One festive evening at a local watering hole, not too long ago, a gentleman asked if I’d ever considered giving a name to my little old beach cottage. Said gentleman is building a lovely new home in The Acres. The framing had just gone up, but he was already weighing some names.
It’s an old tradition in classic resort towns like Newport, Bar Harbor, and Palm Beach — grand owners giving grand names to grand homes. The Breakers, Pointe d’Acadie, and Mar-a-Lago evoke not only a sort of picture of the stately life they represented, but symbolize the individuality of the respective resorts. Or at least used to.
Not every grand dame and grand monsieur played by these rules. Cleveland Amory writes in his 1948 book The Last Resorts how proper Newport society was quite appalled when one Tennessee family named their home Chateau Nooga. And, many of Palm Beach’s winter set tsk-tsked a house called Gumbo Limbo after the deciduous tree that grows in south Florida and whose turpentine-scented resin was used for making varnishes and whose sap was said to treat gout.
The practice wasn’t just de reguer in America’s most exclusive resorts. On Fire Island, gays and lesbians gave campy names to their small, rustic cottages, despite the fact that many of them had no electricity or telephone service until the 1940’s and 1950’s.
So what about Rehoboth?
I took a look back to the society pages in the local papers from the 1940’s and noticed a lot of what I would call classic names: Hemlock Hedge, Evergreens-by-the-Sea, Cricket Heath, and Mon Plaisir. Tasteful, romantic monikers given by summer colony homeowners from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Wilmington.
One name, however, jumped out at me. The A. Felix du Ponts referred to their home on Oak Avenue as We’s. Clearly, the du Ponts didn’t need to impress anyone. I sensed a story.
The Oak Avenue lot was bought by Josiah Marvel from Irenee du Pont in the 1920’s. Marvel was du Pont’s lawyer. He built the house shortly before he died and left it to his always-short-of-cash daughter Anne. Sometime in the 1930’s, a romance developed between Anne and Felix du Pont, brother of Irenee and the head of DuPont’s European business. Felix was middle aged with a wife of some twenty years and children.
Felix, so the story goes, left his wife to marry Anne, who was also a divorcee. This resulted in the couple being ostracized from proper Wilmington society. In return for marrying the two, the Episcopal Church, which at that time did not recognize divorce, imposed a condition that required the newlyweds to attend church every day for many months or perhaps even a year. While at the Oak Avenue cottage, they did some of their penance at All Saint’s Church here in Rehoboth.
After Felix’s death, Anne gave the cottage to the Episcopal Church. It’s the big, muddy yellow house on the corner of Oak and 2nd Street with the big cross on it that people now refer to as Memorial House.
Coincidentally, at the same time Felix and Anne were romancing, Edward, Prince of Wales, had taken up with twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. You know the story. When the Church of England refused to allow them to marry, Edward abdicated the British throne in 1936.
What you might not know is that during their romance, Wallis and Edward signed letters to one another and had a number of things monogrammed “WE” for Wallis and Edward. It became a sort of pet name to which they referred to each other. One presumes “WE” against the world. There’s even a Duke and Duchess of Windsor Society, an almost cultish group of admirers devoted to “WE,” as they call them. Could Felix and Anne have known of this and adopted the name for their own similar circumstances?! We’s admittedly is an odd name for a house. And, it’s not so outlandish to envision Felix and Anne socializing with Wallis and Edward and their rich social set in Europe.
Bike around town today and you’ll notice most of the private cottages with names tend to be clustered on the north side of town. You’ll see Goose Landing, Squirrels Away, and Flamingo Crossing. Holly Hedges is surrounded by holly hedges, but that wasn’t always the case. We’ve got Twin Chimneys, Four Porches, and Verandas. Mer Pines, High Pines, and Pine Nuts. There’s Saving Grace and Carol’s Choice. And, LeShack is anything but. On First Street, between Pennsylvania and Oak, you’ll find Suits Me, a small, sort of lopsided cottage. Beside it stands Me Too.
You don’t see too many names on new homes and that’s probably because so many of them are built as investments and the builders, it seems to me, don’t really care about ambience. What would you name ‘em anyway? Vynalia, Four Sail, O Clearcutta!, Spec Haus, or Plastic Fences?
Until now, I’ve resisted the temptation to name my cottage, thinking the tradition a little too quaint and a tad pretentious. But, as Rehoboth trends more and more towards the sterile, the neat, the beige, the low-maintenance, and the unimaginative, I’m starting to think it’s my civic duty to name the old place.
A name would most certainly need to be clever and to make some sort of statement against the mundane. Something like Boite en Bois might work. That’s French for wooden box, which is exactly what my little cottage is. Drop a match and the whole place will burst into flames. The family who built it back in 1921 was in the funeral business – a fun play on words. Boite is also a word often associated with nightclubs, which also might be fitting as my place sometimes gets rowdy late at night after the fellas drink up everything in the liquor cabinet.
Narcissy would be a campy name paying homage both to its homo owners as well as to the hundreds of narcissus (a.k.a. daffodil) bulbs planted over the years. Large trumpets, small cups, ruffled cups, husky King Alfreds, and diminutive tete-a-tetes, you name it and I’ve got ‘em. A daffodil, in case you didn’t know, is also an old British term for a gay man.
So, to name, or not to name; that is the question.
Whether to suffer the dull and the tame,
Or to take up arms against a sea of beige,
And oppose it with just a simple name?