By R. H. Titherington
|Mrs. Clarence Mackay|
An interesting chapter of the modern history of New York society is that which records the development of a district of fine country estates on Long Island, a few miles beyond the eastern boundary of the metropolis. Here, on the great sandy plain that forms the center of the island, and among the wooded hills that fringe its northern shore, a colony —or, rather, several more or less distinct colonies—of rich New Yorkers have made their summer homes. Indeed, the social life of the region may be said to last all the year round. Its calendar of amusements includes Christmas festivities, spring and autumn riding with the Meadowbrook hounds, and the great automobile road race in October, as well as the summer round of polo, tennis, and golf tournaments ashore and yachting on the Sound.
A very few years ago the Meadowbrook Club was the social headquarters of these Long Island colonists. To-day the drift is further afield. The wide Hempstead plain, with its delectable possibilities of subdivision into choice suburban building lots, is being invaded by the trolley-car and the real estate speculator. Fashion is being driven northward and eastward, into the hills that overlook the Sound, where it is excluding all vulgar intruders by entrenching itself in the ownership of great tracts of land. Here, within a few miles' radius, are a series of estates of ducal proportions—great parks surrounding Colonial mansions or French châteaux, elaborately equipped farms for blooded stock, and ample game preserves. They recall the mansions of the Lord of Burleigh and his neighbors "ancient homes of lord and lady, built for pleasure and for state." On the list of land-owners are the names of Vanderbilt, Gould, Morgan, Whitney, and many others almost equally synonymous with millions. The whole region seems likely to grow into a suburban playground for the wealthiest class of New Yorkers—a district of "parks and ordered gardens great" that might be compared to the so-called Dukeries in England.
One of the finest of all these fine places is that of the Clarence Mackay’s at Harbor Hill. High on the wooded slope above the little old village of Roslyn—the highest elevation on Long Island—is their country house, typically French in architecture, imposing in its dimensions and ornamentation, spick and span in its modernity. It looks down the long reach of Hempstead Bay, and is a conspicuous object in the landward view from that picturesque inlet of the Sound.
Clarence Mackay's father, the late John William Mackay, was one of the four men, famous as the Bonanza Kings, who took one hundred and fifty million dollars' worth of silver bullion out of a certain hole in the ground in Nevada called the Big Bonanza mine. That wonderful pocket of ore, set by lavish nature in a nook of the Sierra Nevada’s, was the foundation of the Mackay fortune, much of which was afterward invested in cable and telegraph properties. Of these interests, left in the hands of the younger Mackay by his father's death, three years ago, he has been a careful and successful manager. He is a young man only just past his thirtieth birthday, of very quiet tastes, and devoted to business—but not to the exclusion of healthy amusement, for he is fond of racquets, court tennis, and polo, and plays all three games well. He is also a box-holder and regular attendant at the opera.
It is Mrs. Mackay whose name figures most frequently in connection with Harbor Hill. As Miss Katherine Duer, a direct descendant of the Lady Kitty Duer—Lord Stirling's daughter, and a famous belle of Revolutionary days—she had as long and proud a lineage as any in New York. Through her mother, a daughter of the late William R. Travers, she inherited the traditions of an old Virginia family. The wealth that her marriage brought her gave her the opportunity to gratify the tastes, talents, and ambitions with which she was naturally endowed. As soon as she and her husband acquired their Roslyn property and built their house there, she entered with no small zest into the life of a great country estate. She has disregarded, and thereby to a certain extent obliterated, the dividing lines of clique and faction that are perceptible even in such social paradises as the Long Island cottage colony. She is one of the few hostesses of the inner fold of the Four Hundred who constantly invite to their houses interesting people from intellectual and artistic regions quite outside of the sacred pale. Not many New Yorkers feel that absolute assurance of their own position which makes such experiments entirely safe.
Mrs. Mackay's interest in literature and literary people is more than a merely sympathetic one, for she is a clever writer herself. Since her marriage she has published a drama, "Gabrielle," and a novel, "The Stone of Destiny."
To her dependents and poorer neighbors on Long Island she is a veritable Lady Bountiful. The newspapers, in their eagerness for personalities, have told of many of her benefactions—of her gifts to local churches, of her visits of charity to the county prison. The largest function at Harbor Hill this year, and undoubtedly the one that gave most pleasure to its participants, was an entertainment to five hundred school-children.
There is in Roslyn a library given to the village years ago by William Cullen Bryant, whose home stood nearby on the shore of Hempstead Bay. Finding that through lack of funds it had fallen into decay, Mrs. Mackay restored and re-equipped it, contributing part of the cost herself and assessing the rest upon her friends in the neighborhood.
She has taken a special interest in school matters, and it is said that she intends to announce herself as a candidate for the position of school trustee at the next election in the Roslyn, district. She recently exercised her privileges as a taxpayer by laying her views on the subject of education before the present board of commissioners. "The duty of the school," she said, "is no longer to teach only the three R's' in order to make a respectable clerk for the future employer, but it is to develop men and women, fathers and mothers, awakening in each boy and girl the two great necessary instincts, the instinct of the fireside and the instinct of mutual aid." Such a theory may seem a trifle high-sounding for a village board, but that the writer could also deal with practical details was shown by her businesslike presentation of the facts of the case. "There are four hundred and thirty children in our schools, and ten teachers. You can judge for yourselves how much individual attention each child receives. Our school tax in this village should be raised from eighty cents to a dollar and a quarter, in order to cover the additional expenses of a manual-training school and in order to increase the number of teachers."
Rich American land-owners have often found it a thankless undertaking to participate in local politics, but Mrs. Mackay evidently possesses the courage and the public spirit to try an experiment which has seldom succeeded in this country, where our social order is less suited to it than that of the old world.
From Munsey’s Magazine – August 1905.