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William K. Vanderbilt II

By Melissa Arnold

It’s been a long year of Netflix binges and Zoom meetings for all of us, and these days, nothing feels better than getting out a little. You don’t have to go far to find interesting places to explore, either.

Most Long Island locals are probably familiar with the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium in Centerport, with its sprawling grounds, elaborate mansion and impressive collection of marine life. But be honest: When was your last visit? If it’s been a while — or even if it hasn’t — their 70th anniversary year is the perfect time to stop by.

“The Vanderbilt is unique, a don’t-miss slice of American history. When you take a guided tour of the mansion and its galleries, it’s a time machine trip to a remarkable era of privilege,” said Elizabeth Wayland-Morgan, executive director of the museum. “At one point in the past, there were more than 1,200 mansions on Long Island’s Gold Coast. This is one of the few that remains.”

The Vanderbilt Mansion as we know it today had relatively modest beginnings. William K. Vanderbilt II, a son of the famed Vanderbilt family, had just separated from his first wife in the early 1900s. “Willie K.,” as he’s affectionately known, was looking for a place to get a fresh start, away from the public eye. So he came to Centerport and purchased land, where he built a 7-room, English-style cottage along with some outbuildings.

The cottage, called Eagle’s Nest, was eventually expanded into a sprawling 24-room mansion in the Spanish Revival style. From 1910 to 1944, Eagle’s Nest was Vanderbilt’s summer hideaway. He and his second wife Rosamond hosted intimate gatherings of Vanderbilt family members and close friends, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, legendary golfer Sam Snead, and the Tiffanys.

Of course, that was just the beginning. According to Killian Taylor, the museum’s curatorial associate, Vanderbilt developed a fascination with all kinds of animals, the sea and the natural world from a young age. He had the opportunity to travel the world on his father’s yachts as a child, and longed to see more as he reached adulthood.

“Later, Willie K. inherited $20 million from his late father. One of the first things he did was purchase a very large yacht and hire a team of scientists and a crew,” Taylor explained. “With them, he began to travel and collect marine life, and by 1930, he had amassed one of the world’s largest private marine collections.”

With the help of scientists and experts from the American Museum of Natural History, Vanderbilt created galleries at the Estate to showcase his collections which contains more than 13,000 different marine specimens of all kinds and sizes, from the tiniest fish to a 32-foot whale shark, the world’s largest taxidermied fish, caught off Fire Island in 1935.

After Vanderbilt died in 1944, Rosamond continued to live in their Centerport mansion until her death in 1947. The 43-acre estate and museum – which remain frozen in time, exactly as they were in the late 1940s – opened to the public on July 6, 1950, following instructions left in Vanderbilt’s will. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

The museum also features a 3,000-year-old mummy, which Vanderbilt purchased from an antique shop in Cairo, Egypt, Taylor said. The mummy even had an X-ray taken at nearby Stony Brook University Hospital, where they determined the remains are of a female around 25 years old.

“She doesn’t have a name out of respect for the fact that she was once a living woman with her own identity,” Taylor added.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought its share of difficulties to every business, and while the museum has had to temporarily close some of its facilities, including the mansion’s living quarters and planetarium, they’ve also added new opportunities for visitors.

“Like many other museums, we had to get creative virtually very quickly,” said Wayland-Morgan. “Our Education Department created the ‘Explore’ series for children — fascinating facts about the lives of birds, butterflies, reptiles, and fish, with pictures to download and color. The Planetarium astronomy educators produced 11 videos on topics including How to Use a Telescope, Imagining Alien Life, Mars, Black Holes, and Fitness in Space. We’ve received very positive responses.” The planetarium also offers online astronomy classes.

The museum is also offering new outdoor programs on the grounds, including walking tours, sunset yoga, a popular series of bird talks by an ornithologist James MacDougall and are currently hosting the third annual Gardeners Showcase through September. On Fridays and Saturdays, movie-and-picnic nights are a popular draw at the outdoor, drive-in theater.

