Thomas Wolfe's Rhinebeck

By THOMAS SHANNON

Thomas Wolfe, a titan of American letters in the late 1920s and ’30s, was well known for the lyrical quality, autobiographical nature, and sheer length of his novels. The recent limited-release film Genius committed to cinema the story of Charles Scribner's Sons editor Maxwell Perkins and his efforts to shepherd Wolfe's debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, to publication.  An obscure fact about this half-forgotten author is that a substantial portion of Look Homeward, Angel, perhaps as many as seven chapters, was produced in Rhinebeck, N.Y., on the Fox Hollow estate in the summer of 1927.  

Wolfe's multiple visits to Rhinebeck in the 1920s and his two-week stay in 1927 emerged from his friendship with Olin Dows. They met while attending Harvard; Wolfe studying to be a playwright and Dows pursuing his vocation as a painter. Their acquaintance lapsed for a few years before they ran into each other in New York City. Wolfe was alternating between teaching English to undergraduates at Washington Square College, part of New York University, and living off the proceeds of his much older mistress, prominent socialite and costume designer Aline Bernstein. Dows was splitting time between New York and Rhinebeck trying to establish himself as an artist.  

As documented extensively in his debut novel, Wolfe was from a middle class but partially broken and chaotic family in Asheville, N.C. His father was a stone carver, primarily working on gravestones. His mother kept house until Thomas, the youngest of her eight children, was in school. She then purchased and operated a boarding house primarily for tuberculosis patients seeking relief in the mountain air of western North Carolina.  

Stephen Olin Dows (1904-1981), by contrast, was born into late Gilded Age opulence at Fox Hollow, a 700-plus-acre Hudson River estate. The estate was pieced together with the monetary wealth supplied by Tracy Dows, Olin's father, who was the son of a wealthy New York merchant. Olin's mother, Alice Townsend Olin, possessed considerable hereditary land wealth as she was a Livingston, a Beekman, and a Tillotson. Her prime inheritance was a sixty-acre lot and the mansion known as Glenburn. To this initial holding, Tracy Dows added land piece by piece and built the Fox Hollow mansion around 1909.  

As a result of his maternal family roots, Olin Dows was related to many other prominent members of the old Hudson River gentry. He was fifth cousins once removed with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt via their common ancestors "Judge" Robert R. Livingston (1718-1775) and his wife Margaret Beekman. This Beekman link meant that they both shared blood with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, another descendant of Wilhelmus Beekman (1623-1707), the progenitor of that clan. Via the Beekman line, FDR and Olin Dows were sixth cousins twice removed. (FDR and Eleanor were sixth cousins three times removed in addition to famously being fifth cousins once removed by their shared surname.) Olin Dows was also a second cousin once removed to another Beekman/Livingston and FDR confidant,  Margaret "Daisy" Suckley of Wilderstein.  

Into this exclusive world Thomas Wolfe stepped in late June 1927 when Olin Dows invited him to Fox Hollow. He was well into the manuscript that became Look Homeward, Angel, having already completed the first two of three sections. Wolfe largely stayed alone in the gatehouse as opposed to the mansion. This was because he was accustomed to pounding coffee and cigarettes, writing furiously all night and collapsing into bed sometime around dawn.  

While it is not completely clear how much of the novel he wrote in the gatehouse, the most expansive estimate one could make from surviving evidence would include chapters 28 through 35 of the final product plus whatever text did not make the cut. In his biography of Wolfe, late historian David Herbert Donald noted marginalia Wolfe wrote in the manuscript urging himself to “get to Ben's death before going to New York.” Ben was the brother of Eugene Gant, a lightly fictionalized version of Thomas Wolfe himself in Look Homeward, Angel.  Ben's death occurs in chapter 35. Donald was skeptical that Wolfe actually made it that far in his time at Fox Hollow gatehouse.  

By July 12, 1927, Wolfe was setting off for Europe. He continued grinding away at the manuscript finishing in March 1928. It was rejected by several publishers before finding a home at Scribner’s publishing house under the care of Max Perkins.  

His time spent with the Dows family left an enormous impression on the young novelist.  He loved staying in the gatehouse, referring to it as “a little bit of heaven with a little river, a wooded glade, and the sound of water falling over the dam all through the night.” Wolfe spent July 4th, 1927 a little up the road at the Astor estate watching the fireworks among “the swells” who he assumed looked at him as Olin's “bohemian friend.”

In the year between completing the manuscript and publishing Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe set to work on a second novel entitled The River People. This was to be based on the Rhinebeck old money he rubbed elbows with the previous summer. He fictionalized Olin Dows as “Joel Pierce,” Rhinecliff as “Rhinekill,” Rhinebeck as “Leydensberg,” and the Astor estate as the “Paston” estate. Tracy Dows appears as “Mr. Pierce” in a humorous restaurant scene teasing his son for his vegetarianism. Alice Townsend Olin is fictionalized as “Mrs. Pierce” and portrayed as cold and sometimes haughty. Wolfe, however, ultimately lost interest and abandoned The River People before finishing it. Luckily, about one hundred pages of this novel fragment were salvaged for use in Wolfe's second novel, Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth. It is located in part four, “Proteus, The City.”  

