Carole Owens: Lady of Naumkeag
STOCKBRIDGE — Mabel Choate (1870-1958) was born to a distinguished family of bright women and accomplished men. Her mother, Caroline Sterling Choate, advocated for the higher education of women, and in 1888 was instrumental in founding Barnard College at Columbia University. Her father, Joseph Hodges Choate, was a well-regarded attorney in New York City, and ambassador to the Court of St. James.
Joseph and Caroline built Naumkeag when Mabel, their fourth child, was in her teens. Designed by architects McKim, Mead, and White, Naumkeag was an esteemed member of the family of Berkshire Cottages. Why esteemed? Her father said so.
Joseph Hodges Choate was famous for his agile tongue and humorous quips. One of his best was: "In Lenox you are estimated; in Stockbridge you are esteemed." So too were the cottages built in the two villages.
In 1929, Mabel inherited Naumkeag. There is a montage, a collection of images pieced together to illustrate the decade of the 1930s. The images selected are Amelia Earhart, Mahatma Gandhi, a thin and sober woman, the Dust Bowl, Japanese soldiers carrying the war flag of the rising sun, the Hindenburg in flames, and Adolf Hitler amid Nazi flags. They are disconcerting images — far from ones of peace and prosperity. However, after the Crash of '29 and the resulting Depression, they are accurate images.
Mabel lived far removed from that disruption and exigency. She lived in a house on the hill of a quiet village. What do you do about it when you are blessed and others around you are suffering? Mabel did what she could.
She was known for her generosity to people and for her philanthropy to causes. Mabel helped restore the historic Merrell Inn in South Lee, and she saved the Mission House. Mabel supported work at Riggs Center and served on the Board of the New York Neurological Society. Perhaps that interest grew out of the need for her brother to be institutionalized following a nervous breakdown his freshman year at Williams College. She supported the Berkshire Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Berkshire Symphonic Festival (Tanglewood). She sold The Casino (now the Main Stage of the Berkshire Theater Group) to the Stockbridge Players for $1.
After the crash, some cottages were boarded up and abandoned. Superintendents-of-grounds, and other staff, lost their homes as well as their jobs. The market crashed, the world changed, and on the Hill, many were both jobless and homeless.
PASSED THE PEAS
Robert Creighton was secure in his position at Naumkeag, and snug in his superintendent's house. He took in some who lost their house and income. Did Mabel know? If she did, she approved. There was an aging servant who could no longer work. However, Naumkeag was her home so she was kept on and made to feel she was "earning her keep". How? At dinner, she was asked to pass the peas, a job she did with aplomb. That story may be true or apocryphal, but another is a matter of record. Mabel gave a retired staff person a house in the village. So, if she knew of Creighton's generosity, she approved.
Even before Mabel owned Naumkeag, she ran it. It is possible she ran Naumkeag from the death of her father in 1917. She met Fletcher Steele in 1926 at the annual meeting of the Lenox Garden Club. According to Mark Wilson, "He [Steele] began work for her soon after and was drawing up the first plans for Naumkeag by September 1926."
The same year Steele also oversaw the moving and restoration of the Mission House.
Wilson continues, "The relationship between Mabel and Fletcher was a deep friendship and respect for one another. Mabel was Fletcher's longest client. The gardens at Naumkeag are one of the few Steele gardens still intact. "
Of Mabel, Steele wrote, "[Mis Mabel Choate] wants to try things. And she deeply enjoys and understands beauty in landscape "
Mabel hosted an annual birthday party weekend for Steele and friends, and some imagined a romantic relationship between them, but Wilson says, "There was no sexual relationship between Mabel and Fletcher. He was probably homosexual, but it was never stated or talked about so no one knows for sure and this was a time when it was against the law to be [homosexual]."
As strong and positive as the relationship was up at the house, there was a quiet battle on the grounds. It was a territorial battle. Creighton was the Naumkeag superintendent and gardener.
"Creighton ran the property and his domain was the greenhouse and gardens below towards the barn." Wilson explains. "Steele suggested that the greenhouse trim be painted red like the barn. Creighton ignored this and kept it painted brown."
Mabel lived a privileged life, intensely private, unerringly generous, traveling and collecting, saving history and creating beauty. She died at 87 and left her Naumkeag and the beloved gardens to the Trustees of Reservation so her twin passions would be preserved.
A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.
Photo (bottom) cutline: Mabel Choate (left) with Mrs. C.D. Gibson.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Bain News Service.
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