Vince Gay lived in Plainfield in the '60s and '70s, moving to the Netherwood Heights area when he was seven years old. He shares these memories of the Talmadge property, before and after the fire.
It’s funny how memory plays tricks. I could swear I remember being out on Belvidere Avenue the night “Old Man Hatchet’s” house burned. Maybe I just pictured it vividly when I heard about it the next day. The pictures in my head resemble the burning of Atlanta in “Gone with the Wind”—re-set, of course, under the canopy of tree branches that hang over Belvidere Avenue.
Maybe I am remembering one of the times other mansions on the street were struck by lighting. I specifically remember a time when I was where I shouldn’t have been, and had to hop, skip, and jump over fire hoses that were spread across several front yards. I must have been in the way of firefighters.
But it must have been a different fire. I was only seven years old when “Old Man Hatchet’s” house burned, and I doubt I was running around on Belvidere after midnight. I’m pretty sure, though, that my memory of hearing the fire engines from the bedroom in our house on Park Terrace…I’m pretty sure that’s accurate.
I definitely remember the next day. The OMH scene was a chaotic mélange of flame, smoke, ash, trucks, hoses, sirens, and rumors of arson, with someone whose last name was Henry mentioned. Hmm. Maybe the first name of Mr. Talmadge was mentioned.
My family lived for about a year on the block on which the main structure of the Netherwood Hotel had once stood. A favorite activity of the kids on the block was digging up NH bricks for neighbors to use in building garden borders and pathways. Structures past and present mattered here. They were among the reasons Netherwood had such hospitable ghosts.
I think the arson rumors about the OMH fire were echoed in the next day’s Courier-News. To be honest, though, I was more attentive to the photos in the paper, the first paper that contained the story of a place I had known and an event I had at least heard. I guess we’ll never know what caused the fire, but I do know that I could still smell the smoke and hear the noise of the fire scene at my house three blocks away.
By the time we moved to Netherwood, the OMH house looked abandoned, mainly because of the unkempt yard. Some older kids on the block told me stories of how OMH, years earlier, had gone mad and done his maid in with a hatchet in the entryway, just inside the front door. Different versions had OMH either dead and haunting the place, or alive, hiding in the house, waiting to take his hatchet to any of us kids who dared to even step onto the edge of the lot.
On several Saturdays during April and May of ’69, we spooked ourselves and each other by lurking around the lot. I guess we had managed to morph one of the Talmadges into Plainfield’s own Boo Radley, but, unlike Jem and Scout, we never drew up the courage to touch, or stand in or on any part of the structure.
We kept daring each other to venture ever further onto the lot and into its woods until the day in early May ’69 when a light suddenly turned on and appeared to swing back and forth in the top window of the “lighthouse” tower. Our seven-to-nine-year-old bravado took a powder as we ran home. Either our imaginations were even wilder than usual, or the place had not been as abandoned as we thought. For decades, I didn’t know which it was: The house burned a few weeks later.
Years after the house was gone, the walkways and driveway were covered in weeds, but were otherwise intact. Those of us boys who passed the lot on the way to and from Woodland School continued, whenever we got the chance, to lurk about the “haunted” lot, which had gained the additional cachet of being a possible arson crime scene.
I seem to remember, perhaps with no accuracy at all, a small graveyard on the property, behind the church that faces Ravine Road. By the time I visited it in 1998, I could find no headstones, nor any other sign of the cemetery. A small playground for pre-schoolers now occupies this space. I don’t get to Plainfield much, and can’t even remember if the original chapel exists as part of the larger modern church structure that dominates the Ravine Road side. There’s an area behind the church playground that looks like it could have once had some headstones.
I guess the houses now on the lot went up in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, after my family left the northeast in ’75, and before I did the reverse of Horace Greeley’s advice and moved from points west to New York City in the late ‘90s. A small piece of the original front OMH walkway can be found under the grass along the Belvidere Avenue sidewalk.
On the visit in ’98, I found myself thinking that the one little piece of walkway was the only evidence that I hadn’t completely manufactured my memories of good scary times spent on or near the OMH lot.
Then, I began to remember another possible way I might verify what I remembered. I recalled, vaguely at first, standing with some other boys one afternoon, in what must have been the Spring of ’73, on the sidewalk opposite the OMH lot along Ravine Road. That day in ’73, I had idly picked up a stick, then just as idly dipped the stick in some soft street tar, then just as idly used the tar to write something on the sidewalk.
