Salmon Estate and Cooty's Cabin

I have roots in the Monadnock Region, that part of New Hampshire in the southwestern corner whose landmark is Mount Monadnock, a place of forests, glacial erotics–excuse me, glacial erratics–and of course the mountain. My connection with this area begins with my uncle, my first mentor, and the man I am named after, the Rev. Joseph Ernest Vaccarest. His first parish as a young pastor was St. Dennis Church in Harrisville in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I don't know for sure, but I believe he helped his kid sister and my future mother–Jeannette Elodie Vaccarest–get a job as a nanny for the Cabot family that resided in a house in Hanover and a mansion in Dublin, next town over from Harrisville.

For a long time Dublin was just another hill town of farmers, but it also had great beauty that included Dublin Lake and spectacular views of Mount Monadnock with the result that from around 1870 and onward it became less a farm town and more a get-away for rich people and artists from down country. During my mother's time in Dublin, her employers, the Cabot family, lived with another family, the Pierces, in a huge Italian-style villa built by the prominent architect Raphael Pumpelly.

One of the continuing characters in the Darby series is Raphael Salmon, known as the Squire of Darby and who resides in the fanciest house in town. I patterned the Salmon estate and house on the Pumpelly estate in Dublin, so it would be logical to conclude that I also named my character Raphael after Raphael Pumpelly, who built the mansion. However, it's a coincidence. It wasn't until after I'd created Raphael Salmon (nickname "Reggie") that I learned Pumpelly's first name. In fact for a long time I incorrectly assumed that Pumpelly was the name of the estate (some kind of corruption of an Italian place name) not the name of the owner who contracted to build the place who just happened to be an architect. The name "Reggie" came from Reginald Van Gleason III, a character created by comedian/actor Jackie Gleason back in the days of black and white TV. Put it all together and it makes no sense. That's the way it goes in novel writing, for me anyway.

That Pumpelly mansion featured grand museum-sized rooms on the first floor, bedroom suites for the Cabot and Pierce families on the second floor, along with guest rooms, and a warren of little rooms on the third floor for the help. There were so many servants that one man's only job was to polish things. My mother, who was a registered nurse, cared for two or maybe three children. Today she would have been called a nanny. I don't think she would have liked that word. She was very proud of being an RN, registered nurse.

One afternoon at the mansion on her day off she was conversing with a friend, an upstairs maid, when the maid's boyfriend showed up on a motorcycle. Astride another motorcycle (Indian was the brand name) was another young man, Elphege Hebert, a factory worker from Keene. Jeannette, nicked named JenJen by the Cabot family, agreed to double-date with the other man. Jeannette and Elphege discovered they had a lot in common. Neither was a drinker and their families had both come to the states from French Canada. They were married in July of 1940. I was born ten months later.

So then, the Salmon house (called The Manse in Howard Elman's Farewell) is based on the Cabot/Pierce Pumpelly Hill mansion. I know what the mansion looked like in the late 1960s, because I'd been in it. In college, I met a guy who was a house-sitter at the mansion and he gave me a tour. By then servants were hard to find, and the mansion must have cost a fortune to heat and maintain, so the current owners gave up on it as a home. The house-sitter was the only occupant. Another decade or so passed and I read in the newspaper that some burglars had stripped the house of its valuables, then burned it down. So sad an end for so grand a manse.

The Manse is not a copy of the Pumpelly Hill structure. In fact, I never quite made up my mind about what the Salmon place looks like. In one book I envisioned it resembling the Pumpelly Hill mansion, based on an Italian villa. In another book it was shingled like a Newport, RI, "cottage." The inspiration for that was another big house in Dublin. I never gave the Salmon mansion a name until the seventh novel of the Darby Chronicles, Howard Elman's Farewell. I want to do more with Birch Latour's "Manse"–redecorate it, redesign it, under the persona of Birch, the heir to the Salmon Estate. When The Manse is ready for an open house I will post pictures.

Birch's tastes parallel my own, and yet he's not yet a fully drawn character. Maybe I'll develop him in some future work. Birch was brought up in the New Hampshire woods in a hippie schoolbus renovated into a cabin. He's inherited a little bit of his father's 1970s counter-culture aesthetic. But he's also a man of his own time, cool, confident, conflicted; his idea of a better society is a 19th century life-style combined with 21st century technology; he would like to skip over the 20th century.

Brich and his values in any deep way are yet to be formed and tested. Stay tuned. And let's remember that Birch's new wife, Tess Jordan, will have more than a little say how her house should look and what shape her family should take. I have not thought through her aesthetic concerns. How this all comes out as an architectural plan remains to be seen.

Howard Elman's Farewell begins with Cooty Patterson's hundredth birthday party. During that event, the old hermit's cabin is moved to the Salmon estate so that Birch, now 24 and the heir to the property, can watch over him.

I like simple living. It's the way I grew up. It's the way I live today. I have no desire to live any other way. But I do like to imagine what complex living is like, which is one reason I created the Salmon Estate, the grandest property in Darby. Imagine putting all your belief system into your house and yard: that's how I picture the world of the Salmons. I wonder if this vision is accurate, since I haven't lived it.