Last fall I visited the former home of a cult.
It was a beautiful fall day such as we only get in the Berkshires: clear skies, brilliant sunshine, warm by the afternoon but bitingly cold when the wind blew down from the mountains. My medieval group was doing its annual demo at Ventfort Hall, a gorgeous "summer cottage" that had been built for J.P. Morgan's sister Sarah and her husband/cousin George in Lenox so they could escape the heat and smog of the city in favor of the clean air and bucolic hills of Western Massachusetts. The house, constructed in a pseudo-Elizabethan style, was only one of several dozen such seasonal homes built by the robber barons for their comfort and recreation, and a comparatively modest one at that; 50 rooms and 28,000 square feet may sound like a lot of space, but compared to the 70 rooms and 130,000 square feet taken up by the Vanderbilts' little weekend place in Newport, Ventfort Hall really isn't all that big.
It also has a much, much more colorful and - dare I say it - interesting history than the Breakers. After all, the Vanderbilts didn't actually sell the mansion to the local preservation society until the early 1970's, when maintenance costs became prohibitive, and the family included furniture, books, and personal possessions as part of the sale. The house and its contents were largely intact when it became a museum, and even today, when the Breakers is the single greatest tourist attraction in Rhode Island, a couple of Vanderbilt great-grandchildren quietly rattle around the former servants' quarters every summer, unnoticed by visitors who pay good money to hear about the glory days of the family and the house.
Ventfort Hall was not nearly so lucky. Named after an earlier home that had belonged to the in-laws of Robert Gould Shaw, the doomed commander of the Massachusetts 54th regiment, it was only enjoyed by its original owners for a few years before Sarah Morgan died. It then used by her widower until his death, whereupon it was rented by Margaret Vanderbilt, who'd been widowed when her husband, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, had gone down with the Lusitania. It was bought in the 1920's by the gloriously named W. Roscoe Bonsal (railroad money, don't you know), who sold it just after World War II, or about the time that railroads were starting to be displaced by automobiles once rubber and gasoline weren't being rationed anymore.
The house then passed through several hands, serving in turn as a dormitory for music students at Tanglewood, a seasonal hotel, and a ballet school run by legendary mid-century dancer Michel Fokine. And then, already battered from years of hard use, Ventfort Hall became the world headquarters of a cult thanks to the largesse of one of its victims.
The cult, an allegedly Bible-based ministry called The Bible Speaks, had been founded by Carl H. Stevens, a former bakery truck driver who'd been ordained as an independent Baptist. He founded one conventional Baptist church, then split off in the early 1970's after an internal war that basically kicked him out of the congregation. Just why Pastor Stevens was the one to leave is not clear, but given that he renamed the church's Bible study course after himself and the new congregation after his radio show, it's probable that the majority of his followers were less than placed by the new emphasis on Stevens instead of Jesus.
Regardless of what happened, Stevens quickly recruited new followers with his self-named yet curiously familiar brand of fundamentalism. Among these followers was a woman named named Elizabeth Dovydenas, scion of the Dayton Hudson department store family, who was soon so convinced that Stevens preached THE TRUTH that she bought Ventfort Hall for use as a church headquarters, financed The Bible Speaks' outreach programs, and basically poured money into the church coffers until her family, appalled at the changes in her personality, had her deprogrammed.
The subsequent lawsuit, which was an entertaining fixture in Western Massachusetts newspapers for several years in the 1980's and early 1990's, was filed by Dovydenas when she realized that Stevens, far from being the pious visionary she'd thought, was pretty much conning her out of every cent she possessed. She sued him and The Bible Speaks for fraud, won, and the resulting tangle of ownership claims eventually resulted in Ventfort Hall being sold to a nursing home developer, neglected to the point that the roof all but collapsed, and losing much of its ornamental woodwork to architectural salvage efforts.
