“The horses and their riders.”Last Summer I returned to Smoke Rise through the East Gate and was comforted that one tradition still lives on. Pulling over on Perimeter Road I observed a young girl maneuvering her horse smoothly through the arena in a slow motion figure-eight. It is a tradition that has been kept alive in Smoke Rise for well over a century and goes back, I suppose, to the very founding of the world.
The horse, its weighty hooves clapping the ground in rhythmic stomps, shook its head wildly, flesh quivering with power. Snorting, nostrils flaring, eyes wild and observing yet obeying the gentlest tug of the girl's wrist, or when necessary, swift kicks or sharp verbal commands. Blue sky, green grasses and warm yellow sunlight blurred past both horse and rider as my eye followed them.
Her appearance was typically equestrian: dark hair braided tightly, black boots dipped with brown mud; black helmet and white collared shirt. She rocked in the saddle from her knees in perfect time to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” chin high in the air. It was a lazy late summer day. The long song of the cicadas joined the pounding hooves. While all of Smoke Rise rested in the afternoon sun, the earth trembled from the swirling movement of this powerful pair. If Smoke Rise has a heart, the place from which its power emanates, then surely this place must be it.
My mind went back to her...
I suppose you could say Tom Kline introduced us a long time ago. She stood, that day, confident and straight-backed in a stance reminiscent of the most disciplined riders. Shoulders fixed. Her small hands held a leather strap with her finger tips. Her eyes were dark. She donned a whisper of a smile. Some faces capture the heart instantly and forever. Hers captured mine. One day, many years before, Tom had shown me her picture. That photo now rests in the L’Ecole Museum along with so many other historic photos of old Smoke Rise and Kinnelon. Her name was Beatrice Kinney.
Beatrice Kinney was born in 1883, the year her father, Francis S. Kinney, purchased Smoke Rise. The oldest records of Kinney’s Smoke Rise purchases mention little, but they do record the name of her horse: Star. It is not difficult to image her riding out to that same arena in Smoke Rise as a very young girl at the end of the 19th century. Nor to imagine the young Irish laundresses looking up from their work at 1 Robins Lane, confused by the norms of a new land as to whether to curtsy or wave as she passed along on her horse, then giggling together when she was out of sight.
By her early teens Beatrice Kinney was competing in and winning competitions in Narragansett, RI, home to prestigious riding and polo clubs. Her father, Francis Kinney, built a bungalow on his vast acreage there to host her coming-out party as was the high society custom of the day. The bungalow was a vehicle of sorts, built to transport her on a stage of his making. On this platform the refined 16 year-old daughter passed across the fault line that separated child from debutante.
It was 1899 and Beatrice Kinney was introduced to the world; a world which would undergo massive social and technological change. She would traverse the globe listing addresses such as Aiken, SC (the Hamptons of the south), Narragansett, RI, New York, NY, Paris and Pau, France near Spain. She would be carried by trains and ships and the new automobiles, but form part of the elite group that would cling to the old traditions of horses and riders. It would all be new, but it would be measured in horsepower.
Seven years later, in 1906, Beatrice wed Harry La Montagne; artist, sculptor and race horse lover. In a possible clue to her character, her wedding announcement and plans were unusually understated. As it appeared in “Society at Home and Abroad”, a social column in the New York Times:
“The wedding of Miss Beatrice Kinney, only daughter of Francis Sherwood Kinney and Henry (sic) La Montagne, will take place at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April 30. Contrary to rumor, it will be a simple affair. Miss Kinney will have no bridesmaids and Edward La Montagne, Jr, will be best man. Miss Kinney passes her summers at Narragansett.”
The column was filled with news of the Vanderbilts and Astors, the upcoming soirees, the polo matches and incorrigible bachelors. Aiken was lively and gay. Open dancing was once again all the rage among the uber-wealthy. The writer of the article was entertained by the ever changing social trends of high society, comparing them to the 40s and 50s New York (that’s 1840s and 50s.) Reading the column fills one with both a sense of awe and amusement. Six years later, almost to the day, John Jacob Astor and his new wife would be heading home from England to their equestrian estate near Beatrice’s in Aiken. He never arrived, dying instead, one of many unfortunate victims of the Titanic’s sinking.
In 1908, upon the death of her father Francis Kinney, her brothers Warren and Morris each inherited about $750,000, but the remainder of the estate, estimated at between twelve and fifteen million dollars ($150 million in today’s dollars), is believed to have gone to Beatrice.
