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Backstage at Beauport

ABOVE LEFT Detailed view of the Beauport house's kitchen.

ABOVE RIGHT Over the table hangs a patriotic banner painted in New Haven, Connecticut, a copy of Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne portrait of George Washington.

In 1907, Henry Davis Sleeper began to construct Beauport, his summer house on Eastern Point in Gloucester, Massachusetts. A "rumple-roofed, half-timbered, tile-topped confection," Beauport would become a showplace for Sleeper's principles of interior design and a theatrical backdrop for his cast of eccentric and celebrated friends.

SPNEA has recently restored the house's kitchen and servants' quarters and opened them to the public. These spaces bring to life the people behind the scenes who made Beauport's magic possible. Mary Landergan Wonson, Sleeper's cook and housekeeper, had the leading backstage role. Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1886, Mary was the daughter of John Landergan, a Welsh coal miner, and Flora MacRae, a native of Nova Scotia. When Mary was an infant, the family moved to Nova Scotia, where her father abandoned the family and left Flora to support her five children by working as a cleaning woman in a local bank. After graduating from the eighth grade, Mary was sent to Boston to live with an aunt and begin a life of domestic service as a day servant on Beacon Hill. Her path to Gloucester is unclear; she may have come to Cape Ann to work in a summer resort hotel. In 1913, she married George Marble Wonson, who came from a family with deep roots in Cape Ann.

Wonson genealogists trace the family's roots to John Wonson, who arrived in Sandy Bay (now Rockport), Massachusetts, in 1716. Generations of Wonsons worked as mariners and fishermen, ran a ferry service between Eastern Point and Gloucester Square, and made important innovations in the commercial fishing industry. In 1817, Samuel Wonson III was one of dozens of witnesses to report seeing a hundred-foot-long yellow and black sea monster in the harbor, and in 1832, he became the first keeper of the Eastern Point lighthouse.

In 1913, George Wonson worked as caretaker at Red Roof, the summer house just two doors down from Beauport that was owned by the Harvard economist A. Piatt Andrew, a friend of Sleeper's. At that point, Andrew employed two generations of Wonsons. George's mother, Virginia Gerrior Wonson, a French-speaking native of Cape Breton, Canada, known by all as "Madame," was Andrew's cook. His father, Austin, had been caretaker until his death in 1910, and all of George's five siblings spent time at Red Roof. His brother Roland "Roley" Wonson was the chauffeur, while sister Sophy made fudge for Andrew's visiting students. When Andrew's friend Henry Sleeper needed help at Beauport, he naturally enough called upon the Wonson family. He asked Mary to come over to pitch in with a little cooking and cleaning; she ended up staying for more than forty years.

Mary left few records behind-no diary or cache of letters reveal the details of her life at Beauport. But Jack Wonson, her one surviving son, has vivid boyhood memories that help flesh out the history of his family at Beauport. Mary and George Wonson eventually owned a house in East Gloucester, but from early spring until early December they lived full-time at Beauport. Mary worked for Sleeper while George worked for Piatt Andrew. Their two sons, Jack and Tom, helped their parents with chores at Beauport. The Wonsons "were the most devoted and best people that you could ever meet," remembered Sleeper's nephew, J. Henry Sleeper, "real Gloucester fisherman aristocracy...Old Yankee stuff." Jack Wonson agreed that Mary was "one hundred percent devoted" to Sleeper.

 

ABOVE LEFT Photo of Virginia Wonson ("Madame").
ABOVE RIGHT Mary Wonson at right, with relatives and friends hired to help at a party.

The center of the Wonsons' family life and the hub of Beau-port operations was the kitchen. Located at the very heart of the house, it was connected to the Pine Kitchen, Golden Step Room, Mariner's Room, and Octagon Room, all of which were used for dining. Dining was central to the Beauport experience, and by all accounts, Mary was an extraordinary cook. Jack remembers Sleeper hovering in the kitchen, waiting for Mary's pastry to emerge from the oven-"He'd eat it hot, right out of the pan." Guests raved about Mary's lobster curry. No less a figure than Isabella Stewart Gardner was enticed to visit neighboring Red Roof with the promise of one of Madame's legendary chicken dinners. Jack credits the legendary cooking of his mother and grandmother to the combination of their impoverished backgrounds and the bountiful pantries on Eastern Point. "They could make a meal out of potato skins," Jack said, "but given the good stuff, the wine, the cream, and the good meat...aging in the butcher shops," Mary and Madame became legendary cooks.

