By DAVID THOMAS-TRAIN
The star-crossed lovers fled the paparazzi and stole north to their mountain hideout, an over-the-top manse in the backwoods of Warren County.
This smitten pair was used to being in the spotlight, and not without notoriety. He, Hollywood’s silent film-era heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, had just done jail time for bigamy; his flame was the dazzling and aloof costume and set designer, Natacha Rambova. In August of 1922, Valentino stole to her arms here, slipping into Johnsburg, disguised in a fake beard and dark goggles.
Their refuge was Foxlair, a sweeping wilderness estate owned by the legendary cosmetics magnate Richard Hudnut, also Rambova’s adoptive father. Today, the huge manor is no more. The land is now part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, and the state is planning public trails and other upgrades. The land is within the footprint of Adirondack Mountain Club’s “Eastern Trails” guidebook, which I author, so I set out over two summers to find what’s left of the fairy-tale hideaway.
Route 8 has some long, lonely stretches, and but for a remnant meadow or two, deep forest closes in on both sides. At the forgotten hamlet of Oregon, no buildings remain—only the barest hint of ruins hidden off in the woods.
At one of these overgrown clearings, two dirt roads trail off past Department of Environmental Conservation camping markers. The tracks split and split again and cross a pair of ancient bridges near the river. A satellite view shows these little grassy routes entwined with rectangular and serpentine tree plantations. These were the lanes, gardens, lawns and golf course of Foxlair, perhaps the least-known Adirondack estate, in its glory a hundred years ago.
I headed in at the north end, on a dusty roadway circling to an informal campsite on a piney meadow and bluff above the river. This had been the site of North Cottage, a striking eight-dormered country house whose wide verandas overlooked the East Sacandaga and the mountains beyond. It was the Hudnuts’ first home here, around 1905, while Richard was planning the rest of the manor. Not to be the biggest digs on the estate, the cottage was soon relegated to a guesthouse. The spot is tranquil and breezy, its views now the most expansive on the property. A steep path clambers down to the water. Nothing of the house remains.
A century back, this land was open, replete with barns, sheds and staff housing. All these are gone, and the meadows are brushy remnants. But the topography is still recognizable from the old photos—hills, flats and two streams crossing down to the river. Above it all, and half a mile distant, used to stand a huge house and pavilion, the crowns of the estate. It’s a gentle and appealing landscape, with mystery just beneath the surface.
The old lanes wind south and meet up to span Kibby Brook on a bridge of still-solid concrete, iron and stone. This lone and level route stretches south, fine for skiing, biking, snowshoeing or horse riding, and it splits again, looping and circling two of the pine plantations at a hill by the river. Someone has tried to maintain the way, cutting the downed trees here and there. Another campfire ring is centered in a wide meadow; I backed my tent to the pines at its edge.
The tracks rejoin for a second stream crossing, this time on a shattered span—cement slabs and beams akimbo, but gingerly negotiable on foot. Impassable for vehicles, the way south becomes a herd path. Just upstream to my left was a ruined dam, which had contained a stocked fishing and swimming pond. There’s a pair of iron pipe stanchions set in the dam top—supports for a diving board. Surely, Natacha and Rudi back-flipped for each other here.
The pair had met on the movie lots of Hollywood, as Rambova coolly sized him up for a screen role. Valentino, instantly smitten and unable to hold back, filed for divorce from his spouse. A long puppy-dog courtship followed, and Natacha eventually relented and fell for him. The couple eloped for a grand wedding in Mexico, all the rage in those days for the Hollywood set. The hitch was that Rudolph was still legally married to his first wife, as the 1922 judgment of divorce had primly decreed a year’s waiting period. He’d jumped the gun, so when he got back to the States, he was thrown into the clink. Rambova fled to Foxlair to ride out the scandal. Upon his release, Valentino followed her here, on the sly.
Past their old bathing pool, I followed the former driveway lined with towering spruces, starting up a gentle incline. This was the approach to the main house, and the evidence is clear: these trees are plainly visible as wayside plantings in the old photo taken from the manse’s knoll. Boulders sit just where they did in the lawns, now shadowy woods. River-stone walls edge the wide roadway, which splits to circle the long-gone manor. This broad way was a promenade and still has a bit of that feel. The evergreens are spread wide, the forest open, sun-dappled, peaceful.
A bit farther up was the site of the Big House, as the Hudnut family called it, atop the hill, commanding the vista north. Richard Hudnut wanted his palace just so, and worked at length with architects, carpenters, and stone masons from New York City. His grandniece Nan Hudnut Clarkson, the last descendant to frequent Foxlair, calls it “The Hall of the Mountain King”.