Even without a specific event to attend, the grounds are a perfect place to wander when cabin fever strikes.

“The best reason to visit right now is to stroll the grounds and gardens and visit the open galleries. We’ve also become a very popular picnic destination with a great view of Northport Bay,” Wayland-Morgan said. “We plan to reopen the mansion living quarters and planetarium later in the fall.”

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport. As of Sept. 17, hours of operation are from noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The mansion’s living quarters and the planetarium are currently closed. Please wear a mask and practice social distancing. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children under 12, and $7 for students and seniors. Children under 2 are admitted free. For questions and information, including movie night passes, visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org or call 631-854-5579.

Photo by Patrick Keefe

You’re invited! Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport offers Walk and Talk Tours through Aug. 30. Come for an intriguing walking tour of the Vanderbilt Estate grounds and gardens with knowledgeable Vanderbilt Museum educators. Learn about Warren & Wetmore’s design and the exterior architectural details of the 24-room Spanish Revival mansion, and explore Mr. Vanderbilt’s passion for travel, marine biology, and auto racing.

William K. Vanderbilt II (1878-1944) spent summers at his Eagle’s Nest estate and mansion on Northport Bay between 1910 and 1944. He and his wife, Rosamond, hosted intimate gatherings and entertained well-known guests, such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Pierre Cartier, Conde Nast, Charles Lindbergh, and the Tiffanys. Eagle’s Nest is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At other times William and Rosamond invited a few fortunate friends to travel the world with them on their huge yachts, collecting marine and natural-history specimens and cultural artifacts for his growing private (and later public) museum.

These hour-long, rain-or-shine tours will be given at noon and 1:30 p.m. on August 1, 2, 8, 15, 22, 29 and 30. Tours will start from the ancient Carthaginian columns near the entrance to the Estate. Masks must be worn for the duration of the tour and social distancing is required. Please wear comfortable shoes as there will be considerable walking. For other possible tour dates, please check the Vanderbilt website.

A limited number of tickets for each tour are available online only. Admission is $8 adults, $7 seniors/students (age 62-plus), and $6 children 5 and older. Members and children under 5 are free.

Visitors are encouraged to purchase tickets online at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. Some tickets also will be available for purchase at the entrance. Credit cards or exact-amount cash ONLY.  (No change can be given.) For more information, call 631-854-5579.

A vintage watercolor poster by Jean de Paleologue

William K. Vanderbilt II (1878-1944), heir to a railroad fortune, was a pioneer American auto-racing champion. On Oct. 8, 1904, after competing for years in Europe, he inaugurated the first international road race in the United States – the Vanderbilt Cup.

This year, the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, located on the Vanderbilt summer estate, Eagle’s Nest, notes the 115th anniversary of those famous races and of Vanderbilt’s world speed record.

On Jan. 27, 1904, he drove his Mercedes race car on a course in Daytona-Ormond Beach, Florida, and achieved a top speed of 92.3 miles per hour.

William K. Vanderbilt II, left, set a world land-speed record in 1904 in this 90-horsepower Mercedes race car.

American History magazine reported in 2013: “Flush from his triumph, the 26-year-old Vanderbilt returned to New York and announced his intention to organize a major race on Long Island, where he owned an estate. It would be the first true international automobile road race in the United States. Vanderbilt had raced extensively in Europe, in French and German cars, but now he became focused on promoting the U.S. car industry.

“His motivation, he later explained, was that ‘foreign cars seemed to be always five years ahead of the American cars. If something could be done to induce foreign manufacturers to race in this country, our manufacturers would benefit.’

“Vanderbilt provided the inducement. His plan was for a grueling 300-mile race, and he commissioned Tiffany & Co. to make a 30-pound sterling-silver trophy adorned with a frieze of himself driving the Ormond Flier to a world’s record. The race, like the trophy, was called the Vanderbilt Cup.”

Vanderbilt donated the cup to the Smithsonian Institution in 1934.

