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Reflecting on James Fenimore Cooper’s Legacy in Westchester

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Photo by Mathew Benjamin Brady, Public Domain, Via Wikimedia Commons

The notable writer was not just a significant figure in America’s literary history, but also has a local legacy in Mamaroneck.

James Fenimore Cooper is the Rodney Dangerfield of American letters. I tell ya, he gets no respect — or so it might seem.

Mark Twain is largely to blame for this. In an infamously caustic essay, Twain said that the author of The Last of the Mohicans, among many other adventure novels, was basically a lousy writer; one novel, The Deerslayer, was “simply a literary delirium tremens.”

Had the thin-skinned Cooper been alive, he probably would’ve sued Twain for libel. Evidently, he sued a lot of people, including an upstate newspaper critic who skewered one of his books. The verdict: not guilty.

People who met Cooper didn’t always cotton to him — no more so than in Mamaroneck, where he was married in 1811 in the house his father-in-law owned and where he lived on and off for a few years. A village historian who otherwise praised Cooper, told a 1941 audience that the intensely private writer was “much disliked in this community,” in part because he was “Hamiltonian in manner.”

James Fenimore Cooper

Photo by Mathew Benjamin Brady, Public Domain, Via Wikimedia Commons

But he had his fans — Herman Melville for one. Indeed, in his day, Cooper’s fiction was admired here and, importantly, in Europe, where the snobocracy had previously considered the notion of American art to be oxymoronic. And despite the groans of modern-day English-lit majors who have struggled with his tedious, early-19th-century prose, Cooper is acknowledged to be the first great American novelist, whose frontier themes greatly influenced Melville and, yes, the great detractor, Twain.

Take him or leave him, there’s no question that Cooper, who died in 1851 at the age of 63, was an important historical figure. Cooper matters.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to local history is that he wrote one of his better novels, The Spy (a Revolutionary War thriller,) at another family manse in Scarsdale. That structure is long gone. However, still standing, though in drastically altered form, is the aforementioned house at 410 West Boston Road, across from Mamaroneck Harbor’s West Basin.

All in all, it’s been a struggle to keep Cooper’s memory alive in Mamaroneck. The current struggle centers on eight massive murals depicting dramatic scenes from Cooper’s novels and his life, which have hung in a room at Mamaroneck High School since 1941. Financed by nickels and dimes raised by several ninth-grade classes, the murals were painted by five Yale art students and a local artist, Mimi Jennewein. Their fate now rests in the hands of the Board of Education, whose plan for renovations includes covering the murals or destroying them.

The two-story house on the Post Road is another story.

James Fenimore Cooper

Photo by John Bruno Turiano

Built in 1792, on high ground overlooking the harbor, it is a monument to survival if not to Cooper himself. At the turn of the 20th century, the property was sold to a developer, and the house was moved down the hill to its present location “after countless efforts to have it bought as a historic shrine,” according to one newspaper account. The house was sold for $11 and turned into a saloon.

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In 1923, it was designated a “historic site,” which gave it no special protections. The second floor was converted to apartments, and part of the first floor was carved out for a gas station. The rest of the building has been home to a multitude of taverns and restaurants with different names and owners. Only one restaurateur exploited the building’s history by naming his establishment after Cooper. A 1963 newspaper ad invited diners to enjoy a full-course Easter dinner for $4.25 at the “old homestead of James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Deerslayer,’ etc.” (One can only imagine how Cooper would’ve fumed over that.) Today, the building is occupied by an Italian restaurant.

Take him or leave him, there’s no question that Cooper, who died in 1851 at the age of 63, was an important historical figure. Cooper matters.

Suffice it to say, Cooper would scarcely recognize the old homestead, which writer John Deedy observed was “shedding its history and slipping toward disaster.” Two kitchen fires in the 1980s were near disasters.

So, it still stands, an architecturally interesting relic of the past, amidst decidedly uninteresting modern condominiums. Seven years ago, to the horror of local preservationists, the Chmelecki family, which has owned the property since 1956, was poised to sell it at a price north of $2.5 million. However, a prospective buyer pulled out when a village change in zoning made the deal less profitable.

“Basically, the house is still for sale,” Adam Chmelecki told me. “But it’s not really listed.”

Phil Reisman

Photo by Stefan Radtke

In the meantime, the school murals may not get a reprieve. As of this writing, concerned citizens were desperately trying to raise $150,000 to rescue them.

By the way, as much as Twain disrespected Cooper, he didn’t think highly of school boards either, saying they were God’s perfection of idiocy. Let’s hope he’s proven wrong in this case.

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