The yearly Montpelier races are a great time to remember Marion du Pont Scott—the first lady of American turf racing.
Courtesy of University of Virginia Library
A remarkable transformation has been taking place in Orange County, Virginia, at Montpelier, the home of James Madison and more recently the domain of the prominent du Pont family. The restoration of the house—removing all the du Pont additions and taking the house back to its condition during the final and grandest period of Madison ownership—has not been without controversy. Many architectural historians were leery at the outset, believing that the du Pont additions have a valid history of their own and that to remove them creates a kind of ersatz version of Montpelier, neither truly Madison nor du Pont. Some locals mourned the loss of the “du Pontness”—not just portions of the house, but the wealth and éclat associated with the name. Members of the du Pont family felt the renovation marginalized them and the significant role their relations had played in preserving this important historical property.
What most people don’t realize is that the major force behind the transformation of the house was none other than its longtime chatelaine, the petite powerhouse Marion du Pont Scott. Marion didn’t actually own the house; it was entailed to the du Pont family. But she was so determined that Montpelier be restored to its Madison-era state that she crafted her will so that, in essence, her heirs would be cut off completely from a considerable trust she controlled if they contested the transfer of the house to the National Trust. Initially, her nephews (among them convicted murderer and wrestling fancier John E. du Pont) did move to break the will, but they eventually yielded with certain conditions, and the National Trust was able to purchase Montpelier using funds left to it by Marion.
Marion du Pont Scott was a consummate sportswoman who devoted her life to the breeding and proving of thoroughbred horses. She was born in Delaware in 1894, during a visit to the family seat by her parents, Annie Rogers Zinn and William du Pont. The couple actually lived in England, and they returned there not long after Marion’s birth. Zinn and du Pont, having each been previously married, had retreated from American society to a life abroad to escape ongoing fallout from their divorces and subsequent marriage. A second child, son Willie, was born in 1896—but the damp English climate was deemed unhealthy for the “delicate” young children. So, in 1900, William du Pont purchased Montpelier and moved his family back to America. They did not occupy the house for two years, living in Delaware while Montpelier was extensively expanded and modernized.
William du Pont had large shareholdings in the company founded by his grandfather, Eluethère Irénée du Pont, but limited managerial involvement in the family business. His energies were mostly devoted to the Delaware Trust Company, where he maintained the position of president.
By all accounts, life at Montpelier was idyllic. Marion and Willie had the run of the place, a personal sovereignty of some 3,000 acres. Isolated as they were, the children were compelled to make up their own fun. They took great pleasure in agrarian activities—Montpelier was a working farm at the time—and catching sheep for shearing and helping in the dairy were particular pleasures. In this pastoral Virginia setting, ponies naturally became an obsession for Marion and her brother. They rode mostly spirited ones; Marion often wore red ribbons on her braids to warn other riders that she was mounted on a kicker, and both children took numerous spills as they traversed the streams and fences of Montpelier.
Marion eventually would be sent to a proper English finishing school, but as a child she was allowed to be a tomboy. Her mother took a rather detached approach to child rearing, withholding both attention and affection from her disappointingly plain daughter. So Marion turned her energy toward those pastimes favored by her adoring and more attentive father. He earmarked a plot of land adjacent to the pony barn for the children to do with what they wished. Using some cast-off boards and nails, they constructed a show ring, which for some reason William du Pont promptly christened “Coney Island.”
Their lifelong interest in horses was born there, and Marion was convinced that Willie’s career as one of the finest racecourse designers had its genesis in the construction of this childhood project. Informal horse shows for the neighborhood children were held occasionally at Coney Island, with parents and farmhands acting as judges. These evolved into the Montpelier Horse Show and, as Marion’s equestrian interests shifted, ultimately into the Montpelier Hunt Races, which commenced in 1924.
Marion was a gifted equestrienne who excelled as a show jumper. She won a blue ribbon in 1915 at Madison Square Garden, riding astride—the first woman to do so in competition. It seems only natural, given her interest in show-jumping and foxhunting, that the sport of steeplechase would have particular appeal, though Marion also had some outstanding horses on the flat track, most notably Mongo, who won more than $800,000 in purses. Accra and Annapolis (a son of the legendary Man O’ War), two other distinguished members of Marion’s stable, also carried her cerulean blue, rose and silver silks to victory. Whether on the flat or over hurdles, Mar-ion du Pont Scott triumphed in the world of horseracing; by 1976 her stables had produced 50 stakes winners and her horses had earned over $5 million.
While Marion moved in the lofty circle of thoroughbred breeders, she always maintained a fundamental appreciation for the simplicity of country life and, in particular, of life at Montpelier. It’s clear that she cherished the main house there, where she entertained and conducted her horse-related business. She also used it to house jockeys, who stayed in the attic room behind the large lunette window that graces the front pediment of the house. But for much of her adult life Marion didn’t reside there but in a nearby modest structure now called Bassett Cottage, known in her day as “the Little House.”
