The Shadows We Leave

Spencer Trask's shadow lingers amongst the pines at Yaddo.
Spencer Trask’s shadow lingers amongst the pines at Yaddo.

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.

The grounds keeper's house
The grounds keeper’s house

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.


Beautiful complexity
Beautiful complexity

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.

A happy volunteer looking quite happy in the shadows of Yaddo
A  volunteer looking quite happy in the shadows of Yaddo




Death in Brooklyn

SpencerTraskAtYaddo4MSo here’s how prominent Wall Street financier Spencer Trask and his wife Katrina  lost their children: Alanson, their first son died in Brooklyn at the age of five of meningitis where first come the fevers,  then the chills and mental changes. Five years is a pretty long time to get used to someone and really grow to love them.

Spencer brought his artistic wife to Saratoga Springs in hopes of starting afresh. The couple had a daughter Christina who named their new home Yaddo and for the next few years they fixed the place up and then had another son, Spencer Jr.

220px-Katrina_Trask00Katrina caught diphtheria. Skin turns blue, coughing and drooling ensue, breathing becomes labored and bloody-watery drainage pours forth from the nose. Christina and Spencer Jr. were brought in to say their goodbyes to mommy, but mommy recovered only after giving the disease to both of her children who died a few days later.

How does one recover from this? Can someone tell me? I suppose suicide is too easy an escape. The Trasks had generous spirits, but I fear I’d have no spirit left at all.

Spencer  financed other people’s dreams. In an era of low and dirty business practices it seems Spencer was more interested in the arts and immortalizing his wife in great works of stained glass. How did he handle the constant fragmenting of his little family?

Katrina created poetry and novels forgotten today as is the very existence of children who hadn’t had time to leave much of a mark on the world. She had created them, too. She was the consummate nurturer who couldn’t protect her own children. She spoke to the spirit world and it told her to give everything to artists.

And so after the final death of a newborn son the Trasks decided that all that they had must belong to the world. Everything slips so easily through the fingers like the shadows of children lounging at your feet or playing in the yard. Roses succumb as do people to disease brought by the touches of invisible winds. Poetry is spoken between husband and wife and then one stormy night Spencer, the builder of dreams is beckoned to the city, his train crashes as he’s shaving and he slits his own throat with the razor.


Mansions for artists, children for couples, trains for rushing onward in a life that rarely lets you enjoy anything for too long–but do enjoy it. The children getting too close on a sticky day, the spouse who in all of the little ways builds a life with you despite your utter lack of gratitude for the fact that your spouse is still among the living. Most creations are never  immortalized in a great museum, but only in the collective whisper of all creation that reminds us when shadows pass over the foliage that life can be fleetingly lovely and terribly, tragically short.