Oral History Transcript — Edward Lamont
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Edward Lamont; May 29, 1996
ABSTRACT: Born 10 December 1926. Impressions of weekend trips to the
family's Palisades property while a child. Reminiscences
of activities engaged in, family members present, and
transportation to and from Palisades. Corliss Lamont's
enthusiasm for the natural environment is cited. Lamont
recounts that the family debated economic systems and
discussed current events during the family's formal Sunday
luncheons. Prominent visitors, namely H.G. Wells and John
Masefield, attended the luncheons. Lamont recalls certain
security precautions at the estate following the high
profile Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Lamont's grandfathers
concern about the Great Depression and his grandfather's
communications with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Lamont mentions George Metcalfe, the family's major domo,
at the estate. Some weekends were spent in town rather
than at the Palisades so as to attend parties and the very
popular movies. Lamont's limited exposure to the
Palisades' region and neighbors, the Fox family and the
John Greenfield family. Summers were spent on the island
of North Haven, Maine. Sailing was a favorite activity.
Weekend trips to Palisades ceased for Lamont around the age
of 14 while first attending Philips Exeter Academy in New
Hampshire and then Harvard College. He continued to visit
the Palisades during Christmas celebrations. World War II
had only a very small effect upon Palisades visits.
Lamont's grandmother donates the Palisades property to
Columbia University. Columbia cedes the use of the
property to a group of Columbia University geologists. The
Lamont family's pleasure with the property's use as a
geological observatory and their visits to the Observatory
for briefings on the Observatory's activities. Lamont
mentions the project to map the sea floor, earthquake
detection, and the storage of sea floor cores as activities
about which he remembered being briefed. The Lamont
family's sentiments concerning the Doherty endowment to the
Observatory and the change of name from Lamont Observatory
to Lamont-Doherty Observatory. Certain changes that took
place on the grounds of the Palisades estate in its
conversion to an Observatory cited. Lamont tells of his
promotion of the education and health of children and his
involvement with the Children's Aid Society in New York.
Doel:This is Ron Doel, and this is an interview with Edward M. Lamont. Today's date is May 29, 1996. We're making this recording at the Harvard Club, in New York, New York.
I know that you were born on December 10, 1926. Normally at this point we ask about your parents, but in your case, obviously we know quite a bit about your parents, and what I'm particularly interested in hearing — I also should make a note right here at the beginning of the tape that you have done a great deal of service in your 1994 book, The Ambassador from Wall Street: A Biography of Thomas W. Lamont [Lantham, MD: Madison
Books, 1994] which spells out a good part of the family history and the family background. I also should call attention to one particular work by your Uncle Corliss Lamont, A Lifetime of Dissent [Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1988] which also mentions the gift of the Lamont property to Columbia.
What I am particularly interested in hearing, though, are your earliest recollections of being at Lamont, the Lamont Estate, shall we call it, at the time. How much time did you spend there in growing up? Was that the place in which you had some of your earliest recollections as a boy growing up?
Lamont:The time I spent there was as a boy when I was a schoolboy in New York City. My family would take me and my brothers and my sister.
Doel:She is younger than you are?
Lamont:She is younger than I am. Out to, we called it Palisades, for weekends. My grandparents, Tom [Thomas] and Florence Lamont, went out to Palisades most weekends, and my parents and their children would join them out there, as well as the Corliss Lamont family, and we would spend not only weekends, but Christmas holidays and Easter holidays and sometimes a week or so in the spring when school was over in New
Doel:How often would you use it during the summertime?
Lamont:Not all that much during the summertime, because we usually went up to my grandparents' and my parents' house in North Haven, Maine, by Penobscot Bay.
Doel:So when you went out there during the weekend, you'd go with a pretty large number of family members who were about —
Lamont:That's true. There were the two families that I mentioned, the Thomas Lamont, that's my father's family, and the Corliss Lamont family. Then over the Christmas or the holidays, other Lamont families would come. Some lived in Boston, some lived in Philadelphia, and they would come up for the holidays and come out to Palisades.
Doel:This was from the time that you were born, as you were an infant and thereafter that you made the trips?
Lamont:Well, Tom and Florence Lamont bought the Palisades property in 1927.
Doel:Just a year after your birth.
That was a year after my birth. As I recall, they built the house and moved in in1929, the end of 1929, and so from there on, all during the thirties, these weekend visits I described took place.
Doel:Do you recall whether your parents [Thomas S. and Elinor Miner Lamont] played any role in helping to design how Lamont looked, or was that a project that your grandparents were largely in charge with?
Lamont:I think that was the project of my grandparents. I don't recall any role of my parents.
Doel:What were some of the earliest recollections that you have? What was it like to be a boy out in Lamont in those early days in the very late 1920s and early 1930s?
Lamont:Well, I should say at this point that as a boy, I had mixed feelings about going out to Palisades every weekend. On the one hand, it was good fun to be in a place in the country with the woodlands all around and the hiking trails and the rest of it, but on the other hand, all my friends, all my school friends, remained in the city and went to parties at each other's houses and went to the movies and did all those things which often I missed.
Doel:You were left out.
Lamont:I was left out from the social life of my friends over the weekends when I went out Palisades, instead of staying in town and going to RKO 86th Street for a double feature and things like that. But often my brothers and I invited one of our pals from school to come out and spend the weekend with us.
Doel:I was just going to ask you about that. Was there one friend in particular or a few who often did come out with you?
Lamont:I would say there were four or five who often did come out with us, yes, several of my friends and several of my brother Tommy's [Thomas W. II] friends.
Doel:This is your older brother that you were speaking of?
Lamont:That was my older brother.
Doel:Because he was only two years older than you, but your other siblings were over three years younger. I'm curious, when all of you were out there, were there enough children, younger people, that you could informally play games? Did you organize games out on the lawn when you stayed in Palisades?
