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Old Man River

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There are words that ruffle George Alexis “Frolic” Weymouth. A long-undiagnosed dyslexic, he once struggled with most of them. Today, he winces over the simple ones others find comfort in—words like “passion,” “estate,” “gate,” “computer” and “cell phone.”

When it comes to electronic gadgets, he professes not to know how to use the “damn things.” And he’s never been good at hiding behind the masks of wealth—or anything, really. Unpretentious and without hidden agendas, his life has always been a work in progress on a public canvas.

George Alexis “Frolic” Weymouth, also known as the “fun du Pont.” (Photo by Carlos Alejandro)In Chester County, Weymouth’s word has long been the gold standard. An accomplished portrait and landscape artist and a dedicated conservationist, the 72-year-old Chadds Ford resident is chairman of the board of trustees of the Brandywine Conservancy, a unique environmental, arts and cultural preservation organization he helped found in 1967. He’s been chairman of its Brandywine River Museum since it opened in 1971.

Weymouth is an internationally recognized four-in-hand whip with a fabulous collection of antique coaches and carriages. He has a permanently retired trophy at the Devon Horse Show, and one of his favorite coaching events is the Winterthur Point-to-Point in Delaware (both are this month).

For May 3’s Point-to-Point, Weymouth will host a weekend “thank you” party at Big Bend, his Swedes-built stone manor on a pronounced oxbow bend in the Brandywine River. It’s an annual happening others have dubbed “Frolic’s Frolic.”

A visionary, Weymouth is also a realist—as a painter and a man. His dreams typically come to fruition. But now he faces what may be the most serious challenge to his conservation work: the prospect of massive stretches of electrical and liquid fuel pipeline corridors snaking across conservancy land. The adversary—along with the power companies—is the federal government and its right to exercise eminent domain, or the legal seizing of private property for public good. Who will win out: Frolic or the feds?

“I don’t think we can stop it,” Weymouth says frankly. “We’re one agency, so I hope to God it’s not our demise.”

Weymouth’s work continues in the wake of the Jan. 16 passing of Andrew Wyeth, maybe America’s best-known artist and one of Frolic’s dearest friends. In the 2004 documentary The Way Back: A Portrait of George A. Weymouth, Wyeth said he didn’t “know of anyone who means as much to me.”

Then there’s Weymouth’s lineage and notoriety. He’s a du Pont heir and is oft-termed “the fun du Pont.” The connection both elevates and levels him. At times defined by his association with society soirées, bibulous escapades and randy trysts, he’s been more in tune with his own health and self-preservation of late. As others have suggested, future generations may likely salute him as the “Savior of the Brandywine, the Nile of Chester County.” But is that only if he staves off the utility corridors? Or only if he continues to save himself?

Neither threat, thus far, has deflated his flamboyancy. Ever eccentric, Weymouth still wears his eye-catching carriage driver’s mud apron—the one with the red heart over the crotch. He’s been compared to the Wizard of Oz. (Big Bend is his Oz.) And don’t let the Civil War-era crutches he uses to get around fool you. “I usually cause as much trouble as I can,” he says.

Frolic loves to play. After all, he’s named after a dog. When his brother, Gene, was 3, he lost his foxhound. “Where’s Frolic? Where’s Frolic?” he kept asking, driving their mother, Dulcinea (Deo) Ophelia Payne du Pont Weymouth, batty.

“Shut up!” she finally barked. “Here’s your damn Frolic.”

And she thrust Georgie before Gene.
 

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This year marks two milestones for the Brandywine Conservancy. There’s the 40th anniversary of its first conservation easements—when, in 1969, Weymouth donated his property. The move inspired the Thissell Company (chaired by the Hon. Harry G. Haskell Jr.), Mr. and Mrs. Ford B. Draper, and Mr. and Mrs. James B. Wyeth to do the same. The four easements protected 338 contiguous acres and over 5 1/2 miles along both banks of the Brandywine River. For many years since, the Conservancy has prudently eased much of the former Revolutionary battlefields. This year is also the 25th anniversary of the preservation of the largest chunk of the former King Ranch acreage in Chester County.

In the mid-1960s, when word spread that a factory was to be built along the Brandywine, and that others would follow, Weymouth organized kindreds F.I. du Pont and William Prickett and bought two threatened parcels. “It would have been the beginning of a disaster, a total disaster,” he says.

One that would have directly affected water quality in the Brandywine, the main source for Wilmington, Downingtown and West Chester. From that timely purchase sprouted the Brandywine Conservancy.

