An excerpt from
The Other Side of the Record
Charles O’Connell, 1947
irgil Fox is the most brilliant organ-player I have ever heard. He has the facility and agility of Horowitz, Stokowski's sense of theater, and musical taste just sufficiently vulgar to make him eventually the most popular of concert organists. I say nothing in disparagement, and I use the word "vulgar" in the sense of that which appeals to the multitude.
When Mr. Fox was engaged for recording, the company wanted to know why, when we had Courboin and Biggs, we should need another organist. Organ recording involves the transportation of much equipment, and this the recording companies always do with a certain reluctance, for it is expensive and troublesome. It seemed to me that we should record Mr. Fox as well as Courboin and Biggs for much the same reasons we had for recording the Boston "Pops" in addition to the Philadelphia and Boston Orchestras. Mr. Fox's métier lies in the virtuoso performance of the better-known, the popular "classics," and this he accomplishes sensationally. Before the war Virgil Fox had studied somewhat with Courboin and later headed the organ department at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore a really distinguished achievement for a very young man. The fact that he is a young man, however, also brought about the interruption of his career both on records and in concert: recently the United States Army had need of young men, and Mr. Fox exchanged his crimson-lined cape for the army's olive drab. He has survived, and he will be heard from in the future.
It seemed to me that with Courboin, Biggs, and Fox we would be able eventually to cover the whole organ repertoire, or at least that part of it worth recording. To this end we had put definite plans in operation, and did not expect to engage other organists; but I calculated without Mr. John Hays Hammond, Jr. Let me say at once that Mr. Hammond, though intimately concerned with electronics, with music, and with improvements in certain musical instruments, has never at any time had anything to do with the Hammond organ except to regard it with utter horror. Mr. Hammond is an organ enthusiast, though not a musician, and that is only one of the ways in which he is a very remarkable man. Mr. Hammond is cynical, superior, cruelly witty, shrewdly acquisitive; he regards human failings, human passion, and most human mentalities with unpitying scorn. In addition to money he collects medieval tapestries, stained glass, furniture, house-fronts, and ecclesiastical architecture. Celebrities too especially musicians.
Mr. Hammond is a director of the Radio Corporation of America. Some time ago he had as his house guest, and I believe was responsible for bringing to this country, the eminent French organist Joseph Bonnet. He had also installed in his house, previously and somewhat more permanently, a pipe organ of several hundred stops an extraordinary, interesting, but quite badly organized instrument. Mr. Hammond wrote to me and suggested that a discussion of recording at his place with Mr. Bonnet might be in order. In view of the standing of Bonnet as well as Hammond's position as an RCA director, I was constrained to agree that it might; and soon set forth on a journey to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Mr. Hammond maintains his establishment.
Mr. Hammond's house overlooks the reef called Norman's Woe on which the ship Hesperus was wrecked. The livingroom, if one may call it so, is a chamber approximately one hundred feet long, sixty feet high, and forty feet wide, done in purest twelfth-century Gothic. It is actually the nave of a church, and this impression is fortified by the crepuscular light that filters through some lovely lancet windows of stained glass, and by the innumerable objects of ecclesiastical art used as decoration. Mr. Hammond's characteristic mockery finds expression, I think, in the fact that one of the bays of this profane fane is a very luxurious cocktail lounge, one side giving upon the chaste and heaven-soaring arches of the nave, the other facing the grisly reaches of Norman's Woe. Numerous emasculated cats flit surreptitiously through the shadows. What would be the sacristy is a sumptuously appointed dining-room. In the great hall itself one may encounter here and there a touch of Mr. Hammond's macabre wit; as for example, one is encouraged to examine, to open an exquisite armoire, whereupon a light flashes on and a livid skull grins at you. Beyond the organ and concealed from the nave by a huge red velvet curtain is a modem, completely equipped, and busy workshop and laboratory where Mr. Hammond's assistants materialize his mechanical, electrical, and electronic ideas. At the opposite end of the great room a small door admits the visitor to a patio in the middle of which is a lovely pool, green as emerald. Surrounding it are a number of house-fronts, some of them perhaps a thousand years old, which Mr. Hammond imported intact from various parts of Europe. Behind them are bedrooms quite as authentic. I slept in a cardinal's bedroom, which in every detail except the good spring on the bed was straight out of the thirteenth century, even to the jewelled miter that glittered darkly from the top of a chest of drawers. I was happy to observe that behind the worm-eaten Gothic door there was a very modern bathroom, and flattered on being informed that I was not the first O'Connell to sleep in this suite. For its last previous occupant had been a friend of my host, His Eminence, William Cardinal O'Connell of Boston.
