It was a splendid day in Paris in the 1920s when William Astor Chanler, former African explorer, big-game hunter, Turkish cavalry colonel and patron of the turf, limped into Maxim's for lunch with a friend. The colonel had lost a leg, not on the field of battle but as the result, it was whispered, of a brawl in a bordello with Jack Johnson, the prizefighter. A familiar figure in Maxim's, Colonel Chanler informed the headwaiter that he wished to be served promptly because one of his horses was running at Longchamp that afternoon. The colonel and his friend sat down, and when, after taking their order, their waiter did not reappear swiftly, the colonel began tussling with something beneath the table. With both hands he yanked off his artificial leg, bearing sock, shoe and garter, and hurled it across the restaurant, striking the waiter in the back. Colonel Chanler shouted, in French, "Now, may I have your attention?"
Back home in the U.S., the colonel's oldest brother, John Armstrong Chanler, known as Uncle Archie to members of the family, had a simpler way of obtaining service: when dining out, Uncle Archie would carry a pair of binoculars around his neck to keep close watch on his waiter's comings and goings. With or without binoculars, Uncle Archie was likely to get attention wherever he went. He sported a silver-headed cane engraved with the words LEAVE ME ALONE. He had spent three and a half years involuntarily confined in the Bloomingdale lunatic asylum in White Plains, N.Y. because, among other peculiarities, he liked to dress as Napoleon and often went to bed wearing a saber. In a farewell note he left the night he escaped from Bloomingdale in 1900, Uncle Archie wrote to the medical superintendent, "You have always said that I believe I am the reincarnation of Napoleon Bonaparte. As a learned and sincere man, you therefore will not be surprised that I take French leave."
Given the drabness of the present age, it is heartening to note that the spirit of the eccentric sporting Chanlers lives on in Barrytown, N.Y., 100 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. Here, in the decaying but still gracious estate country of Edith Wharton novels, a handful of Chanter descendants carry on in their own fashion. There is Richard (Ricky) Aldrich, grandnephew of Uncle Archie and grandson of Margaret Livingston Chanler Aldrich, who fought for the establishment of the U.S. Army Nursing Corps. Ricky, 36, manages Rokeby, the family seat and farm, where he collects and rebuilds antique iceboats (such as the Jack Frost, a huge craft that won championships in the late 19th century) and ponders the intricacies of Serbian, Croatian and Polish grammar. Ricky studied in Poland for a spell, but left in 1966 after he was caught selling plastic Italian raincoats on the black market. The most obvious fact about Ricky is that he seldom bathes. As one boating friend says, "Ricky would give you the shirt off his back, but who'd want it?"
Then there is Chanler A. Chapman, regarded by his kin as the legitimate inheritor of the family title of "most eccentric man in America." As Ricky's brother, J. Winthrop (Winty) Aldrich, says, "Only members of the Chanler family are fit to sit in judgment on that title." Winty, who is Chanler Chapman's first cousin once removed, says, "Television has done Upstairs, Downstairs, The Forsyte Saga and The Adams Chronicles, but they should do the Chanlers. The whole story is so improbable. And true."
June 12, 1977
Everyone who has met Chanler Chapman regards him as brilliantly daft. While teaching at Bard College, Saul Bellow, the Nobel laureate, rented a house on Chapman's estate, Sylvania ("the home of happy pigs"), and found in him the inspiration for his novel Henderson the Rain King. In the novel, written as an autobiography, Henderson shoots bottles with a slingshot, raises pigs and carries on extravagantly in general. "It's Bellow's best book," Chapman says, "but he is the dullest writer I have ever read."
Now 76 and possessed of piercing brown eyes, a bristling mustache and wiry hair, Chapman nearly always wears blue bib overalls and carries a slingshot. He is fond of slingshots, because "they don't make any noise," and he shoots at what tickles his fancy. Not long ago he fired a ball bearing at a Jeep owned by his cousin, Bronson W. (Bim) Chanler, former captain of the Harvard crew, inflicting what Chapman calls "a nice dimple" in the left front fender. Ball bearings are expensive ammunition, however, so, for $4, Chapman recently bought 600 pounds of gravel. He calculates this supply of ammo should last at least five years.
