Some islands have names with stories that are just meant to be told. This little known Thousand Island off the shores of Rockport is such a place.
Fancy Rock Island has a red and white cottage sitting atop a hill of granite in a part of the River in Canadian waters near an island famously close to the American border. There's also a tiny guest 'cottage' too with the framed illustration of one of the island's previous inhabitants: a glamorous Hollywood movie actress that hangs on the cabin's wall. Her name was Irene Purcell and she had a boat named Show Girl.
Purcell was a stage actress but also went to Hollywood to appear in movies in the early 1930s. She was in a dozen or so films including Just a Gigolo in Bachelor's Affairs and The Passionate Plumber alongside Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante. In 1939, the screen star appeared in the famous Broadway play The Women.
She came to the River to visit her paramour, a Montreal businessman named Yves de Villers. It is believed he gave Purcell, who lived in New York City and Hollywood, the island. The couple quarrelled and the love affair went sour. Purcell was returning to the island one afternoon and was astonished to see their home had vanished, with only the chimney remaining. He had the building removed and transported to Grenadier Island.
Some time later in the 1940's, Purcell was back in New York and attending a war bond benefit at the Waldorf-Astoria. She was seated next to another actress and friend named Joan Marlowe, who mentioned how much she would like a Thousand Island of her own.
She reportedly turned to Joan and replied without hesitation: "Well, I'll give you mine."
Purcell would later marry Herbert F. Johnson, the chairman of the Johnson Wax Company and moved to Wisconsin to live in a 14,000 square foot home designed by renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
She actually sold the island to Marlowe for $1. Marlowe is credited with naming it Fancy Rock Island, because it was, well, far from fancy. But Marlowe loved her rustic Canadian getaway. There's a framed illustration of the brunette beauty on the wall in the living room perched high above the River.
It's located across from author John Keats' Pine Island and next to Zavikon Island. Zavikon is the island widely photographed and incorrectly reported to have the smallest international bridge in the world (to Little Zavikon Island). Although all three are close next-door neighbours to New York state.
Marlowe was married to the famous New York theatre critic, Ward Morehouse II, when she first started going to Fancy Rock Island. Morehouse II, a famous theatre critic who penned the column Broadway After Dark for the New York Sun for 25 years. He also travelled on a US Navy destroyer to London and Paris during World War II to write columns called Atlantic After Dark, London After Dark and Paris After Dark.
A playwright and a screenwriter, he was a world traveller who drove across the United States over 23 times and visited 80 foreign countries in search of stories and interviews with such subjects as Eugene O'Neill and Shoeless Joe Jackson. He stayed in so many hotels he was once quoted as saying his epitaph should read: Room service please.
But Morehouse II was not as enamoured as his wife was with the Thousand Islands. He wandered around in his trademark blue suit and tie in summer, raising eyebrows when he jumped off a dock in Alexandria Bay to cool off after a long drive. He preferred staying overnight in an Alexandria Bay hotel nearby rather than on the idyllic island of Fancy Rock.
The theatre critic was not the most tactful when it came to regional productions here, once summoning up the most flattering remark he could to an actress after her less-than stellar performance by exclaiming: "Well why aren't you on Broadway?"
For a time, his penchant for fancy hotels led him to take up residence at The Plaza - with a bear cub named Bangkok he brought home from Thailand. He gave the bear to the Ringling Brothers Circus after some of the hotel maids complained about the unwelcome guest.
Morehouse II, a southerner from Savannah, often returned from his travels around the globe with exotic animals. He gave his young son Ward a lion cub for his birthday and Marlowe a silver fox after international jaunts.
Morehouse III would follow in his father's footsteps, becoming a newspaperman at the Christian Science Monitor and Broadway critic for the New York Post.
His father would take the young boy along with him to review Broadway plays. "His notes made sense and my notes made no sense at all," Morehouse III recalls with a laugh.
He also inherited his father's appreciation of luxury hotels. Morehouse III is also the author of books on some of the world's grandest hotels. His books include: Life at the Top: Inside New York's Grand Hotels, Inside the Plaza, The Waldorf-Astoria America's Gilded Dreams. He also wrote a book including his father's columns as well as his articles on Broadway called Broadway After Dark.
Marlowe and Morehouse II, who married four times, would divorce. She adored Fancy Rock Island and kept coming back.
"She just fell in love with the place," said Morehouse III. "She loved to swim here."
Marlowe was the daughter of a newspaper editor in Ithaca New York and a silent film actress.
She left the stage eventually to become the co-publisher of “New York Theatre Critics' Reviews” and “Theatre Information Bulletin”.
Marlowe remarried Roderick Rahe, a chemist, and the couple enjoyed Fancy Rock Island with their family for decades. Both have since deceased.
