The Houses

To understand how the Seton homes were not only departure points but in some ways located the very center of all three Seton writers' identities, we need to look now at the houses and their environs themselves. It is one of those neat biographical coincidences that the story of the Setons at home begins in 1900. In his study The Age of Excess: The United States From 1877 to 1914, historian Ray Ginger names the period 1900 to 1914 the time "wherein Americans go to live in the clouds." This fanciful label for an era applies literally as well as figuratively to Ernest Thompson and Grace Seton. They set up housekeeping in Greenwich in an age of unbridled optimism, phenomenal progress and expansion, and huge changes in how people both lived and viewed their lives. In a country of such seemingly boundless potential, Americans might be forgiven for nursing what for most turned out to be unrealistic expectations of scaling high walls to financial and social success. Electricity, the automobile, mass-production machinery, the rise of the financier tycoons, the mushrooming of media communications and advertising all combined to make men of small means but large imaginations into dreamers of Empire. When Ernest Thompson-Seton arrived to establish a more or less permanent American residence in 1896, he was not even an American citizen, but he was engaged to a beautiful, wealthy young woman who had that distinction, and he was not only a dreamer, but an obsessive doer. Not at all surprisingly, then, by 1900, he had amassed through his own efforts a small fortune of $200,000.00 (this was his friend Hamlin Garland's estimate), and he could afford to look for his rightful place in the clouds.

It had taken only his first book, published by the esteemed house of Scribner, to turn Seton into the figure he wanted to be. Wild Animals I Have Known placed its ruggedly handsome outsdoorsman-illustrator-raconteur into a very elite group of writers who could actually make a good living through their book and magazine article sales. By 1900 Seton added three more animal lore volumes; his wife and mother-in-law arranged a well-publicized New York showing of his paintings that brought numerous offers of work as an illustrator; publishers were competing to provide profitable venues for his short stories; and he had himself put together several lucrative lecture tours. He was forty years old when the new century was celebrated, he had an "ambitious" wife of solid social credentials, and he had fashioned for himself an enviable position in American literary society. All he needed was an address, a "place" of rock, mortar, and landscape, which would properly announce his "place" in the world.

What Seton needed, bought, designed, and built, between 1900 and 1904, was the grounds and house of Wyndygoul, a grand if somewhat unusual country estate set on high ground in what would become part of Cos Cob, Connecticut. On a clear day the spot where Seton decided to place his house afforded a view across the Long Island Sound to Oyster Bay, where his future friend Teddy Roosevelt might be peering back from his own estate, Sagamore Hill. Seton would later write effusively of his joy in finding one hundred plus acres near Greenwich, Connecticut: "For twenty-five years I had waited and hungered for this moment . . . . Here were rocky hills, sloping green banks, noble trees, birds in abundance, squirrels in the woods, fish and turtles in the pond, a naturalist's paradise in truth and all was mine" ("The Story of Wyndygoul," 400). The property patched together from three abandoned farms was christened Wyndygoul, after an English country estate that Seton believed his ancestors had owned. ETS began developing it according to long-held ideas of the supremacy of nature over man, and in order to "bring East and West together," as one friend wrote. An engineer as much as a naturalist at heart, ETS designed and built a dam to transform swampy portions into a large lake, he planted birch and pine throughout the old pastures, and he imported squirrels, otters, fox, waterfowl and peacocks, and as a final eccentric touch, hundreds of skunks. These last, somewhat to his neighbors' consternation, were a means for conducting crossbreeding experiments but also made Seton a modest profit from the selling of their skins.

Wyndygoul's "manor" house, located at the top of a one-quarter mile uphill drive, was designed by Seton in a style that reflected his unique personal architectural ideals, later carried out in three other houses as well. It combined the styles of American western stucco and stone with British Tudor and was a three-story construction, with low, beamed ceilings, thick walls and wood cornices, a large bay window, and generally simple, somewhat boxy lines. Seton's description of Wyndygoul as "a naturalist's paradise," penned for Lady's Home Journal in 1909, stressed what Seton was by then famous for - his love of wilderness and the outdoors. Yet at the entrance to his manor, two stone pillars topped by iron bulldogs held wrought-iron gates, each graced in the middle with a shield marked with the letter "S." The man who insisted from the age of seventeen that he was heir to an ancestral British title and who would find a comfortable fit for thirty years among the citizens of one of the east coast's stuffiest and most snobbish bourgeois aristocracies wanted to have his cake and eat it too. Wyndygoul was to provide him a good but ultimately inadequate shot at having the best of two incompatible worlds.

