A theatrical home in Rhinebeck is the ultimate set for the former daytime television writer
The main part of the house was built in 1740 or 1799, depending on who you read,” says Sam Hall, shuffling in his stockinged feet toward an armchair in his front parlor, where he plunks himself down. Clearly, Hall is unconcerned about the 59-year gap in his home’s provenance, even though the period it spans encompasses a few major historical events — for example, the American Revolution. When you’ve lived a life as rich as Hall’s, continuity tends to trump the details.
As soon as he’s situated, the elderly Hall begins doing what writers cannot help but do: he tells stories. It’s a misty morning in Rhinebeck (Dutchess), and a languid fire smolders in the fireplace. Hall is enveloped in a thick black cardigan flecked with dog hairs. On his lap is their source — Orlando, his devoted pug — snoring zealously as the writer offers an account of his long career (the most recent installment of which was the April premiere of his play, War Games, at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck).
With little segue, Hall wanders into the 1970s, somewhere during his 10-year stint as head writer for the soap opera One Life to Live. “The woman in charge of the show was very open-minded,” he says, “and she allowed us to do some very risquÃ© things. At one point, I lifted the entire plot of Belle du Jour [the 1967 BuÃ±uel film about a married woman who becomes an afternoon call girl]. One day a woman came up to me and told me my work was gritty. I never thought I’d be gritty,” says Hall, savoring the word. “But fine.” He allows himself a bemused chuckle as his brows arch over his blue eyes.
Hall lives in grand, comfortably fading refinement on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. The place is furnished with Biedermeier and Gothic flourishes and painted with saturated faux moirÃ©-style finishes. He is gifted with a trenchant wit, and like many trained in the theater, has an effete, world-weary patrician manner that is as disarming as it is sharp. Gritty? Hardly.
Hall was born in Carrollton, Ohio, a town of about 2,500 souls, though he won’t say when. “I’m not ever telling,” he insists. “If I tell you how old I am, I become that old.” His father owned a rubber-glove factory and traveled to New York often, which is where Hall first encountered the theater. “It knocked me out,” he remembers. He was so smitten that in high school, “I wrote the school play, directed it, acted in it, designed the costumes, and did everything to make myself desperately unpopular with everyone.”
After high school he attended Dartmouth, then was drafted into the army and served in a supply depot near the front lines during the Battle of the Bulge (an experience that informs the plot of War Games). When he returned from Europe, Hall enrolled in the drama school at Yale to study playwrighting. It was here in 1951 that he met his future wife, Grayson Hall, who was guest-starring in Our Betters. She had been born Shirley Grossman in Philadelphia in either 1923 or 1926 (biographies differ, but Hall says Grayson, who died in 1985, “would prefer 1926 — even dead”), and by then was a working actress. “She wasted none of her ingÃ©nue years studying acting at Yale,” quips Hall, adding that she was an “unambitious” thespian.
Despite that, she had a varied career. In her early years, Grayson was a regular at Circle in the Square, where she developed a specialty for French avant-garde theater (Genet, Cocteau, Giraudoux). In 1963, she was nominated for a best-supporting-actress Oscar for her role as Judith Fellowes in Night of the Iguana, in which she starred opposite Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, and Ava Gardner.
But she found her biggest commercial success on television, particularly on the occult soap opera Dark Shadows, where she played Dr. Julia Hoffman, a parapsychologist trying to cure the vampire Barnabas Collins of his condition. Hall became one of the head writers of this show. “I’ll never escape Dark Shadows,” he laments. “Never, never!”
Considering that the soap only lasted from 1966 to 1971, Hall’s frustration is understandable. He had done and would do a lot of other work, including early script writing for Playhouse 90, “a whirl of soap operas” (General Hospital, Santa Barbara, and One Life to Live, among others), and various movies of the week for PBS. “I got a Peabody Award, for what that’s worth,” he says. “It’s supposed to be prestigious, but it hasn’t changed my life one iota.”