When a huge mill along the river went up for sale in 1971, the conservancy acquired it as future museum space. At the auction, Weymouth’s friend, the late Adm. Delmar Fahrney, did his bidding. Weymouth was to remove his hat (his sign for dropping out) when the bid reached $100,000, his top price. Fahrney bid to $150,000. “When it finished, he said, ‘We got it,’” Weymouth recalls in his documentary. “I said, ‘What do you mean? I took my hat off.’ He said, ‘Yes, but you put it back on.’”

In 1984, when thousands of acres of King Ranch land went to market, rumored buyers included a nuclear power plant, Disney and a developer with plans for a town of 10,000. One Weymouth-inspired conservation team, Buck and Doe Associates, funded an $11.5 million purchase of 5,380 contiguous— and now conserved—acres, including a treasured centerpiece, the 775-acre Laurels Preserve.

The Brandywine Conservancy has met repeated challenges. Now, the very nature of those decades of work make its land desirable to utility companies. By design, conservation easements limit inhabitants— and the fewer neighbors to scream, the less resistance. That’s the theory, just as the principle behind easements is that they’ll protect land in perpetuity. But since population dictates the need for more power, eminent domain lets agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—on behalf of private utility companies—create permanent rights-of-way.

Decades ago, Weymouth was told he was ridiculous, even foolhardy, to believe in the perpetuity of his easements. Deep down, he knew, too. Still, he’s repeatedly pledged to stand firm. “The easements were the best we could’ve done then,” he says. “But now we have to fight to protect and maintain them.”

This latest challenge is in its infancy. Specifically, the conservancy is working to unite a national coalition of land trusts to confront utility threats nationwide. “We need to alter federal regulation and law, or no one’s property is safe from ill-conceived corridors,” says Jim Duff, executive director of the Brandywine Conservancy. “The grid needs to be reinforced, but not without proper consideration of the threats—as in this area where pipelines would cross highly sensitive streams multiple times. We’ve already kept an enormous number of bad things from happening to the river, but there will always be new threats.”

In the 2005 Energy Policy Act, Congress authorized the Department of Energy to designate “National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors.” The act exempts the federal government from complying with existing environmental laws, as well as the National Historic Preservation Act. It allows utilities to appeal any state’s public utility commission’s route decisions to the FERC, and authorizes the agency to overrule states’ decisions and use federal eminent domain powers to condemn lands for electrical utility lines.

Last October, the Department of Energy announced final designations for two corridors, including a Mid-Atlantic Area Corridor that encompasses all of Delaware, 52 of 67 Pennsylvania counties, and all or part of Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. All 43,000 acres protected by the Brandywine Conservancy are within this proposed corridor.
 

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Pipelines for liquid fuels also present a threat to preserved lands. One such project, the proposed AES/Sparrows Point Mid-Atlantic pipeline, would extend from a liquefied natural gas terminal in Sparrows Point, Md., for roughly 88 miles locally to Eagle. It would parallel an existing pipeline right-of-way that runs through conservancy-eased property in the heart of what was King Ranch land. Seven linear miles of it would traverse conservancy-protected farmlands, woodlands, streams and wetlands, and cross the Brandywine and its tributaries at least 13 times.

In mid-January, the FERC issued a certificate of approval with 169 conditions. In response, the Brandywine Conservancy, its affected landowners and others filed requests for a rehearing and stay of action. The project’s fate will likely be decided in federal court.

Several other new pipelines are proposed in Chester County. “The newly proposed (not yet filed with the FERC) Dominion Keystone pipeline would cross Chester County starting in the Brandywine headwaters,” says Teddy Price, a senior planner at the conservancy. “The recently approved William Transco line cuts through a corner of one of our easements.”

Just for one day, Weymouth wants to arrive at work and not have to fight for or against something. His long-term worry, though, is generational shift. “We care and you care, and our generation cares, and your children may care because of you,” he says. “But the generation after that might say, ‘Who the hell cares if we break the easements?’ Now, you have to endow easements like you would art in a museum, because you may need the money to fight with down the line.”

But Weymouth doesn’t—and won’t—call his work a passion. “I sure love it—but passion?” he asks. “It’s my way of life. It’s just a job that has to be done. It has to, and it’s even more crucial now. But all the new plans say, ‘Drill! Drill!’ They don’t say, ‘Conserve! Conserve!’ We once rationed food stamps, didn’t we? We rationed gas. Neither was pleasurable, but we did it.”