In 1900 the Cos Cob-Greenwich, Connecticut area still reflected the rural way of life that had characterized it for almost three centuries of European settlement, but change was dramatically in the air. The three ruined farms that Seton put together for Wyndygoul bore witness to the transformation of the southeastern Connecticut landscape that was taking place as the railroad lines stretched out farther from New York City and agriculture experienced dwindling profits. A project completed in 1895 increased the number of tracks along the New York-Connecticut line from two to four. Dynamite made it possible to clear many of the large rock formations in the Greenwich area to facilitate the laying of tracks through once inaccessible land. In 1901 a trolley line connected Greenwich with Port Chester, and the next year it stretched the other way to connect Cos Cob and Stamford. Wealthy New Yorkers who had once thought of their Greenwich homes as summer cottages could consider becoming permanent residents. Like Seton himself, most were delighted to be able to live the "country" life but still to be able to reach the big city in under an hour on electrified trains running on four tracks with stops at Riverside, Sound Beach, Cos Cob, and Greenwich. Farmland that had lost its value became the nature preserves and rolling lawns of huge estates like Seton's. One of the first New Yorkers to discover Greenwich as a haven for the rich was none other than William Marcy Tweed, the political boss of the New York City. In 1871 he built a grand clubhouse on the Long Island Sound where he and his cronies could come to sail their yachts, play billiards, and enjoy a private dining room and bar. Tweed eventually built a colossal summer home for himself and his family and participated grandly in the life of the village until 1875, when his last trip out involved an escape from jail and a brief hideout in Greenwich after his empire in New York City finally collapsed.

By the time Seton picked Cos Cob for his idyllic retreat, many more respectable New York millionaires, such as Elias Cornelius Benedict and J. Kennedy Tod, had arrived. Seton, from the beginning, preferred a more artistic group of newcomers, most notably the impressionist painter John H. Twachtman and the writer Lincoln Steffens. Steffens often joined Seton on his early expeditions to find the perfect purchase, and reported in his Autobiography Seton's "childlike" pleasure in the untouched natural countryside. "Real estate men and the natives could not understand what he saw in tangled swamps and hopeless woods," he added, but Seton would say, "How deer would love that."

Seton took great pleasure in the wild wonders of Wyndygoul, the first of his several self-designed American homes, but by 1915, ETS and his wife Grace had sold the estate to Maurice Wertheim, historian Barbara Tuchman's father, for a record price of $250,000.00. Friends and even newspaper columnists voiced surprise that the Setons were willing to sell a place that he had taken such care in building and "stocking." One of Grace's friends wrote that he had thought she would be more willing to sell her beautiful little girl, Ann, born in 1904, than to sell Wyndygoul (an ironic note, given that Anya often later felt abandoned by both parents). The reason for the sale, most assumed, was that both of the Seton parents were so often away. Neither the darling daughter nor the rustic attractions of the "naturalist's paradise" could keep the Seton parents at home. Yet the speculation that Wyndygoul had been sold because it too often went unused was immediately contradicted by news that the Setons had purchased, actually before the sale of Wyndygoul to Wertheim was final, prime land on which to build an even grander estate located in the more posh Greenwich township. This relocation would take the Setons from the relatively (and only relatively) low rent district of Cos Cob to the even stuffier, more socially restrictive premier mainline Greenwich address, Lake Avenue.