Before his infatuation with slingshots, Chapman was big on guns. He hunted deer, small game and upland birds and ducks, mostly on his estate. Indeed, at one time he had 115 guns, and his shooting habits were such that friends who came to hunt once never cared, or dared, to return again. Chapman had only to hear the quack of a duck and he would let loose with a blast in the general direction of the sound. On a couple of occasions it turned out that he had fired toward hunters crouched in reeds, using a duck call. "Almost got a few people," he would say matter-of-factly.
Chapman is the publisher of the Barrytown Explorer, a monthly newspaper that sells at the uncustomary rate of 25¢ a copy on the newsstand and $4 a year by subscription. The paper's slogan, emblazoned above the logo, is WHEN YOU CAN'T SMILE, QUIT. "You can abolish rectitude," as Chapman once expatiated opaquely, "you can abolish the laws of gravity, but don't do away with good old American hogwash."
The Explorer prints whatever happens to cross Chapman's lively mind. "Opinions come out of me like Brussels sprouts," he says. There are poems by Chapman (who always gives the date and place of writing, e.g., Kitchen, Sept. 13, 7:15 a.m.), and a regular Spiel column, also by Chapman, in which he offers his unique observations on the world ("A sunset may be seen at any time if you drink two quarts of ale slowly on an empty stomach" or "What's good for the goose is a lively gander" or "Helen Hokinson has turned atomic" or "Close the blinds at night and lower the chances of being shot to death in bed. That goes for the district attorney who wants to be a judge"). Chapman always signs the Spiel column, "Yrs. to serve, C.A.C., pub."
The Explorer publishes pieces about nature, written by Mrs. Stuyvesant Chanler under the nom de plume of "Country Cousin," and about horse racing. "Racing entertains me," says Chapman. "It is an absolute fool's game. It is the incense of the ethos. It's glorious!" For years, Chapman has been a close friend of Abram S. Hewitt, who recently completed an 87-part series on sire lines in The Blood-Horse. Any contributions by Hewitt, even personal letters, are welcomed by Chapman. Last year Hewitt sent a letter from Lexington, Ky., and Chapman printed it in part in his paper: "Your kind note finally caught up with me here, where I am enthroned for the moment, having taken charge of N. Bunker Hunt's matings (not personal!) for 1976. He is a Texan who does things in true Texas style—the sky's the limit. His training bills in France alone amount to about $3,500 a day!
"The horse copers in this area have kept the W. C. Fields tradition alive, of swindling one and all—especially 'outsiders'—with an air of fraudulent dignity. Once you know what is going on, the spectacle has its entertaining aspects—like sending a crew of men out in the night to move the three-eighths pole 150 feet, so that the New York millionaire...would be sure to see a high-priced 2-year-old work three-eighths of a mile in world record time!..."
Chapman likes the W. C. Fields touch, and on occasion he will print Fields' picture in The Explorer for no reason other than this fondness. People in the news sometimes get worked over by Chapman in Fieldsian fashion. Of Leon Botstein, the new president of Bard College, Chapman wrote, "His diction seems to be improving. Obviously he has never been trained to speak, so that every word can be understood when it is uttered. There is no elocution." The Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the Korean messiah who bought the old Kip estate across the road from Chapman, gets evenhanded headlines: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON and MOON RISE OBSERVED. Chapman is not prejudiced against any race, creed or color, but he does harbor a grudge against the state of Ohio. "It is occupied by blind moneyed baboons," he says.
Chapman has been married three times. His first wife, from whom he was divorced, was Olivia James, a grandniece of Henry and William James. Robert, a son by that marriage, lives in a house in Florence, Italy, which his father thinks is called "the place of the devil." (Robert reportedly used to live in a cave, where he made kites.) Another son by this marriage, John Jay Chapman II, lives in Barrytown. After attending Harvard, he went to Puerto Rico, where he became a mailman. He married a black woman, and they have several children. When Chanler Chapman's old school, St. Paul's, went coed, he was enthusiastic about his granddaughter's chances of getting a scholarship. "She's a she," he said, ticking off reasons. "She's a Chapman. She's a Chanler. And she's black."