I feel at liberty to describe this extraordinary home because Mr. Hammond spent a good many hours describing and showing it to me before he would discuss the matter that had brought me to Gloucester. We explored even the grim and massive mausoleum, half-concealed around a bend in the shore and approached by the most beautiful stair I have ever seen. Here in this lordly tomb, knelled by the never-silent bell buoy of Norman's Woe and the ceaseless winds that make an organ of the dark cypress trees, lie the bones of Mr. Hammond's favorite cat.
During our walk about the place I politely admired everything, particularly the catacomb and the really charming bedchambers. My host mentioned, rather surprisingly, that he never used them; indeed he usually slept aboard his yacht and worked at night while the world slumbered. He expressed the conviction that during the daytime when most people are busy about their affairs, their dull minds encumber the ether with inferior thoughts which, radiating and impinging upon the thought processes of better minds, hamper them. An interesting theory, but somewhat unflattering to the antipodes.
I think Mr. Hammond admired Bonnet because the great French organist was so simple, so saintlike, and so unsaintly. Bonnet was as meek as a medieval monk and looked like one; a valiant trencherman and prodigious tosspot too. I believe he had studied for the priesthood, but stopped at the lower plane of the organ loft. He was a truly great organist in the nineteenth-century French tradition, and mastered the unnecessary intricacies of Mr. Hammond's organ in a remarkably brief time. His musicianship was magnificent. Nevertheless, I felt obliged to tell Mr. Hammond privately that I personally felt that practical considerations should not permit us to undertake an extended series of recordings with Mr. Bonnet in view of the program we had planned and the organists already engaged; but that for artistic reasons and, more particularly, because Mr. Hammond himself wished it, we would undertake a limited number. We did so, successfully, and I rejoice that we did, for Bonnet made some really priceless recordings for us; and not long afterward died. I should not enjoy having been responsible for missing an opportunity to record him.
John Hammond and Joseph Bonnet - 1941
The records were made at Mr. Hammond's instance, not on my initiative, and perhaps would not have been made at all except for his prestige as a director of the Radio Corporation. I was surprised, then, when Mr. Hammond sent us a bill for the use of the organ and his home. The explanation for this, I learned, lay in the fact that his house is called the Hammond Museum. This explained too the occasional strange but reverent visitors who would wander in during the morning hours of certain days, at fifty cents per capita, and tiptoe breathlessly through the great nave where goings-on of a decidedly secular nature had transpired not twelve hours before. I suppose the small admission fee paid by these pious intruders as well as the charge against Victor for the use of Mr. Hammond's place bore little relation to the expense of maintaining so vast and luxurious an establishment. Perhaps it had something to do with taxes. It did seem strange that Mr. Hammond would levy a charge against his own company for the use of his house in making records that he particularly wanted and the company especially didn't. One might suppose that he would even be willing himself to pay a small charge to procure the records in which he had such interest.
I'm ignorant of music, but still, in spite of that,
I always drop a quarter in an organ-grinder's hat.
An excerpt from
Virgil Fox (The Dish)
Richard Torrence and Marshall Yaeger, 2000
The Hammond Castle
irgil had approached both Emilie Spivey and Florence Candler for large sums of money several times. Usually, Virgil was raising money for an unreliable scheme. One such scheme was to “purchase” the Hammond Castle and Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Jack Hammond, who was Virgil’s dear friend (he had become rich by inventing guided missiles), died and left his estate and the Castle to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Virgil surmised that the Archdiocese didn’t need or want a gigantic estate with horrendously expensive maintenance costs; and so he offered the Church a deal whereby he would live in the castle, run an annual concert series, and pay for the upkeep of the house for the rest of his life. This entire scheme would cost him about a quarter of a million dollars.
Of course, Virgil had recorded the organ of the Hammond Castle, which he adored, and probably coveted its 101 rooms; its ninety-foot high Great Hall that housed a huge pipe organ; its indoor pool with the façades of Tudor houses all around the pool; its drawbridge, Great Tower, and a fortune’s worth of medieval treasures that included statues, furniture, tapestries, paintings, and precious artifacts.
