Volney Foster Righter died on August 27, 2003 at the age of 100.
Nicknamed “Turkey” (as was his father, who was immortalized in Owen Johnson’s Lawrenceville Stories), he might be familiar to readers of this website from the profile, “The All-American Boy,” which was part of some “Memorable Moments” included in Issue Two (August 20, 2011). In any case, of all the people I’ve interviewed over the years, he was one of the oldest and, without question, one of the most charming.
Going through some files recently, I found some almost forgotten material from this courtly gentleman who had been born in Pennsylvania in 1903, the same year as Bob Hope and George Orwell.
Interviewed just before celebrating his centennial birthday, Turkey was alert, witty, and still very much the engaging raconteur who looked a bit like a John Held, Jr. caricature. Asked to talk about his childhood, his initial response was unexpected.
“Lightning,” he said, smiled and paused for a few seconds, undoubtedly for dramatic effect.
“At four years old,” he continued with a bit of a twinkle, “I was afraid of it. But my parents were smart, educated people. Father had graduated from Amherst, mother from Smith. This is how they helped me overcome my fear.
“Step one. There’s lightning. I’m in bed. They come into my room and pull up the shade and the three of us discuss the designs of the flashes. How beautiful they were. I agree.
“Step two. They put our Brownie Box Camera in the window, pull a lever that forces the lens wide open, and leave the camera in the window, pointing at the sky. The storm takes its own picture!
“I could hardly wait for the next storm and have always felt that way.”
As he realized, his parents were smart people.
Before he was to go off to boarding school and the Ivy League, Turkey experienced a childhood free of material concerns on the American East Coast that could be quite idyllic. It was really an upper-class version of Mark Twain.
“When I was growing up, my father had a business in Philadelphia, but then his business changed to New York. So we lived in Plainfield, New Jersey, and that way he could go in one direction or the other. I knew every brook, every playing field, every pond, everything you could think of in Plainfield.
“We lived in a house on West Seventh Street. We had half a city block in the middle of town—a big house with porches all around and three stories and stables and a water tower. I had a baseball field to myself.”
But despite this boy-friendly environment, the family left suburban Plainfield for more rural landscapes in the summers.
“My mother somehow or other thought that the Adirondacks would be the greatest place in the world. So we went to the Adirondack Mountains—Upper Saranac Lake—and eventually we went to the Adirondack League Club. They had 100,000 acres or more and we would rent a cottage.
“Getting there was an experience!
“You boarded the train in New York and you got off at a station called Herkimer at about three o’clock in the morning—it was almost light. You had your maids and you had your trunks and you had everything else. They would have one wagon with horses for the passengers and another wagon with horses for the baggage and the maids. Then you drove for six or eight miles up to Wolf Lake (now it’s almost 6 a.m.) and you went across Wolf Lake on a motorboat. Then there were more horses and they got you to Bisbee. And at Bisbee there was an inn with a tennis court. And there was a lake.”
After the Righter family arrived at its destination, young son Turkey went on to further explorations with his best pal.
“Henry Taylor would come with us every summer, and finally Henry Taylor and I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to fix some expeditions.’
Like the trip from Plainfield to Upper Saranac Lake in the early twentieth-century, to satisfy such an ambition was more complicated than might be imagined.
“There were no motorboats allowed on any of the Adirondack League Club lakes. They may have had one for an ambulance or express, but everybody rowed in and out in a guide boat or canoe. Guide boats were easier to handle.
“Now, if you’re going to go anyplace in a guide boat, you have to have a guide boat that is light enough to carry on your shoulders. So Henry and I got one that weighed thirty pounds. We walked a mile or two with a guide boat on our backs and we came to a lake and we rowed across. Row, portage, row, portage. Finally we came to some lake and it was getting to be night, so we saw a place where the grass was cut and we just slept there.”
A few years later, Turkey was at St. Paul’s when the armistice ending World War I happened and he remembered the older boys producing hidden pistols and shooting them off into the night sky at the news. And about twelve years later, the possibility of another war was again on people’s minds. A young and newly married Turkey Righter went to a summer lunch party in Maine.
“Sally and I were married in 1931, during the depths of the Depression. As a consequence, our two-week vacations had to be simple.
“Paradoxically, chartering a yacht—a 35 foot sloop—was the answer. Charter for two weeks was $500. Boat owners were hurting, too, and this money took care of their insurance for the season. So we and another couple each had a different and exciting vacation for $250.
“The best cruising in the United States, maybe in the world, is off of Maine with its many secure coastal and small island harbors and that’s where we usually headed.
