What a strange mix of altruistic and puritanical compulsion. Spencer Trask made his fortune on Wall Street betting on the future–the future of transportation (railroads), news (he saved the New York Times from bankruptcy) and light (he invested heavily in Thomas Edison’s works). Yet the idea of gamblers roaming the streets of Saratoga Springs in August ruffled the feathers on his broad shoulders in the 1880’s and 90’s.
Maybe it was a way to keep the tragic turns in his life from pulling him under. All the money in the world could not bring back four dead children. This money afforded him land with four lakes–each one given a child’s name–Alanson, Christina, Spencer and Katrina–but lakes are mere shadows. Portraits, too. They hang in many of the rooms. Eastman Johnson was a friend. In the library there’s Katrina aged 34 just before two of her children die. Across the way are two enormous paintings of Spencer Jr and Christina (done posthumously by Eastman who would have known the children well). They are the shadows dressed in black against Katrina’s white flowing gowns.
Spencer had a newspaper in Saratoga, but no one wanted to buy it. New York state law prohibited gambling it said. Close down the gambling houses! Close down the track with its magnificent thoroughbreds and seedy wagers! He and Katrina had come to Saratoga for the healing waters and cool air. The townsfolk and the summer folk said enjoy your vast acres and free-thinking, meddlesome friends, but keep your shadow from falling on our fun.
I think Spencer was a sweetheart, but he couldn’t see the forest for the trees sometimes. Aren’t we all like that? He couldn’t prevent the shadow of death from his children. He couldn’t regulate the shadowy doings of the gamblers. He could neither save lives nor reform them. In his wallet upon his death was found a small scrap of paper with these words written on it: “For a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of things which he possesseth.”
Spencer gave a lot. Sometimes we like to give our opinions when no one wants them. At some point it seems that Spencer shut his mouth and just gave despite it all. He built hospitals and railroads, he built mansions to house his adoring wife Katrina in. We may laugh down our noses at the lavish way they lived in their castle, but in the end they gave it all away.
When Spencer died in the horrific train accident there was very little money for the artists’ sanctuary he and Katrina planned, but there was the land and the gardens and some seed money. Katrina moved into the “tiny” grounds keeper’s house to save money for the Yaddo Foundation for artists they would never know.
On a perfect September day in 2014 the public arrives for a rare tour. Some of these people look like gamblers. Some are beautiful ex-dancers who take their shoes off to feel the floors in the performance art workspace. From the house’s Tiffany windows they can see the fountain in the garden glistening in the sun, but it’s the shadows that silence them–the spirit of Katrina in her rose tinted bedroom writing poetry about chivalrous men; the children peering from behind their painted images; John Cheever begging for a swimming pool and getting one; Truman Capote sliding down the grand staircase on an antique sled.
Art and life; death and shadows. Spencer Trask financier and philanthropist.