The inaugural Vanderbilt Cup Race on Oct. 8, 1904, drew more than 25,000 spectators to watch 18 drivers from the U.S., France, Germany and Italy. The racecourse comprised 30 miles of public roads in central Long Island. The six Vanderbilt Cup races held on Long Island from 1904 to 1910 were some of the largest sporting events of the early 20th century. Some races drew crowds of more than 250,000.

The Vanderbilt Cup races prompted American carmakers to improve their technology, generated the idea of using race victories to market cars and pioneered road building. In 1908, Vanderbilt built the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway for his races. The parkway was the first road constructed specifically for automobiles – and a prototype for future highways.

The roadway still exists in Suffolk County as County Road 67.

To learn more about the Vanderbilt Cup, visit the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s Turntable Gallery in the mansion’s Memorial Wing, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. through Sept. 2. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

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William K. Vanderbilt’s superyacht, the Alva, before World War II. File photo

William K. Vanderbilt II (1878–1944) spent years dreaming of and designing his 264-foot yacht Alva. The luxurious ship, named after his mother, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, was custom built at the Krupp-Germaniawerft shipyard in Kiel, Germany, on a design by Cox & Stephens. It was powered by two diesel engines with an auxiliary electric motor. Top speed was 16 knots. 

 On Aug. 5, the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum marked the 75th anniversary of the yacht’s wartime service and recalled its tragic sinking on Aug. 5, 1943.

Aboard the Alva, steaming out of Kiel on March 5, 1931, William and Rosamond Vanderbilt began the ship’s inaugural voyage from Europe to Miami and then New York. The trip was preparation for their epic seven-month circumnavigation of the globe that began in July of that year. During the voyage, Vanderbilt collected marine life, invertebrates and cultural artifacts for his Centerport museum.

Ten years, later, just before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked yacht owners to donate their boats to the U.S. Navy. Vanderbilt answered the call.

The Alva after being converted to a Navy ship.
Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

On Nov. 4, 1941, a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he gave the Alva to the Navy, which converted it to a patrol gunboat. The ship was renamed the USS Plymouth (PG 57).

The Vanderbilt family had served in every major conflict since the War of 1812. In 1917, William Vanderbilt was commissioned as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. From May 9 to Oct. 1, 1917, he patrolled U.S. coastal waters in his ship Tarantula II.

The following details of the Alva’s life as the USS Plymouth are from the Vanderbilt Museum archives and from Uboat.net, a history website based in Iceland with contributing writers from Germany, the United States, Canada and Europe:

On April 20, 1942, the Plymouth was commissioned and based in Norfolk, Virginia. Assigned to the Inshore Patrol Squadron in the 5th Naval District, she made several convoy escort voyages between New York, Key West and Guantanamo, Cuba, during 1942-43.

On the evening of Aug. 5, 1943, the Plymouth was escorting a ship convoy 120 miles southeast of Cape Henry, Virginia. The ship’s sonar gear alerted the captain and crew of underwater movement in the vicinity. Moments later, the Plymouth was spotted in the periscope of U-566, a German submarine. The sub launched a torpedo at 9:37 p.m.

“The gunboat had made an underwater sound contact while escorting a coastal convoy,” the Uboat.net entry reported. “Just as the ship swung left to bear on the target, she was struck just abaft the bridge. The ship rolled first to starboard, then took a heavy list to port with the entire port side forward of amidships in flames and sank within two minutes.”

 Of the Plymouth’s 179 officers and men, only 84 survived. They were picked up in heavy seas by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Calypso and arrived in Norfolk on Aug. 6.

 The commander, Lt. Ormsby M. Mitchel Jr., was thrown violently against a bulkhead by the explosion. He sustained serious injuries, which later required amputation of his left leg. Despite his own condition, he directed abandon-ship operations and remained at his post until the ship went down. Mitchel was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism.

