The New York Times brought to light recent efforts to rehabilitate and restore the reputation and work of Robert Winthrop Chanler this morning.

Eve Kahn, writing in the antiques section, shared the story of Lauren Vollono Drapala, a graduate student in the historic preservation program at the University of Pennsylvania, who has taken an interest in Chanler and his works. Research in the former studio space of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney has revealed evidence of a brilliant mural and relief resting beneath layers of whitewash.

The ex-Sheriff of Dutchess County had financed a less than mild mannered lifestyle in the early part of the 20th century with a not insubstantial inheritance from his grandfather, John Jacob Astor. The Whitney Studio is among a handful of prime examples of his installation work, among them the Rokeby House and the Coe House. His artistic accomplishments were mostly categorized as decorative, and as such, we would never recognize him as an participant at the famous Armory show. Though he was refused a reputation for his artistic contributions, he did earn one for poor judgement.

Immediately following his 1910 marriage in Paris to the opera singer Mile, Lina Cavalleri, his lawyer filed the much discussed ante-nuptial agreement. Chanler “divested himself of all his real estate in New York County, which is considerable, and also of his real estate holdings in Dutchess County.” He did so to the amazement of his family and for the benefit of none other than Mile, Lina Cavalleri. Not only did she receive the real estate, “he bound himself to pay his bride $20,000 a year.” Just in case he was thinking about side-stepping these obligations, he also named her his irrevocable attorney. In a famous telegram, Chanler’s brother John, who offered all of those around him eager descriptions of his budding X-Faculty and the many sonnets, plays and stock-tips it had dictated to him, who changed his surname to Chaloner, which he claimed was the earlier variant of the family name, and was generally unknown for soundness of mind, wired him in Paris: “Who’s looney now?” The question would become famous in its own right. The marriage lasted two years, and Cavalleri went on to marry an opera singer and later open a beauty parlor in Paris.

Chanler’s brother, Marion Ward Chanler, lost far greater stakes from a similar disabuse of judgment. Reportedly, he engaged Marshall Latham Bond in an eating contest in February 1883 at the St Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. Bond and his brother would later employ Jack London during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, and Buck was actually based on Bond’s dog Dawson. Chanler had received ten pounds of Turkish Delight from his grandfather, Samuel Ward. The task, consume it all, and may the greater appetite be the winner. Bond lost, and Marion died, so the story goes, from a surfeit of Turkish Delight.

Chanler, nonetheless, maintained a steady stream of contributions to what would be considered decorative arts. These include screens, murals, stained glass windows, and the mural and relief in the former Whitney studio space. One can find them at the Rokeby House in Dutchess County, the Coe House in Oyster Bay, Villa Vizcaya in Miami, and various public and private collections. For a collection of poor judgement such as this, however, requires a bit more digging.

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