Henry F. du Pont and Winterthur: A Daughter's Portraitby Ruth Lord, R. W. Lewis (Foreword by)
World renowned for its vast woodland gardens, its 175-room house, and its unrivaled collection of American decorative arts, Winterthur in Delaware is today among the most beloved museums in the United States. In its earlier days Winterthur was the family home where Ruth du Pont Lord grew up and where her father, Henry F. du Pont (18801969), envisioned and
World renowned for its vast woodland gardens, its 175-room house, and its unrivaled collection of American decorative arts, Winterthur in Delaware is today among the most beloved museums in the United States. In its earlier days Winterthur was the family home where Ruth du Pont Lord grew up and where her father, Henry F. du Pont (18801969), envisioned and then brought to fruition his great museum of Americana.
In this memoir, Ruth Lord engagingly describes the development of Henry F. du Pont from a shy, lonely child, a seemingly hopeless student who had bad times at school, to a man who went on to achieve singular distinction in three disparate fieldsas art connoisseur, horticulturist, and eminent cattle breeder. Based on her personal experience, and on extraordinary family archives, the author provides a behind-the-scenes view of the legendary lifestyle of the du Pont family, brings to life other family members, including her brilliant mother and irrepressible aunt, Louise Crowninshield, and tells of her father’s many additional activities, which culminated in his leadership role in Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House restoration.
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The Golf Cottage
At the start of the nineteenth century, Eleuthère Irénée du Pont gradually bought several hundred acres of land in northern Delaware. There he raised merino sheep and planted wheat, clover, barley, rye, and experimental millet. Successive generations of the family continued to nurture the farm, later called Winterthur, and added to it--more land, various types of cattle, carriage and riding horses, fruit trees and evergreens.
Winterthur is alive with springs; streams flow across meadows, circle hills both steep and gentle, and border the woods. Many of the trees--tulip poplars, white ash, oaks, hickories, and giant beeches--are now two hundred or more years old. My grandfather was dismayed when lightning struck a distant chestnut, "one of the few remaining relics of the primeval forest." My mother called the flowering dogwood outside her bedroom window "the bride," and at times the ancient maple beside my own Golf Cottage, its trunk and branches marked with holes and crevices, seems to me to be an Arthur Rackham original about to speak. Lovely at every season, it is especially so early in the year when its lacy flower clusters give way to leaves and dissolve into pools of russet dust.
I am challenged by thoughts of Winterthur and the way in which my father, Henry Francis du Pont, brought it to its present state as a gift to the public. I am uncertain when he decided to make a museum of his house there, and also when I decided to write something about him. Happenings in my own family, good and bad, coincided with my discovery of family history in the archives of the Hagley Museum and Library, housed in a nineteenth-century stone building on the banks of the Brandywine River. Learning of events of earlier days, trivial and momentous, gave me perspective on the present and helped to impel this endeavor.
The Brandywine River has always called to me; when I was quite young, on foot or on horseback, alone or with friends, picnicking or canoeing, I grew to know it well. And here, stored in archives on its very banks, my new discovery beguiled me. In case upon case of letters, a host of forebears came suddenly alive. I was drawn first to my father's mother, Pauline Foster du Pont. I had known very little about her, only that she was warm and loving and had died too young. An elderly friend of my parents' remembered being enchanted on first seeing her at Winterthur in a white evening dress with a pale blue satin sash. And that was about all. But now here she was, mostly in letters she wrote to her sister in New York. And with her she brought to life her little boy Harry, my father.
Until I became captive to this project, the notion of ancestors and family trees quite turned me off. Only as I grew older did I begin to want to learn about the past. The self-absorption of youth gave way for me, as it does for many people, to a compelling involvement in the here and now, and for a long time the exploration of earlier generations was far from my thoughts. As I read and learned, however, a new dimension opened to me.