Thirty five years later, as the memory returned, I walked a couple paces down the same sidewalk, looked down, and saw the note sent to me across time by my obnoxious little ten-year-old self:
“Old Man Hatchet.”
A few years later, I went looking for those words, and could only find another message I had sent:
When I wrote on this site about the “OMH” I had scrawled, I thought I had remembered wrong, and didn’t even mention it.
It was very unlike me to be as succinct as I was in my tar missives. Some things don’t change: I still have trouble being succinct.
Looking back, I don’t know what fascinates me more: What might actually have happened in the house, the stories that surrounded the house, or the human need to create and tell and hear the kind of stories we told.
I was part of a management/mental health team that was able, in the months following hurricane Katrina, to use this power of narrative to more effectively help volunteers fielding anguish-ridden crisis calls from the Katrina “zone”. Each shift began with “the story so far”, part of an ongoing narrative of the storm that helped callers and volunteers to mentally organize the pandemonium, to see whatever progress was being made, to see their own heroic qualities, to begin to write the next chapter, and to begin to make some kind of existential sense of the millions of big crises within the even bigger crisis of the storm aftermath.
So stories, factual or imagined, matter. Sometimes only fiction can illuminate fact. When Pat talks about Mike, you might learn more about Pat than you learn about Mike. When a person tells a story, you might learn more about the storyteller and the audience than you learn about the topic of the story. And so might the storyteller.
Besides being stories of the power of Place, it seems to me that the narratives surrounding the OMH house are an important part of Plainfield’s local color, and shouldn’t continue to go missing. I think these narratives are important to the psyche of Plainfield.
The stories are especially important to the generation of Netherwood kids who found the tales of OMH a somewhat less threatening source of catharsis for childhood fears than the more true-to-life tales of things like the List case, and the other horror stories of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
In 2010, I started thinking about the old neighborhood and found the Talmadge House on the Plainfield Library’s site. I hadn’t even known the name of the place before. This led me to a discussion board where I found that one of the other amateur (though far less amateur than I) historians I was talking with was a classmate from fifth grade. We had both been fascinated with the Talmadge House back when we were in school together. Neither of us knew of the other’s interest back then.
That classmate was Elizabeth Faraone, the creator and owner of this site. From Lizzy and the terrific site she has created, I learned that legit neighborhood caretakers were likely the folks who had turned on the light in the “haunted” tower. I also learned that “Old Man Hatchet” was more likely a basically nice guy who struggled to keep up the huge house he had inherited from his family, and that he had died only a few months before I started creeping around his property.
I visited the Talmadge lot not long ago with Lizzy and my wife, Jessica, who I had told all about the place. I don’t know how I had missed it before, but we all three saw my tar etching on the sidewalk, the etching I hadn’t been able to find again on my last visit:
“Old Man Hatchet”.
Confirmed: It was there. I had actually been there all those years ago.
So I had remembered at least one thing right.
Of course now, “OMH” has a name: Henry Pearl Talmadge, caretaker of a beautiful home, and the person who I think of as sort of indirectly re-introducing me to my old neighborhood and to people that I first met decades ago.
Richard Loosli was age 15 at the time of the fire. He may have been one of the children seen entering the house by a neighbor, who perceived them as careless and destructive. Richard was, in reality, a curious and mild mannered young man who greatly appreciated the Talmadge house.
Many times when riding my bicycle on Belvidere Avenue, I stopped in front of the house to gaize at that beautiful work of art in brick, stone and wood. Two weeks before the fire, some friends and I wanted to get to the top of the tower to see the view. We entered the house through a window to the coal bunker in the cellar under the parlor. All the other cellar windows had been boarded up. I saw an interior that was ill-kept and in disrepair, but I did not see any obvious signs of vandalism or thievery. Oriental carpets covered the floors, paintings were still on the walls, and there was even a pile of foreign coins on a desk in the master bedroom. On another table, there was an hand-written memoir, whether by Henry Pearl Talmadge II or his brother Arthur I do not now know, telling of the author's post-collegiate European grand tour and of a rejected marriage proposal to an Irish noblewoman. The wondrous impression was that one was stepping back in time as the decor and furnishings were of the Victorian period. So little had changed that even in the nursery which hadn't been used for babies for over 80 years , the walls were still painted a pale blue in color and the crib still stood in the corner of the room. The kitchen stove was still coal-fired. That sense of timelessness made the presence of the only modern appliance I saw, beside the telephone, seem all the more poignant. It was a plastic, battery-operated, remote controlled Mighty Mike truck with big wheels to climb over obstacles. Perhaps Henry Pearl Talmadge II had great-grand-nephews who visited and played with it, but at the time I was saddened to think that, after 94 years of living, he had returned to amusing himself with a modern day child's toy.
