Oh, where to begin, it is such a long and intricate story. I guess starting at the beginning makes the most sense. But, what beginning? Mine? Rip’s? Ours? I think I’ll start when I met Rip. The attic was huge and dark, as are most respectable attics. This particular attic however was located above a 3-story, 7 or 8-car garage with several apartments on the Belvedere Estate owned, at that time, by the Samuel Bronfman family of Seagram fame. The estate was located in the heart of the Sleepy Hollow region of New York. Ordinary folks didn’t have access to the estate, much less the attic, but my first husband’s parents were the resident housekeeper and grounds superintendent. Furthermore, the Bronfmans were only in residence six weeks of the year in the summer. So, for 46 weeks of the year, I pretty much had the run of the place.
In this attic were the left over relics of the “big house” as the 35-room mansion was informally called. The estate, built by a Dr. Philip Gillette Cole in about 1928 and was sold in the early 1950’s to the Bronfmans, completely furnished, without of course, Dr. Cole’s vast art western art collection including many Remingtons. The attic contained those items the Bronfmans found unsuitable to grace their new home. When my husband and I moved into the historic farmhouse across the street from the estate, we were given some of that furniture which, being of an early American style suited our taste.
On occasion, just for the fun of it, I would go into that attic and see what little treasures I might find. A lamp here, a small table there. One day, way, way back in a dark, dark corner I found this small statue of a very old man. He had this ethereal sense of longing on his face as if he were looking somewhere far away for a special place. An almost, “I’m coming home, I’ll be there soon” countenance. Well, I dragged this old man out and dusted him off. He was holding a very long rifle, and his right hand was held up close to his mouth as if he was about ready to shout to someone, “Hello, I’m coming home.”
Once out in the sunlight and dusted off, I recognized that this statue, about twenty inches high, had to be Rip Van Winkle because here I found him in Rip Van Winkle country. I was so excited to have found him because I had graduated from Irvington High School in New York, the home of Washington Irving, author of Rip Van Winkle and the most famous, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I lived in that region for over 14 years and both of my children were born there. In a sense I felt as if I were holding a piece of local history in my hands.
I dragged Rip downstairs into my in-laws’ apartment and asked them to ask the Bronfmans if I could have this little man. Well, they very willingly said yes, and Rip became a fixture in my home. Now I have to confess that my husband, Bob, was not thrilled. He thought the statue rather ugly and in fact, did not even want me to bring him home. I insisted but, only under the condition that Rip would be put in some out-of-the-way place. Okay, Rip, you can’t be in the living room, but the corner near the fireplace in the family room downstairs should be okay. At least it’s warm. And so began my love affair with this little old man, my Rip as he became known.
Being a stay-at-home wife and mother I enjoyed being with Rip and I would often have long conversations with his as I ironed in front of the fireplace. I kept him dusted and sometimes moved him from one corner to the next just to give him a change of scenery. In the mid 1970’s we had an appraiser come in to appraise our growing collection of fine arts. He commented that Rip was cast at the Roman Bronze Works in New York and had the #20 engraved at the base. (He said this was important because that was where Remington had all his bronzes cast. This didn’t really mean much to me at the time.) At the end of the day the appraiser handed us a bill for $300 and said that he would take the statue of Rip as payment for his fee. Bob was ready and willing and said, “Yes.” I quickly said “No. He’s mine and I’m not letting him go.” The appraiser was not pleased nor was Bob. I, however, was very happy, thank you very much, to keep Rip nearby.
As the years passed I divorced my first husband, hater of Rip, and eventually married my soulmate, Ralph. To my dismay he too was not especially fond of my Rip. He said he was not particularly attractive artistically. He said, “It wasn’t something I could look at every day and say that was a beautiful piece.” Humph, what did he know. Well, Rip wasn’t going anywhere, but he did stay in the family room until we moved a few years later. We moved to a 3-story townhome and Rip was relegated to the third floor loft. Sigh. I didn’t get to see him as often, but I would be sure that every time I went to the third floor I would stop and have a chat with him. Good soul, he never complained.