Lamont:Well, we did play a lot of games, although there weren't many other children living in the vicinity that we joined up with. That was really the gang that I've referred to-brothers and sisters, cousins, and friends we invited out. We played such games as hide and seek, and we had a particular game where my father or Corliss would go off perhaps deep in the woods and then give a yell, and we would all try and find where they were hiding in the woods, and they would run to a different place and give another yell. I don't recall what we called that game, but that was a very good game.
Doel:How often did you win?
Lamont:Well, perhaps he let us win from time to time to keep our morale up. A form of hide and seek where the children, if you will, were the hounds chasing the fox, who was my father or my uncle, who would give calls indicating where he was hiding and then move on to a new hiding place.
Doel:Your father's business, it was often that he could get out during the weekends? It wasn't that the family went out, and he'd have to stay in Manhattan too often? You recall him being pretty often out with you at Palisades?
Lamont:I recall him being pretty often out with us. I think the fact of the matter is, during the thirties, as the Great Depression deepened, he was required to spend every other Saturday morning in the bank, but then he would come out immediately. He would drive out as soon as he was free, around noon on Saturdays. That practice of requiring the officers of the bank to spend Saturday mornings was really a Depression practice, I would say, when business was so bad. It was terminated after the war.
Doel:But it stayed through the 1930s that you remember?
Doel:The family would precede your father out, then, during the alternate weekends when he had to work on Saturdays, or did you wait and go out with him?
Lamont:I think we probably did it both ways. Sometimes we would drive out late Friday afternoon, or we might sometimes wait and do it later on Saturday.
Doel:Just out of curiosity, how long did it take to get from Manhattan out to Palisades in those days?
Lamont:I believe it probably took about an hour and twenty minutes. These things depend, as they always do, on the traffic conditions. We would go over to Riverside Drive and up across the George Washington Bridge, and take a right onto [Route] 9W; I think they called it in those days. It was an easy enough drive, but 9W could be very crowded. It was a smaller, perhaps only a two-lane road in those days.
Doel:Right. As I recall, that was also the way in which many people would leave the city to go up to Bear Mountain and the surrounding areas.
Lamont:That's true. That's true. So it could be very crowded on a weekend coming back into New York. Late Sunday afternoon, I recall, it was always quite crowded.
Doel:It would be Sunday afternoon that you came back, by and large?
Lamont:Yes. I could tell you one of the interesting features that may be forgotten about 9W. It went right by a — they called them roadhouses in those days, named the Rustic Cabin. The Rustic Cabin was one of the first places that Frank Sinatra appeared publicly as a professional singer, the Rusty Cabin on 9W. That was in New Jersey, and, of course, he lived in Hoboken.
Doel:How did you know of the Rustic Cabin Tavern? Did you ever stop there on the way up and back from New York City on the way out to Palisades?
Lamont:We may have stopped there once, but hardly ever, put it that way.
Doel:I'm curious how close you felt to your Uncle Corliss during the years in which you were growing up. Was he one of the members of the extended family that you would come up —?
Lamont:Yes, he was certainly one of the most important members of the family, perhaps for several reasons. One, he had a great feeling of family loyalty and family spirit; and, two, he, perhaps more than anybody else, especially enjoyed the environment of Palisades, and I'm referring to the natural environment: the woodlands and the streams and the hiking trails and the views of the Hudson River and beyond, that you got from the vistas on the brink of the Palisades cliffs. So he was a naturalist, I think, certainly by spirit, if not professionally and especially enjoyed that natural environment.
Doel:Did he talk to you about that, or was that something that you observed just in seeing the way that he would go out on the weekends when you were together?
Lamont:We certainly observed it, because he was one of the leaders in taking groups on hikes through the woods. There were a number of different trails and places you could go to, and he really was the leader in that activity, and then, secondly, we could tell of his enthusiasm for the natural environment, and his own writings through the years confirmed that enthusiasm.
Doel:When you say "took hiking," do you mean particularly the property at the very south end, what became the nature estate?
Lamont:Yes, yes. We usually would hike starting off in the wooded property at the south end. Then you could go on a trail up close to the waterfall that dropped down the face of the Palisades to sea level, or you could continue south on trails through some very lovely forest territory.
Doel:It's very beautiful countryside through there. Did he talk to you about different kinds of trees and birds? Was that something that he would share with you when you were out together?
Lamont:No. I don't think his interest was one of a professional botanist, if you will. I think it was more just a tremendous happiness in being in the natural environment of the forest.
Doel:Appreciation or feeling fulfilled in being in that kind of environment.
Doel:Did he talk to you about the writing that he was doing, and what he was thinking about working on? Was that something that he would talk to you or your —
Lamont:Not really. You have to remember, we were very young during the thirties. I was born in 1926.
Doel:I'm thinking; say in this moment, particularly of the later 1930s as you're a younger man and growing up.
Lamont:The main exposure to his own views that Corliss provided usually took place at mealtime when the family would gather in the dining room. It might be a Sunday lunch, of course, when we all assembled for a fairly formal luncheon. My grandparents were there and Corliss and the rest of the family were there, and very often spirited debates took place between Corliss and his wife Margaret, who were certainly leftish leaning in their politics, certainly were socialists, and the rest of the family, led by my grandfather, who, of course, was certainly a capitalist, being a J.P. Morgan senior partner, and my father and the rest. Good debates would take place, if you will, between the believers in those two forms of how the economy should be directed or not directed.
Doel:Realizing, as very a young man you're looking up at this going on at the time, do you remember any of those discussions in particular? Did any of them really stay in your memory?
Lamont:I can't say there was any single one that stayed in my memory. I certainly do recall some of the topics, because they always were the most important events of the day that they discussed. Of course I remember those discussing F.D.R. and F.D.R.'s moves to regulate the financial activities of Wall Street, and the general New Deal Program of intervention in the economy. That was certainly something that was discussed, but I don't recall a specific conversation on it. They discussed the growing threat of war in Europe. Now, that wasn't something anybody debated about, but everybody, my grandfather and Corliss and my father, all my elders were very concerned about that, perhaps my grandfather more than the others, and that was discussed.