Five years ago, John Jay Chapman II persuaded post office authorities to transfer him from Puerto Rico back to Barrytown, where he now delivers the mail. Asked if his son truly likes delivering mail, Chapman exclaimed, "He can hardly wait for Christmas!" Not long ago. Chapman and Winty Aldrich, who lives with Ricky at Rokeby, the ancient family seat next door to Sylvania, were musing about the twists and turns in the family fortunes. Winty observed, "Isn't it remarkable, Chanler, that Edmund Wilson called your father the greatest letter writer in America, and now your son may be the greatest letter carrier!" Chapman, who is, upon occasion, put off by his cousin, let the remark pass without comment. ("Winty is the essence of nothing," Chapman says. "He has the personality of an unsuccessful undertaker and he uses semicolons when he writes. He knits with his toes.")
Chapman's father was John Jay Chapman, essayist, literary critic and translator. A man of strong convictions, John Jay Chapman atoned for having wrongly thrashed a fellow student at Harvard by burning off his left hand. At the same time, he used to go to bed at night wondering, according to Van Wyck Brooks, "What was wrong with Boston?"
Chanler Chapman's mother, Elizabeth Chanler, was one of the orphaned great-great-grandchildren of John Jacob Astor, each of whom came into an inheritance of some $1 million. They were called the "Astor Orphans" by Lately Thomas in A Pride of Lions, a biography of the 19th-century Chanlers. "There was never anything wrong with the Chanler blood until crossed with the yellow of the Astor gold," says Winty Aldrich.
By blood, the Chanler descendants are mostly Astor, with an admixture of Livingston and Stuyvesant. Knickerbocker patricians, they are related, by blood or marriage, to Hamilton Fish Sr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jimmy Van Alen, Marion the Swamp Fox, Julia Ward Howe and General John Armstrong. It was the last who built Rokeby in 1815 after he blotted his copybook as Secretary of War by letting the British burn the Capitol and White House.
It has been said of Chanler Chapman that the genes on the Chapman side of the family provided the polish, while the Chanler genes imparted raw psychic energy. Chapman's middle name is Armstrong; he was named in honor of Uncle Archie, his mother's oldest brother. "Archie was a pure bedbug," Chapman says. That may be understating the case. After escaping from the Bloomingdale asylum, where he had been committed by his brothers (with the help of Stanford White, the architect and a close family friend). Uncle Archie fled first to Philadelphia, where he was examined by William James, and thence to Virginia. He changed his last name to Chaloner and started a long legal battle to have himself declared sane in New York.
At his Virginia estate, Merry Mills, Archie indulged his love of horsemanship and hatred of automobiles. He discovered an obscure state law requiring the driver of a motor vehicle to "keep a careful look ahead for the approach of horseback riders, [and] if requested to do so by said rider, [such driver] shall lead the horse past his machine." Mounted on horseback, clad in an inverness cape and armed with a revolver. Uncle Archie would patrol the road in front of Merry Mills demanding that motorists comply with the law. "A green umbrella was riveted to the cantle of his saddle, a klaxon to the pommel," J. Bryan III, one of his admirers, wrote in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. "After nightfall, he hung port and starboard lights from the stirrups and what was literally a riding light from the girth. The klaxon was his warning, the revolver his ultimatum."
In the midst of the legal battle for his sanity, Uncle Archie shot and killed a wife beater who had invaded his house. To commemorate the encounter, he sank a silver plate in the floor with the cryptic inscription HE BEAT THE DEVIL. He was absolved of the killing, which occurred in 1909, shortly after Harry K. Thaw shot Stanford White, but the New York Post noted, "The latest prominent assassin has taken the precaution to have himself judged insane beforehand." Archie sued for libel, and the case dragged on to 1919, when he won both the suit and his fight for sanity in New York.