Marion kept much of the interior of Montpelier as it had been during her parents’ era, the notable exception being the Empire Drawing Room, which she transformed into a remarkable Art Moderne room, designed by architect Milton Grigg, to showcase her horses. Coming upon the Red Room, as it is known, would have been a complete surprise for visitors to this otherwise traditionally appointed house; it resembled nothing so much as a swanky nightclub from a Thin Man movie, with its decorative chrome trim, glass-block mirrored fireplace and cheek-by-jowl photos of horses. The room also featured a gadget worthy of Jefferson—an interior weathervane mounted on the ceiling to advise the avid foxhunter of wind direction.
Marion married twice. Her first husband was Thomas Somerville. The marriage was brief and probably not very happy, since she rarely spoke of it. Her second husband was actor Randolph Scott, four years her junior. They had a longstanding friendship; Scott was born not far from Montpelier, near Mine Run, and attended the Woodberry Forest School. He had even been best man at her first wedding. But their 1936 marriage was doomed almost from the start, what with Marion firmly committed to Montpelier and the world of horses and Scott set on a career in Hollywood. They separated in 1938, yet remained friends throughout their lives.
Following her second divorce, Marion became involved with her jockey and trainer, Carroll Bassett, for whom Montpelier’s Bassett Cottage is named. A gentleman jockey, Bassett was one of the leading steeplechase riders of his generation. Raised in New Jersey, he came from a good family and was well educated. Aside from his deep involvement with horses, he was also a sculptor of some note, having attended the Art Students’ League in New York, and an avid horticulturalist—an interest he shared with Marion. Bassett Cottage is a fitting tribute to his abiding passion, surrounded as it is by impressive gardens. There is a large vegetable garden, a cutting garden, formal gardens on which Charles Gillette served as a consultant, and a Japanese-style garden that is in the process of being restored.
It is hard to get a handle on what Marion du Pont Scott, called the “Wren” by some of her contemporaries, was really like. There are many photographs of her, but not a lot of anecdotal information. She appears austere and rather intimidating, but she is said to have had a twinkle in her eye. Her interests were traditionally male, and she preferred the company of men, finding them rational, unemotional creatures. She enjoyed adversarial relationships where tactical discussion and argument were needed to hash out differences—a trait that would have come in handy when negotiating Montpelier’s fate with her nephews. She was interested in politics, particularly foreign policy, on which she was always well informed.
A lifelong passion was Rudyard Kipling, and several of her horses were named after Kipling characters. For the most part, she relied on the erudite Tully sisters of Somerset, Virginia, to come up with the names for her horses. Thoroughbred naming is fairly complex, requiring a nod to both the sire and the distaff sides. At its best, the resulting name should be a clever and elegant moniker worthy of a great horse but without being overly grandiloquent. It says something about Marion’s sense of loyalty and kindness that she would impart this important duty to two spinster ladies from the neighborhood.
Marion’s fashion style could be called “haute wasp.” In her neatly tailored wool suits and sensible shoes, she might have passed for the headmistress of a proper girls’ school. Photos show her in bright colors—fuchsia, sapphire blue, canary—and flamboyant tweeds perhaps chosen to offset her “wrenishness.” Her clothing was also clearly selected to accommodate her active country lifestyle while still maintaining a ladylike appearance, which, given the times and her age, meant skirts, not trousers. She often wore a hat pulled low across her brow because, as she once said, “water runs right off [a hat] when you’re out at horse meets.”
She bought from the best, but she was not profligate. Her boots, from the original Abercrombie & Fitch in New York, were reputedly resoled 10 times. Her frugality extended to Montpelier itself, where the numerous barns erected in the ’30s were prefab and came from Sears Roebuck & Co., and to her taste in restaurants. On road trips she loved nothing more than stopping at Howard Johnson’s. She liked sitting at the counter with her chauffeur, Dwight, dining happily on chopped beef and gravy washed down with chocolate milk.
Though she married a Hollywood actor, she wasn’t one for big-city sizzle. Her wholesome country upbringing ensured that she never developed a taste for fast living—she certainly bore little resemblance to such contemporary heiresses as Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke, party girls who traveled the world in pursuit of one excess after another. By contrast, Marion led a well-ordered, industrious life focused on serious pursuits. She maintained houses and barns in Camden, South Carolina; Saratoga, New York, and Delaware but was most content on her beloved Orange County estate. When she did travel, it was to follow the race circuit up and down the eastern seaboard and occasionally to England, but no matter where she went she was always eager to return home to Montpelier.
As with many wealthy individuals who shun the spotlight, Marion surrounded herself with a few very close friends who shared similar interests and protected her privacy. But all accounts present her as generous and caring, embodying noblesse oblige. Throughout her life, she supported numerous eleemosynary organizations in the surrounding community.
One of her biggest contributions was the Montpelier races, which were free of charge during her lifetime. In addition to covering the costs of putting on the event, she also put up the money for the purses. Her generosity extended to Christ Church in nearby Gordonsville, which received funds as well as many personal items she donated to its annual “silver tea” rummage sales. Quietly, she underwrote the education of five sisters from Gordonsville, daughters of friends of hers who lacked sufficient means to cover the costs themselves. In addition to these smaller gestures, she also gave on a more substantial level, bequeathing $4 million to the equine center at Morven Park in Leesburg. She was highly valued by her friends and greatly respected for her contributions to the world of American turf. It is worth noting that at her funeral in 1983, some of her pallbearers had been in her employ for more than 50 years.
