When he is not trying to convert tennis players to VASSS, or raising money for the Tennis Hall of Fame, or pumping money into the Newport Casino, or performing his annual "Twas the night before Christmas" recitation, or writing poetry, or composing "play-by-number" ditties for the piano, that grand old eclectic James Henry Van Alen is as likely to be found shooting pheasant as anything else.
His pheasant shooting is not the ordinary walk-'em-up and blast-'em-down variety, but then, little that Van Alen has done in his 74 years has been ordinary. To begin with, the shooting takes place on the grounds of his estate, Avalon, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Newport, R.I., a locale never previously noted for its pheasant population. Further, the shooting is at high-flying, fast-moving birds, which is far different from flushing the big, slow pheasants and shooting them on the rise. Most ringnecks take off like old B-29 bombers, which is exactly why Jimmy Van Alen started his own kind of pheasant shooting. That it occurs in Newport is not nearly as extraordinary as its quality. It is some of the most challenging and sporting bird shooting to be found anywhere in the country.
The origins of Van Alen's shoot are European and go back to his own extensive experiences in the field in Britain and on the Continent. Although he was born in Newport into a family that included a number of Vanderbilts and Astors, Van Alen grew up in England, where bird shooting is part of every gentleman's education. There, as in most of Europe, driven or flighted birds, whether wild or raised specifically for the gun, are more challenging—and therefore more popular—than those that are walked up. In this country, where most hunting is public, such shoots are seldom feasible except on private preserves. And even on preserves, birds are more commonly planted in cover to be flushed by hunter and dog.
After four years as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Van Alen returned to this country to live. To his disappointment, he found nothing here to equal the shooting he knew in Europe. Typically, this only served to tweak Van Alen's imagination. If the kind of shooting he wanted was not available, the logical solution was to import it. Which, more or less, is what he did.
December 6, 1976
A perfectionist by nature, Van Alen began by making a detailed analysis of the methods, techniques and physical layouts of the best flighted shoots in England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Spain. This was not exactly a hardship. He had just taken a new bride, whose credentials as a journalist, war correspondent and sportswoman qualified her admirably as a collaborator on the project. The couple spent a year-long honeymoon checking out the shooting spas of Europe.
"Candy is the only woman I have ever heard of," says Van Alen of his wife of 28 years, "who went on a shooting honeymoon and stayed married to the man."
From their research, Van Alen came to some conclusions about what would and would not work in America. Wild birds were out for a dozen reasons, most prominent being their unavailability. Of pen-raised birds, the best-suited to the kind of shoot he had in mind was the ringneck pheasant. The bird was readily available, easy to raise, adaptable to a wide variety of terrain and, under proper circumstances, offered the kind of sporty shooting Van Alen was looking for.
In the late '40s the concept of preserves, of private land set aside for pay-as-you-shoot hunting, was a relatively new one in this country and was having a hard time catching on. Part of the basic American hunting philosophy is the belief that game belongs to the public, which has the right to shoot it. It is a concept that has died hard. Europeans, on the other hand, recognized long ago that raising, managing and controlling the killing of game was not enough. To survive, game must also have commercial value to the landowner, for he cannot afford to support it on his property unless it brings him a return, either through the meat or the sport it provides. Americans are slowly beginning to get this message, but when Van Alen tried to convey it, the response was about what he received from tennis players when he went around proselytizing VASSS.
After 18 years, the tennis players have finally learned that it takes a good deal of adversity to discourage Jimmy Van Alen. Bird shooters are still learning. Van Alen bought 350 acres in Millbrook, N.Y. and established an experimental preserve in the Continental tradition. Pheasant were already the bird of choice on the handful of preserves in operation at that time, but they were all being planted in the conventional manner and flushed on foot. Van Alen built a series of 30 blinds in a broad circle around a hill. By releasing the pheasant from the top of the hill, high above the hunters' heads and a minimum of 50 yards from their positions, he ensured that the birds would be in full flight before they came within range of the guns. A pheasant flying 40 yards overhead at top speed is quite a different target from one lifting off the ground 20 yards in front of the shooter. At least that is what shooters at Van Alen's Separate Farm soon found. Their average bag was only 60% of the birds released.
Van Alen's shoot at Newport grew directly out of the one at Separate Farm. It has been refined and polished in the interim, and the shooting is even better. There are fewer guns (eight as compared to 24 to 30), more atmosphere, heavier and more varied cover and more challenging shooting conditions. Instead of 30 positions ringing a hill, there are 16 (only eight of which are ever used at one time) located along a maze of channels cut through the heavily wooded grounds. Van Alen was obviously influenced by his boyhood in the formal gardens and hedgerows of Britain.
"The challenge at Millbrook," he says, "was just to make a better shoot than existed at that time in this country. The challenge here at Newport is to show what can be done with vest-pocket space. At Millbrook I had 350 acres. Here I have 50. Yet with only one-seventh the land area we have been able to produce a shoot that is seven times better. It's all in the planning and design. I'd like to see these vest-pocket shoots all over America, and I'd like to convince people that they do not need vast estates in order to produce superior sport. It just takes a little more planning."