Doel:Do you remember particularly what they mentioned about the growing conflict in Europe and Hitler, well realizing that even in 1936; you were only ten years old?
Lamont:No. My recollection is only generalized. Hitler took, following Munich, more steps of military aggression. Whatever events like that that had appeared in the news that week, was something that they would discuss at Sunday lunch. They would review the important political events and economic events that occurred in the week before, at Sunday lunch. So it was almost like reading the New York Times and "News of the Week in Review."
Doel:Except you had it around the table.
Lamont:Except we had it around the table, and if it involved economic systems, then there was a good, lively debate going.
Doel:As a young boy watching that, was it something that was exciting to watch, or were the dynamics such that you kind of wished the clashes weren't occurring? Did it stay usually civil and cordial?
Lamont:Yes, it did always stay cordial. I will be frank enough to say that Corliss' wife, Margaret, became a bit more intense than her husband, Corliss, who always was in good humor. But, sure, it was always cordial, and if there was any heat, the heat was forgotten as soon as lunch was over, and people went out to have a game of tennis or do whatever they wanted to do.
Doel:You mentioned those lunches were fairly formal affairs. As someone ten or twelve years old at the table, could you speak? Could you contribute to those discussions, or were you expected to stay quiet?
Lamont:I think that the children were encouraged to speak. There was no attempt to muffle us, and, indeed, my older brother, Tommy, who was a very bright fellow, did participate in the discussions. He was very alert, read the daily newspaper, and knew what was going on and was; quite frankly, mature enough to participate in those discussions. I think it stopped there at our generation. I don't think that yours truly or the rest of us were knowledgeable enough to ever make a contribution of any significance. I don't recall making any. In fact, I'll be again frank enough to say, in those days I did not read the news of the week, I read the sports page. That's not what they were talking about, sports.
Doel:That's understood, but then again, you were ten years old, and that's what people at that age do tend to read. When you think back on it and discussions that you would then have back at school in the week, did you sense that your schoolmates' families were also talking about the European crisis, or did you feel that what you were discussing was somewhat unique, what you were getting exposed to at those discussions at Palisades?
Lamont:The latter. I came to realize that for a family to choose those topics for discussion was, indeed, rare. I did not find those topics discussed when I visited my friends at their houses, but that realization came later. When it was first going on, and bears in mind I went to Palisades virtually every weekend, I believe for some years I felt that that was a normal sort of family gathering and family discussion, but I certainly came to realize when I got older that that was a unique family gathering and discussion that took place, that such heady topics were not normally family fare in a typical family.
Doel:How long would those luncheons last? Were they a couple of hours, do you recall?
Lamont:Well, I believe an hour and a half to two hours, sure. It was at least a three course meal, with salad on the side. There was probably a soup and often roast beef. Ice cream, chocolate sauce for desert. So it was a full-blown Sunday lunch, a demitasse for the older people after lunch. My grandparents also invited many house guests over the years. So the table was not only filled with family, but there usually was some house guest or several present. A banker at J.P. Morgan, much older than myself, told me once that when he was a young officer at the bank, he was simply awed when my grandfather invited him to come out for, perhaps it was for Sunday, and he was awed at the performance that took place at Sunday lunch that I've described. But there were other very interesting people.
Doel:I'm curious who you are thinking of when you say that. Who would come?
Lamont:H. G. Wells, for example, the famous English novelist, was a close friend of my grandparents, going back to right after World War I, as I recall, and he was a great conversationalist bubbling over with ideas. He was a socialist in his political and economic thinking, and so he certainly contributed to those debates that I've described.
Doel:Do you remember, did he come during the time that Corliss and his wife were present?
Lamont:I think so, but I don't have a specific memory of a meal in which they all were present. John Masefield, the famous English poet laureate, also visited Palisades from time to time. Those are the ones that come to mind. And, of course a lot of — I don't want to say lesser lights, but people who were not notable, people who were just plain good friends.
Doel:Do you have a favorite guest you remember from those days?
Lamont:No. My favorite guests probably were the boys I brought out to keep me company from school. No, I had no favorite elder guest.
Doel:One thing I was curious about was, where did one hide when one wanted to hide in the Palisades?
Lamont:Well, the only hiding place I knew was in the attic.
Doel:You mean the third floor?
Lamont:Yes. Yes. You could hide up there, although if those searching for you were alert, which might occur to them that was a hiding place they should investigate. And down in the cellar there were lots of passageways and cubbyholes and storerooms one could hide in.
Doel:I'm just curious if you and your friends had enough opportunity to really get to know what doorways and the little hidden places that —
Lamont:I think that most of our hiding games, as I say, took place out of doors. That was always impressed upon us that we were so fortunate to be able to go out to the country over the weekend with the wonderful woods around, and we did, indeed, enjoy them and spend a lot of time out of doors.
Doel:You mentioned already the games that went on. Did you also have a lot of time where you and your friends could simply go off and play on the grounds?
Doel:Were there growing concerns, particularly after the Lindbergh kidnapping, about you and your friends being able to go out on the grounds? Or didn't you perceive worries about that at the time?
Lamont:I know there were serious concerns by my grandparents and my parents. I, as a boy, did not perceive them, but their concerns following the kidnapping and death of the Lindbergh baby led to their hiring a retired New York detective to be a guard at Palisades, and they even installed bars on a number of the windows that had easy access to an outsider.
Doel:On the first floor of Palisades in the house, you mean?
Lamont:Actually the bars, I remember, were on bedrooms on the second floor. I guess they figured that — of course, the Lindbergh baby had been in its bedroom in a crib, and perhaps they figured that was the normal kidnapper's way to do things, that a kidnapper would come into a bedroom and snatch a child when the child was in bed at night. It's an interesting question you've raised. I don't recall bars on the living room windows; I do recall bars on bedroom windows.
