“A Fine Place for Weekend Parties”

This column finds me still reading and thinking about Cleveland Amory’s “The Last Resorts,” a book written in 1948 about America’s elite Eastern resorts.

In case you’re wondering, Rehoboth isn’t mentioned in Amory’s book. The monied elite preferred exclusive enclaves like Newport, Southampton, Fisher’s Island, the coast of Maine, Saratoga, Hobe Sound and Palm Beach. Gore Vidal, commenting on summertime in pre-war Washington, re-affirmed this, saying that the elite vacationed at the Northeastern resorts while the middle classes went to Rehoboth and Virginia Beach.

Delaware’s du Pont family, one of America’s richest and most influential families, also liked to vacation. And, they had the money to do it right. Apartments in New York, Paris, and Rome. Grand estates in the “chateau country” west of Wilmington. Many summered in Fisher’s Island and wintered in Florida. They bought yachts, cars, and planes. They also built modest resort homes in Rehoboth.

Back in the 1920s, Irénée du Pont purchased about 10 acres of land on and around Lake Gerar in the Pines neighborhood for the sum of $6,100. His plan was to subdivide and sell lots and form a “Rehoboth Cottage Club” comprised of congenial wealthy couples who would build bungalows or small cottages. A conservative town of cottages, not the second coming of Atlantic City, is how Irénée envisioned Rehoboth. Lots sold anywhere from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.

Irénée du Pont served as president of the DuPont Company from 1919 until 1926. With his brothers, he helped build DuPont into one of the world’s largest diversified chemical companies, shaping American business and politics in the process.

He promoted Rehoboth as a fine place for weekend parties in the Spring and Fall and for spending the entire summer, if so inclined. Irénée also touted Rehoboth as the nearest point in Delaware to the three-mile limit – a reference to getting booze during Prohibition. A staunch Republican most of his life, Irenee broke with the GOP over Prohibition.

Part of Rehoboth’s draw for Irénée was its trees, especially the pines. He wanted to preserve as many of them as possible, believing they improved property values. He reportedly pressured one couple not to move a cottage to their new site in the Pines because it would mean cutting down a large swath of trees. Irénée also preferred gravel streets to concrete ones, citing their rural charm. If auto traffic increased so much as to raise dust, his suggestion was to just oil down the gravel.

Today, one lone block of Park Avenue in the Pines remains unpaved — the only such street in Rehoboth. In a gesture to history and ambience, the residents of Park Avenue have resisted all attempts to pave their street.

Irénée was instrumental in creating what is currently Lake Gerar, on the north end of town. Back in the 20’s, the lake was a dumping site and a marshy breeding ground for mosquitoes. He hatched a deal with Rehoboth whereby he cleaned up and drained parts of the swampy lake in exchange for land. He built his cottage – called “Stone Chimney” – on Lake Gerar. It’s still there at #70 Oak Avenue and reachable by private driveway.

Other du Ponts built cottages in Rehoboth too, and my original intent with this article was to write about them. But, that’ll have to wait, since I’m running out of space and I’m not finished talking about Irénée.

I’ve learned that Rehoboth wasn’t Irénée’s true love. That honor goes to his winter retreat, a 450 acre ocean-front estate on Cuba he named “Xanadu,” where he would go to snorkel, fish, drink rum, and smoke cigars with Cuban dictators Machado and Batista.

At Xanadu, he built one of the finest homes in Cuba and entertained some of the most privileged people in the world. Rumour has it, though, that the house was shabbily furnished. I believe it, because I’ve heard from a reliable local source that when the old boy invited people over to his Rehoboth cottage for a drink, all he’d bother to put out was a bottle of whiskey and a plate of cheese and crackers. He wore wrinkled khakis and to look at him you’d never know he was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Irénée also bred and raised iguanas at Xanadu. Yes, I said iguanas, not horses. I learned about this in a book called DuPont: Behind the Nylon Curtain by Gerald Colby Zilg. It’s a fascinating and controversial look at the family and company. Here’s what Zilg says.

Some of the tough vicious lizards grew to 3 feet in length under Irénée’s loving care, and more than once the industrialist was seen marching about with one of these ugly beasts crawling next to him on a leash. By barking a command, he could make them all come out of their pens and surround him, standing at attention. He had trained them, on another command, to attack a target to kill. In a moment captured for history, a Life Magazine photographer in 1957 recorded old Irénée feeding his iguanas papaya from a jar at a time when most of the Cuban population was suffering from malnutrition.

Irénée lost Xanadu in 1959 when Castro seized power in Cuba. His death four years later made the front page of the New York Times. He was 83 years old when he died, and, according to the obituary, he was fond of saying that DuPont’s greatest contribution to society was nylon stockings.

I looked through the local papers of the time, hoping to find a story about Irénée’s contributions to Rehoboth, but I couldn’t find a thing, not even a mention of his death. Very odd, I think. But, then, Irénée was a bit of an oddball and Rehoboth is a delightfully odd little beach town with little use for nylon stockings.

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