We all thought Virgil was insane to assume such a responsibility, although we could imagine him running a museum while wandering through the cold Massachusetts premises like a deposed royal pretender. Richard Morris, who worked for Virgil’s management at the time, composed a little ditty to the tune of “Pretty Baby”:
Every queen must have her castle
And now Virgil has one too
There were a few drawbacks to the scheme, however. For one thing, the entire building leaked and needed a new roof. There were other significant malfunctions in the workings of the castle, of which the cost of repairs promised to be monumental. Then there was the cost of heating the premises!
Virgil would simply say, “Honeys, the concerts I’ll give on that organ will bring in a fortune!”
It was true; the summer series always drew huge crowds. However, nothing happened the rest of the year. We pointed out this and other negative aspects to the scheme, not the least of which was the frigid winter. We knew how much Virgil loved sunshine and warm weather. Nothing could be further from that ideal than this dour edifice on Gloucester’s “Hesperus Point” in the middle of winter, a long and difficult way from the Boston airport during inclement weather. None of these problems phased Virgil (or David, who was egging him on, I’m sure). He became more determined than ever to become a royal presence in his very own palace!
Virgil asked both Florence and Emilie for the quarter of a million dollars needed to assume the trusteeship of the castle and museum. Both turned him down politely. Privately, they both thought that he had finally “gone round the bend.” Virgil could not be deterred, however, and continued to beg from almost every wealthy friend he knew for money, even the stingy Richard Simonton (who, it turned out, was privately trying to acquire the castle for himself!). In the end, it was Virgil’s blessed and completely unselfish mother, Bird, who came to the rescue.
Bird had owned two farms in Illinois for years, although she resided in Pasadena, and later in Altadena, California. The farms were worth a great deal of money, and she supported herself from the rent of several tenant farmers that managed the properties. She finally agreed to lend Virgil the money he needed until, eventually, he sold and moved out of the Englewood mansion, using the profits to pay her back.
(Virgil had purchased the mansion for $68,000 and sold it for $238,000.)
From the beginning, the move to Gloucester generated one disaster after another. It seemed that every “improvement” he made angered either the archdiocese or the Gloucester Historical Society whether these improvements entailed moving the organ console, or purchasing a second organ in order to enlarge the first (reflecting his impossible dream to finally have an unparalleled large house organ), or redoing a suite for his private living quarters in his inimitable taste (which ranged from pink telephones to pink Cadillacs).
The revenues from the concert series were disappointing, despite the efforts of Virgil’s 80+ mother, Bird, whom I vividly remember sweeping the walk, picking up cigarette butts after the crowds, and taking tickets; and some possibly libelous articles in the Gloucester papers about the “mad organist” and “his kind” of friends who had taken over their beloved museum in order to swarm like flies, throughout the property.
(Interestingly, it recently came out that E. Power Biggs was one of the major forces behind a vicious public relations campaign originating in Massachusetts to remove Virgil from his royal seat of power!)
The Hammond Castle misadventure mercifully ended none too soon but unfortunately not soon enough to prevent Virgil from losing a great deal of money.
Virgil Fox at the Hammond Castle organ console
Floyd Watson reminisces:
Several of the “roadies” and I were invited to the opening party at Virgil’s Castle. At least we thought we had been invited, until Virgil told us that the “entrance fee” was fifty dollars each. “Hey, you invited me!” I complained.
“Well, Honey, everyone has to pay,” Virgil said.
We reached a compromise. We could stay at the castle for nothing, but would have to pay for the food. Three of us went into town and bought a book each of restaurant checks. Every hors d’oeuvre we ate at the opening party we tallied up as accurately as we could. Virgil was furious, but finally said we could eat whatever we wanted. “No charge!”
David Lewis reminisces:
Virgil’s party was like stepping back in time, with an all-black dance band, which was out of character for Virgil, and everyone in tails and tuxes in that creepy old castle. They’d rented a bubble machine, maybe in homage to David’s Revelation Lights, which was supposed to waft bubbles over a reflecting pool that Virgil and David had spent a fortune dredging out and restoring. The pool was at the end of the great hall, directly under the Cardinal’s window it was beautiful!
We were all pretty wasted (from champagne we had to sneak into the house in violation of Virgil’s tea-totaling house rules). While trying to figure out how much soap to put in the hopper, we poured it all in.
It was amazing. Within minutes, the whole pool was covered several feet deep with an undulating mass of suds. No more wispy airborne bubbles! I remember using something just in time to stop the wall of foam from running down the stone steps into the great hall; but the rest of my memories of that wonderfully strange evening were blurred from that point on.