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27 Aug

Farnsworth and The Bizarre Saga of Winifred Bird

 

 
Farnsworth lay in ruins by the time I discovered it one day while riding through Oyster Bay on horseback. Abandoned since 1940, with all its furnishings still in it, the former Long Island showplace appeared to be melting in time like a Salvador Dali painting. 
 
Leaks in the roof had caused the carved walls and pediments to dissolve and fall like powdered stone to the floor. Vines had worked their way through the broken tall glass windows where they inched their way up the walls and along the tattered drapes now blackened with mold. The massive front door had been ripped off its hinges and was listing dangerously to one side. Beams of hazy light filtered through the glass ceiling of an atrium courtyard. Most of the Tiffany-style glass had been smashed by vandals. In the center stood the shattered remains of a marble fountain with a bronze cupid held suspended by a bent lead pipe. Its head was broken off. Throughout the 60-room house, huge chunks of plaster had given way and lay in heaps on the buckled oak floor. Muslin sheets covered some of the Louis XV armchairs and oak Renaissance tables. The whole north side of the house was taken up by a huge oval ballroom whose walls were awash in colorful frescos and images of dissolving mythological beasts, angels and flower garlands. Off to the side, a pair of giant 17th century Venetian torchiers stood with broken arms that were hanging from exposed electric wires. 
I was beguiled by the place long before I heard the rumors. Locals claimed Farnsworth was haunted. There were said to be two ghosts, one being old Wallis C. Bird, its late owner who was killed in a plane crash. The other ghost was his beautiful wife, a former Ziegfeld showgirl who was murdered by her own psychiatrist. 
 
The crumbling mansion was everything you’d expect from a haunted house. Long tendrils of ivy had wrapped themselves like funeral wreaths around the statues of nymphs in the abandoned garden. In the drawing room a pair of moss-covered concert grand pianos were said to play ’20’s tunes unaided by human hands. Overhead a giant crystal chandelier hung at an odd angle, where bands of dusty prisms appeared to be held together by blackened cobwebs. The house also contained one of the largest privately owned pipe organs in the country. Its massive pipes ran from the basement up to the third floor. When played, its booming sound could be heard all over Oyster Bay, but now it was said to play by itself. 
 
Back in the ’60s it was not uncommon to see beautiful old manor houses abandoned and falling apart but Farnsworth stood out for its unique architectural features and curious past. The house seemed to pulse with an inner life all its own. It made you want to know its story and curious circumstances that brought it to that place of ruin. I wanted to put a giant glass dome over it and preserve it just as it was, broken glass, buckled floors, dissolving walls and all. It was, in its present state, one of the most extraordinary works of art I’d ever seen. 
 

Wallis and Winifred

The story of the Wallis C. Bird estate is probably the most tragic and macabre of all the ruined houses on the Gold Coast. It was originally built in 1915 by C.K.G. Billings, a utilities magnate and art collector. He built it as a gift for his son, who was killed in the First World War. The house stood empty and abandoned until Wallis Bird purchased it in 1924 for his wife, Winifred. The palace, along with stables for 40 horses and 20-car garage, were designed by Guy Lowell and it was said to be one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture. But once you stepped inside the massive Mediterranean entrance it was like entering another world. The giant 60-foot atrium rose up to the glass dome. Palm trees stood about in giant Chinese urns. In the center, the pink marble pool was filled with exotic gold fish, where an ornate pedestal supported the bronze cupid who posed at the ready to fire an arrow into someone’s heart. 
 
Wallis Coleman Bird was the only son of a wealthy Wall Street lawyer and one of the biggest stockholders of Standard Oil. Bird loved the arts and theater and was smitten one night when he first saw the high-kicking, raven-haired Winifred Kendall on stage at the Ziegfeld Follies. Winifred, known as Winnie, was born in a shack along the railroad tracks in Missouri. Her father worked for the railroad. Not wanting any part of that life, she packed a suitcase and headed for New York in 1917. Florenz Ziegfeld spotted her on the street and put her in his show. Wallis sent her a dozen red roses after seeing her on stage, but she was not taken by him, as he was five inches shorter than she. Winnie had hopes of making it on the silver screen one day. Wallis promised to make her dreams come true even if he had to produce and direct the films himself. They began to see one another and he swept her off her feet by showing her New York’s glittering nightlife and places like the Stork Club and El Morocco. 
 