"That island was a lifelong project of my parents, a lifetime partnership," said their son, Rod Rahe. "They loved that island."
Its name was always an inside joke, said Rahe, recalling how he used to have to read by kerosene lamps as a child. "She named it Fancy Rock, not because it's fancy."
Rahe, who works for IBM in New York, returns to the River as much as he and his family can each year. As a college student, he spent summers as a tour guide for Uncle Sam Boat Tours. "I had the greatest time," he said. "You really get to know the River almost like you know a person. There's something about being a River rat. As child, it was an adventure. It was a world unto its own."
Morehouse III also comes to Fancy Rock with his son Will. He is drawn back here by more than the island's spectacular vistas from its steep granite bluffs overlooking the timeless waters of the St. Lawrence.
"It's the history," he said. "The whole thing about the River is the houses come and the houses go and the people come and the people go but the River never changes."
Room Service, Please!
Author Ward Morehouse III took on an enviable project in the spring of 2009: Check into more than two dozen of London's grandest hotels for some whirlwind research into some of the world's finest hostelries and write about his revolving-door stay in Britain.
The result of the New York City writer's luxury hotel hopping is the book London's Grand Hotels Extraordinary People, Extraordinary Service in the World's Cultural Capital.
Morehouse wrote his introduction to his new book at his cottage on Fancy Rock Island near Rockport Ont., where he has spent time summers since his childhood located next to an island belonging to another non-fiction author: the late John Keats. Keats wrote Of Time and An Island, nostalgic memoir about time with his family on Pine Island.
Morehouse, a third generation newspaper man, playwright and former Broadway theatre critic for the New York Post, has had a longstanding love affair with grand hotels that began long before his book about George C. Boldt's The Waldorf-Astoria: America's Gilded Dream.
His father, the late Ward Morehouse II, was a famous Broadway critic who spent so much time in hotels around the world that he wanted 'Room service, please!" on his tombstone.
His mother, the late publisher and actress Joan Marlowe and father lived for a time at the Waldorf-Astoria while his father lived in The Plaza after their divorce, sharing his suite to the dismay of the maids, with a bear cub named Bangkok from Thailand.
London's Grand Hotels is more than a hotel guide. Morehouse takes readers on a conversational romp through some of Britain's finest hotels including The Ritz, The Savoy, The Lanesborough and The Dorchester. There are classic bits of celebrity gossip and trivia about famous hotel guests throughout the book. These harken back to another era and thankfully do not include the modern-day tabloid tales about the latest antics of Charlie Sheen.
Brown's Hotel, for example, was where Rudyard Kipling finished writing the Jungle Book. Franklin D. Roosevelt also checked in there as well as Alexander Graham Bell. There's also mentions of Marlene Dietrich at The Dorchester and Katharine Hepburn raising eyebrows at the Claridge Hotel for wearing slacks. Vivien Leigh met Laurence Olivier in the dining room at the Savoy.
Morehouse, who typically enjoys spending time on two islands, Manhattan and Fancy Rock, became enamoured with hotels like the Waldorf-Astoria and The Plaza. Drawn to their history and glamour, he discovered them to be islands unto themselves, with stories waiting to be told.
"I was fascinated to this city within a city," he said of the 2000-room Waldorf-Astoria.
Of hotelier Boldt, whose Boldt Castle on Heart Island, is close to Fancy Rock Island, Morehouse said he was most impressed with stories of Boldt's dedication to customer service. He served beef from cattle raised on a farm on Wellesley Island at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Morehouse has also written Inside The Plaza: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate Hotel. He followed that book up with Life at the Top: Inside New York's Grand Hotels. He's also written a book on Santa Fe hotels and Brussels hotels.
Broadway After Dark combines stories of his father's as well as some of his tales of New York's theatre district.
He decided to write about the hotels of London in 2009, spending a night at one hotel and checking out the next day for a new one. One cabby picked him up and took him half a block, depositing him at the front lobby of another grand hotel and refusing to take payment for the short fare. "That would never happen in New York," said Morehouse.
He doesn't know where he'll be checking in next for his following book. But his five-star hotel hopping "means adventure," he said. "It means excitement. It's getting away from the everyday mundane."
By Kim Lunman, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kim Lunman is the publisher of Island Life Magazine (http://www.islandlifemag.ca) based in Brockville Ontario. She is an award-winning journalist and former national correspondent for the Globe and Mail newspaper in Ottawa and Victoria B.C. Kim is a regular contributor and team member on thousandislandlife.com. She first wrote about Fancy Rock Island in Island Life magazine in 2010. The 2011 issue of Island Life magazine will be distributed in eastern Ontario and northern New York as an insert in newspapers in May. TI Life will give you lots of notice, so you will be sure to obtain a copy.