Learn more about the Alva and William K. Vanderbilt’s other yachts by visiting the mansion’s Ship Model Room at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. Fall hours through Nov. 4 are Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 631-854-5579.

Living History cast members, from left, Ellen Mason as Elizabeth Arden; Peter Reganato as Pietro, the Italian chef; Beverly Pokorny as Ann Morgan; and Florence Lucker as Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport turns back the clock once again by offering its popular weekend Living History tours now through Sept. 2. For more than a decade, these tours have delighted visitors to the elegant 24-room, Spanish Revival waterfront mansion, Eagle’s Nest, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The Vanderbilt has been called a “museum of a museum” — the mansion, natural-history and marine collections galleries are preserved exactly as they were when the Vanderbilts lived on the estate. 

Guides dressed as members of the Vanderbilt family and household staff tell stories about the mansion’s famous residents and their world-renowned visitors. Stories told on the tours are based on the oral histories of people who worked for the Vanderbilts as teenagers and young adults. Some stories originated in William K. Vanderbilt II’s books of his world travels and extensive sea journeys.

This summer it will be 1936 again. Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan is enjoying a reunion of her friends in the women’s suffrage movement. 

“The movie ‘Captains Courageous’ with Spencer Tracy is playing in the theaters, and Agatha Christie’s new novel, ‘Dumb Witness,’ is in the bookstores,” said Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs. “Legendary aviator Amelia Earhart is lost at sea in July, and European leaders are faced with threats of German expansion. And the U.S. Post Office issues a commemorative stamp in honor of the women’s voting rights activist and social reformer Susan B. Anthony on the 30th anniversary of her death in 1906.”

Earlier in 1936, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia — who supported women’s voting rights — had been the keynote speaker at a dinner at the city’s Biltmore Hotel to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s City Club in New York. The Living History presentation is set against this background of national and international news. 

LaGuardia is invited to Eagle’s Nest to join a few of the Vanderbilt family members — including Vanderbilt’s brother, Harold; his sister, Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlborough; and her guests Elizabeth Arden, Anne Morgan and her nephew, Henry Sturgis Morgan, Gress said. Consuelo and her guests reminisce about their younger days at suffragette rallies. 

The museum will display items in two guest rooms that commemorate the centennial of women’s right to vote in New York State. Included will be an enlargement of the Susan B. Anthony stamp, suffrage banners and sashes and an authentic outfit worn in that era by Consuelo. (Vanderbilt’s mother, Alva, also had been active in the movement.) 

The Living History cast: Ellen Mason will play Elizabeth Arden, who created the American beauty industry. Yachtsman Harold Vanderbilt — three-time winner of the America’s Cup, and expert on contract bridge — will be portrayed by Jim Ryan and Gerard Crosson. Peter Reganato will be Pietro, the Italian chef. Dale Spencer will perform as William Belanske, the curator and artist who traveled with Vanderbilt on his epic journeys. Anne Morgan will be played by Judy Pfeffer and Beverly Pokorny.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport will present its Living History tours in the mansion on Saturdays and Sundays at 12, 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. Tickets: $8 per person, available only at the door, are in addition to the museum’s general admission fee of $8 adults, $7 senior and students, $5 children ages 12 and under. Children ages 2 and under are free. For more information, please call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. 

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William and Rosamund Vanderbilt with Robert and Edie Huntington at the airport in Mendoza, Argentina with the Sikorsky seaplane in background. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

William Kissam Vanderbilt II was an explorer and adventurer who traveled the world in his yachts. An avid race car driver, he set a world speed record in 1904, and brought auto racing to the United States. Vanderbilt also looked to the skies for diversion and adventure.

Arriving at airport in Arica, Chile, for flight to Lima, Peru. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

In early 1937, William and Rosamund Vanderbilt and their friends, Edie and Robert Huntington, flew around the Caribbean, Central America and the perimeter of South America in his 12-passenger Sikorsky S-43 amphibious airplane, from Jan. 18 to Feb. 11.