My friends and I never did find our way to the top of the tower. There was no interior spiral staircase as we had been expecting. While we were in the attic trying to figure out how people got to the observation deck of the tower, a police car stopped at the property. A patrolman got out and tested the front door to see if it was locked When he was satisfied that it was, he left. We were sufficiently unnerved, however, that we left immediately thereafter. We returned a week later on a Friday afternoon to try once more to get to the top of the tower, but there was a moving van at the house and movingmen were carrying out the oriental rugs and furniture. We sat on the stone steps that went from the sidewalk to the front walkway to the house to watch this work. Suddenly, when classes at the nearby public school ended for the day, what seemed like hundreds of students came running up the hill and swarmed over the side yard. It was an odd sight. Again, a police car came on the scene. The patrolman told everyone, my friends and I included, to get off the property. We didn't have the chance to reenter the house before it burned two days later.
Years later I asked a fire captain about the cause of the fire. He said the flames traveled up the servants' staircase at the north end of the house, but they still didn't know if the fire was started by arson (one theory) or an electrical short (another theory) caused by the moving men having turned on lights that hadn't been used in years. I still think it unusual that by 4 o'clock on the afternoon after the fire, when my mother took us to see the ruins after school, a demolition crew had toppled the remains and a bulldozer was leveling the grounds. In a move that was a surprise to me, my mother, who had never shown much interest in the house, went up to the foreman and asked to buy all the terra cotta ornamentation he could salvage. Unfortunately, most of it had already been bulldozed underground by then, but she did manage to save three rosettes from the south end of the house and the half circle decoration above the entrance archway.
"Vast red sandstone houses rose, like so many Kenilworth castles, with turrets, verandahs, balconies and porte-cocheres, with arches, fountains, coach houses, kennels and stables and with sons who had an air of owning all creation and whose thoughts and talk were entirely about yachting and coaching. Pathetic these boys were destined to be, how often, when they grew up, for almost invariably their worlds collapsed about them. Some of their fathers ended like George Francis Train, who sat on a park bench in new York, feeding the squirrels, and who, after owning steamship lines and building street railways in England, lived in a charitable retreat for down-and-outs." Van Wyck Brooks, Scenes and Portraits (1954), pg. 5
Not a very flattering opinion of his peers, but Van Wyck was always known as holding radical opinions. I dare say the Talmadge's were better than some others. Henry Pearl Talmadge II graduated from Harvard College and Columbia Law School, helped his father in the family's lawsuit after WWI, and held on to the mansion until the end of his life. But imperious they may have been. I see that they did not join the Plainfield Country Club and associate with the young executives and other local members who were still making their way in the world. However, Henry Pearl Talmadge II's sister, Lucy, did belong to local women's organizations and used to hold dances at the mansion well into the 40's. The second floor landing at the top of the stairs was used as the dancing floor with the oriental rugs rolled back.
My involvement began with my uncle, who was a builder. He wanted to purchase land to build houses along Woodland Avenue. Mr. Talmadge owned the property, but did not want to sell. My uncle did small jobs for Mr. Talmadge and would stop by there every so often.
At some point, I think it was the summer of 1965 or 1966, the garage on the estate burnt down. It must have been quite a fire. My father was in the Plainfield Fire Department and was convinced that kids had started the fire. My uncle agreed with Mr. Talmadge to demolish the garage. I remember that the garage had a basement, with the remains of a calcium carbide acetylene generator in it. My father said that it was originally for lighting the house. I helped a couple of days on the demolition — there was a chimney still standing precariously that was a constant concern as we removed burnt out timbers and stuff. The garage itself was pretty large — bigger than the house I grew up in on the far west end of Plainfield. Ms. Marks would sit in the veranda under the tower and watch.