The Greenwich estate that the Setons named DeWinton, again after a British counterpart supposedly owned by a Seton ancestor, did not command the high view that Wyndygoul claimed, but its design presumed that its residents would shape a fairly permanent, and certainly fashionable mode of life there. The residence boasted a prominent lakeside entrance, carefully wrought streams feeding another picturesque lake, rolling lawns, gardens, and woods, and a much more magisterial house, still somewhat "Indian Tudor" in design. The home had large, open rooms designed for extravagant entertaining and various bedroom suites to accommodate any number of houseguests. No one would have believed that the owners did not plan to use conspicuously and often a house with such a design - and such an address. Yet the Setons were to spend even less time at DeWinton than they had at Wyndygoul. They held their first dinner party at DeWinton on October 26, 1918 (ETS journal); however, the gracious mansion's most important function, as it turned out, was to provide a fitting backdrop for daughter Ann's wedding reception in 1923. By the time of her nuptials, the Setons were renting out their showcase estate and had to negotiate with their tenants to return there for the one weekend of the wedding. The years 1915 to 1923 were without question the busiest and most tumultuous that the Setons as a family would know. ETS broke with the Boy Scouts, Grace buried herself in suffrage work and took herself off to France with her own ambulance corps during World War I, and Ann adjusted to one governess and one school after another.

By 1922, DeWinton was replaced as the Seton homesite with a quaint Tudor cottage-style house called "Little Peequo," named after the lake that Seton had built for DeWinton. The new place was carved out of one corner of land from the DeWinton estate. "Little Peek" as the family often called it in later years was indeed a much smaller residence, although still one with extensive grounds and its own small lake. Seton had continually fumed to Grace that DeWinton was far too large, but to placate her he continually enlarged the Peequo "cottage" through the 1920s. By 1923, however, this home already seemed somewhat superfluous. Ann had gone off with her new husband to Oxford, and Grace and Ernest had a marriage in name only (although they - or probably Grace on her own, until their divorce in 1935 continued to send out Christmas cards signed in their joint names and addressed from Little Peequo).

Grace and Ernest did live between trips at Little Peequo throughout the 1920s, but by design were almost never in residence there at the same time. These were years during which Seton, with the close assistance of his secretary Julia Buttree, completed the work that established his standing in the scientific community he had long courted; in 1926 the first two volumes of his massive reference work Lives of Game Animals (eventually four volumes) was awarded the prestigious John Burroughs Medal. Also during these years he worked tirelessly to establish his Woodcraft League as an alternative to the more militaristic Boy Scouts. These were also the years during which Grace did most of her traveling to the exotic countries of the Far East and South America. Daughter Ann Cottier enjoyed a stimulating intellectual life with her husband in Oxford and then returned with him to Princeton, New Jersey to become an increasingly unhappy faculty wife. By 1929, the Seton family identity had been violently ruptured, resembling Little Peequo itself, a house that had been built haphazardly, expanded at odd angles, and scarred by fire in 1922. But this least satisfactory of homes proved to be an essential and relatively long-lived haven for both Grace and Ann. Ernest packed up for a permanent move with his secretary (and her husband!) to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1930, although his first marriage was not terminated until 1935. Grace received Little Peequo and it seventeen acres of prime Greenwich land in the divorce settlement, and lived, when not traveling, in what she always called the "rotten little cottage" until she retired to Florida in the 1950s.

Ann's 1923 marriage to Hamilton Cottier produced two children (Pamela and Seton Cottier) but ended in a well-publicized Reno divorce after only five years. Ann moved back to Little Peequo in 1929, supposedly only temporarily, before her marriage to Hamilton (Chan) Chase, an investment counselor, in 1930. Then, primarily because of diminished Depression finances, the Chases with two children (and eventually a third, their daughter Clemencie Chase) stayed on throughout the 30s and 40s, although Ann and Chan also rented an attractive West Side New York apartment for parts of several years. At Little Peequo three children were raised, parties were given frequently, and Ann Seton Chase refashioned herself from wife and mother into popular historical novelist Anya Seton. Still the Chases did not own a home of their own until the sale of film rights to Anya's Dragonwyck (1944; film 1954) allowed them to buy a "summer cottage" close to the Long Island Sound in Old Greenwich. Money from movie rights to Anya's third novel, The Turquoise, made possible the purchase of land across from this cottage, giving the Chases frontage on the Sound itself. This small tract included the ruins of a spectacular mansion, christened "Sawyer's Folly" after the name of its famous architect, Joseph Sawyer. His grandiose showplace had been torn down before it was completed, but some of the stone foundation walls remained. Upon these rocks the Chases built a modern, fifties style, flat-roofed home startlingly out of keeping with their neighbors' imposing manses on Binney Lane, one of the village's oldest and most aristocratic addresses. The Chase family moved into Sea Rune, as it was named, in 1951.