It is bewildering to attempt to understand and describe a human being--that is, to see the person as the end product of myriad inherent potentials, shaped by countless and continuing influences from outside. The wealth of material harbored in the Hagley archives about the generations that preceded Harry du Pont is as nothing compared to the vast repository of lore at Winterthur about the man himself. Perhaps one day someone will write a full-scale biography of him. For now, my hope is to do him justice in a small and personal way.
When I was growing up, I loved my father and also felt a certain timidity toward him, for his was the final authority. It was he, with his wife's full agreement, who set implicit standards of behavior--reasonable expectations of thoughtfulness and "old-fashioned" good manners--for himself and his family, his guests, and his staff. It was he who orchestrated our lives and our elaborate moves and those of the household. He also took over many tasks that were normally the province of wives and mothers: home furnishing, meal planning, and the supervision of what my sister and I wore, even to our party shoes. He took almost complete charge of Christmas, from house and tree decorations to stocking presents, beginning with the kumquat and lady apple in the toe.
My father was busy with a host of projects, and it was hard to corner him. He spoke quickly and rather indistinctly, and conversation with him was minimal. If asked, he would produce snippets of advice: in a train dining car, by all means converse with strangers if you feel all right about it; on the sidewalk, avoid the little dance if you are about to run into someone head on, and "stand perfectly still." Although he was not one for playing with the young, when I was very small and begged him to dance, he would allow me to stand on his shoes while he took a few steps. And seldom did I risk teasing him. Once I hid nearby after leaving an alarming "ink blot" made of tin on his antique bedspread; his composure returned only after my quick reappearance, and I never repeated the trick.
I was quite unaware of the extent or depth of my father's wisdom and knowledge, and for a long time I knew only a fraction of the man himself. I saw him as both lovable and in a way innocent, a man whom I almost always beat at backgammon and at after-dinner word games with my mother and sister. (We shrieked with laughter when he came up with "Pushkin" for an author's name, only later discovering our own ignorance.)
I came to realize that in part my father's reticence--for he volunteered little about his interests or his life, past or present--was born of both shyness and modesty. I imagine that he would not have had answers to many of the questions I now wish that I had put to him. Would he have supposed that the heights of creativity and accomplishment that he attained represented, among other influences, compensation for years of academic near-disaster and social immaturity? I think not, nor do I think he could have explained what brought about his transformation from an inhibited youth and perhaps a borderline dyslexic into a dedicated man, supreme in several fields, who, after a long apprenticeship, would make a difference in the world. Would he have understood the source of his generosity, his desire to share to the fullest extent his gardens and his house and his love of beauty? And what of his insatiability as a collector? Had he recognized it, it is unlikely that he would have connected it to early experiences of insecurity or loss. But I believe that my father was well aware of his indebtedness to a variety of factors in his life--among them the gift of free time, which was essential both for his slow-paced development and for the expression of the restless artistic passion that drove him.
Henry Francis du Pont's love of the land was bred in the bone, handed down by both father and mother, their immediate forebears, and the French, Dutch, and Scottish generations that preceded them. Throughout my father's life, Winterthur was his point of focus. While he was at boarding school, the thought of it both comforted and distracted him. "I have been away from home for so long, I am just wild to get back." One can trace through Harry's life a driven quality, as if, from boyhood on, however subliminally, he was preparing to make of Winterthur something special, accessible, and astonishing.
My father was not articulate about this, at least not to me, but somehow I came by the passion as well. At eight years old, I wrote a Hiawatha- inspired verse instantly derided by my sister. It began
Where's the Land of Heart's Desire?
Many people often ask me,
and continued, no less fatuously,
Then I answer slowly, surely
Delaware of course.
But Winterthur did seem to me to be that land.
