I went there as a child, and I remember how grey the day was, and how bright the roses were against the fog. The place both fascinated and frightened me. My sister told me a fib when we were down in the kitchens and peering into the pantries (which were larger than my bedroom at home). She said that George Vanderbilt’s heart was stored in a soapbox crate, and that estate workers still heard it beating at night. Soon after hearing that (and hissing that’s not true, gross), I was separated from our group and hung behind and kept staring into the pantry, both at the wooden crates with Ivory stamped on their sides in blue ink and at the pretty rows of turquoise Mason jars on the shelves. I wasn’t scared, and I didn’t really believe my sister’s story. At seven I had recently started seeing and feeling the thick black line that separates the real and the imaginary, and somehow I knew that a beating Vanderbilt heart sounded too much like fiction to be true.
I walked slowly to find my family, who were only a hundred steps or so ahead of me. In the stone hallways, which were dark and only lit with Edison bulbs in cage lights that flickered and gave off a smell of ozone, there were dressing rooms for the pool and the exercise room. Chiffon robes hung from cast iron hooks, towels as white and sweet-smelling as gardenias lay folded on glossy, polished mahogany benches. So fancy and fine compared to the YMCA locker room where my sister and I changed into our swimsuits during the summer months. In this deep and rich place, a maid dressed in black and white probably followed the guests and family around with a copper handled mop, wiping up all the drips of pool water that fell from smooth, wet legs onto the cobblestone floor. No one must slip; no one must be delayed from their perfect day. The wealth and the detail of the place wrapped me up in a tingling sort of warmth I hadn’t felt before. My family was still ahead, but I walked slowly, letting the atmosphere and the color sink into my skin and memory.
I walked past the dressing rooms, pool, and bowling alley, and finally turned into a two-story storage room, which was painted floor to ceiling with brightly painted murals. Compared to the cultivated elegance of the rest of the house, this room was full of raw creation, like the rough draft of a classic novel.
When the house was still a home, there had been a large Halloween party. The women had dressed as peacocks and gangster’s molls and the men as cowboys and Indians, and as the party yawned on past midnight, the girls were bored and the men had swallowed too much bourbon. Cornelia, the only daughter of George and Edith Vanderbilt, suggested that they take her paints and cover the grey walls with color. She had the soul of an artist, and used to go to her father’s rooftop observatory and cover large canvasses with vast shapes and glowing color. The rest of the party agreed with Cornelia and was game to paint the room. If Cornelia Vanderbilt suggested they paint, then they would paint. But she was not just charming because she was so well-off and influential, she was also funny and kind. She held a sort of unconventional beauty: her eyes were soulful, her mouth red and permanently curled into a slight smirk, her neck long and sinewy like a swan’s.
A servant was called to gather the paints and brushes (he was rung sharply awake from a deep slumber, dreaming of his Sunday off). The festive group painted until the next morning, the feathers and flowers in the women’s hair drooped and wilted, and the men’s hats were thrown onto a table and forgotten. Cornelia felt alive and exhilarated, even after an evening of no sleep.
The murals are still there, the colors still vibrant as a Van Gogh. They painted the walls in a frenetic tromp l’oeil fashion, transforming the dreary big room into a Cuban terrace in the moonlight. Ghostly women, ravens and doves, and men playing guitars in crudely shaped windows cover the darkest corners. As a child I thought it was the most beautiful, glamorous place in the world.
My sister and parents were there in the Halloween room, appearing small and modern in their shorts and polo shirts. They were looking at historical photographs that hung on half-walls in the center of the room. Even after I touched my mother’s soft arm and let her know I was now one of them again, I hung back a little the rest of the tour, wanting to be a bit alone in that hallowed place.