They eventually married and moved to Farnsworth where the parties they hosted became legendary. Wallis made good on his promise and began making professional-scale movies of the lavish entertainments they held at their 60-foot pool. At another event, a troupe of circus horses performed on the front lawn. It may not have been Hollywood, but Winnie was the star of all their homemade films. Bird kept a stable of 40 horses, but his real passion was his 20-car garage filled with the most expensive cars money could buy. Gleaming behind each bay was a Hispano-Suiza, several custom-painted Rolls-Royces, a Bugatti, Stutz Bearcats, Bentleys and an Alfa Romeo, all tended to by a staff of mechanics. Winnie busied herself with collecting fabulous gowns from Paris and buying jewels. She wore diamonds to the beach and in the pool. At some point she landed on the best-dressed lists and was often featured in Vogue magazine. She once showed up at a neighbor’s fancy tea party dressed from head to toe in a bubble gum pink dress with matching hat, shoes, gloves and hair dyed to match. The Birds’ every move and activity was recorded on film of which Wallis would have weekly screenings in the ballroom for his friends. Years later, the two giant Movieola film projectors stood rusting away in the glassed-in solarium next to the ballroom. Miles of black and white 35 millimeter movie film had been torn from their metal canisters by vandals where it now snaked all over the house and zigzagged from room to room like a jumble of streamers on New Year’s Eve. You could hold strips of film up to the light and make out the images that captured life on the Gold Coast during its heyday. There was Winifred smiling in a flapper dress as she danced around the marble fountain or posed elegantly on the satin divan holding a glass of champagne. There were shots of the happy couple prancing about in an open field on horseback. Another reel showed Wallis Bird driving around the courtyard in one of his shiny new cars, seeming very proud to show it off in front of the servants. Several frames down showed Bird at an airport, most likely Roosevelt Field, where he was climbing into a small plane that would end their fairy tale life. 
 
On June 5, 1940, Bird was flying his private plane up to the Catskills for some peace and quiet. As he was cruising over the Hudson River, a violent storm erupted and the plane was hit by lightning and crashed not far from the water’s edge. His mangled body was found the next day. 
 
Devastated, his widow ordered the broken pieces of the plane collected, placed in crates and stored in the basement of Farnsworth. Winnie was never the same. Unable to deal with her husband’s sudden death, she spent the next several years at Doctors Hospital in New York and all but abandoned the house in Oyster Bay with everything in it. Despite the fragile state of her mind, she retained control over the vast fortune she inherited and though living in a hospital, she was free to come and go as she pleased. As the years passed, Winnie began to take on a kind of a Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard) persona and wore fur and ostrich-trimmed negligees during the day, then slipped out at night with her diamonds and gowns and headed for the Stork Club and El Morocco. As a rich widow, Winnie was never without her circle of handsome escorts. 
 