On Feb. 2, they few over the Andes from Mendoza, Argentina, to Santiago, Chile, which, Vanderbilt wrote, “can be very treacherous … as meteorological conditions in this area change rapidly.” He arranged with the Panagra airline to have one of its pilots show his pilot through the high mountain passes. Altitudes were so high that the travelers occasionally had to use supplemental oxygen tanks.

This year, the Vanderbilt Museum observes the 80th anniversary of that adventure.

Hayden Hamilton, managing editor for the American Aviation Historical Society in Huntington Beach, California, said, “This form of tourist travel was extremely rare in this period, generally restricted to the uber-wealthy or well-heeled entrepreneurs.”

Vanderbilt kept a detailed log and journal of the 25-day trip. They traveled 14,217 miles in 101 hours, 40 minutes, and used 8,360 gallons of gasoline and 828 gallons of oil. Later that year, Vanderbilt privately published 1,000 copies of his book, “Flying Lanes — Being the Journal of a Flight Around South America and Over the Andes.” The volume was illustrated with aerial photos from Pan American Airways (PAA) and others taken by Robert Huntington.

Sikorsky built 53 S-43 airplanes. Most were acquired by PAA and only two were sold to private individuals, according to Hamilton of the AAHS: William Vanderbilt and Howard Hughes. Just as Vanderbilt donated his 264-foot yacht Alva to the U.S. Navy for service during World War II, he sold his Sikorsky plane for $175,000 to the U.S. government for similar duty in 1941. The Alva, converted to a patrol gunboat and renamed the USS Plymouth, was torpedoed in 1943 by a German submarine and sank off the coast of North Carolina. According to an unconfirmed report, Vanderbilt’s amphibious plane crashed on a flight to Trinidad.

From “Flying Lanes”: After leaving Fisher Island and Miami on January 18, 1937, the Vanderbilts and Huntingtons flew toward Cuba, where they made their first fuel stop. As they flew, Vanderbilt wrote notes about the flight and thought about the man he had hired to fly them, Earl F. White, whom he described as “one of the most reliable and resourceful aviators in the game.”

The interior of the Sikorsky S-43 amphibious airplane, with luxurious seating and custom-painted wrap-around cloud mural. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

White, 49, had been a World War I pilot in the U.S. Air Service, the forerunner of the Army Air Corps and later the Air Force, from 1915 to 1919. His extraordinary credentials included making the first nonstop flight from Chicago to New York in 1919, during which he set the official world distance record of 727 miles. White inaugurated the world’s first scheduled night air-mail service, which operated 1914-1925. He flew for Pan American Airways on the Miami-Havana-Puerto Rico route, from 1928 to 1931, and began working for Vanderbilt in 1935.

Robert Huntington, also a licensed pilot (as was his wife), occasionally took the controls of the seaplane to give White a break, so that he could send and receive Morse code messages. Huntington flew the plane for 40 hours of the trip.

“I flew the ship eleven hours during the trip and have altogether 104 hours at the controls to my credit,” Vanderbilt wrote. “But I have no pilot’s license and my guess is — I won’t get one. A little too old to start at this game, but it is nice to feel one knows a little about the ship, and it gives one reassurance that he is not apt to have if he has never actually been at the controls. However, I did do the navigating during the voyage whenever we left the coast and was rather pleased with the results …”

February 10, 1937 — Antiqua, Guatemala. “What a grand day. Motored with the Foreign Minister, Mr. Sanches de Latour, to Antigua, the old capital, and were met there by the Governor and shown about that most interesting and picturesque city, at one time the capital of Guatemala but now abandoned as such because of earthquakes and fear of volcanic eruptions from ever restless volcanoes close by.

“We dined with the American Minister and had a most enjoyable evening and, as 4:00 a.m. was our time for getting up, we were glad to drop into our beds at midnight.”

February 11 — To Havana and Miami: The Vanderbilts and Huntingtons arrived at the airport at 5:30 a.m. “A cup of coffee was all Rose and I could muster, but then we would be home tonight. Think of it! Home! My, how good that sounded.”