Doel:Were there ever any problems with intruders on the grounds that you recall? Any incidence or any concerns?
Lamont:I don't recall any. No.
Doel:You raised something else interesting a few moments ago when you said that your Uncle Corliss was the center of the family, particularly involving family loyalty and family spirit. When you think back to that, how did he do that? What was it that he did that you identify with keeping the family spirit together?
Lamont:Well, I should add something to my earlier remark. Corliss, perhaps I should have said, has come to be the person who leads our family spirit and family loyalty, because he outlived my father and his other brother and sister by so many years. I think my father, at the time during the thirties, was very happy to be in family surroundings and promoted that feeling of family ties. But Corliss was fortunate enough to live a great deal longer and continued that practice of promoting family unity until his death at the age of ninety-three.
Doel:That was only a short time ago, as I recall.
Lamont:That was only a short time ago, in 1995.
Doel:Given the Great Depression and your father's role and your grandfather's role, for that matter, how easy was it for them to leave the difficulties of the 1930s behind when they were out at Lamont? Did you sense them often concerned about what had gone on during the work week, or could they find ways, when you were growing up, to put that behind them?
Lamont:Well, in the case of my grandfather, he was sixty-five years old in 1935 in the midst of the Depression, and he was, as often happens at the age of sixty-five, while by no means retired, as many people do nowadays, still, he was able to turn over the day-to-day operations of the bank to others, so he wasn't as closely involved in the banking business in the late thirties, say.
He became very interested in the general economic downturn and how it affected the United States with the growing numbers of unemployed, and he spoke often to Franklin Roosevelt, the president, on the phone and visited him in the White House. The point I'm making is that he was, in the mid-thirties, concerned with the tremendous problems not so much facing the J.P. Morgan Bank, but the country at large.
But, yes, they seemed to, when they got out to Palisades, be able to relax and enjoy themselves: I recall, in the case of my grandfather, though, his phoning President Roosevelt from Palisades one afternoon to discuss some international financial crisis, as I recall.
Doel:I was just going to ask you about that. Did he talk to the family about the call after it was over? Do you remember being around afterwards?
Lamont:No, I don't remember what happened afterwards. I guess he had placed a call to the president in the White House, and then the president called back, and he went into a little room where there was a phone and took the call, but I don't recall beyond that.
Doel:But you were aware of it at the time that it was happening?
Yes, I was aware of it. Yes, I was aware of it, because I remember, I believe it was his butler, majordomo, George Metcalfe, who had been their "butler" is too weak a word for it, "majordomo" is a better word — and, indeed, he became a close friend of my grandparents. He ran the household and the domestic staff of the Thomas Lamont family, and I remember him coming in and saying, "The White House is returning your call, Mr. Lamont," or words to that effect.
Doel:It's the sort of thing that can leave an impression on a young boy.
Doel:How many people were on the staff at Palisades at the time that you were growing up?
Lamont:I shouldn't have raised that, because I really can't remember. I just can't. I can only say that there were probably at least two cooks and some maids who did the house work, and then there was a chauffeur and a chief gardener and some other gardeners, but I don't have the numbers.
Doel:That's an unfair question to ask someone in your position in growing up. I should have asked, were there any that you felt particularly close to, who seemed to take a real interest in you personally when you were there?
Lamont:I was very impressed, as we all were, with Metcalfe, who we all called Metcalfe, whom I just mentioned. He was, I believe, an Englishman. At any rate, he was a very sophisticated, extremely kindly and understanding person and could handle matters, I think I wrote in my book, like a veteran diplomat and was really looked upon as a dear friend by my grandparents. Yes, and he impressed me as a boy, too. He was an outstanding person, and he was the one I remember best.
Doel:Would he join in any of the games that happened in the hide and seek and so on, or was that really a family affair that staff members or others didn't ever get involved in?
Lamont:The latter. They did not get involved in those games.
Doel:How did your mother like Palisades?
Lamont:I believe she like it very much, because she went out there every weekend and took her children out there. As I say, sometimes I was less than enthusiastic about going out when my friends in New York were having a party. So I think my mother liked it very much.
Doel:Were you successful at any time in persuading your mother not to go out to Palisades when you really wanted to stay in the city?
Lamont:I think I was successful very few times. A few but not many.
Doel:Things like the parties that you mentioned, or a chance to go out to the cinema, things of that sort?
Lamont:I think I won the debate a few times. On really important occasions where a friend would be giving a party, yes, I could talk my parents into letting me stay in town and go to the party. You've got to remember in those days, the movies were a very, very popular form of entertainment, and adults loved the movies and children loved the movies.
Obviously it was long before television, and when your classmates were going to see a double feature at Seventy-Second Street Lowes with perhaps Buck Rogers and then a main feature, it was something that you hated to miss, that I hated to miss.
Doel:Yes, indeed, and the theaters looked much different. They were much more regal and much more imposing places to be.
Lamont:Regal. Ornate. Right. Indeed they were. That was really an exciting and very fun thing to do, to go to the movies in the thirties.
Doel: Did you ever get a chance to go outside in the neighborhood when you were out at Palisades? Or when you went out there, did you really stay pretty much at the property during the entire weekend?
Lamont:We stayed pretty much at the property. On rare occasions we would go to church in Englewood, where my grandparents had lived for many, many years. For example, on Easter Sunday, I remember going to the Englewood church, and we'd go down to Snedens Landing, this is the little village at the foot of the Palisades cliff below my grandparents' house, and that was, and still is, a delightful little small community, often attracting people from the arts as residents. But we didn't venture far afield often.
Doel:Did you get to know any of the neighbors who had property that adjoined yours? I'm recalling that the Fox family had property that joined the Lamont property.
Lamont:The Fox family did, indeed. There was a son in the Fox family, somewhat older, even older than my older brother.
Doel:Older than Tommy.
Lamont:Right. Yeah, we did things with him, not very often, but he was a nice guy, and I recall him fondly.