By now Uncle Archie had come to love automobiles and made peace with his brothers and sisters. He came visiting in a Pierce-Arrow he had had custom-made. Parts of the rear and front seats were removed to make room for a bed and a field kitchen, and the car was painted with blue and white stripes copied from a favorite shirt. Chanler Chapman would meet Uncle Archie in Manhattan, and they would drive back and forth between the Hotel Lafayette and Grant's Tomb. "He told me he was the reincarnation of Pompey," Chapman says, "but that he was going to have more luck than Pompey and take over the world. His eyes would gleam and glitter. He would also rub an emerald ring and say to the chauffeur when we came to a light, 'Watch, it's going to turn red!' or, 'Watch, it's going to turn green! See!' " In Barrytown, Uncle Archie dined, as family members pretended not to notice, on ice cream and grass clippings.
At St. Paul's, Chanler Chapman was nicknamed Charlie Chaplin, after his own exploits. From the start Chapman had what the St. Paul's masters called "the wrong attitude." Some years afterward he wrote a book with that title about his days at St. Paul's. (In Teacher in America, Jacques Barzun praises The Wrong Attitude for Chapman's "penetrating remarks.") Once young Chapman jumped into an icy pond to win a $50 bet, and he collected a purse of $100 for promoting a clandestine prize fight in which he was knocked out. On another occasion, boys paid 50¢ apiece to watch Chapman fill his mouth with kerosene and strike a match close to it. Flames shot across the room. On the side, he dealt illegally in firearms, selling one Smith & Wesson .32 time after time. It jammed after every third or fourth round and, invariably. Chapman would buy it back from the disgruntled owner at a reduced price. A center in club football, he practiced swinging a knee smartly into the ribs of an opponent, but when he cracked the rib of a boy he liked, he felt such remorse that he gave the boy a silver stickpin shaped like a broken rib with a diamond mounted over the break.
Chapman was too young for World War I. He desperately wanted to serve after his half-brother, Victor, was shot down and killed while flying for the Lafayette Escadrille. Fortunately, he was distracted by his Uncle Bob, Robert Winthrop Chanler, the youngest, biggest and, in many ways, the most raffish of the Chanlers. "Uncle Bob dreaded the thought that Chanler would be filled with pieties," says Winty Aldrich.
After studying art in Paris for nine years, Uncle Bob settled on a farm near Sylvania and ran for sheriff of Dutchess County. He won after acquiring acclaim by hiring a baseball team, which included Heinie Zimmerman of the Cubs, to play against all comers. While sheriff, Uncle Bob wore a cowboy suit and retained Richard Harding Davis as his first deputy. Having divorced his first wife, he returned to Paris, where he vowed to marry the most beautiful woman in the world. He fell in love with Lina Cavalieri, an opera singer, who, if not the most beautiful woman in the world, was certainly one of the most calculating. After only a week of marriage to Uncle Bob, she left him to live with her lover. That was bad enough, but then the news broke that Uncle Bob had signed over his entire fortune to her. Uncle Archie, down in Virginia busily fighting for his sanity, remarked to reporters, in words that became famous, "Who's loony now?"
Uncle Bob divorced Lina, who settled for a lesser sum than his every cent, and back in New York he began living it up again, with nephew Chanler sometimes in tow. During this period he was doing paintings of bizarre animals and plants, which became the vogue, and he bought three brownstones in Manhattan, made one establishment of them and called it "the House of Fantasy." The place was filled with macaws and other tropical birds, and parties there (orgies, some said) lasted for days. Ethel Barrymore is reputed to have remarked of the House of Fantasy, "I went in at seven o'clock one evening a young girl and emerged the next day an old woman."
