Albert Herter (1871-1950) American
Birthplace/Origin: East Hampton, New York
Albert Herter is best remembered in East Hampton, New York for two reasons: as the original owner of the Creeks, the extravagant 60-acre estate on Georgica Pond, later the home of the painter Alfonso Ossorio and the dancer Ted Dragon and now owned by Ronald Perelman; and as the father of Christian Herter, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second Secretary of State. Some might say he should be better known as an artist, for before his death in 1950, he was celebrated for his historical murals.
But time has not been kind to the Maxfield Parrish or N.C. Wyeth style that to some extent Albert Herter often emulated, probably because these painters are thought of as mere illustrators rather than true artists. Time has its benign side as well, for nostalgia seems to envelop everything remotely interesting from the past these days, and Albert Herter is no exception.
In a new, slim volume of stories, A Dubious Lineage, the Herter family has for the first time published some reminiscences Mr. Herter wrote of his childhood and marriage and about painting, including a family genealogy as well as a beautifully written postface by Patsy Southgate.
An Artistic Family:
While the publication of these stories is not a major literary event, they do have a certain charm, especially for East Hamptoners who have an interest in the town’s cultural history. Albert Herter was the son of Christian Herter, an important interior designer and cabinetmaker whose elaborate work can still be seen in the Morgan Library and the Metropolitan Museum. Mr. Herter, born in 1871, grew up in a home devoted to the arts. Although his father was an extremely successful furniture designer, his secret ambition was to become a painter, and 10 years after his son’s birth, he gave up his career in New York, where he was known as “society’s darling as well as its decorator,” to move to Paris to study painting.
As a student in Paris, Mr. Herter met Adele McGinnis, the daughter of a prominent banker, whom he married soon after. They traveled to Japan for their honeymoon where they spent much of their time painting. The life they had settled on for themselves, to become artists, was possible because of sizable inheritances from both their families. The Herters were therefore able to devote their time to their work and soon, Mr. Herter became known as an important artist.
His two most famous works were both murals. One, dedicated to the memory of his son who was killed during World War I, was painted for the Gare de l’Est in Paris. The second, inspired by his second son, Christian, later the Governor of Massachusetts and Secretary of State, hangs in the House of Representatives in Boston.
Herter also formed a company to design and manufacture tapestries, upholstery and curtains; as a result, Mr. Herter became both an artistic and a financial success. Much of the money he earned and inherited went into building the Creeks, designing its extensive gardens, installing many extravagances like a Venetian gondola on the pond, and generally leading life on a grand scale. The Herters were a sophisticated couple, traveling as widely as one could in the days before jet airplanes. They lived in California much of the time, but came back most summers to East Hampton.
When Adele Herter died in 1946, Mr. Herter moved to the Algonquin Hotel, but continued to spend his winters in Santa Barbara and summers out east. The commentary accompanying the stories suggests that his last years were spent with his companion Willy Stevens, who was responsible for saving the texts that have now finally been published.
Excerpted from a review by Richard Dunn of the book, Herter, A Dubious Lineage, organized by his family: