A little journey off the island for this episode of the Magpie Tales.
Mabel and Melvin Crohn had been planning this trip to Governor’s Island for years. It was not going well.
“Where are the cranes!” Mabel scowled.
“Why dear, there are cranes everywhere you look. Just look!” Melvin held his hand in the direction of the Statue of Liberty across the harbor.
“Yes, of course I see those, but I am talking about the cranes. The Rockefeller cranes.”
Mabel, who was known for exaggerating her provenance, always managed to weave into a conversation on the order of “As you know, our family has a long history with the Rockefellers.” This was not exactly false, and it went back to the late 19th century when Mabel’s grand aunt Alice worked as a cook at Kykuit in the Hudson River Valley and was eventually able to get Mabel’s grandmother Grace a job as a laundress. Grace endeared herself to the family and eventually became a nanny. Grace was moonlighting as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, using the pseudonym of Grover X. Wannamaker since no woman could find acceptance in the trade back then. She had a few modest hits, but in the summer of 1908 she hit the jackpot with “Rock-a-bye Little Baby Rocky” that celebrated the birth of Baby Nelson.
The Rockefellers would have accepted it as a tune penned by someone who read the headlines except for the verse that revealed that it was written by someone who knew Baby Nelson well: “Close your eyes, L’il Rocky Boy/with you six webbed toes on each of your sweet/little millionaire feet.” This was a fact not even other family members knew and why the future governor wore socks to bed until his dying day.
Abby Rockefeller called Grace into the second floor and demanded that she summon Mr. Wannamaker and explain why he had written this scandalous tune.
“Mrs. R, you are looking at Mr. Wannamaker right now,” Grace replied boldly. She was immediately fired and never had another song hit, settling for work as a laundress for the Astors before marrying Aswin Vortheus with whom she had seven children, including the youngest daughter Virginia, Mabel’s mother, who would get a job as a maid at Kykuit. She would meet and become engaged to Martin Rahrkhaus who tended to the Rockefellers’ large aviary which included an elite flock of cranes. King Ludwig had donated the breeding stock in the 1860s, and Martin was an expert on the health, mating, and diet of cranes. He would go on to write the seminal “So You Want to Raise Cranes” that was very popular reading during the summers of 1911 to 1914 in Newport where crane raising became the preferred hobby of the gilded class.
Virginia and Martin eventually married and lived on the grounds of Kykuit where Mabel was born in 1921, and she eventually met Melvin who took over as the aviary guardian in 1939. They too married and settled in one of the servants cottages at Kykuit until it became a historical trust, and they followed Governor Rockefeller to Albany where he kept a much smaller aviary and the larger flock was transferred to Governor’s Island. While loyal to cranes, the Crohns were more loyal to Governor Rockefeller.
Ever loyal to the Rockefellers, the Crohns eventually relocated in Hoboken and would commented into Manhattan every day to tend to the “aviary” (now a pathetically small collection of three canaries and one bitter and foul-mouthed parrot who shouted sexist insults at Mabel). When Nelson divorced his first wife in 1962, it became a real test for Mabel. She would often visit the first Mrs. R who remained at the two floor apartment at 810 Fifth Avenue which had a direct view into the bedroom of the second Mrs. R at 812 Fifth Avenue.
When Mabel retired in 1986, she caused some controversy when, in an interview the New York Post, she said, “Mary Rockefeller was always quite merry, but Happy Rockefeller brought me nothing but sadness.”
As stared at the enormous structures behind Lady Liberty, Mabel and Melvin got misty eyed as they thought about how much had changed since their days with the Rockefellers and the cranes. It seemed it was all lost now. Suddenly that felt something poking their backs. They turned around and were overjoyed to see Ichabod, the alpha male of the flock. He was much older but in good health. He nodded his head in recognition, while behind him dozens of members of his flock flapped their wings elegantly and magnificently — a loving tribute to the Crohns by the cranes.