I used to go down Sunday morning to the head gardener's house. His name was Greenfield, and his son was John Greenfield, and he was a nice guy. The reason I went down was because the Greenfields got the newspapers that had comic strips, and I don't remember whether it was the Daily News or the Journal American, but at any rate, up at the main house we only got the New York Times.
Doel:And that wouldn't do it for you.
Lamont:And that wouldn't do it. They must have also subscribed to the Herald-Tribune, which had a thin, rather limited comic section on Sundays, but the papers I mentioned that Mr. Greenfield received had very full-blown-comic sections. So I would sneak off down there to read the comics.
Doel:What kind of people were the Greenfields? You got to know them fairly well when you would visit on Sundays?
Lamont:They certainly were very friendly to me, invited me in to read the comic strips. I recall playing a bit with John Greenfield, but I don't really have any more specific memory than that.
Doel:Did the elder Greenfield talk to you about the gardening that he did, or was that not all something that came up?
Lamont:No, that didn't come up.
Doel:Was it the Foxes that had a sister, as well?
Lamont:I don't remember that.
Doel:This may have been a later time. I was just curious about that. When you went off during the summer, up into New England, did you miss any of the times in going to Lamont, or did you really feel that you were liberated, in some sense, from the weekend trips, when you think back on those years?
Lamont:I certainly did not yearn to spend summer vacations at the Palisades house. I think when summer came, I was ready to move on, and in this case, we would spend summer vacations on the island of North Haven, Maine. I'd been going every weekend all winter long, so enough was enough.
Doel:Were you going to bring some of your friends up to Maine, as well?
Lamont:Yes, but not to the extent that we would invite them for weekends at Palisades.
Doel:It would be occasional times, then, in the course of the summer?
Lamont:Yes. Not really very often, no. There were plenty of young people my age to play within North Haven. In other words, it is a summer resort and a lot of families would come with the children in the summer. So there were plenty of people, kids to play with, so we didn't need to import anybody.
Doel:It was a different environment; it sounds like, very different from —
Lamont:Oh, yes, quite a different environment. Because the Palisades house was really, if you will, more family oriented and family isolated. We didn't see that many people from the neighborhood, but the North Haven environment was entirely different.
Doel:I think that's a very good way to put it. I didn't mean to step on your words.
Lamont:There was a yacht club in North Haven, as there is in other summer resorts, and so you get involved in sailing races, and all the kids did a lot of sailing. So there were plenty of things to do without, as I say, bringing friends up.
Doel:Did you get real interested in sailing when you were growing up? Was that something you particularly liked to do?
Lamont:Oh, yes. Yes, I did.
Doel:When did you first start sailing?
Lamont:I don't understand, if you'll excuse me, Ron, what on earth this has to do with the Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory. Isn't that what you really want?
Doel:I'm more interested in the moment in your experiences in growing up in that time which happen to coincide in part with very early history of the property that became Lamont, rather than the focus just on Lamont. One way that I've considered the project is that it's a lot of people who helped to shape both what it had been before, and who they were before they had any involvement with it, and this is a part of history that, outside of what you've written in the book, which is altogether well recorded, so I find it a valuable thing to be thinking about.
Lamont:Well, yes. Boating is perhaps the main activity in North Haven, and certainly during the thirties, it was sailing. There were thirteen-foot dinghies and fourteen-foot Harreshoffs and twenty-one-foot boats they call knockabouts; there were three different classes of sailing boats, they all had races. Nowadays there's a lot more motorboat activity, although there still are sailing races, but in the thirties we spent a lot of time sailing, sure. Sometimes racing, sometimes sailing off to go to a picnic to a neighboring island.
Doel:Could you do any sailing around New York and the Hudson, or was that really limited to Maine?
Lamont:In my life, it was limited to Maine.
Doel:So when you got up to Palisades, you really didn't use the river at all, either for transportation or recreation? It was there, but not —
Lamont:That's correct. I didn't use it at all. My grandfather had his motor yacht Reynard, which sometimes moored at Snedens Landing, and he would commute to New York to Wall Street at the foot of Manhattan by yacht, but I did not get involved in that, of course.
Doel:Did you ever sail on that boat with him? Had you ever gone with him to Manhattan that way?
Lamont:Yes, I have. I went on that boat with him certainly, many times in Maine. I particularly recall going to a Harvard-Yale boat race in New London, which in those days was a very big event, and many people came by private boats, sailboats, and motor yachts to line the race course on the Thames River in New London. He often invited a party to join him on the Reynard to watch the race, and I did that two or three times. It was very exciting for a young boy to watch that boat race. The whole scene was very exciting, with so many other handsome yachts, and there were banners and flags and the rest of it.
Doel:What sort of boat was she?
Lamont:She was seventy-two-feet overall, was a motor yacht. She cruised at eighteen knots. You would be, in seeing her, struck by a lot of mahogany, which was kept very well polished, and brass. I discussed that in my book, but there was a captain and a full crew, so the boat was kept in excellent condition.
Doel:You would have been turning eighteen in the midst of World War II, roughly 1944. How long did you continue to go out on an almost weekly basis to the Palisades?
Lamont:When I went on to boarding school, Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, then, of course, I was away all year, and after that, I went on to Harvard College for a few months before I went into the Navy. So the weekends in Palisades were really over when I guess I was fourteen years old.
Doel:So really, about 1940 was the end of the time that you went out there on any regular basis?
Lamont:Your arithmetic would seem to be right.
Doel:So before the time of Pearl Harbor and full U.S. involvement in the war.
Lamont:Yeah, that's correct. Now, of course, I did go out there, for example, at Christmas. And in my book I describe some of the scenes of the family celebration of Christmas out there, but the weekending was over, of course, for me.
Doel:To go a little further than that, did you sense, when you came back in those days and thought about your earlier childhood at Palisades, were things different, very different, or did you really sense a continuity in the kind of experience you had at the Palisades? When you were returning as a much older youth for the Christmas celebrations, say, did it really feel different by that point?
