- First published March 2002.
“Footnote” was first published in the March-April 2002 issue of “Cliff Notes.”
Exactly two years ago in this space we told the story of “Penlyn,” the graceful cliff-top estate built in the late 1920s for Henry Herbert Oltman and his family in Alpine, now used as our Headquarters. The story-behind-the-story, how we got all that neat information about Penlyn, was only alluded to. But it’s a story I share often as an example of the adventures and joys we sometimes meet in the course of our “dry” work researching the history of the Palisades. How one thing sometimes leads to another, and you find yourself someplace extraordinary — among some extraordinary people — where you never expected to be.
To tell it briefly: I gave a slide show to a group in Haworth. As I packed up, a man introduced himself as lifelong resident and former mayor of Alpine Joseph Ellicott. Joe told me his cousin, Margaret (Oltman) Dean, had grown up in our headquarters — would I like her address in Venice, Florida? I sent a letter. Mrs. Dean phoned me. She had a persuasive personality. In no time, it seemed, I had booked a flight to Sarasota (this, dear taxpayer, at my own expense).
I was nervous driving my little rental car to the Deans. I had never formally been trained as “a historian.” What were the protocols, what should I and should I not ask? OK, was I even dressed like “a historian”? Mrs. Dean put me at ease while still in the driveway. “We’re all grown-ups,” she observed. “Shall we dispense with the ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’?” She extended her hand: “My name is Peggy.” Inside, Peggy introduced me to her husband, Loomis. After lunch, we set to work. She drew floor plans from memory. I scribbled notes as she told lively, human anecdotes about a child’s life in “old” Alpine. She entrusted me with a number of one-of-a-kind photographs — she had no children, and so felt they would be better served in our care. The Deans cooked a delicious dinner, and over drinks afterward, the conversation shifted to Loomis’s long career as a publicist for Ringling Brothers and as a photographer for Life. The drinks, some good laughs — the evening ended with me enjoying that feeling of being among old friends.
The next day, the Deans took me sightseeing along the Gulf Coast, including to the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, where Loomis has a roomful of photos on permanent display.
Back home, once I had my article written, I called Peggy and read it to her over the phone. Had I included too many personal details — “temperamental” butlers, “impetuous” firings of the staff by her mother? She was delighted with the piece, wouldn’t have me change a word. Most of all, she was pleased the name “Penlyn” would at last be included in the “official” history of the estate. The single concern she shared was whether I’d ever found a plaque she had paid to be placed for her father after his death in 1946, but had never seen for herself. It was a simple thing, she explained, to be mounted on the bluff behind the house, overlooking the river. Just his and her initials, and a line from a letter she had written him (she’d adored her father) shortly after she had moved to Paris. I had to admit that, despite considerable time looking, we had not found the plaque, but that we’d keep trying. In all our later correspondence, though, I still had to admit disappointment.
The next spring, my girlfriend Carol and I vacationed in Florida, and one lovely afternoon Carol had a chance to meet the Deans with me. After lunch, Peggy, then 78, suggested we all go to the beach. The afternoon was charmed, the late-day sun glinting off the turquoise waters of the Gulf, Loomis and Peggy both in high humor. It seemed to me all the more charmed for the unusual path that had led the four of us together to that beach.
Just last month, Loomis wrote to let us know that Peggy had died on January 21 of this year.
A few days ago, a gray morning with a storm crowding in, I happened to run into Bob Rancan at headquarters, before a hike I was leading. Bob has his own connection with Penlyn. His wife Janet is the daughter of former superintendent Charles “Buzz” Quadri, and during Buzz’s tenure, when Janet was growing up, the Quadris lived in the building. (Bob and Janet were in fact married in the “backyard.”) As I brought him up-to-date about Peggy, he happened to ask me if I’d ever seen “that plaque.” I was startled. But he assured me that he’d seen it often, had even shown it to others in the past. We trotted in the wind to the bluff, and at first neither one of us could find it. Just as we were giving up, though, it caught my eye. It’s smaller than I expected—not much larger than an index card — smaller than Bob remembered it, too. Its patina has weathered to match the lichens on the rock around it. Later, after the hike, I went back to the bluff alone. The wind was still whipping across the river and up the cliffs.
Had I never gotten to know Peggy, I’d probably never have noticed this little plaque, out here all by itself. Certainly, I’d never have understood its message. And I can say now that she would have been very pleased, that it is just what she intended it to be. Simple but elegant, poetic just for its austerity. A footnote appended to a mountainside.
My life is undoubtedly richer for having met her, and it’s sad to say good-bye.
H.H.O. — 1946
MY HEART AND THOUGHTS
ARE WITH YOU EVERY MILE
ACROSS THE BROAD ATLANTIC