Montpelier is now a very different house from the one Marion knew. For one thing, it is considerably smaller, and the stucco added in the mid-19th century has been removed, returning the façade to its original rosy brick. Whether you loved it or hated it, there is no question that the du Pont Montpelier looked very much like an institution, its three stories giving it a monolithic, sterile appearance—despite its unconventional pink color.
The controversy has quieted because the restoration of Montpelier has proved to be a win-win situation for all concerned. Freed from the extensive du Pont additions—the structure has been reduced from 55 rooms to 22—a graceful Virginia plantation house has emerged. The house now occupies its setting in a more harmonious and pleasing manner. What’s more, the house has been transformed into a fitting shrine for our fourth President and “father” of our constitution, whom Jefferson called “the greatest man in the world.”
Architectural historians have been mollified, for the most part, because the renovation revealed a great deal about the house’s history. And, much to everyone’s delight, it was discovered during the restoration that many of the original components—doors, paneling, windows—remained intact, having been recycled and reused throughout the house during the du Pont renovation.
A du Pont Visitors’ Center, where Marion’s Red Room has been completely reconstructed, has been built on the property, which still occupies some 2,700 acres. And horses still play a major role at Montpelier. The Retired Thoroughbred Association places its equine retirees here, and several of the barns are leased to trainers. And the Montpelier Hunt Races continue to attract large crowds of spectators on the first Saturday of November. All these ends were accomplished by the determination of Marion du Pont Scott, and for this remarkable woman, what better legacy could there be?
A Bucolic Setting, an Obstacle Course and a Social Scene: Steeplechase!
Steeplechasing originated in Ireland and has close ties to foxhunting. The very first steeplechase is thought to have occurred around 1752, when two men, Mr. Edmund Blake and Mr. Cornelius O’Callaghan, raced each other on a 4.5-mile course laid out cross-country (over obstacles such as fences and hedgerows) from the church of St. Buttevant to St. Mary’s (a.k.a. St. Legerís) in Doneraile, County Cork. All along the course, St. Mary’s steeple could be seen in the distance—hence the origin of the term, steeplechasing.
There are few things quite as exciting as a horse race over fences, and the sport began to grow. Early in the 19th century, nine prominent New Yorkers founded the National Association for Steeplechase, whose purpose was to spark the popularity of the sport in America. Unfortunately, the effort failed. Steeplechase has never achieved the mass appeal of flat track racing, though it is has long been a popular social scene (“Cocktails, anyone? I’m sorry, make that cocktails, everyone!”). The sport remains popular in both England and Ireland.
There are a number of reasons for steeplechase’s limited audience. In the first place, steeplechase is largely an amateur sport, an offshoot of the rather arcane world of foxhunting. Steeplechase tracks are not as common as flat tracks, and the races are a challenge to watch, given that the course snakes over hills and through dales. But the major reason is economic. For most horse owners, with few exceptions, the sport is simply not profitable. Steeplechase horses are older and take more years to develop, and, perhaps most significantly, the purses for steeplechasing racing are very small—an estimated $5 million annually for the various races held in 12 states. One single flat track event, the Breeder’s Cup World Championship (eight flat races to be held on November 4 at Churchill Downs in Kentucky) will offer purses totaling $20 million.
Gambling does not assume the same primary role as in flat track racing, though friendly wagering exists at most steeplechases. Parimutuel betting, a system of wagering employed almost exclusively at flat tracks, was introduced at the 1908 Kentucky Derby. The parimutuel system basically divides all the money wagered among the state, the track and the winning gamblers. It has been a popular and lucrative system, ensuring that purses covered by the track’s portion are attractive enough to lure good horses. Fair Hill and Laurel, both in Maryland, as well as Delaware Park, Atlantic City and Saratoga all feature parimutuel betting.
With its graceful rolling hills and Montpelier’s grand façade forming the backdrop, the setting for the Montpelier Hunt Races is without question one of the loveliest for such an event. The races, one of America’s oldest and most respected steeplechase events, now include at least one flat race, followed by a series of races over hurdles; consequently, there are two race tracks at Montpelier laid out in the expanse before the house—an oval dirt flat track and a larger turf steeplechase course.
Built in 1929, the steeplechase course encircles a 100-acre field that includes the flat track. The steeplechase course consists of seven jumps over timber and brush hurdles; at Montpelier, the latter are actually living hedges, unique in Virginia. After Marion du Pont Scott’s death in 1983, the more perilous timber was introduced. Marion had become anti-timber after her beloved horse Trouble Maker, winner of the 1932 Maryland Hunt Cup, crashed into a hurdle during a timber race and was killed.
Other steeplechase races in Virginia include the Virginia Gold Cup at Great Meadow, the Plains; the Foxfield races in Charlottesville; the Fairfax Hunt Races in Leesburg; the Middleburg Spring Races, and the Morven Park Steeplechase races in Leesburg (October 13, 2007). The Montpelier Hunt Races take place [on the first Saturday in November].