Visiting the Rockefellers

As new “Mercedes Benz” leasers, we decided we’d do well to learn how rich people lived. We packed the last of our poor-people Monterey Jack along with some comparatively costly crackers and drove off to the Hudson Valley to visit the Rockefeller Estate.

We were surprised at the many tolls we had to pay! Now that we’re driving we’ve turned into Republicans and feel that somebody else (e.g. pedestrians) should subsidize New York’s roads and bridges. At the very least they could charge tolls by the pound. Why should we pay for our tiny car as much as SUV owners do?

We arrived at Sleepy Hollow in time for their much-touted street fair. But we first parked at the farmers’ market, and Sabine again pointed out that two of our smart cars could fit in the spot. It never gets old. Then we bought half a pint of pickled artichokes and she picked up a one-dollar bread roll. She wouldn’t admit it, but I think she was saving the expensive crackers for herself.

I swallowed my suspicions and we managed to have a lovely picnic under a tree. We split the cheese, roll, and artichokes, and Sabine never mentioned where the crackers went. Then we walked to the street fair, which was basically a standard New York City-style sausage and sock fair, except with a live band and no zeppoli. Not enough Italians upstate, I suppose.

We had to wait at the ticket venue for half an hour, which was pretty boring as all there was to look at was their small gift shop. Most of the knick-knacks featured skulls and pumpkins, though there was an inexplicable selection of African-themed toys, which made me uncomfortable. What did it mean? Come to think of it, we hadn’t seen any black people since we arrived.

Then I started really getting nervous when we finally began boarding the bus and I realized the median age of our fellow tourists was 76.

The guide—also around 76, though with a surprisingly dark, manicured beard and scattered wisps of dark hair sticking out the back of his baseball hat—told us in a mellifluous voice that he hoped we had eaten lunch, because eating, drinking, and smoking isn’t allowed in the Rockefeller Estate. The lady in the seat in front of us immediately asked if she could get off the bus to get her lunch from her car, but our guide shot her down. Her companion smiled slyly and slipped her an aluminum-wrapped sandwich. I was going to have to keep my eye out on these low-class shit-stirrers.

In his perfectly enunciated patter, Mr. Mellifluous mentioned that there were more than 70 modern sculptures in the garden, but “mercifully we won’t be looking at all of them.” When we arrived he held us at the door for ages explaining who the Rockefellers were, why and when they bought the estate, and how he would tip us off to the best spots to take a photograph. He was taking so long that I started suspecting he wasn’t really a guide and couldn’t really get us in the house.

Just as I was about to demand to be taken back home, he asked a question: “How many of you are interested in modern art?” Complete silence. “Raise your hand, how many of you like modern art?” Nothing. Mellifluous seemed disappointed as he informed us that David Rockefeller was a big collector of modern art. I was tempted to blurt out that I had a Masters in Fine Arts and Sabine one in Art History, but didn’t. We just wanted to blend in. As far as anyone there was concerned, we were just another couple of art-ignorant retirees filling their time until death.

The first thing that struck me upon entering the house was that it looked kind of tacky. Lots of frilly detailing on the walls and ceiling, clashing eras and styles (Chinese dragons and neo-classical statues!), mismatched colors all over the place. Mr. Mellifluous joked that the furnishings didn’t come from Pier 1 Imports, but I didn’t join in the polite chuckles because I wasn’t too convinced.

Hi grandma!

Hi grandma!

I stopped paying attention after that. Frankly, I have no interest in architecture or furniture. All furniture from the 15th to 19th centuries reminds me of my grandmother’s house. I tried to keep awake by searching for interesting details (interesting to me meaning animals: elephants holding up tables, porcelain vultures, two-humped ceramic camels, etc.) and by making a game of avoiding eye contact with Sabine, who was eager to silently communicate her hatred of Mellifluous.

Occasionally our fellow tour-goers livened things up by asking questions such as “Has any royalty visited the house?” To which Mellifluous answered, “Indeed they have. Anwar Sadat was here, Nelson Mandela visited twice…” That the kings of Egypt and South Africa had dropped by may explain the African toys in the gift shop. I could totally see Mandela stocking up on plastic zebras to take back home to his subjects.

Statue in Kykuit Sculpture Gardens

Reg Butler you sly dog

We finally made it to the garden. While Mellifluous dictated to everyone the exact spots where they should take their photos, Sabine and I looked at the sculptures. Like the furnishings in the house, it wasn’t possible to discern a particular esthetic. There were some of the bigger names like Rodin, Giacometti (represented by one of the crappy smooth figures from the ’30s before he hit on his sloppier signature style), Brancusi, and Henry Moore, along with a lot of generic post-war art. Like whom, you ask? (Well well well, aren’t we experts in subjective pronouns all of a sudden!) Like Reg Butler, Herbert Ferber (or Seymour Lipton, I can’t tell them apart), and Marino Marini. Never heard of them? Don’t beat yourself up, you probably don’t have advanced degrees in art like me and my wife with the fancy car and crackers.

Speaking of crackers, the big hole in the Henry Moore made me hungry, which reminded me that I hadn’t been keeping my eye on the old bags with the smuggled lunches. Old ladies make good sandwiches. But before I could sneak up on anybody Mellifluous informed us that it was time to visit the Rockefeller car collection.

This two-seater is twice as big as our two-seater

This two-seater is twice as big as our two-seater

I’ve never cared much about cars, but since we are now paying around $100 a month for one, I consider myself a bit of an expert. As such, I decided to compare sizes. To my delight, I discovered that our smart car was smaller than the Rockefellers’ horse-drawn coaches (not even including the horses). It was also smaller than all their cars, with perhaps the exception of some sort of chassis-only motorized buggy that the kids used to drive around the estate. And knowing what I know about rich people, it’s safe to assume that didn’t end well. I just have one word for you: Chappaquiddick.

Satisfied finally that not only our taste was superior to the Rockefellers, but that our car was also more sensible, Sabine pulled out the good crackers and we snacked on them as we waited in the garden for the bus to take us back.

Filed under: Art