Wolfe's novels are all very autobiographical and he would document his perceptions of suddenly being among such a rarefied caste. Eugene Gant again serves as the fictional Thomas Wolfe in Of Time and the River. He was initially very smitten with the idea of the rich and the great Hudson River families. Conversely, he was also very aware of being an outsider among “the cult-adepts of the world of fashion.”  

Stephen Henry Olin (1847-1925), grandfather of Olin Dows, makes an appearance in Of Time and the River, fictionalized at “Mr. Joel.” The setting in that chapter is a large dinner served at Glenburn for the family and invited guests including Eugene Gant. Here it becomes apparent that Wolfe took some creative license and mashed his memories from several years of trips to Rhinebeck into one weekend in the novel. Around the dinner table, the conversation turns to the presidential election of 1924, with Mr. Joel expressing his hopes for Democratic candidate John W. Davis but also his resignation to a Coolidge victory.  This brings a certain distant cousin to Mr. Joel's mind and he asks "How is Frank? ... Has he been taking any part in the campaign this summer?” The assembled guests remark on what a shame it is that he was crippled and forced into retirement by disease. Mr. Joel mulls over the idea that Frank's career could be over so early. He ruminates: “Hard to tell what would have happened to him... A little soft, perhaps, but great ability... great charm... and great opportunists, everyone of them... Have instinctive genius for seizing on the moment when it comes... Never know what's going to happen to a man like that.” This “Frank” is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of course.  

Of most interest to those with an affinity for the Hudson River are Wolfe's multiple extended paeans to the river. He also uses the Hudson extensively as an illustration of the allegory apparent in the novel's title. There are many examples, but a single sentence from chapter 61 describing the view from a window of the Fox Hollow mansion best captures Wolfe's descriptive powers and the general theme of the novel:   

“And through the opened window was revealed anew the haunting loneliness of that enchanted landscape: the vast sweep of velvet-rounded lawn that slept in moonlight, and the sleeping and moon-haunted woods below and to each side, and down below them in the distance the great wink and scallop-dance and dark unceasing mystery of the lovely and immortal river—a landscape such as one might see in dreams, in dreams for ever haunted by the thought of home.”

Throughout "Proteus, The City," Wolfe emphasizes Joel Pierce's essential goodness of character even if he is startled by the social milieu of The River People. The real life Olin Dows was indeed a kind, generous man with a strong ideal of civic obligation. Dows served under FDR as an administrator of the Public Works Art Project and also The Section, a Works Progress Administration program. He later won the commission to paint murals of local history in the Rhinebeck and Hyde Park post offices. Both post offices still feature his work.  

Of Time and the River was Wolfe's second novel, published when he was 34 years old, but it was destined to be the last published during his lifetime. He was struck down three years later in 1938 by tuberculosis that he likely acquired as a child at his mother's boarding house. Left on the table was a million-word manuscript that was eventually chopped up and published as a short story collection, The Hills Beyond, and two long novels: The Web and the Rock, and You Can't Go Home Again.  

The Dows family suffered the loss of the patriarch, Tracy Dows, in 1937. Upon his death, his children Olin, Margaret, and Deborah elected to sell the Fox Hollow mansion and some of the acreage around it. Deborah inherited approximately 200 acres at the southern end of Fox Hollow and started a horse riding school called Southlands, which still exists today. Olin Dows inherited the old family homestead, Glenburn, and lived there on and off for the rest of his life. Olin served in the U.S. Army's Artist Correspondent Unit during World War II, where he used his multilingual abilities to persuade 56 German soldiers to surrender at the Battle of the Bulge.  Upon the death of his distant cousin FDR, he wrote a biography of the president, illustrating it with 174 original drawings.  

All of the historic properties mentioned still stand today. The Fox Hollow gatehouse, where Wolfe worked on Look Homeward, Angel, is located where South Mill Road crosses over Landsman Kill. The waterfall he so enjoyed is immediately downstream as the kill dumps into Vanderburgh Cove, partially enclosed from the Hudson by the railroad embankment. The Fox Hollow mansion lies less than 1,000 feet northeast of the gatehouse. Over the years it has served as a girls preparatory school, a home for mentally handicapped children, and, since 1989, as home to Daytop, a human services organization that offers, among other things, substance abuse rehabilitation. Both gatehouse and mansion are property of Daytop Village Foundation, Inc.  

The Glenburn mansion, unbelievably, is even more closely associated with hereditary wealth and democratic presidents than it was eighty years ago. It now belongs to an LLC under the control of Eric and Andrea Colombel. She is the daughter of progressive financier George Soros. When Chelsea Clinton was wed in 2010 at the former Astor estate, where Wolfe and the Dows family once watched fireworks, her parents were widely reported to have found their lodgings at Glenburn. 

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Thomas Shannon lives in Endwell, New York, with his wife, Mary, and two young daughters. He is a Germantown native and a graduate of Columbia-Greene Community College and Binghamton University. You can usually find him in the woods looking for old foundations. He can be reached by email at thomasshannon6591@gmail.com

 The gatehouse in Rhinebeck where Thomas Wolfe wrote part of  Look Homeward, Angel  in 1927.

The gatehouse in Rhinebeck where Thomas Wolfe wrote part of Look Homeward, Angel in 1927.