The Prince of Darkness

On one of Winifred’s many trips to Paris to have more gowns made for her, she met a man who claimed to be a prince. Prince Nicolas Sturdza, who designed dresses and hats, spoke seven languages and was a taller version of her late husband. The prince was fascinated by the $1 million necklace she was wearing, with the 10 huge emeralds that had originally belonged to King Ludwig of Bavaria. Over cocktails one night, Sturdza began to weave tall tales. He intrigued Winnie with a dramatic account about how he had just escaped from Communist Romania after spending three years hiding in a mountain cave, where government police had put a price on his head. He claimed his mother was starving in prison and his father had been shot trying to escape. Winnie was so taken by his story that without checking to see if it was true, she gave him $50,000 so he could try and save his family. A short time later, she cooed to the press, “I’m in love with a prince. He makes me feel 20 again.” He was 16 years younger than she was and when friends tried to warn her that he was not what he seemed, Winnie snapped, “He is not a gigolo like so many phony princes who target vulnerable rich women, like that poor fool Barbara Hutton.” Despite the warning signs, they became engaged and Winnie made plans to restore the long abandoned villa in Oyster Bay. They began to travel all over Europe buying expensive things for the house, staying in the best hotels – with her footing all the bills. Sturdza had promised to introduce her to the European royalty but never got around to it, nor did she leave him when it got back to her that he kept a string of young boys on hand wherever they traveled. But as time passed she was beginning to tire of him. Things took a dark turn when Sturdza realized he was about to lose his meal ticket and brought in an old psychiatrist friend, Dr. Gerard Savoy. Savoy had been in trouble with the law and his license had been suspended. 
 
Within a short time, Winnie was under the complete control of Sturdza and Savoy and was being forced to take as many as 100 pills a day. While she was in a fugue state, Sturdza would take Winnie shopping to the most expensive shops in Europe where he would manipulate her into spending $20,000 to $60,000 on jewelry. The gems were brought back to the hotel and stored in a vault. Records show that even in a drugged state, Winnie knew she was in trouble and cabled her attorney in New York claiming that she feared her life was in danger. Her pleas for help were ignored. 
 
In July 1961, Winifred’s lawyer received a cable stating that she had died during the night at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Lausanne. Dr. Savoy listed the cause of death as cerebral hemorrhage. Her millions in jewels vanished without a trace. The lawyer, suspicious, flew to Lausanne and informed the police about Winnie’s calls for help. Her funeral had already taken place and after much wrangling and paperwork, her body was exhumed and an autopsy showed she had been poisoned with a massive dose of morphine. 
 
The murder trial created a sensation on both continents. Sturdza, who as it turned out was not a prince, and Dr. Savoy, who was no longer a doctor, were both convicted of murder and sent to prison for life. Most of Winifred Bird’s jewels were never found.  
 

Farnsworth’s Final Days

Things were not going so well at the Oyster Bay mansion. The place was so overgrown you could barely make it up the driveway. The caretaker, Joe Ryan, had not been paid his wages in over two years and so to recoup some of his losses he began a little enterprise of his own. During the ’50s and ’60s everyone in Oyster Bay knew that if you drove up to the estate with a bottle of Johnny Walker in hand, no matter what the size of the bottle, old Joe would escort you up to the house where you were free to pick out whatever struck your fancy. It did not matter if it was a rare priceless chair, gilt mirror, an oriental rug, a painting or whatever. He would help you load it into your car and off you’d go until the next week when you might find yourself in need of a pair of 17th century andirons or a Ming Dynasty vase.
 

The Car Auction of the Century

In 1962, one of the most celebrated car auctions took place at the estate in the courtyard next to the huge garage. The sale created a media frenzy as hundreds of people from all over the country came to bid on the priceless collection. The cars had been up on blocks and had not been driven since Wallace Bird’s death in 1940 so there was no guarantee they were in running order, which made buyers nervous. A valuable 1934 Hispano-Suiza sold for only $3,500.
Winnie’s fabulous gowns that had been left in the attic trunks, I’m happy to say, I rescued most of them before Farnsworth was bulldozed to the ground in 1966.
 
The house was reduced to a pile of rubble along with the shattered remains of Wallis Bird’s death plane and everything else not traded for booze that was left behind. They say you can tear a house down but you can’t erase the energies, a.k.a electromagnetic imprint, that records all that has gone before… Learn more in the October issue of 25A magazine in “Gold Coast Ghosts.” 
 
Farnsworth was located just down the road to the north of Coe Hall (Planting Fields).
 
(Author’s note: My one regret in life is that being a dumb kid at the time, it never occurred to me to rescue even one foot of those precious film records from the ’20s and ’30s. Perhaps someone reading this will come forward and say that he or she did. If you’re out there, please call me at 516.921.7438)
 
 

 

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