Lamont:Well, the only thing that changed it somewhat were conditions imposed by the war, and I refer especially to gas rationing, which meant that you had to be very careful about consuming too much gas. I don't recall taking the bus out myself, but I know my cousins often took the bus out instead of driving in a car. You had to be constantly aware if a car was going to go in, to make sure it was filled with everybody, and it would be one trip bringing anybody to or from Palisades, and that's about all I remember. Doesn't seem like a very great wartime sacrifice, but that was about it. I guess there was rationing of certain foods, but I don't recall that crimping anybody's style very much.
Doel:That's what I was curious about was that. Indeed, you had described some of the changing circumstances that you had during the wartime, but for those occasions when you did get back up to Palisades, my sense is that for you, it really wasn't that different environment that you felt you were experiencing.
Lamont:That's correct. No, it was not that different an environment.
Doel:After the war, did your times at Lamont increase at all, or did you find that you were spending less and less and less time at that estate?
Lamont:Well, I was spending less and less time, because I was away at college. I went to University of Geneva in Switzerland after I graduated from college, and then I went on to Harvard Business School. So the only time I spent would have been Christmas holidays and maybe Easter holidays, something like that. We didn't go actually every Christmas to
Palisades, because, as in many families, we visited the other grandparents in Rochester, New York, on alternate Christmases. But the Christmas scene at Palisades is one that I write about in my book because that's indelibly imprinted on my mind. That was a very special occasion.
Doel:I didn't want to try to cover too much what you had already done very well in the book, but thinking back on it, was there anything that you didn't have in the book on that sort of experience that, in retrospect, you wish you would have said more about?
Lamont:No, I think I covered it well in the book. There were occasions when there were always other more far-flung members of the family who joined the Christmas celebration. There were not just the regulars, the Corliss Lamontís and the Thomas S. Lamontís; there were other far-flung aunts and uncles and so forth, but it's as I describe in the book.
Doel:Realizing that as someone growing up in the early twenties and mid-twenties, one doesn't think about necessarily where property might go or what might happen to it, but did you expect the Palisades property to stay in the family, even after your grandfather's passing, whether this was something that mattered after your grandfather's passing?
Lamont:To be honest with you, I didn't give it a great deal of thought. I think, though, that I was not surprised when my grandmother decided to dispose of the property. It was an awfully big house, and her grandchildren were now getting older and going off and doing other things, I've told you about that, and so it would have been lonelier for her.
It never would have been the same atmosphere that it was during the thirties when she could be surrounded by her children and her grandchildren, and if they weren't there, of course, her husband was there. So when Thomas Lamont died, I wasn't surprised that she decided to dispose of the property, and donating it to Columbia seemed a very worthy thing. I was not knowledgeable enough about real estate in those days to know whether — I don't even know whether it was ever put on the market or not.
Doel:So this really wasn't something that was discussed that much among your generation?
Lamont:Not among my generation. I might make one little observation of that. In those days, and certainly in our family, business was not discussed with the children, and I feel that that was a great mistake. I discuss business matters with my own children a great deal more, because I found that I finally had to, at the business school, get a job and all that, and that while I was pretty good on these heady topics of war and peace, my knowledge of personal business matters was woefully lacking. I could have learned a great deal more if my parents and grandparents had chosen to discuss it, but they never did. So I was not privy to any plans about donating Palisadesí property to Columbia.
Doel:And this was shared throughout your generation? Tommy had the same experience about being included in that, for instance?
Lamont:Yes, yes, yes.
Doel:Do you recall any discussions, though — and I'm simply curious about whether any particular plans were voiced about the kinds of uses that Columbia might put the property to — was that something that came up? Did anyone think that this might become a remote residence for [Dwight D.] Eisenhower once he became president of Columbia, for instance, or the president's house?
Lamont:I never heard it mentioned. I'm sorry, but I was not privy to those discussions. They were carried on by a more senior generation, and I think that's not surprising. In other words, estate matters and how to dispose of an estate you don't too often widen the circle and get into a great debate too much.
Doel:One thing I had meant to ask you a little bit earlier, not that one would necessarily expect it, but did either your parents or anyone else in that extended group that met at Palisades have a particular interest in science, technological issues, more than one might have of general events and discoveries of the day?
Lamont:No, no, they really didn't. They discussed those topics I told you about earlier.
Doel:And that was really the focus of things?
Lamont:I don't think we've had a single scientist or engineer or mechanic in the family that I can recall, and that's too bad. Although some are marrying into the family in this generation and that's good.
Doel:But none of the earlier ones.
Doel:When did you first hear of Columbia's plan to turn the observatory over to that newer group of geologists who had begun work on the campus? How did you find out about that?
Lamont:Well, I don't have a specific recollection of how I found out about it. They have that picture in the family, of course, of Florence Lamont donating the title to then President of Columbia Eisenhower, but when I found out about it, I'm sure at that time, I was not present then, and I just wasn't involved.
Doel:When you began to understand the sorts of things that would be done on the property, do you recall what you felt about it? Did it seem like an appropriate use, or did strike you somehow as going against the grain of things?
Lamont:No, no, no, I thought it was more than appropriate, I thought it was a very important use to be put of the property, because I thought, and I think that we all feel, that the Lamont-Doherty Observatory can make such a tremendous contribution to human knowledge. So from the very beginning, I think that all of us were very happy to see the property to be put to such a constructive purpose. And that's not blarney, we really always felt that. You know, some people turn large buildings like that over for a convent or some other institutional use. I think we were truly excited at the mission of the Observatory from the very beginning, certainly I was, and I believe all of the members of the family were.
Doel:That's what I was particularly interested in, because the sorts of things that became Lamont's major developments and efforts like the Vema, the sailing, and the discoveries that were made, those came about in large part of the 1950s, after the time that Lamont was actually settled by the group. Do you remember how you came to know about the sorts of things that [W.] Maurice Ewing wanted to do and what he was, in fact, working on?
