The Women of Stormfield

Samuel Clemens was lured to Redding by his friend and biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine. Paine owned a home on Diamond Hill Road and a seventy-five-acre parcel just to the south and east of his was available for sale. Paine thought it would be an ideal place for Clemens to build a summer home. Evidently, so did Clemens. By the time that he was done acquiring land, Clemens’ new estate would include just over 268 acres.

The design and construction of his new home would be left to architect John Mead Howells, Clemens’ secretary Isabel Lyon, and Paine. Sam Clemens didn’t want to see the place until it was completed and fully furnished. His only instructions were that it not exceed $30,000 in cost, roughly the amount he would be receiving from the sale of his autobiography. The final tally was closer to $60,000.

Lyon would be the first of several women who reigned over what was originally intended to be named “Autobiography House” by its new owner. She would be far from the last, but it was her input that shaped the first villa to occupy that ridge and inspire its successor some eighteen years later.

Isabel Lyon, Samuel Clemens longtime secretary and the unofficial construction manager during the building of Stormfield.

Construction began on May 23, 1907, when a groundbreaking ceremony presided over by Lyon, Paine, Howells, and building superintendent Harry Lounsbury took place after the first hole was dug, and a bottle of whiskey was poured into it. By September, the framing was mostly complete when Clemens’ daughter Clara arrived to survey the progress. True to form, Clara expressed her displeasure with the design. It lacked a music room where she could practice her singing.

Clara Clemens, the middle daughter who ruled the roost at Stormfield whenever she appeared.

In February of 1908, a loggia was added to the north side of the house. Above it was a two-room suite that included a bedroom and music room for Clara as well as a private bathroom for the diva daughter of the one and only Mark Twain. That addition added another $4,100 to the already burgeoning cost of the mansion.

Lyon continued to purchase unique and expensive items to decorate her employer’s new home. Persian rugs, heavy tapestries and drapes, multiple imported metal objects from Europe and Russia added to the bill. By mid-June, the elegant hilltop manor was all but complete and ready for its unveiling to Mister Clemens. He arrived on the evening of the 18th and immediately fell in love with his new surroundings. Lyon had done well, even if both she and Clara had caused the budget to far exceed her boss’s initial and lone request.

1908. The Villa sat atop the ridge with an incredible vista of the surrounding countryside.

Clemens officially christened the new villa “Innocence at Home” in July of 1908. A slight twist of words from the title of his novel “Innocence Abroad.” However, middle daughter Clara, Lyon’s only female rival for power at the new home, objected. Twain’s entourage of young girls, whom he called his Angelfish, greatly upset Clara’s sense of propriety. She eventually convinced her father to rename the estate. This time his choice was Stormfield, based on his recent story, “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.” By his estimation, the royalties from that book would be needed to cover his new villa’s cost overruns created by both his secretary and daughter.

Clemens lived at Stormfield for just shy of two years. He and Lyon had a falling out in 1909 and Isabel was fired. Surely, Lyon’s dismissal pleased Clara as she was then sole queen of the roost in Redding. Clara wed Russian born pianist and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch at the estate in October of 1909. After youngest daughter Jean’s death on Christmas Eve of 1909, Clemens’ health began to fade and in April of 1910, he passed away. Clara and Ossip remained at Stormfield that year and in August, Clara gave birth to Clemens’ only grandchild, Nina.

Stormfield was only used occasionally after 1910. Clara thought it too remote and asked the managers of Clemens’ estate to sell it. It was first offered for sale in an advertisement in Harper’s Monthly in 1913. The supposed asking price was somewhere in excess of $100,000. It drew no serious offers and a stubborn Clara seemed little interested in lowering the price to better reflect the property’s true value.

The first offering of Stormfield came in1913 with this advertisement in Harper’s Monthly.

During World War One, Clara offered the estate for use by the army as a recuperative hospital for wounded American soldiers. There is no indication that the government ever took her up on that offer, but every wire service in the country carried the story and a good deal of America likely thought that was the end of Stormfield’s magical life.

For a while in the late teens and very early 1920’s, a local firm, the Bridgeport Land & Title Company again attempted to sell the property for an asking price of around $100,000. Concert promoter James Frederick Given, and his wife Margaret, considered the estate but couldn’t convince Clara’s representatives to take a more realistic figure.

It was December of 1923, when another firm had taken over the listing, that Margaret Given returned alone to take another look after learning the asking price had been lowered to $50,000. In March of 1923, Margaret Given handed the estate a check for $30,000 and became the second owner of Stormfield.

Margaret Given. The second owner of Stormfield.

The intent was to renovate the villa. It had sat empty like an abandoned castle atop that ridge in Redding for the better part of thirteen years and the grounds had become overgrown and the house weathered and beaten. Living in the villa with their mother, were Margaret’s two adult children, Eben and Thelma. Thelma was an incredible beauty who also happened to be a virtuoso violinist. She had made her debut at Carnegie Hall in 1918 and had studied extensively in Russia under the tutelage of the great Leopold Auer. A talented musician with a strong Russian connection – a very similar story to that of Clara Clemens whose music room Thelma had then taken residence in.