For a young teenager, both Mr. Talmadge and Ms. Marks were a bit off-putting. They were both so ancient. Mr. Talmadge couldn't hear too well, and his speech was sort of a loud croaking, although perfectly intelligible. Ms. Marks spoke softly, with an aristocratic accent.
So over the next couple of years, my father did odd jobs for Mr. Talmadge. I remember his fixing slates on the roof. (Being terrified of heights this made an impression on me — I wouldn't get anywhere near the roof. Firemen were fearless about heights.) One summer, we had to remove plaster from Mr. Talmadge's bedroom. The ceiling plaster had fallen, narrowly missing his bed as he lay there, and so he wanted it out. It would have taken a master plasterer to restore it. The cornice molding was pretty elaborate. Part of the center medallion was still there after the plaster had fallen.
During this time, and into my senior year in high school, I did odd jobs — raking leaves, mowing the grass (infrequently — Ms. Marks liked the grass long, and she was in charge). A few times, I brought a vacuum cleaner in and did the first two floors — a big job. Meanwhile, dad chauffeured Ms. Marks to her sister's house in Princeton, or to her NYC apartment. I went to her NYC apartment once — it was in the east 80's by the Metropolitan Museum (back when entrance was free). It was a small cooperative apartment on the first floor.
So I spent quite a bit of time in the house, although I never made it to the tower top. One came up the stairs through solid double doors into a little vestibule. Thence, through another set of double doors, I think half glazed, into the main hall, which of course was stupendous. To the right was a parlor, which I entered only once. The pocket doors were kept closed. There was a massive round radiator on the wall opposite the entrance door. To the immediate left was a telephone closet — like an elegant telephone booth. To the left was the staircase, which was pretty impressive. The main hall had a pretty big oriental rug in it, and tons of the kind of ostentatious stuff that the Victorians loved. I remember impressive mantle clocks. If you went into the library, you'd find Mr. Talmadge and Ms. Marks most of the time. In the winter, his job was to add logs to the fireplace. I don't know who started the fire, or who supplied the logs. There were tons of books, with fine bindings and good illustrations. I think they were there as much to show the education of the family as anything else — it was really a reference type library. There was a 1911 and 1912 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In 1966, our English class had to read 'A Night to Remember', and there were short articles on the Titanic and Olympic in the Britannica (printed before the disaster). This occasioned a talk with Mr. Talmadge and Ms. Marks, who apparently knew people who perished (I can't remember who). They also talked about the Lusitania and the horror of it (I was into ships at the time). They were both strongly anti-German. We never talked much about the stock market crash, or the depression which followed. I suspect now that it was sensitive for them, and may have had something to do with their downturn in fortune. There was a nice window seat opposite the library entrance, and I once spent an hour or so there reading. You could enter the billiard room from the library by another door, towards the rear of the house . The pocketless billiards table, and all the accessories, were there. It was pretty big. There was also a rack like a clothes horse, which held polo mallets. The dining room, in contrast, was rather bare — it must have been emptied before I entered the picture. There was a big table with chairs and a sideboard. It connected to a service kitchen. The main kitchen was downstairs, and communicated with the service kitchen via dumbwaiter. The service kitchen also had a rear set of stairs to the basement. The public rooms had huge heavy dark curtains.
I was never quite sure how Mr. Talmadge and Ms. Marks quite got on. She didn't drive, so I imagine that someone must have done their shopping for them. Not that they ate a lot, or with great variety. I think Ms. Marks said eggs were their staple. Once Mom made a pan of eggplant parmisian and sent it over.
But nonetheless, Ms. Marks talked a lot about the 'Bailey Boys' as being a great help, and someone else in the Bailey family, whose name might have been Elizabeth. The Bailey Boys would have been a few years older than I (my birth year was 1951). They might well have lived on Belvidere Avenue.
Climbing the main staircase was an adventure. It was clearly made for a grand entrance into the main hall, which I guess must have doubled as a ballroom. At the first landing, three steps up, was a huge window, with interior plantation type shutters. These were always closed, but when I opened them while vacuuming, the light poured in. Thence one went up to the second floor. The ceilings on the first floor must have been 14 feet high or more, so the climb to the second floor was not trivial to someone as immobile as Mr. Talmadge.