Thirty nine years later in 1947, she moved the Madonna from the Smoke Rise chapel to Aiken, SC and then quietly passed away childless the following year in New York. While her husband’s death in 1959 was accompanied by a grand and detailed obituary, Beatrice’s said only:
“La Montagne, Beatrice, beloved wife of Harry La Montagne and sister of Warren Kinney of Morristown N.J. after a long illness. Resting at Funeral Church, 81 St and Madison Ave. Funeral private. Paris papers please copy.”
I have followed Beatrice my whole life. As a child, I swam where she swam, warmed by the summer sun on the same rocks where she warmed. Boated the same waters, walked the same paths and ambled around the stables where she housed and cared for her horses. I’ve stood outside her homes in New York and Aiken. I’ve paused in the doorways of the train stations that she would have passed through and sat in the pews where she worshiped.
Despite all this, I know little about her. She remains a glorious enigma. Like flashes of faint meteors in the darkest August sky, just fragmentary bits of light about her life can be seen. Shooting stars will always remind me of her. How delightful that much of what we can learn about her, we learn from an artist. His name was Alfred Munnings. To learn about Beatrice, you must learn something about Alfred.
Alfred Munnings was born a miller’s son in 1878 in a rural area outside of London. Horses were a part of country life and Alfred was entranced by them. The young artist was moved to draw them incessantly. His parents encouraged their son, buying him a toy horse at age 4 to study and sketch. He would relate in his memoirs years later that that horse, and every horse he’d ever seen or owned, captivated him. He was to see a great many horses in his life.
His playful childhood ended abruptly at age 14 when his father committed him to a six year apprenticeship of hard work many miles from home. After 10 hour work days, he would walk to art classes, studying till 9 in the evening. In 1899, the year Beatrice Kinney was introduced in Narragansett, Munnings was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters and two of his works were accepted by the Royal Academy.
When he was twenty, Munnings attempted to begin life as a professional artist, but tragedy struck. Lifting a puppy over a briar patch, a branch swung back and struck him, blinding him in one eye. When the bandages were removed, his vision and depth perception were permanently damaged. While it would plague him for the rest of his life, he nevertheless returned to painting -- stroking his brush in the air as he drew closer and closer to the canvas due to his loss of depth perception.
In 1910 he met and fell in love with a fellow artist named Florence Carter-Wood, nicknamed “Blote”. They married in 1912. The paintings of her during that period which reflect both his love of her and the impressionist influence on his work are touching. The one pictured below (which sold in 2000 for $600,000) entrances the eye with the swirls of color and light in the background - like visual music or poetry.
Evans, contemplating the hopelessness of their situation and being after all a British gentleman, joined an army unit and left for Africa. Blote took her life soon after, leaving Munnings devastated. Evans never mentioned her again, perhaps because, as Faulkner wrote, “A gentleman can live through anything.” Except, perhaps, a war.
As the Great War began in 1914, filled with nationalist fervor Munnings tried to enlist but was turned down because of his poor eyesight. Instead, in 1917, he took a job processing horses for transport to France for the war effort. There, day after day, he watched the horses assembled and driven up ramps to the darkest cargo holds of the waiting ships. They came from all over the world to fight at the front. It has been estimated that 500,000 horses were taken from Britain alone; a whole generation of young horses were lost in the war.
But, as Robert Graves would later write, “goodbye to all that.”
War is hell, especially for horses which make large and easy targets. 3 million horses died in The Great War, spilling their blood and falling alongside men, driven on and killed by superior beings.
In 1918 Munnings got a break. He was given a chance to paint a Canadian Cavalry officer named Jack Seely on his horse, Warrior. Warrior had been in the war since it began in 1914, miraculously surviving despite all odds. This horse and rider had been forged as one. Soon after, Seely and Warrior would lead an assault in what was to be the final Cavalry charge in history. Though a quarter of the men and half the horses would die in the attempt, Seely and Warrior survived.
Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist's way of scribbling "Kilroy was here" on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.
Like horse and rider, Munnings and aristocrats would merge. Among them Beatrice and Harry La Montagne.
His bed and boarding paid, Munnings passed back and forth among the wealthy. Leaving his home in England and his second wife, he lived for extended periods among them on the Continent, capturing thousands of images of them and their horses at play. They posed in their saddles, sporting their red riding jackets and galloping in fox hunts. Proud of the superbly handsome horses for whom they showed great care. Set against the backdrops of mountain ranges and tempestuous European skies. He could transport them in a way that no other could; from wealthy but transient passersby, to immortal beings.