Hudnut, born in 1858, worked first in his uncle’s pharmacy in New York and loved experimenting with fragrances and skin potions. Soon he was a smashing success, selling extravagantly chic perfumes and cosmetics from hisposh salons in New York, London and Paris. Haughty and ambitious, he was a millionaire by 40. His family had summered near Piseco, and soon he turned his gaze north to the upper Sacandaga valley.
The Big House matched Hudnut’s ego. It stretched 275 feet atop the knoll, with a commanding view over his domain. On a high cobblestone foundation, it was an eclectic mix of huge rooms amidst pillars, gables, staircases, picture windows and skylights, many of them design touches ahead of their time. The family perched here, hosting intimate gatherings and stupendous soirees for the fabulous and swank. “We cousins didn’t like all those visitors,” is Nan’s take on the partiers.
But it all seemed a colossal whim; Hudnut became disenchanted in 1923 and left Foxlair for his French chateau, not to return. His wife gave it all away in 1938, a gift to the New York Police Athletic League, as a children’s summer camp. For 20-plus years, the League tried to make a go of it but couldn’t handle the upkeep. Deterioration and vandalism sealed its fate. Little remains today but stone stairs and low walls, crowned with rubble on the knoll.
On my latest visit for photos with photographer Carl Heilman and his grandchildren, we picked our ways through the rocky heaps; rusty grillwork, a derelict safe, and a huge boiler are strewn about. The only unbroken structures are a stone oven or kiln or cut into the hillside and below it, an apparent cistern. A year before, I had spied a pair of ancient frayed shoes tucked beneath the stonework. This time, they were gone.
Nearby, a sinuous stone stairway winds down toward the river and the site of the long-gone tennis court and dance pavilion, crossing the still mostly open lower driveway that runs north-south between the bluff and the water. Annaleigh and Gabe were itching for a swim, so down we gamboled.
The summer camp gave up the ghost in the late 1950s, and the house and buildings went further downhill. Holes gaped in the roofs, windows were smashed, looting ran riot. In 1964, New York State picked up the entire 1,200-acre property for a song: $40,000. Two years later, the place was a wreck, and in the late winter, the Conservation Department (now DEC) burned and bulldozed everything standing.
Nan had spent three youthful summers there, in North Cottage, and in her 1994 family memoir, “The Trail to Windover,” she reminisced, “My memories of Foxlair are pastoral and lovely; it was a golden summer world complete with deserted castle. Its wilderness setting, so secluded and remote, was my earliest vision of the Adirondacks, nor have I seen any lovelier.” Still feeling the loss after all these years, she calls it “so very, very sad.”
We coursed south along the roadway another quarter of a mile, above the massive riverside foundations of the old Oregon Tannery, which ran until the 1890s. Someone had trimmed this smooth route, to the point where it reaches barrier boulders and rejoins Route 8. This was the southern reach of Foxlair, a mile from its north end. The whole way through would make a nice gentle bike and ski trail.
Turning back, we passed three smaller staircases, each more elaborate than the last, down to the river. They led to a pump site and broad swimming holes, the third one still with the rotting frame of a gazebo. Hudnut had dammed the river here to hold his swans and exotic fish. Carl and I and the kiddos splashed and dunked in the untamed stream.
While he liked to call Foxlair a wildlife refuge, it was more a menagerie—home also to white pigeons, Mexican burros, a white cow and “The Fox.” This unlucky vixen was snatched from her wild kin to be captive in a fancy fake den, the namesake of the manor. Though this was considered wildlife conservation a hundred years ago, these captive creatures seemed merely amusements for the cosmetics baron and his crowd. One night in the early 1920s, pranksters snuck in and killed his exotic fish. Some thought this hastened Hudnut’s departure.
In 1923, he gave up his giant playland and took off. As grandiose as Foxlair was, it pales next to the holdings of today’s billionaires who toy with and discard resorts, hotel chains, entire countries. Richard Hudnut was their forerunner. Even Rambova and Valentino split, disenchanted and divorced, in 1925. Ironically, we’re the happy beneficiaries of the Hudnuts’ fortune and of their disappointed exits.
DEC is working on a plan for the property, a gentle landscape with a mellow and somewhat haunted feel to it. Camping is easy in the old clearings; the swimming holes are tranquil and reached simply from the stone stairways. Trails will follow parts of the former roadways. Interpretive signs will tell the lore of the place.
The upper Sacandaga Valley is lovely, lonely and quite wild. There are just a few trails, herd paths, simple camps and primitive campsites strung out along Route 8. While camping in Foxlair’s meadows, sleuthing its old byways and ruins, swimming its river, I heard ravens, glimpsed herons, barely avoided bear scat; and heard—yes—a fox bark.
Nature’s rightful owners have returned. They always do.