Presidential Escape

by Editorial

“I told them I was having the President over for a tailgate,” she says. “And they asked, ‘The president of what?’”

Middleburg residents are more impressed by horses’ pedigrees than those of their owners, so when President John F. Kennedy and his equestrian wife, Jacqueline, joined the community in 1961 many locals remained unflappable. After the horse-loving first lady joined the hunt, an oblivious uninformed fellow rider inquired what the new member’s husband did, the legendary answer was, “He works for the government.” Anonymity has always been a perk in hunt country.

In the fall of 1960, after her husband’s election, Jackie made it her mission to find a weekend refuge in horse country. After looking at some photos, the couple signed a lease (sight unseen) for the 300-acre Glen-Ora estate, set on a lonely dirt lane lined with crumbling Civil War-era dry stonewalls.

French antiques from the owner’s former homes in Paris and Fontainebleau were placed in storage. Sister Parish, the society decorator who also did the Kennedy family quarters at the White House, was given three weeks and carte blanche to repaint, wallpaper and re-decorate the six-bedroom house. Parish was familiar with Middleburg from her days as a student at the Foxcroft School. She requisitioned slipcovers and flowered chintz in her well-known style and sent fabric samples to Jackie in Palm Beach during Christmas for approval. “Some think a decorator should change a house,” Parish once wrote, “I try to give a house permanence.”

A few items were brought over from the Kennedy’s Georgetown house, including: a white rug for the dining room, and a chair for President Kennedy’s room. When every swag and swatch of fabric was installed, Parish’s final bill was a bargain $10,416.36.

Jackie was completely smitten with Middleburg. By late 1962, she and the president had secretly purchased 39-acres from steel heir Hubert Phipps for $26,000, which meant they’d be leaving Glen-Ora. Upon reading the fine print of the lease, however, the Kennedys discovered that all the changes they had made to the property would have to be undone before their final departure. (The final $10,000 bill was a personal expense, not a government reimbursement.)

The Kennedys’ new, one-story stone and stucco ranch-style home atop Rattlesnake Mountain was called “Wexford,” after the Irish birthplace of the Kennedy ancestors. The house included seven bedrooms (two for servants), five and a half baths, oversized living room, dining room, study, library, breakfast room, pantry, children’s room and kitchen. An expansive stone patio stretched out across the back with breathtaking views of hills and pastures.

On November 10, 1963, journalist Ben Bradlee and his second wife, Toni, spent a quiet afternoon with the Kennedys at Wexford. They sat outside in the mild air and sipped Bloody Marys. “I remember watching her ride Sardar,” Bradlee said of Jackie’s favorite horse. Twelve days later President Kennedy was assassinated and the first family never spent another night together in their new home. Jackie sold Wexford but continued to visit and ride in Middleburg and was frequently a guest of Bunny and Paul Mellon in nearby Upperville. Glen-Ora and Wexford remain very much a part of the local landscape with contented owners (whom have also sought anonymity) in their homes with a bit of history.

Middleburg was also a sanctuary for Averell and Pamela Harriman, who purchased the 65-acre estate, “Journey’s End,” from Millicent West and renamed it “Willow Oaks.” The former governor of New York was in his late 80’s at the time. “He said he’d buy it for her, but she had to change the name,” says Jimmy Hatcher, who rode horses with Pamela .

Pamela Harriman usually entertained the horsey set at hunt breakfast and the politicos at cocktail parties. Her guests included Cyrus Vance, who was secretary of state at the time, TV personality Kitty Carlisle (her best friend), diplomat Richard Holbrook and newswoman Diane Sawyer. It was Pamela’s political fundraising efforts on behalf of Bill Clinton, however, that got the most attention in June, 1991.

Clinton and Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas were included on the guest list and stayed at the Little River Inn in nearby Aldie. They both signed the register, which owner Tucker Withers proudly displays. “They sat at separate tables the next morning during breakfast,” he remembers.

And finally, considering the possibility that another Kennedy may be spending more time in Washington, Caroline might want to re-visit the countryside of her youth, where she cantered her pony Macaroni through the wide open green pastures. Maybe she’ll bring the Obamas out with her and introduce them to the sweet life in the hunt country.

Related Articles