Sleeper's guests particularly enjoyed dining in the Golden Step Room. Paul Hollister wrote, "You might as well be at the rail of a ship, for under your chin is the broad shimmering surface of the harbour, and you cannot see the rocks below. It's just as fun to eat without facing somebody as it is to eat facing somebody. Especially Mary's curry of lobster." Guests' cherished memories, however, were not always shared by the household help. Mary disliked seafood dinners in the Golden Step Room, especially steamed clams. Jack remembered, "I know one thing my mother never liked... was the steamed clams... She'd have to have a bowl for the juice and one for the butter, one for the shells, one for the steamers to be on.... All in sequence. For one course! All those dishes for one course. And then a cup if you wanted to drink the juice. A big thing over steamed clams!"

Sleeper's Pine Kitchen, fabricated from salvaged paneling, old doors, and floorboards, embodied his romantic vision of the American past and became one of the most celebrated and imitated rooms at Beauport. Sleeper entertained there frequently, hosting old New England family dinners and Thanksgiving feasts, all prepared by Mary Wonson. Game birds, Indian pudding, squash, and pumpkins were served on Sleeper's collection of redware. The labor required for these meals was intense. Jack Wonson remembers his mother preparing "Indian meal pudding, right from scratch. All day! Rice pudding, all day, keep adding milk, all day to cook it."

Domestic work at Beauport was a family affair. Jack particularly remembers the lengthy tasks of shelling peas and hand-cranking ice cream. As he grew older, he developed an entrepreneurial streak. He picked lilies from a nearby pond and sold them door to door to earn spare change to buy candy and movie tickets. He fondly recalls popping in on the cooks in neighboring kitchens, drinking tea, and eating Irish bread with the mostly Irish maids. "Every afternoon I would go to [Caroline] Sinkler's... Miss [Cecilia] Beaux's, etc..... I knew all the help... so I would go in and say 'I'll have my tea now'... they got a kick out of that, [a] little kid saying that."

 

ABOVE LEFT The Glass Room at SPNEA's Beauport, Gloucester, Massachusetts, is a transitional room between the kitchen and the rest of the house; guests would get only a glimpse of the space as they walked through the adjoining China Passage. This is where drinks were prepared, using the variety of glassware stored in the cabinets. The long-necked faucets were ideal for filling tall pitchers and flower vases. Photograph: David Carmack.

ABOVE CENTER A family portrait of the Wonsons and their sons, Tom and Jack.

ABOVE RIGHT Meals were carried to the Golden Step Room through the doors on the left or up the stairs to the Mariner's Room. The thick door at the bottom of the stairs muffled sounds from the laundry room and adjacent kitchen.

Jack's tales of visiting through the back doors and kitchens provide a view of the broader community of domestic employees along Eastern Point. The Irish maid Jack remembers visiting at Cecilia Beaux's house, for example, was Anna Murphy, who worked, lived, and traveled with the celebrated painter for forty years. Beaux also employed a gardener and manservant, Natale Gavagnin, a former Venetian gondolier, whose "picturesque" white suit and yellow sash left an indelible image in the minds of visitors. When Henry Sleeper needed additional help for one of his big parties, he hired Anna and Natale for the night.

As Eastern Point's domestic staff worked for each other's employers, they also built lasting friendships. Isabella Stewart Gardner, who was a frequent guest at both Beauport and Red Roof, was often accompanied by Ella Lavin, her longtime maid and traveling companion. Madame Wonson and Ella had a fond friendship, which even shaped Gardner's travel plans. In 1914, for example, Piatt Andrew wrote Gardner, "do bring Ella for 'Madame' wants to see her."

At the end of the day, the Wonsons retired to the servants' quarters above the kitchen-five small rooms with one shared bathroom. Each contained a single bed, a chair, and a dresser. The rooms were so cramped that Mary and George had to stay in separate rooms. The unadorned spaces stand in stark contrast to the elaborately decorated rooms below.