Hall’s house reveals hints of a penchant for the eccentric and macabre. In the foyer, for instance, is an enigmatic black painting of a ram. “I love it,” says Hall. “It’s so dark and gloomy.” A portrait of Grayson in the front parlor looks similarly otherworldly. In the dining room are iron candlesticks in the form of dragons, and in the living room, a bronzed human skull sits incongruously in a Victorian birdcage.
Hall and his wife bought the house, called Wildercliff, in 1979. It had been built by a Livingston daughter, who’d married a preacher and had a child, a dwarf who died a spinster. The spinster gave the Suckley family the property’s north pasture, which is where the Wilderstein estate stands today. Daisy Suckley, FDR’s distant cousin and confidante, became a friend of the Halls. The Depew family, who owned the house prior to the Halls, also entertained many literary lights there: Gore Vidal, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick. And, says Hall, “Daisy told me Clare Boothe Luce wrote her first novel here, which will thrill no reader.” To this guest list, the Halls added many of their acting and writing friends, and, in 1958, a son (Matthew, also a writer).
It was another of Hall’s friends, the famed decorator Harrison Cultra, who designed many of the rooms. In an addition built around 1850, Cultra created a bright, elegant living room appointed with floral-upholstered sofas; paintings by Rory McEwen (“an early English rock star who married one of the Astors and turned to painting tulips,” Hall says dryly); elaborate draperies (“My wife never knew how much those cost; I burned the bills”); gilded Gothic-style mirrors; and a Biedermeier table and side chairs. One of his favorite objects in this room, he says as he lifts it from its stand for inspection, is a Chinese roof tile in the shape of a horse, the reverse side of which reveals a chunk of the roof from which it was chipped.
Most of the other rooms display a bold sense of color. In the parlor is more Biedermeier set against a backdrop of cantaloupe-colored walls, a Scandinavian grandfather clock that has long ceased keeping time, and needlepoint pillows of pugs. The foyer is a vivid salmon. Here, the floor — on which sits an eclectic mix of fringed Victorian slipper chairs, a pair of Hitchcock chairs, a Moroccan table, and an 18th-century English console with a gilded eagle base — is painted faux marble. The kitchen (an early 1900s addition) is powder blue.
The dining room walls are lemon yellow from the chair rail up, a color echoed in a huge rug Hall bought in Red Hook for $400, as well as in an enormous watercolor by local artist Kenny Polenski. An exquisite Biedermeier sideboard with gilded details and a brass grille sits against one wall. An enormous bronze chandelier hovers above the round claw-footed dining room table, which is surrounded by lyre-back chairs. A side table also has claws, a recurring motif that perpetuates the Dark Shadows allusions. The dining room faces a bay window with views of the Hudson and a pool house. “The pool house was originally the dwarf’s play house,” says Hall, adding wickedly, “It used to be two stories inside, but now it’s only one.”
I have arthritic knees,” Hall apologizes as he leads the way slowly upstairs. At the top is his bedroom, a modern monochromatic anomaly in this 18th-century home. It was decorated in the early 1990s by contemporary designer Jeffrey Bilhuber, who covered the walls in cream-colored Mexican bark paper and furnished it with a clean-lined metal canopy bed, textured but muted fabrics, and ethnic accessories. Against one wall is a rustic tree sculpture by Woodstock artist Jonah Meyer.
Hall’s office is another Bilhuber creation, classically appointed for the most part and painted yellow. A modern departure is the desk, which was made of brass and stainless steel by John Vesey. From here Hall continues to write — not for TV, however. “At one point in the 1990s I had five writers working for me,” says Hall. “They were all earning 10 grand a week, but they had never read anything of interest. They had spent their entire lives watching television and it was their whole frame of reference. I realized television was never going to get any better because the people who were taking over thought everything was fine. There was no impatience about the medium.”
Instead, Hall writes for himself. “I am not existing in the hope that someone picks it up,” he says of War Games. How much more acclaim, after all, could he crave? Having helped shape the culture of American daytime television, he is content to spend his days with Orlando, so-named, he points out with characteristic wit, “because he’s my retirement pug.” ■