table my great-grandfather made was lost years ago, and an aunt called dibs on Grandma’s beautiful china. Maybe I’ve adopted Margo, and her things, as partial recompense.
As I cook in her kitchen or mix cocktails at her bar, I sometimes ﬁnd myself conjecturing about what she might have been like: a traditional wife, yes, but also strong, intelligent and with a sharp wit. She’d not suffer fools gladly. I have no idea whether this character study has any basis in truth, but I did learn that Margo’s life, though apparently comfortable, was not without tribulations.
When I found a Rockefeller campaign yardstick touting “good, clean government,” I thought it was a neat bit of political history and displayed it on the bookshelf. It wasn’t until some of our neighbors spotted it at our housewarming party that we learned its signiﬁcance: L. Judson Morhouse, Margo’s husband, was chairman of the state Republican Party and was instrumental in Nelson Rockefeller’s 1959 nomination as the party’s candidate for governor. Morhouse had been caught up in some sort of scandal, “had taken the fall” for someone, they said.
I searched the Internet and learned the story from old articles: According to Life magazine Morhouse—“one of New York’s most powerful Republicans” and “Rockefeller’s right-hand man”—was convicted of taking bribes from Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club, which needed help obtaining a liquor license in New York City. When the allegations came to light Morhouse resigned. This was in December 1962, a few months after the Upper Jay house was purchased.
Once Morhouse was convicted and his appeals ran out, in December 1970, he was sentenced to two to three years in prison. He spent only six days in Sing Sing, though, before Rockefeller commuted his sentence, citing his multiple illnesses and that jail time would likely hasten his death.
Morhouse and his wife retreated to their Ticonderoga home. In 1974, when Gerald Ford chose Rockefeller as Vice President in the wake of Watergate, the New York Times tracked Morhouse down for comment. Margo answered the door, telling the reporter, “You can’t talk to him and I have nothing to say.”
I don’t know what Margo would think of me writing about her now. She surely would disapprove of my housekeeping skills, which almost certainly would fall short of her standards. But I like to imagine that, at least, she would be glad that someone is making use of her house and enjoying all the things in it that helped make it a home.