- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 21, 2003

RANDALL WINFIELD: LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF THE WOOLWORTHS By Monica Randall. Thomas Dunne/St. Martins, $26.95, 275 pages, illus.

“Quaint” is a word I’ve not often seen used to describe a book. Yet that is the first adjective that sprang to mind when I put down “Winfield: Living in the Shadow of the Woolworths.” Odd … curious … fanciful … peculiar. Even the author’s photo on the book jacket is somehow quaint. Monica Randall is posed carrying a feather fan wearing a turn-of-the-last-century beaded ball gown, in a room full of sheeted furniture.

Ms. Randall grew up on Long Island’s North Shore, the so-called Gold Coast. Though not a member of one of the moneyed families who built huge houses there, she became fascinated by the ways of the very rich. By the 1950s and 1960s, many of the great North Shore mansions were deserted and being readied for the wrecker’s ball, and so Ms. Randall and her sister took it upon themselves surreptitiously to remove some of the mansion’s precious contents: mantels, overdoors, chandeliers, antique dresses — whatever they could make off with.

Though the girls were aware that what they were doing was not exactly legal, they did not think of themselves as housebreakers or looters. They piously excused their clandestine activities as saving priceless objects from destruction. One of their favorite targets was Winfield, the massive marble monstrosity erected in Glen Cove by Frank W. Woolworth, the five-and-ten-cent-store tycoon. In its heyday Winfield required 70 gardeners just to tend the grounds.

It never occurred to Ms. Randall, during her burglary phase, that she would end up even briefly becoming the mistress (sort of) of Winfield. But that’s what happened, and this book is her memoir of that curious period more than two dozen years ago. Ms. Randall may have been a spunky teenage thief but, by 1978, she had matured into a starry-eyed, old-fashioned girl who went all ga-ga in the presence of a handsome man.

His name — or at least the name he went by at the time — was Andre Von Brunner. He described himself as an “international businessman.” Though what his business was she was either too frightened or too shy to ask. He acted and dressed like a rich man, but where did the money come from?

With his several shadowy partners Von Brunner had bought Winfield for reasons that were never clear, unless it was for a place for him to hide out. He described his business as dangerous. He needed a personal body guard, and indeed before long his bodyguard was murdered. Von Brunner admitted to having had five previous wives. But, despite these unpromising signs, Ms. Randall decided that Von Brunner was excellent husband material. After several dates, she writes (in her typically lush and fervid style), “All my defenses crumbled, and I willingly surrendered to him.” They became engaged, or “plighted,” as Ms. Randall quaintly puts it.

It may have seemed to her like a good fit. When she moved into Winfield with him, she began returning some of the furnishings she’d pinched from the place years before.

But there was trouble right from the start. She’d heard rumors that the house was haunted and, sure enough, things began to go bump in the night. There were rattlings in the walls, bangings on the floor, footsteps in the halls, sighing and moaning sounds in the woodwork. All this could have been caused by antique plumbing, but Ms. Randall was not so sure.

As we all know, money cannot buy happiness, and the Woolworth family was living proof of that rule. Frank Woolworth was a tyrannical husband and father who brought his mistress to live at Winfield just down the hall from his neurasthenic wife. His daughter Edna committed suicide, and her body was discovered by her young daughter, Barbara Hutton, who went on to lead a life of misery and many husbands, and who ended up dying alone in a hotel room with barely enough of her fortune left to pay the bill.

Other aspects of Frank Woolworth’s life were rumored by North Shore locals. They said he was obsessed by the occult, the afterlife, and time travel. They said he had illegally brought a mummy and its sarcophagus to the house from Egypt, and that with the mummy there naturally came a curse. Most disturbingly, it was claimed that Frank Woolworth’s remains were not entombed in the Egyptian-style mausoleum he had designed for himself in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Rather, his corpse lay in some secret, sealed-off room in the bowels of Winfield, a house riddled with tunnels, passageways and secret panels.

But when Ms. Randall decided to get to the bottom of some of the dark legends surrounding Winfield and the Woolworths, she did not do much conventional research in libraries, or in Woolworth archives that supposedly still exist in the Woolworth Building in Manhattan. Instead, she turned to psychic channelers, mystics, clairvoyants, graphologists, spiritual mediums and to her personal interpretations of certain dreams she had at Winfield. At a seance held in the house, Frank Woolworth made an angry appearance through a conduit, but did not reveal much. A weeping woman was also heard from, claiming to be the tragic Edna, who said, “I hated this house and everything in it.” A tape recorder had been set up to record the session but, spookily, when it was played back, the tape was blank.

Not long after this, Ms. Randall’s researches — and her tenancy at Winfield — were abruptly and cruelly cut short. Her affianced, Mr. Von Brunner, simply disappeared. That was in 1978, and he has not been seen or heard form since. He departed, furthermore, owing the city of Glen Cove $160,000 in back property taxes. Facing eviction, his fiancee was forced to pack and move out.

All this, of course, leads to a somewhat limp and flaccid denouement to the Winfield story. Ms. Randall — and the reader — are left with most of the questions that were posed at the outset.

Is there an explanation for the ghostly doings at Winfield? Were the Woolworths accursed? Does Ms. Randall believe in ghosts? She doesn’t want to answer that question, but she does theorize that there is “[[An] entire spectrum of subtle energies, or soul essences that appears to linger long after we’ve gone and continues to affect others in a positive or negative way. This light force lies within all of us and appears to be eternal. Something of our essence does remain, not just in the houses we leave behind, but in everything we touch … There is a resonating imprint or recorded memory, of everything we do.”

It’s a cheering or a chilling theory depending on how you look at it. And, you’ve got to admit, it’s quaint.

Stephen Birmingham has written more than 25 works of fiction and nonfiction, including “Our Crowd,” “The Grandees,” “The Rest of Us,” and “The Auerbach Will.” Mr. Birmingham lectures frequently on topics related to America’s aristocracy or Jewish elite.

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