Life in the Big House:
Alexandra Aldrich, author of The Astor Orphan
Last summer I went to a rare open house at Rokeby, one of the few intact Hudson River estates to remain in family hands. My curiosity to see the place was piqued by a 2010 New York Times article, which described the colorful cast inhabiting the 450-acre property and the challenges of preserving it with no remaining family fortune. I live a short drive from Rokeby and had passed by any number of times. But I’d never gone beyond the sagging line of mailboxes at its farm road entrance, where I once let off a pungent young man who needed a ride from the Rhinecliff train station.
“Wow!” I exclaimed, after I parked in a field and saw the 1815 house gleaming in the bright June sunlight. It looked spectacular: a cream-colored Federal beauty with wide columned porch and twin curving stone staircases. But as I got closer I noticed peeling paint, cracked walls and missing windowpanes.
Photographs by Bella Stander
In the ground-floor reception rooms, I gasped with amazement at their artistic and historical riches. Among them was an elegantly drawn 1921 family tree tracing the Winthrop, Beekman, Stuyvesant, etc., unions that begat Margaret Livingston Chanler (one of the notorious “Astor Orphans”) and Richard Aldrich, whose grandchildren are the current Rokeby owners. Then I was gasping for breath from the black mold all over the grand salon, where a local historian gave talks to the more fungus-tolerant.
Until then I had been somewhat disdainful of my nondescript 1961 rancher. But as soon as I fled home, I told my husband, “I am so glad to live in a clean house where everything works!”
Alexandra Aldrich, the author of The Astor Orphan, (Ecco/HarperCollins) a poignant memoir of growing up at Rokeby in the early 1980s, chuckles over the phone when I recount my experience.
“My father jokes that I always wanted to live in a trailer,” she says. “I liked the idea of a trailer—a cozy little house, not rambling, and you can’t get lost in it. When I was living in Brooklyn 10 years ago I would be so grateful to get home from Rokeby!”
Until she went to boarding school at age 14, she lived with her parents in three storage rooms on the third floor of the crumbling 43-room mansion. Meanwhile her uncle and cousins had seven large, well-appointed rooms downstairs. Rokeby’s other co-owner, “Aunt Liz,” only visited in the summer, when the house was most liveable—at least on the lower floors. “Grandma Claire,” who made sure Aldrich was fed, clothed and taken to violin lessons, lived in the former chauffeur’s garage. Other residents on the property included artists, freeloaders and the “legitimately insane,” whom Aldrich says her father (“the true aristocrat in the family”) invited out of a sense of noblesse oblige.
She writes, “To keep the house as it was [when Margaret Chandler Aldrich died in 1963], we sacrifice any resources that might have been invested in the current generation. In return, the house gives each of us — the impoverished descendants — an identity. And we live off the remains of our ancestral grandeur.”
What a sorrowful legacy, I observe.
“It was very sad to see the adults in my life consumed by this effort to hold on to Rokeby,” Aldrich responds. “And it was at the cost of raising the next generation properly. My father came back to Rokeby in the gentleman’s tradition, became penniless and did work on the farm for free.” Whereas “Uncle Harry,” his younger brother, had a conventional job (he is a former New York State Deputy Commissioner of Historic Preservation) and a pedigreed wife with her own money.
“My uncle lived much better than my father did. I lived in the margins of their lives. I always felt as if I owed them, as if I was the family charity case.”
Aldrich wrote her memoir, whose endpapers are the family tree I admired, because “I wanted to tell my story. When I was growing up, I felt I was living in someone else’s Rokeby story. Its history seemed to stop when my great-grandmother died. My uncle, who put the place on the National Register and gave tours, would introduce me as, ‘This is my niece Alexandra, the next generation of Rokeby owners.’ Nobody was interested that I was the daughter of a Polish artist and a Harvard-educated aristocrat/blue-collar handyman.”