Thelma Given at age 21. A violin virtuoso who took over Clara Clemens’ music room and bedroom suite at Stormville.

It was on the early morning of July 25th when Eben awoke to the smell of smoke. He quickly went downstairs to find the laundry room ablaze. The house was undergoing renovations and a crew of painters had left their turpentine-soaked rags in that laundry room the day before. Whether it had been spontaneous combustion or a still smoldering cigarette butt, it may never be known, but the fire had a good enough head start so as not to be extinguished.

While a few items were saved before the flames consumed the entire structure, the only things left standing by noon were the two masonry chimneys that had flanked each end of the villa. Margaret Given wasn’t inclined to begin again from scratch and the family moved on.

All that remained of Stormfield’s villa on July 26, 1923.

The loss of Stormfield made all the national newspapers. By early 1924, rumors were flying about potential buyers. Playwright Eugene O’Neill was supposedly interested. George Leland Hunter who already owned the Lobster Pot next door was supposedly going to be the straw buyer for another “famous man” who wished to remain anonymous. Then, some news organizations even had Hunter purchasing the property and building the house that presently sits on the estate. None of this was accurate.

It was another woman who would buy Stormfield. Her name was Mary Goodrich Millett. On April 21, 1924, she tendered $20,000 to purchase the 268-acre estate that then only held the original carriage house, barn, and a two-family cottage. What was left of the villa was only the foundation.

Mary was the child of Stephen Caldwell and Emma Child Millet. She was born in Beaufort, South Carolina where her father had moved after the Civil War and where he would become the founder and superintendent of the Port Royal Railroad in Beaufort County in 1869. Her maternal grandfather was Alonzo Child, the founder of a large wholesale hardware company in Saint Louis that had provided the Union Army with a great deal of material during the Civil War. Alonzo died in June of 1873, leaving his children and grandchildren a vast sum of money, stocks, and properties.  The following year while on a business trip to Columbia, South Carolina, Mary’s father Stephen was stricken with malaria and within 48 hours, on February 26, 1874, he succumbed to the disease at the age of only 33. Mary was less than four years old at the time of her father’s death, but she was already a very wealthy child.

Mary, along with her mother Emma Child Millett, was a world traveler. In fact, that was apparently the major life pursuit the pair engaged in. She was 54 years of age, and her mother was 75, when Mary decided to purchase Stormfield.

Mary Goodrich Millett in 1922. The third owner of Stormfield.

Using plans from the original villa, she decided to recreate the mansion making some alterations and reducing the size of the structure to better fit her lifestyle – a billiards room on the main level seemed out of place and she didn’t require a second master suite with a dedicated music room upstairs.

All the terraces, stone walls, and the swimming pool were still intact, although by then, all were rather overgrown as nature was attempting to reclaim the land that had surrounded the original house. A crew was hired, and construction began. Mary and her mother traveled to Europe during the summer of 1924, purchasing items for the house she was building back in Connecticut. Among the things she purchased was a ceiling that would be placed in the main salon. The new Stormfield was finished and ready to live in by the fall of 1925.

Still under construction in early 1925, the new villa was smaller but still resembled the original and sat in the exact same spot.

The mother and daughter duo lived at Stormfield for twelve years. They employed a crew of four to serve them at the villa; there was a cook, a waitress, a maid, and a laundress – all of whom were live-in servants. Mary introduced some cattle to the property, and it was farmed for the first time since before Samuel Clemens had built his fine villa on the property. After Emma passed in 1936, Mary wed retired industrialist Pieter Schravesande in 1937 and the couple moved to Virginia. Stormfield was once again available for sale, and once again, it would be a woman who purchased it.

Doreen Janice Higert was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on November 15, 1900. Her mother Leona had already given birth to one child, a son named Dewey in 1897, when she was just fifteen years of age. Leona married saloon keeper Walter J. Higert on January 13, 1900. He was 29 and she just 17 years of age. In addition to Dewey and Doreen, a third son, Albert was born in 1902. Divorcing Walter sometime after Albert was born, the couple remarried again on August 19, 1907. After yet another divorce in 1909, Leona married attorney Newell L. Ward in 1911. Newell was several years Leona’s junior and only eight years older than her eldest son Dewey. After their marriage, Newell adopted all three children, and their surname was changed to Ward.

Doreen’s young life read like a story from a dime novel, the type of tale that Hollywood would turn into a cheap B-movie that played before the main feature.

A year after finishing high school, the young woman was engaged to a local boy, the date for the marriage set for the late spring of 1921. In January, twenty year old Doreen and her friend Dorothy Herd decided to spend the rest of the winter in Miami. After arriving in Florida on the 13th, Doreen decided to take a swim in the ocean. Evidently not as proficient a swimmer as she had deemed herself to be, she began to go under.