From time to time, however, the scale and density of our living quarters there overwhelmed me, and when I was not very old I became aware of my passion for another house, one that seemed to symbolize much of the place I treasured. Alone on a walk by my father's nine-hole golf course, and dreaming of romance and as yet unknown loves, I noticed as if for the first time a narrow, tall stone building with a hill exactly its height on one side and a huge maple tree by the front door. It was the Golf Cottage, untenanted and bare of furniture. It was unlocked, and with great excitement I let myself in. Inside the thick walls I came upon an enormous fireplace and discovered its mate on the floor above, reached by steep and narrow stairs. At this level a Dutch door at the back of the house gave onto a tiny terrace of old brick, overhung by a portico supported on wooden pillars. From here extended a heart-shaped lawn flat as a stage, sheltered on its left side by the hill, which continued as an encircling tree-covered arm. To the right the sharp drop of land was masked by a grove of shrubs--honey locusts, lilacs, mock orange. Straight ahead, seen through the vista, the land gradually fell away, giving over to marsh grasses and a pond; it then became a par five fairway, rising to woods in the distance.
Fifteen or so years later, when our by now monumental house had become a museum, my parents moved to a Regency-style edifice they had built near the Clenny Run bridge at the foot of the hill. Although far smaller than what we had left, the Clenny Run house was quite splendid, with beautiful twin staircases, a conservatory, many bedrooms on unexpected levels, and two elevators. However, as its sartorial and behavioral demands, especially trying for grandchildren, were not diminished, my father consented to my request that when my husband, my children, and I came to visit we might stay in the Golf Cottage. By then this eighteenth-century house had been somewhat enlarged to accommodate the first director of the Winterthur Museum, who had briefly occupied it with his family.
Since my husband and I lived and worked in Connecticut and our children were in school there, our visits to Delaware were infrequent, but the Golf Cottage in all seasons increasingly enchanted me. In marked contrast to the formality almost required by the elegant perfection of the museum a mile away and, to a lesser extent, by its successor house near the bridge, the Golf Cottage had come to represent for me a kind of personal sense of relatedness. Its small rooms, most likely first occupied by farmers and their families, suggested an appealing and intimate way of life. I began to brood about the house's future, After much thought, I wrote, put away, slept on, and rewrote several drafts of a letter to my father in which I expressed my attachment to the Golf Cottage and the hope that someday he would leave it to me. I talked about my love for Winterthur and its countryside and my wish to feel that a small part of it could belong to me and to my children.
I had trouble writing this message and was anxious about my father's reactions to it. A reserved and private person, then seventy-six years old, he was not easy to approach on matters of intimacy; he appeared, in fact, to wish to avoid them. This characteristic had been dramatized for me a decade earlier on the death of his great friend Mrs. Harry Horton Benkard. My gregarious mother had observed to me more than once that my father indeed possessed few very close friends, and she now was saddened that he had lost one who was entirely irreplaceable. Aware then of the depth of his grief, I wrote a note of condolence for him to find when he returned home late one night. This was never acknowledged, nor did I ever mention it; I respected his silence and did not wish to intrude further on his sorrow.
With trepidation, in October 1956 I mailed my much edited Golf Cottage communication, which began: "Dearest Dads, This is a love letter to a house." Because of the intimacy of its tone, not to mention the nature of its contents, my apprehensions increased during the long silence that followed. I feared that I might have encroached on some forbidden terrain. Weeks passed, and I experienced questions and misgivings: Had my letter, or the reply to it, been lost? Had I overstepped some boundary, made too brash a request, somehow offended my father? At last, on the telephone, uneasiness at a pitch, I was able to ask my mother about it. Yes, the letter had arrived, but all she said was, "It was a lovely letter."
So far so good, but what did it mean? Why had my father sent me no word? I began to suspect that I had thrust too emotional a declaration upon a person of reserve who was reluctant, if not unable, to respond to it. I reflected that a more matter-of-fact approach would have been wiser. It was not until my father and I next met, several months later, maneuvering ourselves over an icy path, that I broached the subject anew. And then he said only, "I'm much too old to change my will."
Now, some forty years later, I still remember that my disappointment at the time was tempered with relief that the charged episode I had perpetrated had come to an end. But the story was not over, for my dear father did in fact change his will. He left the Golf Cottage to me for my lifetime and offered my children the opportunity to rent it from the museum after my death.
