Alexandra Aldrich – a woman born to lost wealth and fading tradition – spins gold in “The Astor Orphan,” a memoir of her early years at the storied Hudson Valley landmark known as Rokeby Mansion.
There is little of the elegance and gentility we might expect here – for the once-magnificent Rokeby was well into its decline when Aldrich came along, an only child descended, on her father’s side, from American eminence and affluence.
She describes the approach to Rokeby, over some of the estate’s 450 riverside acres:
“As one tops the final rise of the gravel carriage drive, the eastern wall of the forty-three-room mansion appears. Even from a distance, one can see the brown water stains that streak the mansion’s off-white stucco walls and the missing slats in the peeling black shutters that edge its long-paned windows … The house’s wide stone steps lead up to the porch and the faded frescoes that adorn its sandstone walls.”
One of these frescoes, Aldrich tells us, “depicts the Algonquin who dwelled on this land before it was granted to the Scotsman Robert Livingston Sr. by King James II in the 1680s.” Another, she says, “portrays Napoleon giving a flock of merino sheep to General John Armstrong Jr. – U.S. minister to France from 1804 to 1810, secretary of war in Madison’s cabinet, and the man who built this house.”
And the legacy goes on – with William B. Astor – a son of John Jacob Astor, America’s first multimillionaire – coming into the picture when he marries an Armstrong in 1818; the Aldrich name being added to the mix when Richard Aldrich, a well-known music critic, weds Margaret Chanler (nee Livingston) in 1906.
Alexandra Aldrich is an 11th generation Rokeby dweller when we meet her – a child drawing on her illustrious heritage, eccentric upbringing and poetic appreciation for the deteriorating Rokeby to give us an unusual and layered book that is, at once, personal, historic – and certainly more revealing than her Livingston, Armstrong and Astor forebears would like.
For she brings out the family’s dirty laundry here, starting within her own disorganized circle – which includes a Harvard-educated but unemployed father obsessed with an impossible dream of restoring Rokeby, a Polish-born mother more interested in art than bringing up a child and a kind-hearted but alcoholic grandmother who manages, most of the time, to offer Aldrich a semblance of stability.
“Surrounded by whimsical, unstructured people who did what they pleased whenever they pleased, I genuinely idealized a respectable and disciplined life,” Aldrich tells us. “I was a free spirit who watched unrated, arty films with Mom and dressed in vintage clothing from the local thrift shop. Our living quarters were furnished with random, broken hand-me-downs. We didn’t live by rules that coincided in any way with those of the outside world. We never had a dinnertime or matching dinnerware. I had no set bedtime. I did not own pajamas or a nightgown.”
During one summer in the book, Aldrich’s father brings home a French woman named Giselle who stays for weeks and leaves pregnant – only to return for the child’s baptism. “Aside from her claim,” the family responds to Giselle’s reappearance, “there’s no indication whatsoever that the child is Teddy’s.” This, Aldrich writes, “remained the party line.”
Aldrich and her parents live, during most of her childhood, in unheated servants’ quarters on the Rokeby’s third floor. Dust is everywhere, and more often than not, there is little food to be had. Yet, on the days Aldrich leaves Rokeby’s riverside expanse, to attend the nearby school, she is considered a pampered little rich girl – a contradiction both heartrending and compelling to read about.
Rokeby – unlike public television’s lush “Downton Abbey” – has no servants, no other helping hands than Aldrich’s father who spends his days “looking for the essence of a Rokeby now lost.” Its only income is from renters of buildings on the grounds, an old milk house, the former coach house, the old creamery …
Her father Teddy, Aldrich says, is “consumed by the dream and entangled by the reality” of Rokeby. Her mother’s presence in the house is one of “a war of one against the mess of generations.” Her grandmother (Claire Aldrich), who lives in the old creamery during Aldrich’s childhood, is among Rokeby’s several family owners, but finds the living “rustic” and hard, “the setting, with its long, dusty driveways riddled with potholes.”
“And Dad,” Aldrich adds, “whom (Grandmother Claire) wanted so desperately to control, broke every rule of propriety that she held sacred.”
There is much afoot in “The Astor Orphan,” Aldrich’s first book – and, initially, it seems named for Aldrich’s Great Grandmother Margaret Chanler, one of 11 free-spirited Astor orphans left to roam Rokeby free, “wild, willful and beyond their guardians’ control,” when their parents die, within months of one another, of pneumonia. In time, Margaret buys out her siblings, becoming the sole owner of Rokeby where, “in reaction to her undisciplined and tragic Rokeby childhood,” she develops rigid rules.
“For her,” Aldrich writes, “the greatest threats to the family’s respectability were divorce and religious conversion …” And so Margaret banished even family members from Rokeby’s grounds, including “her favorite brother, Lewis (divorced) and her own daughter, Maddie (also divorced), as well as her sister Alida, who had chosen to become Catholic.”
Aldrich herself often seems the orphan of her memoir’s title – a basically unsupervised child longing to “clean everything” at Rokeby “so that it might one day look presentable to outsiders.” When considering what to tell interviewers for admission to boarding school – where she hoped to get her secondary education – Aldrich muses:
“My roots are Eastern European, you know. Oh … you thought I was all-American? That’s only on my father’s side. I grew up on an old Hudson River estate, in an eccentric family of Astor descendants who are obsessed with their heritage. My home is a mansion that was built in the early 19th century but is now in considerable disrepair. People tell me that it’s every child’s dream to grow up in such a ‘paradise,’ with such an interesting family … People often tell me I should write the story of my family’s more recent history. What’s so interesting about it, you ask? Although my family is directly descended from American aristocracy, my parents are rather … bohemian.”
Yes, Great Grandmother Margaret would surely spin in her grave to learn that Rokeby has, for years, been “a haven for those who dwelled in the margins,” some of them nonpaying guests, bohemians and artists who, during Aldrich’s childhood, put on seasonal pageants with “papier mâché masks, banners and various other props.”
To them, Aldrich reports, her father was “a miraculous mix of classically educated WASP and generous free spirit whose very lifestyle was a masterpiece.”
Rokeby, with landscaping by Olmsted and early remodeling by Stanford White, is named for a poem by Sir Walter Scott – and is, in the end, the orphan of Aldrich’s fine memoir, the only “family member” to withstand not only 200 years of extraordinary American history but a steady stream of heirs and heiresses intent on maintaining that legacy.
The Astor Orphan
By Alexandra Aldrich
257 pages, $24.99
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.