Fortunately for the house, a private foundation bought it for a bargain price in 1997 and began restoring it with a mix of private money, state and federal preservation grants, and movie magic (yes, really - Ventfort Hall was used as a background set for The Cider House Rules and the production company stabilized the roof and the magnificent porch that overlooks the back yard). Ventfort Hall is now the Museum of the Gilded Age, a popular tourist attraction, and is approaching its former glory.
One of its most popular events is the annual Medieval Fair. Always held over Columbus Day weekend, this family-friendly day of jousting, fighting, face-painting, tours, and so on is the reason I was at Ventfort Hall that day. The local SCA Barony, Bergental, is a fixture at the Medieval Fair, and as a proud member of the Barony, I'd driven to Lenox on that fine autumn day, set up my drawing supplies on Sarah and George Morgan's veranda, and spent much of the day happily illuminating an award scroll in between informal talks on medieval quilting and patchwork.
Needless to say, I had a wonderful time. There are few things I enjoy more than discussing medieval textiles (or medieval material culture in general), and the crowds that fine day were attentive, respectful, and suitably impressed. The Baronial fighting championship took place out on the lawn, my friend Mistress Eleanore roasted meat on a spit as she explained medieval cooking to wide-eyed children, the crowds milled and laughed and cheered....
It was a glorious day, albeit long and tiring, but none of us particularly wanted to leave, even after the museum closed. I'd changed into a sweatshirt and jeans and was hanging out with some of my buddies in the main hall, yakking the way we usually do, when I noticed that there was now a plaque on display thanking private donors for their generosity in giving money to support the ongoing efforts to repair the mess left by The Bible Speaks when they basically walked out the door and left it open.
The names were pretty much all prominent locals or wealthy summer people; the Berkshires has been a resort for over a century, after all, and New York license plates are a commonplace in Lenox and environs between May and October. I didn't recognize most of them, not being either a local or a summer person, but one seemed vaguely familiar.
I peered closer, brow wrinkled, and then I knew why the name "George Gilder" struck a chord, and why part of me went nearly as cold as the winds that swept down from the lowering hills to bite and chill the revelers on the lawn.
George Gilder. George Gilder. George Gilder...
Oh dear. Oh dear.
Some of may be familiar with George Gilder as a tech guru; he's been a strong advocate for computer technology and the Internet for around twenty years, including editing The Gilder Technology Report and sponsoring the Gilder/Forbes Telecosm Conference Others may know him as a staunch ally of the state of Israel, which he believes is "a crucial source of invention, military intelligence, and entrepreneurial creativity that may yet save the West" against the ravening forces of jihad. Still others may know him as a long-time Republican pundit who's contributed to Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Harvard Business Review, and The American Spectator (which he briefly owned). A few may even remember that he's the co-founder of the Discovery Institute, the think tank that has done so much to
spread the gospel of creationism introduce American schools to intelligent design.
George Gilder is all these things, and so much more. So much, much more.
Born in New York in 1939, Gilder was raised there and in Massachusetts. His father, who had joined the Army Air Corps, died when his son was only three, and his stepfather, one Gilder Palmer (who was either a distant relative or rejoiced in a weirdly coincidental name), whisked wife and stepson away to the booming metropolis of Tyringham, Massachusetts, population 327
and still growing! for fresh air and solid country values.
Young George, who was also mentored by his father's college roommate David Rockefeller (seriously, I am not making this up), received the customary education for a young scion of the upper crust: a tony private school in New York while young and impressionable, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire for high school, and then the hallowed halls of Harvard itself. After that came a short stint in the Marine Corps, which seems to have taught him very little about life outside the privileged circles in which he'd been raised, and a cushy career writing speeches for the likes of Nelson Rockefeller (ain't networking grand?), George Romney (father to Mitt, who was off dealing with the inaccurate facilities of French chateaux during his poverty-stricken missionary days), and Richard Nixon himself (avert! avert! retro me Satanas!). He even worked as a spokesman for liberal Republican Senator Charles Mathias back in the day when such things were possible, and seemed well on his way to a career in politics.