Lamont:We did go out and visit the Observatory, and my guess is, I probably went out there maybe three times during the fifties, and would receive each time a very full briefing that might have been arranged by my father and Corliss. So we did go out there from time to time and get a full briefing.
Doel:Would you all go together, generally, for those kinds of briefings when they were organized, or did you go out sometimes by yourself?
Lamont:I never went by myself. No, it was a family enterprise.
Doel:Do you recall particularly who you met when you went out on those occasions?
Doel:I'm curious particularly what impressions you had of Maurice Ewing? Did you come to know him reasonably well even during those encounters, or do you not recall him being there?
Lamont:I recall meeting him, but that's all. I recall him giving us a very courteous reception and a good briefing, but I don't recall anything in any greater depth than that. I'm afraid you're into an area of questions now where I'm not going to be much help to you, because I can see where you're headed.
Doel:I'm simply curious what you remembered from the time you went out there, the kinds of programs that people talked about, if any of them in particular made an impression on you.
Lamont:Yes. The main program that made an impression on me was the mapping of the topography of the ocean beds, and that's the one that always comes first to my mind. I felt that was such an important contribution to science to make and, I believe, helpful eventually in the field of oil drilling and mining and undersea mining and so forth. So that's the activity that has always caught my enthusiasm over the years.
I do recall that they had seismographs for projecting earthquakes in old root cellars at Palisades, and we thought that was kind of jazzy on that site, but I don't really recall how significant a contribution the detection of earthquakes has been out there. So it was the underwater mapping of the topography that grabbed my attention.
Doel:Actually, the seismological work did prove to be very important out at Lamont, but, indeed, the making of that map is what many people do recall from the earliest days of Lamont Geological Observatory, which grew over the 1950s as more and more parts of the map were filled in. That map is credited to two of the people at the observatory from its earlier days, Bruce [C.] Heezen, a tall, fairly large fellow and Marie Tharp, a photographer who was hired. I was just wondering if in saying those names, if they even come to the —
Lamont:Well, the names ring a bell with me, particularly the first. I'm sure they briefed us when we out there, but I can't tell you any more than that, except that I knew that the progress of the mapping expanded from one area to another area until it covered a vast area, perhaps all the oceans, as far as I know by now, or most of the oceans, at any rate.
And that was interesting to watch, how the team would go out in the ships and map a new area and cover more of the waterfront each year.
Doel:I was wondering if Maurice Ewing brought you down to, say, the core lab, that they called it, which they had set up when they were taking the cores down to the ocean floor, whether he had shown you those.
Lamont:Yes. We did see the cores. I recall that now. Yes, that was fascinating. But I didn't, nor do I know, if anybody else in the family — I rather doubt it, while we were enthusiastic about what the Observatory was doing, not being of the scientific bent of mind, I never, frankly, got closer to it than going out for a briefing every five years, and that's just the way it is.
Doel:Sure. And that's perfectly understandable. Did it drop off at any point, or after a certain point that you found you weren't going back to what was now the Lamont Geological Observatory?
Lamont:I probably haven't been there for five years right now, actually. That's about the frequency of visit. We enjoy reading the publications they send me, and I find that you can learn a lot from reading, without having to go out and see it first-hand.
Doel:When Maurice Ewing went to Texas back in 1972 after, as you well know, the Observatory had experienced some difficulties in those years with military contracts that weíre being pursued there at the time that Columbia made the decision to break off groups that had military contracts, did you keep visiting during that period of time after Ewing had left for Texas, or was that a time when contacts began to fray?
Lamont:Well, we certainly have visited several times since Ewing left no question about that. No, I don't think his coming or going had much to do with the families ongoing interest. I think probably, again, that Corliss was the prime organizer of family trips out there, and as he got older, it may have lagged a bit.
Doel:And you father was also going out on occasion?
Lamont:Yes. He went out, but he died in 1967. Yes, that's right.
Doel:Would you hear about the Observatory in other ways? I'm just curious how often you would see accounts of what people out at, what those people would call Lamont, were doing. Would you read about it in the papers or magazines, or did you mostly get your information directly from them?
Lamont:Mostly directly from them. I know I've read articles over these many years, but mostly my information came from them.
Doel:I was curious, too, if in your own social circles you came into contact with others who either were supporting parts of Lamont's operations or who particularly knew what Lamont was doing, either those in petroleum exploration or those, say, who were connected with the Vetlesen Foundation, for instance.
Lamont:No. No, I don't recall running into others who had a particular interest like that. I don't know the foundation you referred to either.
Doel:They became one of Lamont's contributors, but certainly one that didn't get to the point of adding its name to the name "Lamont." We had discussed briefly, off tape, which your recollections of hearing about the name change of Lamont back in the late sixties, when the Doherty Foundation gift came to Columbia, and you say you were called about that from Lamont?
Lamont:No, I was called by a trustee of Columbia; I think his name was [Benjamin] Buttenweiser, whom I knew of, and I think he had probably known my father and maybe my grandfather and he explained the whole thing to me and said that they would be calling it the Lamont-Doherty Observatory for the reasons we know.
Doel:How did you feel about it at the time, when you heard about it?
Lamont:Of course I was very pleased that the Doherty endowment — and I believe it was $10 million, wasn't it?
Doel:About that, yes.
Lamont:Had been made to provide the income for ongoing expenses, and that's a wonderful thing. So that part pleased me greatly to realize that the Lamont Observatory would have that financial support for its operations in the future. And I was — what's the word? Maybe "surprised" is too strong, but it came as a surprise that they were going to change the name. But when he explained the reasons for changing the name, and that it would be the Lamont-Doherty Observatory, I fully understood. In fact, he told me that the trustees of the Doherty Foundation, who were all professional types — lawyer, banker trustees; in other words, not really members of the family, closely connected to the family — that one of the conditions of the trust agreement, the foundation agreement, was that Mr. Doherty's gifts should be noted by honoring his name and adding it to the name of the project. That made good sense to me. I understood that the trustees felt they had to do that, which was his wish to honor his memory in that way. Mr. Doherty, as I recall, died back in the 1930s. So you had a foundation that was in the hands, basically, as I say, of professional trustees.