By the time that Anya and her husband moved to their home on the sound, Ernest Thompson Seton had been dead for six years, yet his actions from the time he moved to Santa Fe in 1930 had left little doubt that he saw himself as dead to the Greenwich lifestyle he had once enthusiastically embraced. Beginning covertly as early as 1923, but out in the open by 1929, he had been looking for one last home. In 1929, with Julia Buttree, his secretary and future wife, at his side, he began to make a systematic search of all the available lands within a 100-mile radius of Santa Fe, New Mexico. ETS felt a mystical kinship with this part of the West dating back to the 1890s when he had tracked wolves across the wild ranchlands of the territory. After months of searching, ETS settled on what was known as the De Vargas tract, 2500 acres southeast of the city. On July 24, 1930, he wrote in his journal, "Today we began to pour concrete for the Castle." Seton Castle would be his last great estate. If Wyndygoul was his first message to the world concerning who he was and what he had accomplished, Seton Castle was a definitive repudiation not so much of that announcement but of the material excess that had followed it, including a repudiation of his Greenwich family. Once the concrete was poured, ETS and Julie headed east to pack up all of their eastern life - Seton even talked the owners of DeWinton into giving him a door on which he had painted a striking mural of a Plains Indian. On September 24, 1930, he was able to write, "All day packing up. Three men carry four truck loads to the Box Car," and by September 30, he and Julie were lighting the first ceremonial fire at their homestead.

With Seton Castle ETS cut the cords that bound him to the Eastern establishment (including his wife) and to all that it had come to represent for him of status seeking, high society, and the willing submission of self to communal constraints. The "castle" itself, as Seton designed and developed it over the next three years, was really more of a grand "Tudor Indian" lodge, once again. Ironically, given ETS's clear determination to be starting anew, certain design parallels between the castle, Little Peequo, and Wyndygoul are obvious - including the focal fireplaces, the huge log beams, square angles, and lowslung roof. Yet lest there be any doubt as to his frame of mind regarding the true location of the House of Seton, ETS made one last, and for his first daughter especially devastating, signal. Eight years after the final Box Car move from Greenwich and three years after his long, drawn out divorce from Grace was finalized, Seton and Julie, in 1938, adopted a daughter whom they named Beulah, after their pet name - Beulahland, their sprawling New Mexico property. Their unequivocal announcement was that Beulah would inherit - as she indeed did (although she changed her name from Beulah to Dee) -- the lands, the house, and the Seton dream of a new kind of Western Empire. The castle, complete with a new model of a father-mother-daughter family, was "the Chief's" last fortress, built to hold his dream of who he had been and what he wanted his legacy and legator to be.

Ernest Thompson Seton died in 1946 at Seton Castle, at the age of eighty-six, an extraordinarily vigorous presence until the very end. Grace Gallatin Seton moved to Florida in the early 1950s, after Anya had established her first home, with her second husband, at Sea Rune. Grace, like her husband, remained an attractive and vibrant person in her later years; she died in 1959. Anya, like her mother, was divorced after thirty-eight years of marriage (Grace and Ernest were married in 1896 and their divorce was finalized in 1935 - Anya recorded in her diary, "Daddy married the Buttree"; Anya and Chan Chase were married in 1930 and divorced in 1968). Anya, like her father, lived to be eighty-six years old, but unlike her father, she spent the last several years of her life in ill health, unable to continue her writing. By the time of Anya's death in 1990, she and her parents were no longer celebrities. However, at the end of the century, the books of Anya and ETS continue to be reprinted, and ETS's work with the Boy Scouts and the Woodcraft League keeps his name very much alive in boys' leadership council circles.