This career did not last long; despite being a proud Marine veteran, Gilder was so unnerved by anti-war protesters in the early 1960's that he let himself be hounded out of his apartment near the Capitol. Soon thereafter he fled Washington altogether for the seemingly safe and sane territory around Harvard Yard (oops!), where he tried to set himself up as a writer along the lines of, God help us all, Joan Didion.
The first effort of this phase of Gilder's life was not a Didionesque meditation on life, but a scathing attack on the anti-intellectualism and extremism of the Barry Goldwater wing of the Republican Party in the 1964 elections. Titled The Party That Lost Its Head and co-authored with college roommate Bruce Chapman, Gilder's first literary exercise slammed the right wing of his party for their views on welfare, defense, Vietnam, economics, and pretty much everything. It was an early effort at neo-conservatism, and was not precisely received with joy and rapture by the party leadership.
That Gilder later recanted the views expressed in the book with a self-deprecating statement that the old men he'd excoriated were by and large right does not in any way make this book less amusing, or less ironic considering his subsequent career.
For it turned out that the book, far from establishing Gilder as a fresh young voice in the Grand Old Party, made it less than easy for Gilder to find a place in the party. His love life wasn't exactly grand, either, and by the early 1970's he'd come to the conclusion that something had gone drastically wrong in America. That was why he wrote the first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of liberalism, feminism, and all the isms that were wrecking his beloved country: Sexual Suicide.
This provocatively titled book, which managed to combine self-pity over the inability of nice young men to
get laid find suitable feminine companionship with a whole lot of hatred toward Second Wave Feminism, was a surprise best seller. Its claimed that the deadly cocktail of welfare, which allowed a woman to raise her children without a man, and feminism, which advocated women living independent lives, had basically destroyed the allegedly inborn desire of men to be hunters, warriors, and sexually dominant heads of the family, was so appealing to frustrated lonely men that Time anointed Gilder its "Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year for 1973.
Gilder, who wore this dubious title with pride, promptly wrote a second book about the poor, poor emasculated men, Naked Nomads. This continued the theme that men, though superior in every way creatively and economically to women, were so inferior sexually, and had such itty-bitty teensy-weensy
penises egos, that any effort of women to venture outside their biologically ordained role as faithful helpmeets, baby factories, and cheerful bed partners, was destined to destroy society, the family, and of course the fragile male penis ego. It didn't sell quite as well as Sexual Suicide, but for a few brief, glorious years, George Gilder was that rarest of creatures: the professional anti-feminist.
That none of his assertions, which included gems like the statement that women are a "a very physiological consciousness" (?) and that by giving up choice and control over their lives in deference to this physiological consciousness (that presumably compels them to marry, bear children, and keep house for the young Republicans of the world), were supported in any way by objective research made no difference. Gilder was making money, appearing on Firing Line, and generally having the time of his life.
He also was working on his next book. This equally problematic tome, Visible Man: A True Story of Post-Racial America, riffed on the title of Ralph Ellison's masterpiece about race relations to tell the story of a talented black man whose life is ruined by the American welfare state. That Gilder's true motives were perhaps less pure is apparent from his original title, Sam Beau.
Aren't you glad his editors, appalled, refused to let the book go into print under this title? Don't you wish the whole book, which evidences a less than savory obsession with the black underclass, had been similarly kiboshed by the publisher?
Visible Man didn't create all that much excitement in the publishing world and was quickly out of print. Worse, the anti-feminist fad was waning, meaning that Gilder had to find a new
right-wing cause to ride into the ground obsession to write about.