And it can be done with land, too. “If we all go 50 mph, we can save gobs of gas,” says Weymouth, who begrudges most of what others call progress. “It’s all conservation, but the people won’t do it.”

Few regional sites are more fascinating than Weymouth’s home and acreage. The beauty is breathtaking. The winding road to Big Bend follows the Brandywine River, which borders his property on three sides. The front of the house faces it.

Weymouth hates the term “estate.” He prefers “farm,” “ranch” or just “place.” Within roughly 1,000 acres—all under conservation easement—divided between 30 owners, the property is something else for sure.

Today, Weymouth is wearing his trademark round tortoise-shell eyeglasses, tortoise brass belt buckle, orange turtleneck and wool tweed sports coat. His fascination with nature is overt—especially when it comes to tortoises, which he’s made sure are everywhere at Big Bend. The tortoise is an Indian sign, and Big Bend was once a Lenni-Lenape village in 1683 when William Penn deeded the property back to the natives. The tribe is the one James Fenimore Cooper wrote about in The Last of the Mohicans. “Remember when they’re about to kill [Uncas], but he’s saved at the last moment when they see the tortoise tattoo on his chest?” Weymouth asks.

The Last of the Mohicans was illustrated by N.C. Wyeth—and, of course, the Brandywine Valley is Wyeth country. Inside Weymouth’s period-furnished 1750s stone house (though the oldest section, the bottom floor, is circa 1650) hangs “The Vidette,” an enormous painting of a horseman in the snow. Dated 1912, the N.C. Wyeth masterpiece is on permanent display here, unless it’s on loan for an exhibition.

The house was virtually roofless when Weymouth bought it in 1960. “Cows were living [on the first floor],” he says.

Outside, there’s Anna Hyatt Huntington’s “Greyhounds Playing,” which won the George D. Widener Gold Medal from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Among the other ornaments on the property is a White House birdfeeder. After a fox made a mess of his hen house—actually an outhouse he’d built—Weymouth decided that, since the Clintons were then making “a shithouse of the White House,” he’d erect a White House for his birds.
 

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Another stroll through meticulously planted gardens leads to a carved wooden Indonesian fertility bench. Part of Weymouth’s admitted fascination with fornication, it features two interlocked monkeys, though they have dragon heads. “Or are they humans?” he suggests. “Who knows? The female looks so bored, and the male is in agony.”

Art, nature, spirituality (as exhibited in the private outdoor chapel he built here in 1995)—it’s all tied to one unwritten commandment: Before he goes to sleep each evening, Weymouth insists on naming one beautiful thing he saw that day. “Then, the rest of the ugliness goes away,” he insists.

When he has traveled, it’s been to England to drive horses or paint. In the summer of 1985, he spent three months there. By carriage, he drove 1,000 miles in England and another 1,000 in France. “I’d never do it again, and never stay,” he says. “Some like to compare trips. I like doing other things.

Reared in du Pont opulence, Weymouth was a “horse alcoholic.” About his dyslexia, which his brother Gene shared, everyone said, “Don’t worry about it. You’re an artist.”

His parents let him do what he did best: ride and paint. “When I was young, if I said I was bored, my mother said, ‘Go outside and look at nature,’” he says.

At 6, he sold his first artwork—large, purple bougainvilleas painted in Boca Grande, Fla.—for 75 cents. His mother, the oldest of Eugene du Pont’s four daughters, was a wonderful artist. Then she married Frolic’s father, entrepreneur George Tyler Weymouth. “You couldn’t paint and raise children,” he says.
 
For Frolic, school wasn’t as important as it was for his “fancy cousins.” Still, he attended the Westtown School, St. Mark’s in Massachusetts, and Yale (then a glorified finishing school) as his father and paternal grandfather had.

Weymouth maintains “it’s no big deal” being a du Pont. In 2000, 3,700 attended a family reunion at Longwood Gardens. “I wonder how many there are now?” he ponders. “Du Ponts have always been busy in bed.”

Other than opening his house for fundraisers, Weymouth has “no clue” why he’s known as the fun du Pont. “Lots of them are fun,” he says. “There have certainly been some colorful ones.”

For Weymouth’s Point-to-Point weekend, invitations go to 40-odd well-to-do folks in coaching circles. Gobs of others just come. These days, Weymouth knows less than half of those in attendance. “I go up to some and ask if they know who lives here,” he jests. “They ask if I know. I say, ‘No, I don’t. Do you?’ Then I tell them, ‘This place is a real dump. It’s furnished with all this used furniture.’”