Doel:Were you disappointed that you didn't get a call directly from the director of Lamont, from Ewing, about that?
Lamont:No, I wasn't. I'm not sure. I think probably I would feel that is more appropriate for a trustee of Columbia. After all, Columbia is the overall owner of the property. I felt it was appropriate that a trustee of Columbia, that's the highest ranking board of governors of Columbia University, after all, called me. So I think that was fine.
Doel:I'm curious if you were aware that discussions that came up in the early 1960s, about whether it might be better, given that the group at Lamont wanted to expand facilities considerably, were thinking about the possibility of relocating the Observatory to another location, to another place that had been offered to Columbia. Had any of those plans, those concerns, reached anyone in the family?
Lamont:When did this take place?
Doel:This was around 1964. It was simply an offer that Columbia was thinking about when it began to wonder whether the best use of the Lamont property was for the Observatory. Given how rapidly they were growing and the concerns were being raised about whether they could put buildings up facing the river, because some the neighbors were worried about the exposure with the facade coming up below the tree line and things of that sort, Lamont and Ewing decided this just wasn't the right thing to do, and it ended at that point. But it was a fairly internal matter, but I was just curious if any of that had —
Lamont:No. No, it never reached my ears.
Doel:Because, clearly, part of that had been discussed among the University folks, as well. One thing I did bring with me, and I was curious what kind of recollections it might bring back, this is from the 1962 logbook from the Observatory, and it was a sketch of what was on the property and what was being planned on the property. Of course, these buildings, and I'm pointing to the circle that was planned for the rim, were not built.
Lamont:Now, this is the director's house, isn't it?
Doel:That's the director's house.
Lamont:The recent director, I remember, was Gordon —
Doel:Gordon Eaton was director.
Lamont:Gordon Eaton. Exactly so. We had a very nice picnic lunch on his front lawn when we went out there for a briefing session when he was the director.
Doel:What sort of person did you find Gordon Eaton to be?
Lamont:I liked him very much. He was certainly very courteous and friendly and welcoming to us, and gave us a good briefing and a very pleasant lunch. It was a Saturday, and for somebody that works hard all week, to have to give up most of his Saturday to entertain some out-of-town visitors is a sacrifice. That's a sacrifice and that certainly impressed me. I know you have to do that in the university setting, though, because I go to Harvard occasionally, whether its alumni matters or governing body matters and it all takes place over the weekend. So some of those people do have to work hard over the weekends. Summer vacation's pretty good, though. [Laughter]
Doel:[Laughter] I'll agree with you on that.
Lamont:However, the rose garden, that was pretty place, there was a pool in the middle with goldfish, of course. I don't know where the tennis court and the indoor swimming pool have gone, but they were up there.
Doel:This is, I think, what I'm pointing to here, and I'll see if I can include a copy of this map with the transcript, but the meteorology and biology up here, this is where people have indicated the pool was.
Lamont:Yes, I think that would be about right. You think this building or this building? Marine geophysics. What's that say?
Doel:That's the meteorology and biology building.
Lamont:That's probably new, probably that one also, I guess. Anyway, that would be about right.
Doel:And this was a driveway that comes up, although this map doesn't really indicate it, this is up the hill, right here, and this is the road that now comes up toward the existing oceanography building, the one that where the trees were placed in front of it to better disguise the facade.
Lamont:At any rate, it was a magnificent indoor pool, and of course, we used it a lot, and there was a tennis court right adjacent to it, would have been about there, I guess. So one could enjoy all those athletic activities right in-house, as it were, without going to a country club, is my point. The country club was right there, no golf course, but the other things were built in.
Doel:Were you pretty athletic when you were younger?
Lamont:We played a lot of tennis. Sure. Did a lot of hiking and so forth. And down this way, maybe that's where the garage was. There was a six-car garage and a house for the chauffeur at one end of it, and Mr. Greenfield, the head gardener's house at the other end. I guess we call him superintendent.
Doel:We're pointing now to the house that is near what back in the early 1960s was called the core lab, where all the cores were stored.
Lamont:Yes. Oh, you mean the old garage is now the core lab.
Lamont:I see, and those are the two private dwellings I referred to. That, of course, was a cow barn then. So we did have the cows to provide fresh milk.
Doel:Did you ever do down, yourself, to get some fresh milk, or was that simply brought up to the main house?
Lamont:It was brought up to the main house. That was the life. Now you know everything I know.
Doel:Let me just close with one last quick question, one that we always give people we're interviewing a chance to answer. I'm curious about your personal outlook, and whether either religious affiliation or other strong convictions, in looking back to it, played a very strong role in your life. Any particularly strong convictions that have been guiding for you?
Lamont:Any particular strong convictions. That's a very deep question. You're asking me about, I guess, my own personal philosophy of life. And of course, there are so many, one hardly knows where to begin. I will say this, aside from my career in business, the main extra outside-of-business activity that I have been concerned with is the protection of children, and programs to enhance the education and good health of children. That's why I served as a trustee and president, and now I'm chairman emeritus of the Children's Aid Society in New York. I could go on and on about the Children's Aid Society. Suffice to say we have many, many community centers in the city, and we have centers based in the public schools in the city and two summer camps and the works.
As I say, the protection of children and programs to enhance their good health and education, I think there is nothing more important to be done in this country. In education, I noted, in days gone by, the welfare agencies would not place the emphasis on education that they do nowadays, because it is clear that in 1996, the public school system for many, many children is not doing the job. And by every measurement of international
standards, our public school kids in many, many cases, I mean most of them, are not getting the education to achieve well in the global competitive economy we face.