Fortunately for him, it was about that time that Ronald Reagan, whose political career had been given up for dead around the time Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, began a serious run for President. Gilder, who'd became far more conservative as he aged, became fascinated by the connection between economic growth and the American family structure. Still convinced that only the responsibility of caring for a homemaking wife and well-scrubbed children would tame the average indolent male, he melded this Victorian vision of the ideal life with his own economic studies to produce the book that permanently fixed him in the conservative firmament: Wealth and Poverty.
This book, which claimed that supply-side economics were not only good for the economy, but morally superior to modern New Deal liberalism. Poverty was caused not by lack of income or good jobs, economic policies that favored the rich, or social policies that favored men over women, whites over non-whites, or straights over gays and lesbians. Oh no, it was caused by a lack of solid, Christian morality preached to the lazy takers who had been "ruined by the overflow of American prosperity," who after all had more purchasing power than the Japanese middle class in contemporary times or the American middle class during the Eisenhower years.
"Capitalism begins with giving," he intoned. "It is this supply-side vision that underlies all the economic arguments of Wealth and Poverty."
Needless to say, the young professionals and Reagan Democrats of the 1980's snapped up this book like fully paid for hotcakes prepared by a star chef from organic corn meal and the finest artisanal maple syrup. Here was the real reason for poverty and crime, and it wasn't the lack of social programs! If anything, those indolent breeders
in the ghettos who refused to work received too many benefits at the expense of the hardworking middle class! What America needed wasn't Head Start or community health centers, but tax breaks, manly men with well educated wives supporting their careers, and lots and lots of Christian preaching.
Lazy, immoral poor
non-whites who aren't actually all that poor...the need for a spiritual renewal instead of a living wage...women back to the home...family breakdown...where have we heard this recently, I wonder?
Gilder, who finally seemed to have found his niche in life, promptly followed up Wealth and Poverty with a reworked version of Sexual Suicide, the marginally less whiny Men and Marriage. He then churned out several books on the new, exciting technology of computers and the digital revolution, made a lot of money, and lectured, wrote, and coined the word "digerati."
Along the way, he found time to co-found and finance the Discovery Institute, the
creationist think tank intelligent design advocacy group that has done so much to ruin science education in this country to promote the idea that American schools should "teach the non-existent controversy" about the true origins of the universe. Its claims to publish peer-reviewed papers proving Genesis intelligent design may be pooh-poohed by the science establishment, but its influence on education cannot be denied.
Add in Gilder's passionate support of Israel, which includes the startling comparison of Benjamin Netanyahu to Winston Churchill, and truly, George Gilder can be said to encompass just about less than desirable strain in modern American conservatism: bad economic theory, dislike of independent women, religious fervor, hatred of the poor, and less than realistic foreign policies. All we need is private investment in Newt Gingrich's plans for
Moonbase Alpha a lunar colony, and this fascinating man by himself could serve as a future museum exhibit of "what the hell happened to the Republican Party after Goldwater."
Gilder himself now lives in Tyringham, the tiny, lily-white Berkshire town where he used to summer so long ago. It's only 15 minutes over the back roads to Ventfort Hall, and given Gilder's love of by-gone ages, mores, and economic systems, it's more than understandable why he'd give money to preserve this gorgeous relic of the Gilde
rd Age. It's exactly the sort of place that a man of his background, political leanings, and tastes would love, and it's even possible he would have sympathized with The Bible Speaks, at least until they deliberately left Ventfort Hall to rot when Elizabeth Dovydenas won her lawsuit and forced them out.
I haven't met George Gilder, at least knowingly, but it's entirely possible that one of these years he'll show up at the Medieval Fair and ask questions about medieval quilts. Being a peer of the realm, and not wishing to wreck the Barony's relationship with the museum, I'll simply smile, and talk, and never once let on that while I may admire the house and its architecture, my sympathies are not precisely with the people who built it....
Have you ever heard of George Gilder? Ventfort Hall? Have you visited the Breakers? Read Naked Nomads? Wanted to be a robber baron, or at least live like one? Now's the time to admit it, you latent capitalists you.....
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