Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: For horseman Foxhall Keene, polo was his game

GREAT BARRINGTON — Foxhall Parker Keene (1867-1941), known to friends as Foxie, was a Wall Street broker, a millionaire (off and on) and an outstanding amateur sportsman. He was one of the myriad of the myriad of Social Register entrants to visit the Berkshires more than a century ago.

In 1890, Keene was in Lenox to play in the annual three-day tennis tournament. His rivals included Harry Payne Whitney, whose father would soon amass enormous land holdings on October Mountain.

The gentleman sportsman competed in a Lenox Club Ambassador's Cup golf tournaments in 1897 (the same year he vied in the U.S. Open) and 1898 (securing the best score).

The former competition drew outside athletes; besides Keene, representing the Rockaway Hunt Club, there was C.N. Bird of Meadowbrook Club, J.B. Tailer of the Ardsley links, W.K. Fowler of the Dyker Meadow Club and Jasper Lynch of Lakewood. Arthur H. Fenn was winner.

The latter year, there was a ladies' cup sponsored by Georgie Cook de Heredia and the Alexandre Cup presented by the club's secretary, John E. Alexandre, as well as the President's Club award, sponsored by William Douglass Sloane, and of course the Lenox Cup.

Big among horsey set

Born in San Francisco to James R. and Sara Jay Daingerfield Keene, Foxhall inherited some of his wealth from his father, millions made in the Nevada silver lode Bonanza, soon lost in stock speculation, then regained. The father maintained a stable (one of his horses won the Preakness Stakes, six won the Belmont) and made sure Foxhall learned to ride a pony and to participate in fox hunts.

"For more than a quarter of a century, beginning in the late Nineties," The New York Times said, "the colors of James R. Keene and his son virtually dominated thoroughbred racing in the United States and England.

"From Castleton Farm in Kentucky, the Keenes brought up a succession of such celebrated thoroughbreds as Commando, Sysonby, Voter, Maskette, Peter Pan, Celt, Colin, Ballot, Superman, Court Dress and Novelty."

In 1907, one of the stable's best years, winnings tallied $400,000.

As Keene recalled in his 1938 biography "Full Tilt": "In the clannish manner of calamities, our house at Newport burned down and we were left broke and almost homeless."

The family recovered. Foxhall played football for Harvard. He played golf. He played tennis. He bred and raced thoroughbreds. He was a founding member of the National Steeplechase Association. He also sailed, though a close call after his boat capsized off Newport in 1883 appears to have ended that interest.

But foremost he was a polo player, a sport he took up in Lawrence, Long Island, in 1885. Two years later he played on the American team against England.

Keene was the first to win a 10-goal rating from the United States Polo Association in 1891 and won an Olympic gold medal in 1900. He was captain of the American team in 1913, though he didn't play due to an injury suffered during practice. He was inducted into the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame in 1992.

Keene was injured at least 17 times. Newspaper headlines said "Foxhall Keene Dangerously Hurt" or "Foxhall Keene Injured when Pony Stumbles" or "Foxhall Keene Breaks Collarbone."

His flirtation with racing cars was no more sympathetic to his body. He drove a Mors in the Paris-to-Berlin race in 1901, was aboard a Mercedes in the Gordon Bennett Cub auto race in 1903 and participated in the Vanderbult Cup races in 1905 (he crashed into a telegraph pole and didn't finish) and 1908.

Lenox wasn't his regular summer destination; Keene's family had a place in Newport, then in Far Rockaway, Queens, and later he built Rosemary Hall in Old Westbury on Long Island. He married Mary Lawrence (1860-1942) in 1892. The daughter of Frederick Newbold Lawrence and Elizabeth Boyce Lawrence, she had a Lenox connection. Her first husband was Frank Worth White. They took Tucker Cottage in Lenox in 1883.

la Keene?

When Keene's health failed, he downsized from an estate in Monkton, Md., and a home and stable at Melton Mowbray in England to live from 1931 on in a cottage on his sister Jessica Keene Frost's White Gables Farm on Lake Massawippi in Ayer's Cliff, Quebec. He died there a decade later. The estate in 1947 became home to Coll ge Notre-Dame des Servites, a classic francophone school for boys. Today it is Coll ge Servite, a coed school with 150 students annually.

Lake Massawippi and the school are familiar to me as my parents grew up in neighboring towns and just this September Donna and I stayed with cousin Michael Drew in Ayer's Cliff, about 2 miles from where Keene lived.

There are challenges to this story, Keene in the 1880s is said to have suggested a certain type of dish to French chef Charles Ranhofer at Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City — who responded with "chicken la Keene."

We know it as chicken a la king, of course.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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