While in Pau in the Pyrenees, Baron Robert Rothschild commissioned him to paint Beatrice on horseback. Since this piece has remained in a private collection, no public images exist, however, two others do. One is an impressionistic masterpiece of one of Beatrice’s noble hunters, “Bittersweet”. Note the almost Van Gogh-like background as well as the multi-colors in the horse's flesh:
Munnings wrote of his time with the La Montagnes:
'But to my arrival at Pau - at the Villa Regina, occupied by the La Montagnes. It was Mrs. La Montagne that I went to paint; a good-looking, smart American woman who made short visits to London merely to have her habits cut by Busvines, of world-wide fame. This well-turned-out lady was supplied by her devoted husband with superb horses. She was not one of the hard-riding brigade, but she certainly was a horsewoman, and rode for safety in what was a trappy country….. The distant snow-covered mountains, with the plain of Tarbes in between, could be the only background for Mrs. La Montagne on her horse...La Montagne cheered at the sight of the portrait of his wife in a silk hat and habit, on a bay horse, distant snow-clad mountains and all' (A.J. Munnings, Second Burst, Bungay, 1951, pp. 100-1).
But before her death it appears she gave much of her fortune away, such as a gift to Columbia University of $500,000 for future generations. And with that, Beatrice Kinney La Montagne, the first daughter of Smoke Rise, debutante, horse lover and philanthropist fades into obscurity.
Being the son of immigrants, my search for Beatrice leaves me filled with mixed emotions. My own grandmother was forced to leave family and country. Her transport was the lowest holds of the freighter “Columbia,” built by fellow Irish laborers. Alone on her 16th birthday and bound for America she would be compelled to work as a laundress for the New York elite. Washing clothes, floors and rich young faces she’d send most of the money earned to her parents back home saving her siblings from certain starvation and death. She too was an artist, but undiscovered. Earning a few extra pennies or dollars with pencil sketches of the children or a family pet she sent most of the proceeds home to an “Old Country” and family she would never again see.
And I am torn as to whether she was in fact horse or rider, the lines of which can become quite blurred in a world of such ultimate interconnectedness. She, a wandering Celtic teen of whom little is likewise known, transported across oceans, benefactor of her home and people, and willing groomer of finer beings.
Beatrice lived at a time of great change, but she and her aristocratic friends managed in their own way to preserve something glorious of the old world; something of its traditions and refinements. Among these a love of horses still evidenced in splendid races and tournaments.
My search for her always ends in the same place: the “L” shaped portion of earth that runs the straight line from 1 Robins Lane to the stables and across to the Village Inn. This place inhabited once by both her and the Irish Laundresses who tended to her and her family’s grooming. Her spirit still lives on in the red-cheeked grins of Smoke Rise daughters galloping with snowy backdrops, they and their horses’ warm breath mixing and rising to heaven.
If you sit there in the darkness alone under the August sky, you might actually catch a glimpse of a young girl. Who exactly, I’m not sure. On moonless nights she appears when a certain mist rises from the earth, or a passing car illuminates her from behind. My family has seen her. You may one day, as well, if you chance to look. Or you may just marvel at the momentary and many streaks of light that fill the August night sky and think of her, as I have often done.
That summer day last year, finally desiring to get a closer look at the girl and the horse described in the beginning of my story, I drove my convertible partly onto the grass nearer to the railing and reached over to grab a pencil and a sheet of paper. My grandmother could not leave her descendants fine houses or money, but she passed on a lasting gift of pencil quick sketching, a love of music, and of wee faerie folk.
“Excuse me!” came a commanding voice. “Excuse me!”
It felt as if my head had been snapped back unexpectedly. I looked to see the young girl sitting high atop her horse now next to the railing.
“Who are you?” came her sharp chilling question.
“Why, I was….just admiring your riding and your fine horse” I stammered.
“You’re not allowed to park there. That area is not for cars.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just that I …..I used to live here and sit in this very spot and admire the horses many years ago……”
The glare of the teenager repelled like a fierce Cavalry assault until she pulled her horse into a slow back-up and returned to her chin-high endless figure-eight. Setting down the paper, I started the car and, putting it into reverse suddenly stopped and smiled to myself.
It all at once occurred to me that there are some traditions that, unlike high society dances, will probably never change….nor end; the horses and their riders, artists and aristocrats.
Thank you, John.
Amazing to realize how much we owe Alfred Munnings for this history of Beatrice Kinney! I will forever think of her when I see young horse-back riders in Smoke Rise.
Photo Credits: John Connelly and websites linked to above