In recent years, Weymouth has tightened security in a move unrelated to his social events. Curious outsiders had been following the lead of the book Weird Pennsylvania, along with several blogs and websites, that describe Granogue, a du Pont mansion above his property, as an abandoned satanic chapel and home to a strange strain of du Pont—hermaphroditic midgets. “The kids were coming out here to be scared,” he says.

Weymouth had to install a security gate in front of his driveway that automatically closes at night. “I hate it,” he says.

To one set of kids he caught, he admitted to living on the adjacent property. “But as you can see, I’m not a midget—and I’m not about to show you if I’m a hermaphrodite,” he recalls telling them.

For 18 years, Weymouth was married to Anna B. McCoy, Andrew Wyeth’s niece and herself an artist. Jamie Wyeth, Andrew’s son, married Weymouth’s cousin Phyllis.
 

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Weymouth was a young teen when he first met Andy Wyeth. He brought the icon his freshly painted 1951 work “Frozen Pond” to critique. By the late ’50s and early ’60s, the two were among the few true realists painting in an art world bowled over by impressionism.

For 17 years, Weymouth was also the confidant who hid Wyeth’s eventual million-dollar nudes of Prussian-born neighbor and caretaker Helga Testorf. In the 1970s, they stashed them in crates, keeping them from now-widow Betsy Wyeth’s eyes. Then, in a 1985 interview, Wyeth alluded to work “nobody knows about, not even my wife.”

He had to come clean before the article appeared. Some Helga pictures were gathered and hung at home—a personal exhibit for Betsy. “They’re absolutely extraordinary,” she declared in the Wyeth biography by Richard Meryman. “If they’d been bad pictures, I would’ve killed him.”

“Andrew Wyeth was one of my greatest friends and one of the world’s greatest artists,” Weymouth says. “Many critics tried to tout their own genius by defaming him and his talent—but they will never succeed.”

When the Brandywine River Museum opened, it had 20 works, mostly donated by Andrew and Betsy Wyeth. Now, there are 2,600. The museum reinvented N.C. Wyeth, Andrew’s father, and built a more-than-regional reverence for the Brandywine School of Howard Pyle.

After Wyeth’s death, the museum borrowed “Christina’s World” from the Museum of Modern Art. Betsy loaned his final painting, “Goodbye.” Finished last year in Maine, it features a boat sailing out of the picture, but leaving a distinct wake. “We’re all very sad,” Jim Duff says. “Somehow we just thought he was going to live forever, and that there would always be new pictures.”

In 1994, Wyeth painted Weymouth in “The Whip,” a watercolor. Weymouth’s work, which is done in egg tempera, is often highly personal. His portrait of his grandfather, Eugene du Pont, features the amazingly fine detail of a herringbone suit coat and the worn fabric of a favorite recliner. His “The Way Back” (1963) is a whimsical self-portrait of his hands leading a single horse to Big Bend.

Beyond his own world, Weymouth was selected by NASA to paint at Cape Kennedy during the moon shots. He’s painted portraits of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1995), Queen Elizabeth’s husband, which hangs in the restored part of Windsor Castle, and Luciano Pavarotti (1982) before that.

While Weymouth calls his lone child, adopted son Mac, his greatest pleasure, most satisfying is simply “being alive.” He’s needed crutches for 20 years because of arthritis in his spine from riding horses and playing polo.

In 2000, Weymouth had a pacemaker put in. He’d spent three years on constant oxygen, but now only uses it at night. A physical exam had led to a stress test and the discovery of enormously high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. He was too heavy; he drank too much. Finally, he took his own advice: “Shut up and do something about it.”

Weymouth lost 40 pounds by exercising and not eating anything “white.” He also “stopped drinking full time.” “Now I just have a drink (a gin martini) when I want to,” he says.

The motivation for self-preservation is as straightforward as his land conservation efforts. “You just have to do it,” Weymouth says. “You can’t give in. There’s no alternative.”

Duff offers an anecdote that paints perhaps the best portrait of Weymouth. Arriving from New York 36 years ago for a day of interviews, Duff was standing outside the Brandywine River Museum, gazing at the river. A fellow in a torn Oxford shirt, paint-splattered chinos and a pair of penny loafers whose stitching was giving way, asked if he’d like to get in and look around.

“He came down the walk—and I had no idea who he was,” Duff recalls. “By his appearance, I concluded he had no authority to let me in. So I declined and said I’d just continue to enjoy the scenery. He seemed happy with my decision. Two hours later, I met him again in my formal interview.”

Frolic hadn’t changed his clothes.
 

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