With the release of Hyde Park on the Hudson, the movie about the close relationship between FDR, played by Bill Murray, and his distant cousin Margaret Suckley, played by Laura Linney, there’s more interest than usual about Wilderstein, the recently restored Hudson River estate where Daisy, as Margaret was known, died at age 100 in 1991. Hence the timely publication of Cynthia Owen Philip’s Wilderstein and the Suckleys: A Hudson River Legacy by Black Dome Press, a reprint of the original, which was written 20 years ago.
Originally established by Thomas Suckley, son of George Suckley, an immigrant from England who amassed a fortune in the trade and shipping of hardware in the late 18th century, Wilderstein was rebuilt extensively in the Queen Anne style in the 1880s by Thomas’ son Robert, who was Daisy’s father. Wilderstein is noteworthy on several fronts: Its wonderfully romantic High Victorian exterior, with its castlelike conical-roofed tower and beautifully detailed veranda, imbues the Hudson River bluffs south of Rhinebeck with special magic. The house rises from picturesque grounds that were originally landscaped by Calvert Vaux, co-designer of Central Park, and his son Downing, while its luxurious, variously paneled, frescoed and stained-glass interior was the work of Joseph Burr Tiffany. Because the estate remained in the same family until Daisy’s death – a few years previous, she had bequeathed the property to a historic preservation organization – it is also amazingly intact.
Hence Philip had an embarrassment of riches to draw from when she began researching the book. Philip, who herself married into an old Hudson River family, was a close friend of Daisy and had free run of the estate. “I opened up trunk after trunk in the attic and discovered toys, patterns with swatches of material attached to them, letters, photos…it went on and on,” she recalled. In a desk drawer, “I’d find a bill from Tiffany and Company from 1913, and next to it a receipt from 1792.” There were moving mementos of family tragedies, such as the World War I uniform of the brother who was killed by a German bomb.
Such rich material enabled Philip to reconstruct an unusually intimate day-to-day portrait of the family’s life – first in Europe, where Daisy and her six siblings lived as children, later in their New York City townhouse and especially at their country estate. We get a vivid sense of the diversions of Daisy’s father and brothers, from automobiling to iceboating to tennis to mountain climbing in the Alps, even as two financial panics and extravagant expenses – at one time Robert, who never worked, had 24 people employed for maintenance of the grounds, not to mention the bills for a never-ending parade of spas, sanatoria, private schools and European vacations – gradually drained the family fortune. By the time Daisy was in her 90s, the place was a wreck; Philip recalled Daisy putting out pots and pans when it rained to catch the torrent of water that poured over the front door.
Daisy had one secret, which wasn’t discovered until after her death: the suitcase, kept under her bed, of a diary and letters documenting the relationship between herself and Franklin, who was a distant cousin. The letters were the basis for Geoffrey Ward’s book, Closest Companion: The Unknown Story about the Intimate Relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley. It’s a relationship about which Philip said that she has thought a lot.
“They were both great roleplayers,” she said. “Daisy had the persona of a very prim spinster, but she was not a prim spinster. From the age of 5 to 15 she lived in a pleasure-loving pension of a grand nature in the southern Alps. She met Franklin because his mother, Sarah, knew when Franklin was lifted out of Vincent Astor’s swimming pool he needed diversion and company. She called Daisy in 1921 on the phone and asked her if she’d mind sitting with Franklin.”
While Franklin, unlike Daisy, “had a charmed childhood,” both of them were “survivors,” she added. Their lifelong friendship, which blossomed after Franklin hired the well-educated Daisy as his archivist, transformed her life, and it was Daisy who gave the president his famous Scottie, Fala.