In the summer of 1989 we went up to Massachusetts for a Tanglewood concert and an “inn weekend” in Stockbridge. With a free afternoon we took a ride in the country and happened upon a museum called “Chesterwood.” We love museums and so it was that we decided to go in and take the tour of this house on the National Register of Historic Places. The house was the summer residence and studio of Daniel Chester French, a sculptor of some renown having done the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial and the Minute Man in Concord, Massachusetts. It was a beautiful colonial and very comfortable. After the house tour the docent took us down the path to the artist’s studio. It was a fascinating place where I learned so much about sculpting and casting bronze statues. Many of French’s smaller plaster models were there including a small plaster of the statue of Lincoln.
At the end of the tour we were left to roam about and take our time looking here and there. Ralph wandered over to the other side of the studio and was engaging another docent in conversation. As I looked around there was a large floor to ceiling bookcase full of plaster casts. My gaze went up to the very top shelf near the ceiling and there, to my utter astonishment, was a plaster casting of my Rip. MY RIP, HERE! Oh, my, God. I turned and motioned to Ralph wildly pointing my right hand up at Rip while waving him over with my left hand. I could barely speak as I sputtered out, “Raaa, raall, raaalllph. Coomme heerrre, lllook.” Both Ralph and the docent hustled over to look at the object to which I was pointing. I told the docent that I had a bronze statue just like that. She said, “Oh, you mean like this one here?” as she pointed to another one of my little man sitting on the mantle.
And so it came to be that I learned that my much disdained Rip was actually sculpted by the famous artist, Daniel Chester French. The docent got out the record books of all French’s works and here is what we know of the provenance. Rip was cast in 1927 as a limited edition of 25 or 29 (it was hard to read his handwriting). These miniatures were exact replicas of a bas relief statute including Rip found on a work honoring Washington Irving located at the corner of Sunnyside Lane and Broadway in Irvington, New York and dedicated on June 6, 1927. I saw that bas relief every day as I lived right across the street from it for two years. After I married, I returned to the area and lived one block from it for almost nine years. How could I have not connected the two? I contribute my lack of knowledge to youthful ignorance.
At any rate, the docent informed us that these little statutes were cast in 1927 to be sold as a sort of “party favor” to help fund the bas relief as the sponsers were apparently having financial difficulties raising money. DC French agreed to help out and sold the entire lot at cost to a Jennie Prince Black (Mrs. H.D.V.). Mrs. Black was a major benefactress of the bas relief going back to her considerable efforts in 1909 to have an Irving Memorial erected. Mrs. Black then sold these statues to patrons for $200, (a substantial sum in 1927) which more than likely is how Rip made his way to Dr. Cole and, eventually to the attic. As I inspected the statue of Rip at the studio I discovered that it was signed, while mine was not. I asked the docent about this and she informed us that the original casting of 25-29 were not signed. Some time after French’s death in 1931 his daughter, Margaret French Cresson (d. 1973) had the work recast and signed them with her father’s name as she sometimes did. None of the original 25-29 original castings done before French’s death were signed. Later, we contacted the museum curator, Linda Wesselman Jackson, and received written documentation of what the docent had told us so that we have documented provenance.
Well, when we arrived home after our discovery of Rip’s creator, Ralph marched up to the third floor and brought Rip down to a place of honor on the first floor. He says he hasn’t changed his mind, but now he has more respect for him seeing as how his creator is so famous. Years later when telling this story to friends of ours, one of the women remarked, “There’s a moral to this story, husbands come and husbands go, but Rip stays!” Amen to that I say.
I have had possession of my little man for over forty years now. He sits on the shelf above my desk and I see him every day. I still have little conversations with him. Both Ralph and Bob still think he is ugly, but he’s my little man Rip and that’s the way it’s going to be until I meet my maker. And, I say Amen to that too.