by Cecil Hoge
I never realized that my grandmother, Ann B. Shewan, caused the Town of Southampton so much trouble. I doubt she ever felt sorry for the trouble she caused. My knowledge of her doings comes from some old family newspaper clippings and some brief reminiscences of my mother and my aunt. We will never know what really happened to her diamond wedding ring.
That summer my grandfather, Edwin Shewan, rented a large house on Great Plains Road called “Strathmore”. This house is still there situated behind a tall green hedge with a long blue stone driveway leading up to a large white house with imposing white pillars. My grandfather, his wife and their two young daughters must have been very happy there. At the time Southampton was known as “The Queen of Long Island’s Watering Holes”. The year was 1925 and Long Island must have been a beautiful place to live.
How my grandfather and his family got to Southampton from their Fifth Avenue Townhouse in New York I am not sure, perhaps, in a large automobile or on the Long Island Railroad.
They came early that summer of 1925 and began enjoying the benefits of what was then called “a summer cottage”. Just when The Meadow Club and the Southampton Bathing Corporation opened their doors I am not sure. Nor do I know if my grandfather and his family were members. My grandfather’s family were the “pirate” side of my family, meaning that they were far richer and somewhat less respectable than my father’s family. On my grandfather’s side I come from a long line of sea captains and the further you go back the more likely it was my descendants were actual pirates. This heredity might have played into the events that were to transpose in the Summer of 1925.
My grandmother, who was reputed to be one of the most beautiful women of her day, reported to the police that her $40,000 diamond wedding ring was missing from their house on Great Plains Road. The police duly searched the large summer home and questioned repeatedly the 5 employees about the missing ring.
I remember hearing from my mother that grandfather would disappear into his private study to have a scotch whiskey during the investigation. This was the period of Prohibition and it was not strictly legal to have a drink in front of a police officer. Anyway, my grandfather was apparently convinced that the ring had simply been misplaced by his wife. This was an opinion that he offered to his wife, apparently to her everlasting fury. Grandmother was convinced that something more sinister was afoot (like the theft of the ring by a servant) and insisted that the police redouble their search.
At the time, the police department consisted of two people, a single police officer and a gentleman who filled in “big investigations”. That other gentleman’s primary job was mayor of Southampton.
The search proceeded and all the occupants of “Strathmore” were intensely questioned. This brought a new theory. One of the maids speculated that the $40,000 ring might have been “accidentally” thrown out in waste paper basket.
My grandfather, according to my mother, was a leading proponent of this theory. He disappeared into his study, fixed himself another scotch and came out to say with great conviction, “Yes, that must be it.”
Grandmother, being the beautiful and dignified lady that she was, had change of heart and said, “Well, maybe, a foolish maid had thrown it into the waste paper basket.”
Not wanting to be too hard on the girl involved, my grandmother gave her the benefit doubt by saying that whoever it was probably did not realize that the $40,000 ring was wrapped up inside an opened envelope that my grandmother had left somewhere in the 16 bedroom cottage.
This led the police officer and the mayor of Southampton to conclude that most probably the ring had been thrown in a waste basket. Both my grandmother and my grandfather concluded that this must be correct and my grandfather went off to his study to mix himself another scotch.
There was one basic problem with this theory and that was this – all the waste baskets and the trash cans and the garbage pails had just been emptied that afternoon into a model T pick-up truck and taken off to the town dump.
That knowledge led my grandmother to a new conclusion. A search of the town dump must be organized, she said.
“Yes,” said grandfather, warming to the new task at hand, “A search must be organized.”
The police officer and the mayor, naively hoping that the unified theory of accidental loss would bring the matter to a calm conclusion, quickly exclaimed that a search of the town dump would be quite impossible. The dump, they explained, was over 5 acres in size and the garbage might have been dumped anywhere. And then there was the cost involved and the fact that Southampton had no employees to conduct such a search. The police officer and the mayor wrapped up their argument with stating that such a search would be impossible these impossible circumstances.
I am guessing that this was the first time the two Southampton officials had ever talked to my grandparents. What was impossible to my grandmother was the official’s argument that a search would be impossible.
At this point my grandfather exerted his considerable power.
“Cost be damned, I will pay for it. We will organize a search tomorrow.”
I am told my grandmother gave my grandfather a big loving hug.