From my early adulthood on, dizzying changes shook the world, and of course changes were occurring in my life as well: increasing independence, college, marriage, children, work, psychoanalysis, the deaths, eighteen months apart, of my mother and father, divorce, and a second marriage. During some of these years a not surprising, if delayed, adolescent disenchantment with my parents developed. In any case, my early idolatry of them could never have been sustained.
In order to keep my father company after my mother died, we stayed with him on trips to Winterthur, and the Golf Cottage was put to other purposes. Many years later the cottage again became available to me, and my new spouse and I were often able to use it for days at a time. The magic of the house and its setting became increasingly powerful to me, as in fact did all of Winterthur. The museum itself was undergoing a final phase of building. A two-story wing to provide a proper museum entrance and space for major displays was soon to cover the meadow of my childhood, but it was designed with care, so that Clenny Run, my early stepping-stone stream, could continue its flow underneath it unimpeded.
Again alive with construction, the place hummed with generators, and a cluster of vans occupied an adjoining field. The woods themselves, neglected for a time after my father's death, were being restored to their former beauty. Trimmed paths emphasized the immensity of the trees, as did the lush variety of groundcover that undulated beneath them. Trees and shrubs were carefully and often evocatively labeled: "golden raintree"; "full moon maple." From above the quarry--one of my early haunts, its wet depth now filled with ferns and candelabra primroses--stretched an especially lovely vista of hills, meadows, stream, and woods, and here I rediscovered a sign: "Keep This View Open Forever. H. F. du Pont. 1964."
Harry du Pont "thought big," looked ahead, and was always ready to investigate the progressive and new. In gardening and farming, he was "an innovator and a leader." He cultivated rare plants and experimented with plant propagation. His bold decisions, aided by sophisticated equipment in model dairy barns, revolutionized practices of cattle breeding and milk production. Aware of the need to protect the land from urban encroachment, he was careful to designate hundreds of acres of Winterthur's outer boundaries for well-chosen institutions--a golf course, a museum of natural history--to ensure that its integrity as a "country place museum" would be preserved. This man, in fact, was sui generis, a true original. His experience of the "real world" was limited, and his basic interests were circumscribed. But I see him, over the course of his long life, as both representing the nineteenth century with its Victorian standards and as keenly anticipating the twenty-first century.
In realizing the extent to which my father would have been enthralled with the further developments of Winterthur, I also became aware that something was happening to me. My earlier fascination with him was returning; it had been interrupted by preoccupations in my own life and a resulting distance, in which my affection for him co-existed with a recognition of his feet of clay. I now became possessed with a need to try to understand the man with whom for years I had longed to communicate.
I had often remembered a statement my father made to me in adulthood: he said that he had been so devastated by his mother's death when he was twenty-two years old that then and there he had decided to "give up feeling." This was told to me in answer to a now forgotten question, and I cannot imagine how I failed to pursue the subject. Perhaps I tried to do so but got no further. Or perhaps I was stunned into silence by this shocking revelation from a person usually so leery of intimacy, I find myself still shaken by his statement, or rather by the sense of anguish and vulnerability behind it. The concept leads to unanswerable questions. At age twenty-two, would one already have had to experience great pain to come to such a determination? Had my father, in fact, for sixty some years been able to distance himself from emotional pain? If so, would this diminish any corresponding capacity to experience joy or ecstasy?
As the memory of this avowal of my father's combined with my increasing appreciation of his aesthetic triumphs, with the Golf Cottage as a framework I reexperienced profound love for him. I hoped that if I could begin to learn more about his life, I would have a chance to understand this intriguing creature.
Meet the Author
Ruth Lord, the younger daughter of Henry F. du Pont, spent much of her childhood at Winterthur. She is a research affiliate of the Child Study Center, Yale University, and a co-author of When Home Is No Haven: A Casebook of Child Placement Issues, published by Yale University Press.
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