Once on the second floor, there was an open area, with seating and tables. To the right was the bedroom Ms. Marks used. Mr. Talmadge didn't use the master bedroom, which was over the library, but what must have always been his bedroom. I think his brother's bedroom was next door. I never entered the master bedroom. I think each of the other bedrooms had its own bathroom. Opposite Mr. Talmadge's bedroom was an office. I remember a big desk, with cabinets. Mr. Talmadge gave me Confederate currency from that office. These rooms had elaborate plaster ceilings.
I don't remember how one got from the servants quarters on the third floor to the second, but I did it, and from the servants quarters, I went into the attic, but didn't stay long. The servants quarters, and the service kitchen had some sort of a bell system by which servants could be summoned. There were doorbell type buttons in all the bedrooms and the first floor rooms.
The house was electrified and had running water on all floors. I remember the electrical switches being push button types.
So the house was huge, and certainly difficult for someone that age to negotiate. One Christmas, I think in 1966, my brother got a set of walkie-talkies (Lafayettes). We brought them over, and Ms. Marks and Mr. Talmadge conversed with them. We were hinting that they ought to get a set for themselves, thinking it might ease things a bit. They weren't interested.
During the holiday season of 1968, sometime around or just after Christmas, I stopped by. The interior set of double doors had a bell that operated by turning a handle. The outer doors were kept unlocked, but the interior door had a security chain. I rang the bell, and was surprised to get no answer. I opened the interior door to the extent the chain would allow, and hallo'ed. I had done this before, and normally would get a distant hallo. I would then wait for a few minutes until someone came to the door. It didn't happen this time. Odd. So I went home. A few days later, I heard that Ms. Marks passed away and Mr. Talmadge was in a hospital somewhere.
I went to Union Catholic for high school. The bus ran along 7th st, and I used to look for the tower as we went by. It was a big shock to hear that it burnt. My father thought that it was kids playing in the house — maybe they were using candles, which set the house up.
Anyway, time went on, and again around the holidays I heard that Mr. Talmadge had been put in the nursing home on Inman Avenue, behind the country club. Co-incidentally, I worked there that summer, but he wasn't there at that time. I went to see him there.
He had moments of lucidity, when he talked about his house in Netherwood, about how he missed his brother, and about his family house on Washington Square (a very fashionable area in the late 1800's — Cornelius Vanderbilt put up a family mansion there). But the strain of talking was too much for him, so I left and let him sleep. He died a few days later.
I never did understand how Ms. Marks came to live in the Belvidere Avenue house. I know she was involved with real estate in NYC, although not in what capacity. Her sister lived in Princeton, in a pretty good sized house, from the outside anyway, so I think there was money there. Her nephew was a VP at Chase, and lived in the City. His last name was Geylin or Geyeli. I'm not quite sure about that. Nor am I sure of how the Talmadge family fell on harder times. Mr. Talmadge left no children.
Paige Bailey is married to Edward Bailey, one of the Bailey Boys that was mentioned in Anthony Tedesco's story.
The Bailey Boys, Edward and Robert, both knew Mr. Talmadge and Ms. Marks. When Edward and Robert were teenagers, they approached the two and told them that if they needed odd jobs done, to keep them in mind. After that brief introduction, they were hired to do odd jobs - raking leaves, cleaning gutters, chopping and splitting wood, vacuuming.
Ed told me of the fun times he and his brother had. During their breaks, they often climbed the spiral staircase to the tower, where they were able to see the department store called Two Guys located on Route 22. Ed and Robert's sister, Bernadine, would check in on the two of them from time to time, and occasionally cooked meals for them.
One day, when Bernadine rang the doorbell, there was no answer and the door was locked. Out of concern, she called the police and when they arrived, they gained access and found Ada passed away in the upstairs bedroom. Henry had fallen and was found on the floor. He was taken to the hospital and later, to a nursing home, where my husband paid his last visit to Henry. Later that week, Henry passed away.
The Bailey boys and their family became close with Mr. Talmadge and Ms. Marks and would spend time together at gatherings and have dinner together. The boys had the same birthday as Mr. Talmadge and would celebrate their birthdays together.
The stories that Ed has told are precious memories. I told him that he was very blessed to have been a part of Mr. Talmadge's life, even though it was only for a few years.
[Edward Bailey has photographs taken in the Talmadge house and the photograph of Henry and Ada is from his collection].