To her rescue came a dashing young man. His name was Roy L. Danks. After saving the young woman’s life, he decided to romance her. Two weeks later, Doreen went home to Indiana and broke her engagement to her somewhat disappointed fiancé. A week later, Roy appeared and the two were married on February 22, 1921, just five weeks after they first met.

Luckily for Doreen, Roy wasn’t just another young beach bum looking to hook up with a wealthy young woman. Because Doreen was anything but rich. But Roy was. His father had operated a five & dime store in Flint Michigan a few years before. The name of the store was F.M. Kirby & Company, and in 1912 it merged with F.W. Woolworth, with Roy’s father getting paid with the new venture’s stock. By 1920, the Danks were wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

In the wedding announcement, Roy’s life accomplishments were listed as playing a fine game of tennis and being a pretty fair banjo player. He didn’t work because he didn’t need to. After saying their hasty marriage vows, the couple left on a round-the-world trip.

At some point in the not-so-distant future, it was no longer all peaches and cream in the Danks’ household. Roy moved out and into a small luxury suite in the fancy Hotel des Artistes on 67th St. in Manhattan. It had its own kitchenette and there was room for his butler/valet. On October 26, 1930, he went to a football game at the Yale Bowl. Roy became rather drunk, went home, gave his butler/valet the rest of the weekend off and then decided to cook some eggs – or so the story goes. Dressed in his blue pajamas. he pulled up a chair alongside the stove, but evidently fell asleep between the time he turned on the gas and should have lit the burners. Roy Danks died from the gas fumes…at least that was what the coroner concluded. Either that, or he committed suicide. The newspapers of the day couldn’t decide which, but they sure had a field day trying.

The New York Daily News ran with the headline, “Millionaire, Failure as an Artist, Dies in Gas-Filled Museum,” and another showing Doreen in an outfit looking like Little Bo-Peep, “Gas Makes Her a Widow.” It was all quite melodramatic.

The New York Daily News headlines covering Roy Danks untimely demise in 1930

Luck was on Mrs. Danks’ side since the couple had never divorced. Doreen claimed their marriage was solid and that they saw each other several times a week, they simply preferred to live apart while remaining great friends. In any event, Doreen Danks was then a truly wealthy woman. She continued to travel, often taking her mother, who was by then on her third marriage – fourth if you count Walter Higert twice, this time to another attorney who was a few years older than she was. When her mother’s husband passed away in early 1937, Leona moved into Doreen’s Park Avenue apartment in New York while Doreen went out to Redding and purchased Stormville from Mary Millett.

One can only assume that Doreen’s childhood was neither pleasant nor normal. After purchasing Stormville on May 21, 1937, she invited her two siblings, Dewey and Albert to join her on the estate where she would give them the opportunity to farm the land. Neither brother had found much success in life prior to joining their sister in Redding, but neither did they have an ounce of experience when it came to farming.

Mary Millett had planted the orchards at Stormfield and had introduced some cattle. Doreen’s plans included increasing the size of the herd and planting more than enough crops of soybeans, alfalfa, and clover to feed the animals and still have enough extra to sell and turn a profit.

A March 24, 1946, article in the Philadelphia Inquirer described Doreen’s herd of purebred Saanen goats and their inability to adapt to Redding’s climate and vegetation. Her blue-eyed Great Dane was depicted frolicking with and being chased by the deer on the property. The gist of the article was that neither Doreen nor her two brothers knew enough about farming to make it a success. There is no doubt that was an accurate assessment of the situation.

1946 photo of Doreen Danks, the fourth owner of Stormfield and the last one prior to the estate being divided and sold.

Those whom I have spoken to who knew Doreen claim that she was a private person who spoke little about her past. After researching her family history, this writer can certainly understand why.

As time wore on, it became apparent that Doreen Danks’ fortune was dwindling. She hinted at selling the property to the United Nations after the town of Greenwich had voted down a proposal to locate their world headquarters in that community in 1946. No mention of a possible deal was ever discussed by anyone other than Mrs. Danks.

In the 1970’s, she entered into an agreement with the town of Redding to sell the remaining property and villa to Redding for the sum of $750,000 with her retaining life use of the home and about 30 acres of land. The deal was to take place with the incremental sale of small parcels at $50,000 each. While some land was transferred to the town via that agreement, the entire sale was never consummated. At the time of Mrs. Danks death in September of 1994, her estate still owned 28 acres of land as well as the villa and the carriage house to the north. The other houses and barns on the property had been split off with some additional acreage and sold a few years before.

The villa has since been gutted and rebuilt to better fit a 21st century lifestyle. While ambitious real estate agents still promote the property as being Mark Twain’s final home, they neglect to mention the colorful history of the wealthy women who have kept it alive since Samuel Clemens’ 1910 demise. And that is truly an unfortunate oversight on their part.

The cover photo for this article is an original painting by artist Susan Boone Durkee, the current owner of the Lobster Pot in Redding. 1993 photos below were supplied by Donna Marschalk and taken during an estate sale when Doreen Danks vacated the property. A great thanks to both!

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