So, despite the protestations of the local authorities, my grandfather hired 15 men to search the town dump the next day. This caused quite a stir in the town. The local paper felt compelled to cover this story and reported on the very thorough search that was conducted. This story proved so intriguing that the New York Times picked it up. My grandparents were residents of New York City, so it was not surprising that the story had legs. Anyway both the Southampton paper and New York Times dutifully reported on the search as it continued over the next three weeks.
Alas, after three weeks and several thousand dollars expended by my grandfather, no ring showed up.
What did show up was a ransom note signed by “The Hustlings Gang”. The ransom note, written in a vaguely familiar hand, stated that my mother and her two children would be kidnapped and there would be “dirty work” done by the Hustling Gang. The note went on to say the Hustling Gang were quite capable of killing my grandmother, my mother and her sister. The note concluded that unless $500 was paid they surely would die. The author claimed that he needed the money to buy a new car. The note said that my grandfather was to meet the leader of Hustling Gang on Dune Road five days later at midnight in a car bearing the license plate 2N-1177. A final P.S. said if my grandfather showed the note to the authorities, the family would be in mortal jeopardy.
As mentioned above, the note had a vaguely familiar look. Once again, the combined forces of the Southampton Police Department were called in. I am quite sure that they were much happier having to investigate a real kidnapping note rather than a missing ring.
This new investigation led to my grandfather hiring two Pinkerton guards to watch my grandmother and her children. The one Southampton Police officer and the mayor of Southampton then conducted an interview of all the hired help at Strathmore.
After a few days, it became apparent that my grandfather’s chauffeur’s handwriting strongly resembled the handwriting on the kidnapping note. Within a few hours an arrest was made and the poor chauffeur was taken off to jail. Within due course the man confessed to his crime, was prosecuted in court and was sentenced to many years in jail.
The two Pinkerton Security Guards were kept on as permanent employees. My grandfather had been shaken by this event and wanted to be sure that nothing like this would happen again. Actually, I have another theory about that. I think my grandfather had some doubts about his wife’s faithfulness. I found some other newspaper clippings about my grandmother staying in Deauville, France for the 1928 summer season while business matters called my grandfather back to the States.
“The rumors are quite unfounded,” my grandfather told the New York Times, “we are very happy. And by the way, the rumors about my wife palling around with Princess Vlora are pure exaggeration. Why she hardly knows the lady. And I am not the Shewan who had his yacht, The Patricia, sequestered by custom officials off of Sag Harbor, who found 1188 bottles of whiskey on board. That was my brother, James Shewan.”
I happen to know my grandfather was not coming forth with the whole truth, since he indeed was the Shewan who happened to captaining the good ship Edwina (not The Patricia) when it ran afoul of Customs Authorities. As to who Princess Vlora was I have no idea.
What I also know is that in 1929 the New York Times reported on a nasty divorce in which my grandmother was to receive $18,000. per annum from my grandfather. The high cost of leaving was considerably lower then. I am sure that many of today’s billionaires would be very jealous.
In any case, it seems that my grandmother was quite a high strung lady and a grand looker, as you probably can tell by the picture at the beginning of this article. The French newspapers reported that she was the most beautiful woman in Deauville for summer season of 1928. In 1929 various newspapers, including the New York Times, reported that my grandfather had found his wife in arms of a soon to be doomed stock broker. Apparently, my grandfather’s two Pinkerton guards had led the way.
The articles went on to associate my grandmother with a man named Billy Rich – I am not making this stuff up. I still have the old newspaper clippings. There were also were several reports of my grandmother drinking Champagne with her Swedish masseuse who apparently was a childhood friend. The masseuse was reported as saying he always enjoyed having a bottle of Champagne with my grandmother, although he frowned on my grandmother’s habit of putting ice in her Champagne glass.
I don’t know what happened with my grandmother. After her divorce, I gathered she kind of fell out of our family history. I do not remember my aunt or my mother ever telling me much about her. The Roaring Twenties and the worldwide depression that followed it must have been a very difficult period to find your moral compass or your lifelong destiny.
I like to think my grandmother ran off to Europe and remarried and, after the second or third marriage, found true love, became quite wealthy or not. Maybe she took up an interest in religion or the arts or became a lover of cats. I hope and trust, as the years past and her beauty faded, she became a wiser person content with who she was, whether that that was rich or poor.
I am sorry that I never got to know my grandmother and I am sorry for all the trouble she must have caused the good town of Southampton. She must have been quite the babe. I would have loved to have sipped Champagne with her and hear her full story.