Chapman found two of his other Chanler uncles tedious. One, Winthrop Astor Chanler, was extremely fond of riding to hounds. Indeed, when Uncle Win-tie died, his last words were "Let's have a little canter." Then there was Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler who, like all the Chanlers, was a staunch Democrat. In 1906 he ran for lieutenant governor of New York, with William Randolph Hearst at the head of the ticket. Hearst lost but Uncle Lewis won—at that time the lieutenant gubernatorial candidate ran separately—and in 1908 he was the Democrats' choice to run for governor against Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes won, but the campaign waged by Uncle Lewis, which began with an acceptance speech on the front steps of Rokeby, still stirs the family. Not long ago, Hamilton Fish Sr. visited Rokeby, where he strongly urged Winthrop Aldrich to run for office. When Winty demurred, Uncle Ham, sole survivor of Walter Camp's 1910 All-America football team, 6'4" tall and ramrod straight at 88 years of age, said, "Look at your Uncle Lewis!" Winty replied, "But Uncle Ham, Stanley Stein-gut [State Assembly Speaker] and Meade Esposito [Brooklyn Democratic leader] wouldn't know anything about Uncle Lewis. Nobody remembers Uncle Lewis." Eyes blazing, Uncle Ham exclaimed, "Everyone remembers Uncle Lewis!"
Chanler Chapman went to Harvard in 1921. "He ran a gambling den there," recalls Peter White, a cousin, who is a grandson of Stanford White. "He had a bootlegger, and all the gilded aristocracy from St. Paul's, St. Mark's and Groton as his customers. Chanler and his partners took in $300 to $400 a week. They didn't drink until their customers left at three in the morning, but then they drank themselves blind."
While in Cambridge, Chapman joined the Tavern Club founded by 19th-century Boston literati. "Two years ago Chanler celebrated his 50th anniversary as a member of the club," Winty Aldrich says. "It is a tradition to present a gold medal to a man who has been a member for 50 years. Being proper Bostonians, the members do not have a new medal struck, but give the honoree one that had been presented to some deceased member. Chanler was very excited—I had heard he was to get the gold medal that belonged to Oliver Wendell Holmes—but for one reason or another he couldn't attend the ceremony. The members were relieved. They thought Chanler might bite the medal in half, or hock it."
After Harvard, Chapman went to Paris where he acquired his lasting affection for horse racing. He went broke at the track, and his Uncle Willie, Colonel William Astor Chanler (also known as African Willie, because he had explored parts of the Dark Continent where Stanley said he would not venture with a thousand rifles), gave him a job at an ocher mine he owned in the south of France. Six weeks in the mine were enough. Seeking fresh adventure, Chapman joined an acquaintance who was sailing a 47-foot ketch, the Shanghai, from Copenhagen to New York. But Chapman found the trip a bore—"The ocean is the dullest thing in the world. The waves just go chop, chop, chop"—except for a stop in Greenland, where he swindled the Eskimos by trading them worn-out blankets for furs. Off Nova Scotia he lost the furs and almost everything else when the Shanghai foundered on rocks, forcing all to swim to shore.
Back in the U.S., Chapman undertook a career as a journalist. He worked for the Springfield, Mass. Union for two years and then joined The New York Times. "Anyone who spends an extra week in Springfield has a weak mind," he says. The Times assigned Chapman to the police beat on the upper East Side but Chapman decided that crime, like the ocean, "bores the hell out of me." He spent a year playing cards with the other reporters and then quit to work for a book publisher.
In 1932 Chapman took over Sylvania and became a full-time farmer. He devoted a great deal of effort to organizing dairymen so they might obtain better milk prices, but division in the ranks made the task impossible. Then, during World War II, Chapman, with the seeming compliance of President Roosevelt, worked up a plan to seize the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland from Vichy France. He was called off at the last minute by F.D.R., who had apparently been having a lark at his neighbor's expense. Chapman next volunteered as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service and served in Africa and Burma. Nautically, his luck seemed to pick up where it had left off with the sinking of the Shanghai—a freighter taking him to Egypt was torpedoed 600 miles southeast of Trinidad. "It was very entertaining," he recalls. "The vessel was carrying 1,900 tons of high explosives." Fortunately, the ship, which had been struck in its boilers, went down in seven minutes and did not explode. Chapman had the foresight to stick $200 in traveler's checks and a bottle of Abdol vitamin pills inside his life jacket before scrambling into a lifeboat. After a week's sail, he and the other survivors made it to Georgetown, British Guiana.
