Edith Lehr Amsterdam, a doyenne of “the River”, and chatelaine of Casa Blanca, died on Feb. 26 in Key West, FL, her winter residence. She was 91 years old, and according to a family statement, “passed away three days into her 92nd trip around the solar system.”
And what an orbit it was!
“For us, she was a wonderful ambassador for our favorite part of the world, the St. Lawrence,” said Jim Cumming of Neh Mahbin. “For awhile, she was known as ‘Queen of the River”, He added, “she truly had it all—terrific wit, great energy and wonderfully gracious and hospitable to all, even up into her 90s. Edith was a true gift to all of us.”
Shane Sanford of Boldt Castle concurred. “Edith was a great lady in the Thousand Islands,” he said. “She added grace and culture and had a real zest for living, and loved the finer things in life.” She also supported Boldt Castle, enjoying galas there that called for tuxedos and formal gowns, when she invited her friends from croquet in Key West up to “the River.”
Since 1994, she presided over two Victorian teas at Casa Blanca each summer, major fundraisers for the Alexandria Township Historical Society. “It was always a sell-out,” noted Anthony Mollica Jr., a board member and Cherry Island summer neighbor. With 145 guests on each arriving tour boat, they were greeted by Amsterdam, always wearing a confection of a hat and sometime draped in pearls. Visitors marvelled at the wonders of Casa Blanca: the historic interiors kept intact for over a century; the player piano and call button system that still worked; the dining room table, set for a formal dinner party with Limoges china and tiny gold caviar spoons; the upstairs sleeping porch, open to salubrious River breezes.
Judy Keeler, president of the board of ATHS, described the mood on the departing tour-boat after the teas as “uplifted.” She added, “Each one felt to have been privately invited to have tea on the porch with the Amsterdam’s.”
The River Hospital was also the beneficiary of Amsterdam’s generosity. “She was extremely generous, giving and very caring well beyond her financial contributions,” said Jeanne Snow, treasurer of the Board of Trustees. She hosted events at Casa Blanca for the Custis Society of the hospital, donors of $5,000 and over. She offered Casa Blanca for several weddings each summer, accepting a donation for the hospital. And during a festive evening for the hospital each July, she donated a stay at her Key West inn, which went to the highest bidder. Anyone matching that bid received a stay of equal length, noted Snow. “Sometimes there were seven or eight stays offered at the inn, she said.
In 2008, Amsterdam was named Citizen of the Year by the Alexandria Bay Chamber of Commerce, cited for her generosity to the hospital and to the historical society.
Over half a century ago, in 1962, Amsterdam and her husband Albert purchased Casa Blanca, becoming the somewhat surprised owners when their low offer was accepted. During the summer of 2014, Amsterdam, a riveting story-teller, regaled a group of visitors from the Onondaga Historical Society, visiting Casa Blanca, with that story as they sat in rapt attention on the porch, overlooking a panoramic sweep of River known as “Millionaire’s Row.”
“Her personality overrode the grandeur of the cottage,” said Gregg Tripoli, executive director of OHA. “She made everyone feel comfortable with fascinating stories that added to the historic and architectural environment at Casa Blanca. “It was an intimidating space, yet she immediately disarmed it,” he noted, describing Amsterdam as “gracious and beautiful.”
As the family matriarch, she reigned over Casa Blanca from the solarium, which she likened to a control tower, according to son Phil Amsterdam. From her desk with telephone, where she did the daily “New York Times” crossword puzzle in ink, she was often surrounded by a charmed circle of family and visitors. She decried any efforts to decorate the wall of windows high above the St. Lawrence, maintaining that the view was all she needed. “The beauty of the River… you never get over it,” she once said. “She liked to watch the passing of the ships and the comings and goings on the River,” noted Phil Amsterdam. “Between the solarium and front porch, we have a 290-degree view of the River.”
And she liked to cruise the river, in the fleet of boats at Casa Blanca. In 2004, she acquired a yacht, a 55’ Blue Water that she renamed “America!” Her favorite boat was the “Lady Edith,” a 1946 Hutchinson. And she also enjoyed the pontoon boats for exploring the nooks and crannies of the river, and getting close to nature.”She drove all the boats over the years,” said Phil Amsterdam.
She was born in 1925 in Bayonne, NJ, and raced through high school in Teaneck, NJ. “Haven’t you heard the typing story?” inquired Tad Clark, formerly of Comfort Island, who became friends over tennis lessons, he taught in the 1980s. Now speaking from Asheville, NC, he recalls Amsterdam told him,’’they had me doing typing and other obscure classes in high school, so that I wouldn’t graduate until I was 16 years old.” At age 16, she enrolled in Northwestern University, and had an early interest in the arts and culture, whether opera in New York, the symphony or ballet.
Although diminutive, on the tennis court she could be a formidable figure. “She could easily rally to one hundred, giving credence to her focusing skills,” said Clark, who often dropped by Casa Blanca to watch Wimbledon or the US Open, on television with her.
Cherry Island summer neighbor John Harwood remembers Amsterdam as “a connoisseur of porch conversation and sunsets.” He lost his first cousin Susan Newhouse in August 2015, another leading lady from Cherry Island. “These ladies maintained a certain style of living that reflected good graces, manners and sociability.”
His wife Fran Harwood, described Amsterdam as a “style icon,” from head to toe, and with a taste for giant, colorful hats and bright colors that only she could pull off with such elegance. She added, “Her sense of humor was unparalleled, and she was a gifted storyteller with an unending repertoire of tales.” She added, “In my mind, she is forever sitting on her porch, enjoying a perfect sunset over the water, surrounded by her beloved family, friends and dogs.”
Arrangements for a service on the River this summer are incomplete. A Victorian tea will be held in Edith Amsterdam’s honor, at Casa Blanca, on Friday, July 29th.
A memorial service was held in Key West on March 5th. She is predeceased by her husband, Albert, her son Bruce, her daughter Carol Amsterdam Fomari and sister, Rachel Lehr.
Surviving are her daughter, Patsy Amsterdam, of Syracuse and Key West and her son Phillip and his wife Nancy Amsterdam, of Syracuse, and her six grandchildren, a great-granddaughter and brother Jay Lehr.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The River Hospital Development Fund, P.O. Box 567, Alexandria Bay, NY 13607.
By Kathleen Quigley
Kathleen Quigley is the author of “The Summer Cottage: Retreats of the 1000 Islands,” published by Rizzoli International Publications with photography by James Scherzi. Kathleen has also written for The New York Times on boathouses of the River and Thousand Island Park, and for Preservation Magazine online on the voyage of La Duchesse to the Antique Boat Museum.
|Editor’s Note: TI Life readers were introduced to Edith Amsterdam in Kim Lunman’s “Casa Blanca,” in the 2014s print magazine, “Island Life.” Kim shared this again in our September 2014, Cherry Island's Casa Blanca. Jill and Bob White shared their Story Book Wedding, held on Casa Blanca in October 2012. Also Kathleen Quigley’s “The Summer Cottage: Retreats of the 1000 Islands,” was reviewed in February, 2006.