After a stop in Havana, the travelers were airborne again, bound for Florida. “American Shoals light appeared at 4:50 p.m.,” he wrote. “There was the good U.S.A. once more. What a thrill went through us!” After landing in Miami, Vanderbilt wrote, “I clasp Mr. White by the hand. ‘Congratulations from all of us, a wonderful flight!’…

“Our total mileage added up to a very considerable total of 14,217 statute miles and the flying time amounted to 101 hours and 40 minutes. We had enjoyed the thrill and adventure of the journey to the utmost, but now that we were home once more we were glad to rest where we were beyond the reach of an alarm clock.”

Visit the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport through the holidays to view more photos of William K. Vanderbilt’s adventures including a photo of him as a child with his parents and grandparents on a ship on the Nile, of him at various ages with his cars and large marine specimens in the Ship Model Room of the Memorial Wing in the mansion. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or go to www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

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Vanderbilt estate’s restored pool in 2017

When William K. Vanderbilt II created his Eagle’s Nest estate and mansion in the early twentieth century, he included a golf course, tennis courts and a saltwater pool with cabanas, overlooking Northport Bay.

Decades ago, the pool was filled in for visitor safety and today it is planted with grass. Earlier this summer, the Vanderbilt Museum restoration staff repaired and restored the pool and cabanas and, according to the original design, repainted them white. With the completion of the project, the museum has another singular, scenic location for receptions, parties and weddings.

The pool complex is built into the steep hillside, which made possible the imposing semicircular wall and double staircase that splits at a landing below the grand entry steps. The sides of the wall, which is crowned by a balustrade, step down several times. Each step is decorated with an urn of flowers.

The double stairways, with elegant wrought-iron railings, wind down each side of the wall to the walkway that encircles the pool. On the walkway level, in the center of the wall, is a large niche that showcases a statue rising out of a shallow basin. The statue, which is also a fountain, is a neoclassical bearded man with a cherub standing on each shoulder.

The staff also restored the twin cabanas adjacent to the waterfront edge of the pool. Crew members removed the deteriorating cabana roofs and constructed new ones from the remaining inventory of original, curved, Mediterranean-style ceramic tiles purchased by Vanderbilt’s architects. The carved wooden cabana doors, removed and stored for years, were rehung and repainted. Between the cabanas is a small terrace of bricks set in a herringbone pattern.

Several years ago, the Vanderbilt pool had an anonymous moment of fame on the silver screen. That moment had its beginnings in 2013 when, even in its deteriorated state, the pool design appealed to Australian movie director Baz Luhrmann.

Restored cabanas and terrace, overlooking Northport Bay

When Luhrmann was doing research for his film “The Great Gatsby” (2013) starring Leonardo DiCaprio, he and his production designer, Catherine Martin, visited some of the remaining Gold Coast mansions on the North Shore of Long Island. They spent an afternoon exploring and photographing the Vanderbilt estate, mansion and pool. Luhrmann was so impressed with the pool that he created a version of it and its graceful, curving twin staircases, for his movie.

A May 2013 Vanity Fair article detailed Luhrmann’s visit: In the film, Gatsby’s parties are centered around his circular pool, which later serves as the setting of a tragic climactic scene. During an extensive location scout of houses in Long Island, Martin says, she, Luhrmann, and their crew stumbled upon their inspiration at Eagle’s Nest, a Spanish Revival–style mansion that Vanderbilt began building in 1910.

Even though the pool had been filled in with grass and dirt after a hurricane, she says, Luhrmann was so taken by the property that he had his music supervisor and an assistant spontaneously act out the pivotal scene right there. “The video that Baz shot that day is almost identical to the scene that ended up in the movie,” she said.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport is open on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. through April 2, 2018. Mansion tours are given at 12:30, 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. For more information, call 631-854-5579.

