The grand history of the Chalfonte Hotel

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The Chalfonte, today, is owned by members of the Mullock Family. The Chalfonte, today, is owned by members of the Mullock Family. - Carole Mattessich

CAPE MAY – If book-signing events were rated by the charm of their surroundings, those occurring for Karen Fox’s new book about the Chalfonte Hotel – held, appropriately enough, at the Chalfonte Hotel – would be top-ranked.

And if authors and books were rated by the degree to which they fully and faithfully capture the spirit of their subject, Fox and her new book, “The Chalfonte,” would appear at the top of the list.

Fox’s book artfully weaves together first person narratives, photographs, architectural drawings and artwork pertaining to the Chalfonte during its remarkable 135-year history.

The landmark hotel was built by Civil War hero Henry Sawyer, a cavalry officer in the Union Army who was taken prison, slated for execution, and ultimately freed by the Confederates in a prisoner exchange for Robert E. Lee’s son.

He returned to Cape May to open “Sawyer’s Chalfonte,” charging $3 a day and $18 a week.

One hundred years ago, southerner Susie Satterfield, the daughter of a Confederate general, bought the Chalfonte after it had gone through six owners and two sheriff sales. She opened the hotel for the 1911 summer season, to serve mainly Philadelphia, Baltimore and Richmond crowds, and the establishment was maintained for decades by her family.

Satterfield was one of the Southern belles with a tradition of vacationing in Cape May – some arriving by steam boat for the summer season.

Fox provides interesting mini-biographies of the various owners and their families, while also describing the architectural changes they made to the building, from Sawyer to the Mullock family, who purchased the building in 2008.

Ample space is devoted to longtime owners Anne LeDuc and Judy Bartella, who purchased the building in 1982 from the Satterfield descendents, and spent much of their time fixing and preserving the building and Victorian trimmings that remind some of an elegant wedding cake, waiting for guests to partake.

So seriously did LeDuc and Bartella take their task as preservationists that the women were assisted annually by volunteers, including architecture students, who wanted to help keep the building as a living memory of Cape May’s past.

The book also provides biographical details of some important persons connected with the hotel, such as longtime chef Helen Dickerson, who was interviewed on national television shows about her history and cooking, and her daughters Dot and Lucille. (The daughters continue to prepare the southern foods which make a meal at the Chalfonte’s Magnolia Room a coveted event.)

With her book just released, Fox is appearing at book-signing receptions throughout the summer. A June 19 event was held in the Chalfonte’s Magnolia Room, a long, spacious dining hall with floor to ceiling windows that seem to beckon and attract ocean breezes from several blocks away.

Cape May’s old guard, as well as newer residents and guests, showed up in style. Clad in the colors and styles of Cape May resort-wear, a few women even wore hats that would have befitted Princess Kate’s recent wedding.

A distinctively Cape May camaraderie filled the room as guests – some of whom had just arrived for the summer – greeted one another and Fox took time to chat with each person who approached.

In addition to meeting Fox and enjoying a sumptuous buffet of wine, cheese and other appetizers, guests could enjoy the artwork of Lou Riccio, who has used portions of the Chalfonte as models for his work.

Some of Riccio’s watercolors are featured in Fox’s book.

Fox became aware of the Chalfonte when she first arrived in the area to attend a friend’s clam bake in Cape May Point in the 1960’s. A devotee of Victorian architecture, she immediately became a fan.

“The whole town is wonderful, but I loved this building the best,” she said. “To me it looked like a great big steamboat. I remember walking into the lobby and being intrigued by the look and feel of the place. It was so simple and so friendly.”

On a subsequent trip, she met owner Anne LeDuc, who, years later, in November 1999, would ask Fox to write a book about the Chalfonte.

Fox and her first husband, who is now deceased, ended up with a house on New Jersey Avenue, and often would join friends for breakfast at the Chalfonte. Before LeDuc suggested the book, Fox had spent almost 20 years splitting her time between Cape May and Philadelphia, where she was a news assignment manager for Channel 10, the NBC affiliate.

“I was delighted, because I knew there was enough of a story to do a book,” Fox said. “I didn’t charge a whole lot because it was a labor of love, and otherwise it would never have happened.”

Now a full-time writer, she worked over a year on the project.

Her television experience helped, she said.

“I was used to the quick study – figure out the big story and do an outline,” she explained. “That’s what I did in television, break apart big stories and put them out on the street in a comprehensible way. So it was easy for me to lay out a large story like this.”

In pursuing her task, Fox used source materials such as the original diaries of Henry Sawyer and conducted many interviews with the very persons she was writing about.

“I wanted to hear it in their own words,” she said. “It’s like a living history, really.”

Even current owner Bob Mullock “has an incredible story to tell,” she said.

“He went to Somalia in 1991, like an ambassador without portfolio, and he ran his own relief mission before the marines got there,” Fox said.

Like so many others associated with the Chalfonte, Fox said, Mullock has a way of “doing” and “giving.” He and his wife Mary are also good examples of the hotel’s romantic side, she said: a quarter century before purchasing the hotel, they were married there.

What makes a place the site of so much history and romance?

“I think it’s the basic simplicity of the place that does that,” Fox said. “You can feel the sea breeze and you can smell it; the chaos of life doesn’t get in the way here.”

Fox’s book, in a handsome, yearbook-style hard cover, was published through an agreement between Anne LeDuc and Exit Zero Publishing. It costs $29.95, and will be carried by shops throughout Cape May. The book also can be purchased at the Chalfonte, 301 Howard St.

Additional book signing events are scheduled to be held at the Chalfonte from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 3 (coupled with an art reception featuring Penelope Chiusano); Sunday, August 7 (with art reception featuring Marie Natale); and Sunday, Sept. 11.

 

Author Karen Fox, at left, signed her new book at the Chalfonte. Author Karen Fox, at left, signed her new book at the Chalfonte. - Carole Mattessich

Susie Satterfield, who bought the Chalfonte 100 years ago, is pictured in 1911 near a flower-bedecked parade car in front of the hotel. Susie Satterfield, who bought the Chalfonte 100 years ago, is pictured in 1911 near a flower-bedecked parade car in front of the hotel. courtesy of Exit Zero Publishing

The Chalfonte was built by Henry Sawyer, pictured here third from left in the front row, toward the end of the Civil War, after his execution was postponed in the prisoner of war exchange for Robert E. Lee’s son. The Chalfonte was built by Henry Sawyer, pictured here third from left in the front row, toward the end of the Civil War, after his execution was postponed in the prisoner of war exchange for Robert E. Lee’s son. courtesy of Exit Zero Publishing

Dot Burton, on left, and Lucille Thompson, children of the famous chef Helen Dickerson, were among those Fox calls “the soul of the Chalfonte.” Dot Burton, on left, and Lucille Thompson, children of the famous chef Helen Dickerson, were among those Fox calls “the soul of the Chalfonte.” courtesy of Exit Zero Publishing


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