“One evening in the mid-thirties, we put into Pulpit Harbor on the island of North Haven. The life and houses on that island are simple—but not some of the people.
“As we dropped anchor, we noticed someone rowing in from his small yawl. He saw us and rowed over. It was Austin Lamont, a friend from Harvard. He invited us to lunch the following day.
“Next day we had a fine morning, shining up the boat and ourselves. I tried to tell my shipmates about a profile I’d read in the New Yorker titled something like ‘New York’s Most Famous Butler.’ It was about the butler who worked for Austin’s father, Thomas W. Lamont, senior partner at J. P. Morgan and the man who would be our host at lunch.
“We were picked up at the dock by Austin and arrived at what looked like an ordinary Maine cottage set in spruce woods with a view of the harbor. Not too big—just right.
“Lunch and conversation were going along fine except when the New Yorker butler was on display. He returned from the pantry to inquire of Mr. Lamont, ‘Will you accept a call from London or shall I ask them to call back?’
“Mr. Lamont left. We guessed the call was from his London partner or maybe even Chamberlain, the prime minister. On his return to the table we learned that there would be no war. We raised our empty sherry glasses to this good news.”
Turkey Righter smiled a small, melancholy smile as he recalled that summer’s optimism.
Growing up, Turkey Righter’s family did not include any celebrities among their acquaintances but he did remember seeing a theatrical legend.
“Sarah Bernhardt. Oh, Sarah Bernhardt!
“World War I was on. We had two or three movie houses in Plainfield, New Jersey, at that time. The nickelodeon was a nickel, and the regular theater was ten cents. Even we kids didn’t like the nickelodeon, it was so bad. And then there was Proctor’s; it was a step up. They had real plays and they also had vaudeville.
“Sarah Bernhardt came from Paris for the Red Cross and she got to Proctor’s Theatre in Plainfield.
“I think we got there before seven o’clock—my family and I. And we waited. And waited. Finally, maybe at eight o’clock, she arrived. She did some one-act plays. Had she lost the leg at that time? I can’t remember. But I remember the chaise longue and one of the plays was called El Droppo. Of course she died in that play. She died two other times that evening and I remember thinking, ‘This is pretty bad stuff!’ But finally she did one where she didn’t die. This took me to eleven o’clock and I was not used to being up at eleven o’clock at night.”
Later on in his life, his world changed and Turkey got to know and mix with some other famous people.
“Sally and I were planning our usual winter vacation in Mexico when some good friends and neighbors in Bedford asked us to change our route and stop by Barbados. What a good idea! We had never been there before. Our hosts to be were Cass and Jane Canfield and Dan and Babs Caulkins.* The wives were the famous White sisters and both husbands were prominent too. These two couples had taken a house on Sandy Lane Beach—the right place to be.
“The house was unusual, at least to us. The living room was open on three sides—no walls. We could hear and see the waves breaking on the beach a few yards away.
“But don’t think for a moment that Cass, Jane, Dan, and Babs had come to Barbados only for golf and swimming on the beach! Their close neighbors were Marietta and Ronny Tree and she was the US ambassador to the UN at about that time. And Claudette Colbert was there with her husband, whom the Hollywood writers always referred to as the ‘Brain Surgeon.’ He turned out to be an attractive man and their houseguest was Kitty Carlisle.
“Can you imagine meeting the most wonderful actress you had ever seen on the screen? A Claudette you had dreamed about and there she was, picnicking and dining with you and even calling you ‘Turkey’ with a slight French accent. And her friend Kitty Carlisle similarly had that come hither way.
“During our many get-togethers it was interesting to hear everyone’s stories—especially how Claudette had gotten into the New York theater. Her mother had been a dressmaker in Brooklyn and Claudette had delivered the costumes to the actresses in the theaters.
“At one point Kitty Carlisle and I found some shade together under a palm tree. It was the time when several books had just been published with the purpose of updating Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. One of the most popular was Territorial Imperative and it seemed that everybody had read that book and it often popped up in conversation. For example, under ‘Propagation of the Species,’ it said at a certain time the lady monkey’s lips increase in size and become flaming red. The gentleman monkey can’t miss her.
“As Kitty and I began to talk, she interrupted, putting on her lipstick with a big red splash.
“I couldn’t resist. ‘Are you trying to tell me something?’ I asked.
Thank you, Turkey, for spending time with me, for sharing some of your memories, and for reminding me of just how quickly time passes.
* Cass Canfield was the well-known and respected president of Harper & Row; Dan Caulkins was a banker and was part of the Eisenhower administration as the president’s White House assistant for national security affairs.