Photos courtesy of Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum

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Above, Vanderbilt’s 213-foot diesel yacht Ara, a refitted French warship. Vanderbilt Museum Archive photo

Epic cruise began 89 years ago

William K. Vanderbilt II, an expert yachtsman, naval officer and marine naturalist, first circumnavigated the globe in 1928-29. Eighty-nine years ago — on Oct. 28, 1928 — he and his wife, Rosamond, a few friends, and a crew of 40 boarded the Vanderbilt yacht Ara, moored in Northport Bay, just off the Eagle’s Nest estate grounds.

Above, from left, Rosamond and William Vanderbilt, atop camels at the Pyramid of Cheops in Giza, Egypt, 1929. To the right is the Great Sphinx. Vanderbilt Museum Archive photo

The crew weighed anchor and, with Vanderbilt at the helm, pointed the 213-foot ship westward toward New York City, then headed for the Atlantic. The Ara cruised southward along the eastern seaboard, passed through the Panama Canal and steamed across the Pacific. The voyagers made numerous ports of call in the South Pacific, Asia, the Middle East, through the Red Sea to Mediterranean destinations, through the Strait of Gibraltar and back home. By the time they arrived back in Miami six months later, they had traveled 28,738 miles.

During the journey, Vanderbilt collected marine and natural-history specimens for his Hall of Fishes museum in Centerport. Artist William Belanske, hired away from the American Museum of Natural History, traveled with the Vanderbilts. He made detailed paintings of many of the fish collected for the museum.

By late 1929, Vanderbilt, using his ship logs and photographs, produced and privately printed a 264-page book about the journey, “Taking One’s Own Ship Around the World.” Nineteen full-color plates of Belanske’s work are included.

Chapter One begins: “For years I had waited and toiled for the moment when, as captain of my own ship, I would be able to undertake a voyage rarely accomplished — the circumnavigation of the globe. Even as a youngster, I had a leaning toward the sea, and lost no opportunity to pass my hours of leisure near the water. As time went on, I gained experience and a certain amount of knowledge in the handling of small boats.”

Vanderbilt became an expert sailor and owned a series of increasingly larger boats. Just before the United States entered World War I, he enlisted in the U.S, Naval Reserve and was commissioned a lieutenant, junior grade. After America entered the war, he began sea duty in command of the torpedo boat SP-124, originally his own 152-foot steam turbine-powered yacht, Tarantula 1.

“Strangely, in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the army rejected me, a freshman then at Harvard, because of a weak heart. Apparently, at thirty-nine, I had staged a comeback.”

In February 1918, Vanderbilt passed an exam and obtained his Master’s certificate. Later, advanced endorsements made his certificate “good for all oceans and unlimited tonnage.”

In 1928, he purchased the motor yacht Ara, a refitted French warship built originally for the British Navy.

From an article on the Ara voyage in The New York Sun in 1929: “Paris, April 12 — William K. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Vanderbilt are pausing here on one of the most interesting around-the-world cruises ever undertaken. Other yachtsmen have circled the globe in their own ships, but Mr. Vanderbilt is no mere passenger — he is the master of his 213-foot motor yacht Ara and employs no captain. He attends to all matters of navigation himself and takes all responsibility himself for the safety of his ship and complement of over forty persons.

“Mr. Vanderbilt has three watch officers to help work the ship, but in stormy weather it he is who remains on the bridge, and who performs the other fatiguing duties that go with command of a vessel.

“However, this is no novelty for him. For fifteen years, he has been a licensed master, qualified to sail any ocean, and he holds the rank of lieutenant-commander in the United States Naval Reserve. The Ara carries several guns, but her owner made it clear today these were used solely for saluting. He strongly believes in the efficacy of a friendly approach.”

Visit the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport through the holidays to view more photos of William K. Vanderbilt’s adventures including a photo of him as a child with his parents and grandparents on a ship on the Nile; of him at various ages with his cars and large marine specimens; and with the crew of the Alva, in the Ship Model Room of the Memorial Wing in the mansion. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or go to www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.