Van Alen personally planned and supervised all the work at Avalon, cutting many of the paths himself. No stand is visible from another or even marginally within range of another's gunshot. This makes for exceptional safety. The birds, as at Separate Farm, are released from a point high above the hunters so that they are in full flight at high altitude before they approach a stand. Most emerge suddenly from behind tall trees, moving fast. The shots are mainly snap shots, often overheads, and there is rarely time to contemplate the action. So tricky and so difficult is the shooting that a substantial resident population of pheasant has been established in the Newport area, all the birds tracing their ancestry directly to Avalon. Van Alen supervises every phase of the operation much as a hen pheasant monitors its brood. Long before the first guns have arrived or breakfast has been served, he is out with his gamekeepers, groundsmen and young helpers determining wind direction and velocity, switching shooting stands (his course allows for myriad variations and combinations of stands dependent upon weather conditions) and making certain that no detail has been overlooked. When he has completed his calculations and decided upon the posts to be shot that day, he walks the course from station to station making a last-minute inspection. He is a sight to see in his baggy shooting suit, the hues of which range from light tan through various shades of greens and purples to dark brown and charcoal.
"The colors are for camouflage," he says, winking. "My own design. This is probably the only suit ever created specifically to fool pheasant. If a bird sees me, it thinks I'm another pheasant."
Be that as it may, Van Alen more closely resembles a beardless and outrageously attired Santa Claus as he waddles along the course, a pair of giant hedge clippers in his hands. Here and there he snips at a bush or snaps off an errant branch. Close on his heels two little boys carrying a huge reel unwind a length of yellow nylon rope. Later, between flights of birds, the shooters will follow the rope from stand to stand much as Dorothy followed the yellow brick road. Its course is often as unexpected and surprising as that circuitous path through Oz.
"The secret of a really good shoot," says Van Alen, "is the variety of the terrain. You don't want everyone standing around on level ground looking each other in the eye. For the ultimate in sport and safety you want as many different kinds of terrain as possible."
To increase the variety of his shoot, Van Alen bought the property adjacent to Avalon several years ago. Its main building, Wrentham House, a 19th century mansion straight from the pages of Wuthering Heights, stands high on a bluff overlooking much of the shooting course. Long empty, it was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the architect responsible for many of Newport's fabled mansions, including The Breakers. One of Van Alen's fondest dreams is to restore the mansion and make it into a combination Christmas museum, home for the annual "Twas the night before Christmas" presentation and a memorial to the poem's composer, Dr. Clement Moore, who lived and died in Newport. For now, however, the mansion serves as an eerie backdrop for his shoot on days when there is an east wind blowing and the course is set beneath its dark and turreted silhouette.
No less surprising than the mansion is the land the shoot encompasses. The course wanders through thickets, along ledges, around hills, up and down gullies, over brush piles, across rock outcroppings and moss-covered boulders, through semimarsh and thick stands of fir trees, across part of Avalon's front lawn and past a pond on which bob a resident flock of mallards.
"That pond is Jimmy's triumph," says Candy. "Everyone advised against his dredging a pond there because there was no spring. I told him he was almost God but not quite. He went ahead and had one dug anyway. Shortly after, we had a week of torrential rains and the pond filled up not only with water but with fish. We've had both ever since."
The mallards are off limits for the shoot, and they pay no attention to the occasional pheasant that barrel overhead or to the guns that go off all around them. The shoot begins with a single blast on Van Alen's whistle, a signal for the shooters to go to their stations with guns unloaded. At each station to be shot that day are neatly painted shell stands, a bench, a place to leash one's dog and a game stand on which dead birds are hung, to be collected at the end of the shoot by the gamekeepers.
When everyone is settled at his stand, which may take 10 minutes or longer because following Van Alen's yellow rope can sometimes be more challenging than the actual shooting, two whistle blasts signal the shooters to load and prepare to fire. At the end of each flight, three blasts mean unload and pick up birds.
A normal shoot consists of eight flights of 30 birds each, all released from a single point determined by the day's course. Because Van Alen puts so much advance thought into selecting the eight stands to be used on any given day, and because each gun eventually shoots from all eight, everyone is guaranteed good sport regardless of wind and weather. All in all, the pheasant shooting at Avalon may well be the best to be found in this country since those long-ago days when the North Dakota fields were teeming with wild birds.
"The pace is what makes the shoots here so interesting," says one regular at Avalon. And, indeed, the birds often come so fast and so frequently that it is impossible to load quickly enough. Certainly the ammunition manufacturers can have no complaints. It is the rare shooter who opens fewer than four boxes of shells on an average shoot. Of the 240 birds usually released, less than 60% are killed, quite often considerably less. On the annual Super Shoot, the final one of the year, held customarily in March, Van Alen releases anywhere from 350 to 500 birds—all that are still remaining in the pheasant pens at the end of the season. That is a day of sore shoulders.
Such aches and pains are suitably soothed before a roaring fire in Avalon's elegant main house where cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and luncheon are served after each shoot. Van Alen's hospitality is not entirely largesse. His shooting guests (except for those on his once-a-year family shoot who are all Van Alens by birth or marriage) pay $8 a bird for their 30 birds, or $240 for a regular shoot and as much as $500 for the Super Shoot. As hefty as that may seem, Van Alen has no shortage of paying customers. He never advertises, has no brochures, limits his guests to those he knows are good sportsmen and, for reasons of safety, bans all but double-barreled guns.
Van Alen also keeps on hand a modest store of ammunition to sell to his guests when they run short, and "for those who may have forgotten to bring a check" he is happy to supply blank checks. In spite of this businesslike approach, it is doubtful that he comes close to breaking even at the end of the season. The birds cost about $6 apiece, to say nothing of the expense of ground maintenance, gamekeepers and a large staff of handlers and helpers. Such an operation, even without figuring the value of Van Alen's own considerable labors, is clearly not for the thin of pocketbook. But of course money is the one commodity that has never gone out of style at Newport. If Jimmy Van Alen has his way, neither will pheasant shooting.