Tuxedo Park: Lives, Legacies, Legends

The exclusive hamlet of Tuxedo Park has long been home to upper-crust society. A new book looks at the men — and women — of the community whose influence extended far beyond its stone walls

In the south-central part of Orange County, tucked away behind stone walls and a massive iron gate, is the historic community of Tuxedo Park, the nation’s first “gated” community. Forged out of the wilderness of the Ramapo Mountains in 1881 by wealthy tobacco heir Pierre Lorillard, this collection of 300 turn-of-the-century homes on the shores of Tuxedo Lake was built as a resort haven and sportsman’s paradise for blue blood society (both J.P. Morgan and William Waldorf Astor had homes there). The community is masculine in nearly every aspect — from its variety of gentlemanly pursuits (golf, hunting, fishing, and tennis among them) to the imposing Queen Anne architecture to the Wall Street wheelings and dealings which lined the pockets of its founders.

So how did Lorillard and his fellow titans become upstaged by the women in their community? Chiu Yin Hempel answers that question (among many others) in her new book, Tuxedo Park: Lives, Legacies, Legends. Hempel’s first tome about this cloistered community, 2007’s Tuxedo Park: The Historic Homes (coedited by Christian Sonne) focused on its baronial edifices; the new book turns our attention to the people who put Tuxedo Park on the map. Hempel discusses all the various groups, from the immigrant workers who came to craft the community from the rugged mountain slopes; to the family dynasties whose names include Vanderbilt, Morgan, Harriman, Pell, and Mortimer; to the women who made their mark as pioneers in the disparate worlds of society, business, politics, and the arts.

cora urquhart brown-potterActress Cora Urquhart Brown-Potter

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While the lake and thickly forested surroundings of Tuxedo Park may be calm and idyllic, the inhabitants were historically far from reserved. Hempel describes one such iconoclast, Cora Urquhart Brown-Potter, a beautiful and effervescent woman who married into a wealthy but starchy family, and ultimately found her real passion in the theater. She went on to perform on international stages with great success, and even used her celebrity to endorse a cold cream. Which was the more socially taboo is up for conjecture; but it was, perhaps, the way Cora left her husband that trumps them all. Instead of returning home with James Brown-Potter from an 1886 trip to London, Cora stayed on and began performing onstage. The letter she sent to James explaining her choice was published in the New York Times, and included several spicy quips: “I cannot live there with those stiff-necked people… Your mother and father are an aggravation to me… Let Tuxedo go!” James Brown-Potter also is renowned for eschewing the formal white tie and tails worn by men in those days for the short (and much less stuffy) dinner jacket introduced to him by the Prince of Wales on the very same London trip. The jacket eventually would be coined the “tuxedo,” in homage to the small cluster of men from Tuxedo Park who swanned around New York wearing it. Cora ended up making her own mark on society, though it was in London: a sketch of the socialite and actress hangs in that city’s National Portrait Gallery.

The jacket eventually would be coined the “tuxedo,” in homage to the small cluster of men from Tuxedo Park who swanned around New York wearing it

A different, and much more well-known, portrait — of George Washington, as famously painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1779 — once hung in the Tuxedo Park mansion called “Blairhame.” Its owner, Natalie Blair, is described by Hempel as a “collector of Americana of the first rank.” Blair passionately accumulated an impressive collection of art, furniture, and antiques in her neo-Jacobean brick mansion, which was designed by architects Carrere & Hastings (they also built the New York Public Library). The bulk of Blair’s collection is now housed inside another Manhattan landmark, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Student tour groups are among those who benefit from Blair’s desire to “preserve this art for future generations.” Even Blairhame itself now serves to benefit students — Blair’s daughter donated the 65-room mansion to the Tuxedo Park School, which now uses it to educate 220 students from all over the Hudson Valley. And, as it turns out, Blair’s ability to curate art proved as impressive as her educational mandate: the Peale portrait of General Washington recently sold for $21.3 million.

dorothy draperInterior designer Dorothy Draper

Photograph courtesy of The Archives of Dorothy Draper & Co., Inc. (New York)/The Carleton Varney Design Group

A contemporary of Blair’s, Dorothy Draper was a leading interior designer in the 1930s. In an era in which women were seldom seen outside their own well-decorated homes, Draper parlayed the social and political connections nurtured in the parlors of Tuxedo Park into a breakout career. Indeed, Draper began by helping many of her neighbors in the Park create their beautiful homes, but she soon segued to the bustling public forums of hotels, designing legendary interiors for the Drake Hotel in Chicago, the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C., and the Hotel Carlyle in New York City. She later added retail stores, hospitals, cars, and even airplanes to her mix — an impossibly wide range of projects marked by their good taste and the ability to stand the test of time.

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emily postEtiquette expert Emily Post

Photograph courtesy of The Emily Post Institute Inc.

Hempel describes another Tuxedo Park native, Emily Post, who was equally concerned with good taste — though her chosen arena was manners. The author of Etiquette (reprinted 89 times between 1922 and 1969) was the headstrong daughter of Bruce Price, one of Tuxedo Park’s most important and prolific architects. One of Lorillard’s earliest collaborators on this ambitious community, Price and his family lived in one of the “cottages” he designed there. Daughter Emily grew up saturated in the nuanced, complicated codes of conduct that dictated Tuxedo high society life. Drawing insight from the community’s social swim, Post found a way to codify and explain the manners, conduct, and customs of her tribe: a social anthropologist if ever there was one. At the same time, she had the foresight and the moxie to hone in on this previously uncharted territory and brand it for the world at large.

Women worldwide now owe Emily Post a politely written thank-you note for the way she has helped the men in their lives learn how to open doors and push in chairs, not to mention which fork to use. And like the other three women referenced here and in Hempel’s well-written book, Post probably deserves even more gratitude from the men who lived alongside them in Tuxedo Park over the years. These women enriched the lives of their families to be sure, but also the life of their community at large.

Today, the Tuxedo Park Fire Department and Tuxedo Park Library (both located outside the gates, on Route 17) are also benefiting from the industrious endeavors of a woman from Tuxedo Park. Hempel is donating the proceeds from the sale of Tuxedo Park: Lives, Legacies, Legends to these institutions; the book can be purchased through the “shop” section of the library’s Web site.

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