From age 10 to 14, the time frame of her narrative, “I was not only numb but had to pretend that these things weren’t really happening: my grandmother’s drinking and father’s affair.”
With a child’s stark clarity, Aldrich describes her grandmother’s descent into alcoholism, which also caused her early widowhood. “There had never been an exact moment when I suddenly understood that Grandma Claire was a drunk….My awareness, like a cake in the making, had grown gradually richer with each additional layer.”
The same could be said of her father’s liaison with a French woman, which produced a son. Though the affair was an open secret, Aldrich writes, “Grandma Claire and Mom maintained that it was best to say nothing. And since we were not allowed to speak of the facts of the case, we could definitely not speak about our feelings regarding these facts.” She describes her father brushing by “Giselle,” baby in arms, to drive to lunch at a minister’s house. There she follows and stands outside, waving at Alexandra and the other guests, until “Teddy” slinks off with her to the baby’s baptism.
Aldrich is less clear about dates and geography, which gives her narrative an unworldly, fairy tale feeling. “Part of that is because I totally lived in another era,” she explains. “My main contact with the outside world was with my grandmother, who brought me to tea parties with other old ladies, and cocktail parties. In a way I felt like I wasn’t in the present.”
Rokeby’s exact location is never mentioned and every family member is given a pseudonym.
Why is that, I ask, when anyone with an internet connection can find out that the estate is on River Road in Barrytown, learn its owners’ real names and ages, and even read about her uncle’s 1973 wedding?
“I was trying to appease my family in a vague, illogical way,” answers Aldrich. “A lot of them live under the illusion that nobody knows who they are. My parents don’t care, but it might be jarring for my aunt and uncle to see their names in print.”
I think it would be far more jarring to read such passages as, “I had so many caregivers yet so much neglect. I strove to find the edges that defined me, but the lines remained blurry.” Or, “With my parents, I was immersed in a theater of the absurd.”
How did the family react?
“I had my parents read the book because they had to sign affidavits confirming the facts,” says Aldrich. “My mother surprisingly said, ‘It was perfectly accurate, but I don’t agree with your feelings.’ That’s the whole story of my childhood: Nobody validated my feelings. Expressing them is a sign of weakness. I grew up in an atmosphere of pretending all the time.”
Courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins; Alexandra Aldrich signs books at Oblong Books, Rhinebeck.
“My father jokingly threatened to write a rebuttal, because everyone has their own Rokeby story. He only likes reading encyclopedias and textbooks, and doesn’t read anything of an emotional nature—‘All that dialogue is so boring!’ But I told him he had to read it. At the end he just said, ‘You got a few details about the farm machinery wrong.’”
A few days later, the anecdote about her dad gets a big laugh at a packed event at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, where many in the hometown crowd appear acquainted with each other and Rokeby’s inhabitants. Aldrich reads one of the book’s lighter chapters, about trying to drive her father’s backhoe at age 10.
More laughter follows when she says, “I’d tell visitors I wished I didn’t live there. They’d say, ‘Don’t worry. One day you’ll have a great book to write.’”
With her parents among the audience, the future Rokeby co-owner (now converted to Orthodox Judaism and back in Brooklyn) takes pains to mention that the estate is “much more civilized and in better condition, and is rented out for weddings and photo shoots.”
Bella Stander is the proprietor of Book Promotion 101 author publicity consulting, publisher of Bella Terra Maps and a consultant to the Virginia Festival of the Book. A former contributing editor at Publishers Weekly, she has also reviewed books for such publications as Entertainment Weekly, People, The Wall St. Journal, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.
Works by Bella Stander
ALDRICH – Life in the Big House: Alexandra Aldrich, author of THE Astor Orphan – A Memoir
SMITH – A Conversation with Philip Smith: Author of Walking Through Walls: A Memoir
WELES – In My Father’s Shadow: An Interview with Chris Welles Feder: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles
WILSON – Kevin Wilson: Debut Novel – The Family Fang- Strange and Beautiful