The Caumsett Foundation

Dedicated to the conservation of

Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve


By Walter D. Kolos

The invitation, in 1932, billed the Circus Party as a "not fancy dress" affair although the guests arrived in black tie and floor length gowns. Caumsett has often been the inspiration for novel, lavish parties to benefit worthy causes for over seventy years. In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the original Dutch Treat Circus Dinner Party, given by Marshall III and Audrey Field on July 16, 1932, the Caumsett Foundation has patterned its 2002 Circus Party on the theme of the original party. Read on to discover the attractions of the original party; compare them with the updated version that you will experience tonight.

The Rational and the Hype

Marshall Field III was vice President and Treasurer of the Long Island Biological Association, now known as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Audrey Jennings (as in the Jennings of Standard Oil) Field was known for her spectacular parties. To benefit the Long Island Biological Association, Audrey planned the party which was dubbed: "one of the funniest parties of the season", " a new pattern in parties", "a unique charity entertainment." Cholly Knickerbocker reported on the event for the New York Times; Galan Chidsey, book designer of Great Neck, produced a booklet about this Dutch Treat Circus Dinner Party. Of the eight hundred invited guests, over six hundred paid five dollars per plate for their dinner, plus additional amounts per after-dinner activity. The Long Island Biological Association profited handsomely from this event.

The Evening’s Festivities

Over one hundred of the Field’s friends hosted "dinner tables" of ten or more of their friends. Hence, the success was guaranteed from the start. Dinner was served by "Sherry’s" on the Caumsett estate's lawns and terraces, which were lit by great flood lights and streamers of vari-colored electric lights strung in a festive fashion. During dinner a dance band played. Marshall Field’s summer home, on Long Island’s Gold Coast, was renowned for its major awards at both Long Island and New York City world-class Horticultural Shows. So, guests enjoyed dinner and dancing in a gorgeous botanical setting, overlooking L. I. Sound, under the stars. That was only the beginning. After dinner the guests proceeded to another area of the grounds, which had been converted into a Midway for the occasion. At the Midway they were exhorted by society "barkers" to enjoy the various attractions. These attractions, operated and manned by society friends included, "The Freak Show", "The Coney Island Photo Booth", "The Long Island Living Pictures Show", and "The Dancing Well."

Humor and Talent

Requested in the invitation, guests were expected to have a sense of humor and a certain amount of talent. The guests and their hosts supplied the talent at most of the booths, and also were the models as well for the caricatures represented in the activities.

Featured in the Freak Show were Long Island versions of Siamese twins, those "Baldwin twins", Mrs. Baldwin Browne and Mrs. Baldwin Preston. Mrs. Harold E. Talbott grew into the stupendous Duck Billed Woman/Women. The hydra, a two headed woman featured the heads of Mrs. Malcolm L. Michael and Mrs. Ralph H. Isham. Capt. "Bunny" Head, as the Wild Man of Borneo was known to frighten women into averting their eyes and to turn tan men pale. On the other hand, the "world’s tallest dwarf," Mr. Frank Field, amazed onlookers. While Mr. Lytle Hull, the Strong Man, appeared to lift over 500 pounds with astonishing ease, Mrs. Joseph Davis, the most tattooed lady in the world was very avant-garde for her era.

At the Coney Island Booth, the fun-loving guests morphed into the Fat Lady, the Living Skeleton, the Sweet Young Couple, the Traveling Donkey, and the "Abs" wonder - another avant-garde concept for the time. One could even take a photo with the donkey painted by the multi-talented George Gershwin. These versions of each guest were preserved for posterity in photos, which could be purchased in any quantity.

Long Island Living Pictures were tableaus, written by Mr. Baragwanath and Mr. George Abbott, and played by several young models. These short bits of human drama were described as "the high spot of wit and humor". Some resemblance's to known society matrons and masters provided the extra spice in each vignette. Tension and high drama were heightened by the musical contribution of Mrs. James Warburg, who played the background organ music for the dramas.

Mr. Vincent Astor earned the title of Chief Factotum of the China Breaking Booth for his outstanding service in that booth. The rental of three balls entitled one to break as much china as possible per pitch. Frustration with financial markets during the Depression could be exorcised by aggressive behavior at this activity.

Other attractions included a Wheel of Fortune, a ride around the estate on a bicycle built for two, walking with the man on stilts, and a visit with "the toast of the talkies", none other than Mickey Mouse himself, at this precursor to Disneyland. All of the fun and games were to raise money for a charitable cause.

Nightcap Amusements

Late night entertainment brought the show indoors. Guests came to the elegant Georgian mansion’s living room for the Midnight Cabaret. A panoply of show business greats performed for the guests. Irene Castle danced to original choreographic works; the Boswell Sisters, of radio fame, sang the hit tunes of the day, George Gershwin played the piano; Paul Whiteman played the current hit song, Ramona. The party, which began at dusk, continued until dawn, with guests reveling in the various activities.

And so, the magnificent landscape, seascape and skyscape setting of Caumsett, with its outstanding gardens and architectural features, was said to "usher in a new era of parties" in the 1930’s. In 2002, it is the setting for another such party for charity. In the new millennium the Circus Party has come full circle. This time, instead of the proceeds being donated to an off-site charity, the estate, now an historic New York State park, is itself the recipient of the proceeds.

  1. BulletCaumsett's 1932 Circus Party

To benefit the Long Island Biological Association, Audrey planned the party which was dubbed: "one of the funniest parties of the season", " a new pattern in parties", "a unique charity entertainment."

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