From the Archives
by Christopher Thomas, Archive Coordinator
Caramoor’s Archive Coordinator, Christopher Thomas, dug deeper into his research on Walter Rosen and shares a fascinating new account of Walter’s family.
Entering the Rosen House in the morning, I pause before climbing the stairs. The photograph of Walter and Lucie Rosen that hangs next to the door to the box office winks. I raise my coffee ever so slightly while taking the greatest of pains not to spill it on the new carpet. “Walter. Lucie.” I nod and continue up into my office. It can be difficult to have a sense of people that predate you by a century — this is difficult enough with people that don’t predate you at all. Really knowing them is a quixotic activity and entirely worth the effort. I decided to start with Walter. Somehow, Lucie is eminently more knowable than her husband. Her letters are more intimate and her personality emanates from the Rosen House. Plus, her room is a lot bigger. Walter can be all business in his letters, even those written to his family. Nonetheless, his gentle good humor and concern for his fellow human are always evident in his writing.
Walter himself may not have known some of his family history being that he did not have access to Ancestry.com. The sometimes misleading paper trail of passport applications, passenger manifests, marriage and death certificates, and tombstones can take us back to the births of Walter’s mother and father, Max Tower Rosen (originally styled “Max Rosentower”) and Flora Thalmann. Max was born in 1844 in Brody, a shtetl in Ukraine with a sorrowful history. At some point, he moved to Germany and became a tobacco merchant, marrying Flora. She was born in 1853 in the small town of Winnweiler, outside Mannheim. They lived in Berlin, where they had three children: Walter in 1875, Ernest in 1877, and Felix in 1878. In 1885, they moved to New York City.
A year later, Flora gave birth to her fourth child and only daughter, Jeanne. The Thalmann family was well off, with connections throughout Europe. Flora’s brother Ernst founded the Ladenburg Thalmann investment firm in New York City with Adolf Ladenburg, a distinguished banker from Mannheim. The Ladenburgs were an old and wealthy German-Jewish family. Adolf’s father was interested in music and hosted Joseph Joaquim, Johannes Brahms, and Clara Schumann at different times in the 19th century. Ernst Thalmann appears in the Jewish Yearbook of 1912 and gave money to Mt. Sinai hospital and the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York. It is a reasonable guess that the Rosen family moved to New York with some assistance from the Thalmanns, especially given that Walter and Felix would eventually work for their uncle Ernst.
In July of 1890, Max Tower Rosen was naturalized in the Court of Common Pleas for the City and County of New York. Walter entered Harvard at the age of 16 and graduated in 1894. Six years later, his father died in while aboard the S.S. Deutschland, apparently traveling back to Europe for business. That same year, Walter began working for his uncle. Ernst was so impressed by the work that Walter — who had started his own law firm after graduating — had been doing on behalf of Ladenburg Thalmann, that he offered the young man a position in the company. It was then the largest office building in New York City; The Broad Exchange at 25 Broad Street. It now holds luxury apartments.
In 1914, Walter and Lucie married after a whirlwind courtship. They immediately went to work building a family life. Walter was well equipped for the task. His success in the roaring 20s is apparent in the plans for his Katonah palazzo, his frequent trips overseas, and his art collection. Their son Walter was born in 1915, and their daughter Anne was born in 1917. His siblings spread themselves across the Atlantic during these first decades of the 20th century. Ernest and Jeanne moved to Paris while Felix, also working at Ladenburg Thalmann, stayed in New York with Walter. In 1914, Jeanne married Maurice Magre, a French poet and playwright with a fondness for opium. In 1916, they had a son named Claude. Ernest, rather than joining the firm with his brothers, took up figure-painting and died in Paris in 1926 without having secured much success. Eighteen of his paintings are available for auction today, moderately priced between $300 and $15,000. Walter became keenly interested in railroads and became the chairman of the board of Mexican National Railways. In 1942, he would take a pay cut to save Felix’s job when a junior partner tried to have him let go.
The story of Walter and Lucie is instinctive for those of us who routinely talk about the history of Caramoor. What more can one archivist add? The affection between Walter and his wife, Lucie was as natural as a note, neither flat nor sharp. He never fails to address her in letters as some combination of “Precious,” “Beloved,” “Darling,” “My.” His devotion swelled to his children in due course, always concerned for their comfort and safety. He reminds them to dress for cold weather, or admonishes them for driving too fast after a fender bender. Dad stuff. Thank the patron saint of archivists that these people wrote letters, and especially dated them. Through massive carbon copy-books we can hear more of Walter’s voice. One of his preferred signatures was “Believe Me,” which is objectively charming. Legal, financial, and/or political concerns always find a place in all of his correspondence, even (perhaps especially) in messages between family members. Some part of the man was always at work.
In letters, the devastation of the Depression and the threat of war towers above Rosentower. The 20s were good to Walter, and he capitalized on the excess of that time and the opportunities it could offer a man of his social status. The 30s encroached, slashing into his wealth and threatening his family. The 40s took their toll. His letters to Jeanne open on a note of cautious optimism, asking after her sick husband and the apparently ambitionless Claude. In 1932, he suggests he is willing to buy her son a radio, but understands that Jeanne does not want him to have one. It seems that the pressing need to get them back across the ocean is always on his mind. In 1941, he tells his sister that she is “Thin as a first-class model.” He sends as much food as he can.
Walter mobilized alongside his nation. He did what he could to bring refugees into America, writing on behalf of one banking comrade all the way to the Department of State. Five days after Pearl Harbor, a letter to Senator Joseph Guffey of Pennsylvania cites his work on the Capital Issues Committee in the previous war and offers his services for this one. He utilized his connections to get his son into the Royal Canadian Airforce, and get him a job flying a plane — what the young man really wanted to do. Getting a visa for Jeanne, who had renounced her American citizenship to marry Maurice, was impossible. In a kind of desperate code, he insists to her that he does not know when or where their father was born, but reminds her that their mother was Episcopalian, and both parents were Germans.
Jeanne had just moved back to Paris from Nice, where she was working for the French Red Cross, when she was deported. She was one of 825 people of Jewish ancestry transported to Auschwitz in 1943, and was murdered in November of that year. Ten months later, Walter Bigelow Rosen crashed into English soil after his plane took damage in a bombing run over Germany. Anne was with her father when he received that telegram. He silently retreated into his bedroom. Later that evening, the household staff heard him playing the piano in the Music Room.
This is the story that I remember when I look at the picture by the Box Office: the war story. It is a microcosm of the unhappy time in which Walter lived, a distant memory and the tragic rock on which Caramoor was built. It can be difficult to wring emotion out of old paper, until the sense of loss is so great that it becomes immediate. That is when history becomes alive, and a photo of a man I have no personal connection to becomes somebody I care deeply about. In the ninth clause of his will, he writes his hope that “Caramoor [will be] a cultural, artistic and educational center … Of lasting benefit to the town of Bedford and the State of New York.” There is no greater proof of Walter’s living history than my writing about him inside what was once his home, and now is ours. Walter had intended to leave the house to his son (as Anne was apparently uninterested). The vacuum left by the loss of their family into the machinery of conflict was abhorrent to the family. They filled it with people, music, and art.
Concerts played in the Music Room and Spanish Courtyard became the Westchester Friends of Music, which gathered neighbors from across county and city and raised money for charitable causes. When Walter died on October 16th of 1951, Lucie wrote a letter to the Katonah Record assuring the public that concerts would always be held at Caramoor. This was the final wish and last benefaction of both Walter and his wife: that people, music, and art would always flourish in their home. The fullness of their lives, stretched between two continents and weary from war, rests now.