After the war, Chapman and his wife were divorced and he married Helen Riesenfeld, who started the Barrytown Explorer with him. She died in 1970, and three years later Chapman married Dr. Ida Holzberg, a widow and psychiatrist. "It's convenient for Chanler to have his own psychiatrist in the house," says Winty Aldrich. Like the second Mrs. Chapman, Dr. Holzberg is Jewish. While chaffing her recently, Chapman said, "Jesus Christ, maybe I should have gone Chinese the third time around." Mrs. Chapman, or Dr. Holzberg, as she prefers to be called, is listed on the masthead of the Explorer, but her duties are undefined. "She wants to get off the masthead because she gets angry at me every other day," Chapman says. Dr. Holzberg is petite, and Chapman affectionately refers to her as "Footnote" or "Kid," as in "O.K., Footnote" or, "Kid, I like you, but you've got a long way to go." As Chapman figures it, his wives are getting shorter all the time, but he likes that because they have a lot of bounce-back, Dr. Holzberg especially, "because she's got such a low center of gravity."
Over the years, Chapman has conducted his own radio interview show but at present he is off the air. His last sponsor was a dairy, for whom he used to deliver remarkable commercials, such as, "Their man is on the job at five in the morning. You might even see him back at a house for a second time at nine, but let's skip over that." Some of Chapman's taped interviews are memorable, like the one in which he kept referring to the mayor of San Juan, P.R., where Chapman happened to be on vacation, as the mayor of Montreal. "San Juan, Se√±or," the mayor would say plaintively every time Chapman referred to Montreal.
Perhaps Chapman's finest accomplishment with the tape recorder came at a great family gathering at Rokeby in 1965. About 150 Chanlers, Astors, Armstrongs and other kin assembled to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the house. Among those present at the main table were William Chamberlain Chanler, who is known as Brown Willie, and Ashley Chanler, the son of African Willie. Ashley is generally accounted a bounder by the rest of the family, and on this occasion he was wearing a Knickerbocker Club tie, which disturbed Brown Willie, a retired partner in the proper Wall Street firm of Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam and Roberts. Believing that Ashley had been dropped from the Knickerbocker Club (as indeed he had been previously, for nonpayment of dues), Brown Willie voiced his annoyance and a loud debate ensued. "No one knew what was going on," says Winty Aldrich. "It wasn't until later that we found out it was all over a necktie. But Chanler was seated near them, and the moment the argument started he turned on his tape recorder, held up the microphone and began egging them on. When Ashley said that he had been reinstated in the Knickerbocker Club, Chanler shoved the microphone at Brown Willie and said, 'You lose that round, counselor.' "
Nowadays Chapman is primarily confining his attentions to the Explorer and his slingshot, with an occasional reversion to his guns. "Stop the presses!" he exclaimed the other day to a caller. "We're replating for wood alcohol! An unlimited supply of energy. No fermentation at the North and South Poles, so the penguins and Eskimos are out of luck. First flight to Venus by booze." He also was elated about reprinting a piece by Abram Hewitt on War Relic, "really a second-rate horse, still being promoted as quite a stud."
The shooting in early spring, Chapman said, had been superb. The frozen Hudson was breaking up, and he liked to go down to the river with a .22 to shoot at pieces of ice. The most challenging shot was at twigs floating by. "Crack a little twig when it's just barely moving!" he exclaimed. "It's better than any shooting gallery. You feel like a newborn baby." Friends who happen along at this time of the year may be greeted as William Humphrey, the novelist, was. Chapman insisted he shoot his initials into the snow by the front porch.
Chapman is hopeful that this will be a good year for 17-year locusts. Good, that is, from his point of view, not theirs. "They don't come every 17-years, you know," he says. "They come every five or six. I use .22 longs with birdshot in them and, boy, those locusts can absorb a lot of dust. They're only three-quarters of an inch long, but they're built out of armor plate. You have to hit them just right. I like to take a little stool that unfolds and pop them when they're swarming. Shooting on the wing. That's the only way. I wouldn't shoot them sitting down."
Chapman says now he's just looking for things that give him pleasure. Has he a word of advice for others who would seek the happy life? Yes. "Things are going up and coming down," he says. "Earthquakes are expected. Step in and enjoy the turmoil."