Thursday, June 3, 1999
Otherwise desolate Ogdensburg, New York had two small surprises, both tucked in the same old house. One was the Remington Museum. Yeah, that Remington, father of a million bad bronzes. The other was the house itself, once the infamous Red Villa, home of a kind of classy French whore. But first the sculptures, since their mangled offspring will probably haunt us forever.
To start with, I had Remington all wrong, not hard since I’d mainly seen his cut-rate reproductions. Though if you threaten most people with Tell me everything you know about Frederic Remington you won’t get much that’s useful. I figured he was some slick old cowboy, tired of roping and getting his butt whomped, who started messing with clay.
Nope, born in 1861, he was an illustrator before a sculptor, and a writer in between—when the stories he was paid to illustrate weren’t nearly as interesting as anything he knew. Finally, he was an American Impressionist, one who’d be far better known if he hadn’t died so young. But he did leave those sculptures.
In the museum they’re entirely different from anything you snub in gift shops. Larger. More detailed. And black.
That’s the biggest surprise. Lose the baby shoe bronze, or the burnished deep brown of art galleries, turn these things the color of used bullets, and they start looking very serious. And when you can pick out each feather on the skewers ritually piercing some teen warrior’s chest, they get damned scary. Remington was a perfectionist, often destroying his molds after a single casting—six-or-seven was the norm. One early museum sculpture sits beside an unauthorized late version, maybe seventy in its series. What had been a swirling lariat is now a looping rein. A feathered lance becomes a pole.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” said a docent who’d been protectively tailing me. “They’re just simple changes, but they change the whole effect.”
More like ruin. And the terrible copies in the gift shop could have been thumped out of Play-Dough.
“We’ve been trying to get better ones,” she soon admitted. “But they’re so hard to find.”
Why so many butchered replicas? Not because Remington was greedy. He just died, unexpectedly, of a burst appendix at forty-eight. And though his wife protected his work throughout her life, immediately afterwards, and against the strict terms of her will, illegal casts were made—the so-called Midnight Copies. Not to mention the whole knock-off collectibles industry: Give Dad something masculine for Father’s Day!
“You really should look at Icons Of The West,” the docent went on, thinking she’d hooked a connoisseur—hell, I can’t even spell the word without help. Solemnly, she handed me the worn book she’d been clutching (also on sale in the gift shop). “There are three more collections,” she confided, then seemed almost distraught to find that, though Tom and I were traveling west, we wouldn’t pilgrimage to Shreveport, Tulsa, and Fort Worth.
“We’re mostly following the coast,” I tried nicely to explain—clearly this was someone who loved her work. But I’d already blown it, and she went off to stalk someone else.
Actually, Remington never lived in the red brick house now whitewashed into the museum, though he and his wife grew up in the area. And while he frequently traveled, and owned several homes at the same time, his favorite was in the Adirondacks. “I never should have left,” he once wrote, and after he died, his wife stayed close by.
Even then, the house was something of a legend. It was built in 1809 by David Parish, a somewhat loose-operating Belgian banker. He wasn’t unethical, but was finally undone by his improbable belief that everything always worked out in his favor. Faced with irreversible ruin in 1826, he killed himself. But not before selling the house to his brother.
George Parish died a more traditional death a dozen years later, leaving the estate to his namesake nephew. Then, in the most sexist of poker games, the nephew won a mistress—from no less than John Van Buren, son of the then U.S. president.
Not that the mistress wasn’t stacking her own deck. She’d been christened Elena, but lifted her younger sister’s name thinking it more directly connected to their famous ancestor—she was the Countess Ameriga Vespucci. She further stretched her chips by petitioning Congress to give her land and citizenship, based solely on her heritage..
But Congress was as skittish then as today, and though the Countess had couches of powerfuladmirers, including Daniel Webster and Martin Van Buren, she always remained an Italian refugee. Still, the nephew was modestly honorable, and though he never married Elena—choosing another, wealthier woman, more powerfully titled—he let her live in the house till 1864. As the Civil War was ending, either because of his own finances or politics, he retreated to Europe, warning her do the same.
She may have tried, but couldn’t. For one thing, she wasn’t exactly the belle of Ogdensburgh—it had an h then—charming all who met her and always in demand. Most of her time there, she’d lived in virtual seclusion, shunned by the conservative townsfolk, and surrounded mainly by unsympathetic servants. With the nephew, she was trapped, but without him, she was helpless. Finally, the real Ameriga saved her, sending money, and Elena fled to Paris, living, perhaps, a bit less unhappily.
The house has one more twist: the downstairs rooms are generously carved and paneled though they weren’t when the Countess was at home. A later owner, jealous of an even wealthier neighbor, bought up that rival’s mansion when misfortune struck, then stripped it of everything valuable. A bed of vultures, Ogdensburg.