The Wonsons' spare quarters bring visitors face to face with the realities of life for domestic staff. Even in their small hideaway above the kitchen, the Wonsons were never truly off duty. An enunciator call system located on the wall just outside Mary's bedroom underscores the nature of the Wonsons' jobs. Jack explained, "They worked twenty-four hours a day... holidays, right out straight... on call twenty-four hours a day." For Jack, the memory of the steep stairway with no banister on the stairs remained a hard one-it bothered him to think of his mother climbing those steps each day. But, as he observed, that's just "the way it was in those days."

 

ABOVE LEFT Mary Wonson ordered both food and household supplies from S. S. Pierce in Boston. This 1934 catalogue states that deliveries were made to Eastern Point twice a week during the summer season.

ABOVE RIGHT A photograph of Mary Wonson taken outside the house.

Of course, Beauport's servants' quarters were not designed as a family space. Sleeper's experience with employing household help in Boston had been with young, single, mostly Irish maids. He had the single rooms built for a different model of household service and was lucky to find a devoted family to provide stable service that enabled him to maintain his fantasy house on the sea. The Wonsons, in turn, were fortunate to find long-term, stable employment right through the Depression and beyond.

The servants' stories at Beau-port add a new perspective to the tour. Visitors can admire Sleeper's spectacular arrangements of objects, like the amber glass window, while at the same time appreciating the daunting housekeeping challenge they presented to Mary Wonson. Beauport contains thousands of antiquarian treasures-pewter, silver, china, toleware-all carefully arranged by Sleeper into compositions. Each of these thousands of precisely placed objects needed to be cleaned, a duty that fell to Mary.

Mary was meticulous in preserving Sleeper's arrangements. Each year before opening the house for the summer, Mary and her hired helpers (usually Wonson relatives) cleaned each object in the collections and recreated the arrangements. She often drew maps and diagrams to be sure she replaced each item in its exact position. Jack described the exacting process-Mary removed the contents of one shelf at a time, carefully cleaned each item and returned it to its correct position before moving to the next shelf. Every spring she worked through the entire house, one shelf at a time.

Mary's precision left a lasting impression on Sleeper's friend and client, Henry Francis du Pont, who, after Sleeper's death in 1934, wrote to Helena McCann, Beauport's new owner, "I thought it simply extraordinary the way [Mary] had retained the atmosphere of the house. At any moment I expected to see him walk into the room. I know that in my own house if I am away for four or five days, when I return the furniture has to be poked back into place; but in his house it was absolutely the way he left it."

 

ABOVE LEFT The bathroom in the servants' quarters was shared by all the household help.
ABOVE CENTER Mary and George pose with other staff on the back stairs overlooking Gloucester Harbor.
ABOVE RIGHT Although small and sparsely furnished, Mary Wonson's room was filled with light and fresh air from a large window overlooking the sundial garden and the front entrance to the house. Tacking fabric to a shelf was a standard way of concealing hanging garments in rooms that had no closets.

With her intimate knowledge of Beauport and its collections, Mary often took Sleeper's guests on tours through the house. As a tour guide, she loved to tell the story about how the George Washington stove glowed red when hot. Long after Mary was gone, guides would find Mary's notes to herself-in a soup tureen, in a tin shoe-to remind her of an object's origin or significance.

The Wonsons continued to work at Beauport after Henry Sleeper died in 1934. The next owner, Helena McCann, and Mary Wonson preserved Beauport as Henry Davis Sleeper had left it. After the McCann family donated the house to SPNEA in 1942, the Wonsons stayed on. "May they live forever," wrote SPNEA founder William Sumner Appleton, "for I have a horrid fear that when Mary finally dies, or she is too old to attend to the job, that will be the moment when our troubles begin."

Mary and George worked at Beauport until their deaths in 1955 and 1957. Although the house will be forever identified with Henry Sleeper and Helena McCann, Mary Wonson lived there longer than the man who created it and the woman who preserved it-combined. She was the first one to greet guests at the door and the last to close down the house at the end of the season. She knew every inch, every object, every secret door and hideaway. She kept Beauport running through all seasons and for three sets of employers. Her story is the hidden story of Beauport. Visitors to Beauport might just still hear her footsteps echoing in the passageways.

-Linda Shoemaker
While serving as an SPNEA Research Fellow, Linda Shoemaker, Ph.D., researched
the lives of servants at SPNEA's Otis House Museum, Beauport, and Roseland Cottage.

Backstage at Beauport