At the Home of F.D.R.'s Secret Friend

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ON a secluded bluff in Rhinebeck, N.Y., in one of the most beautiful spots overlooking the Hudson River, a 35-room Queen Anne mansion with a five-story turret is getting final touches on its first paint job since 1910. On one side, its rambling porch shines in bright maroon and green. On the other, where the painters and the grant money still haven’t penetrated, it looks like a crumbling wreck.

This is Wilderstein, a stepchild among the Hudson River mansions, one of the last to be restored and despite its beauty one of the least visited — partly because its owner, Margaret Suckley (usually called Daisy), stayed on so long, cheerfully dispensing tea to strangers and far outlasting her family’s fortune. She died there in 1991, a few months before her hundredth birthday. But on a Wilderstein tour it is Daisy herself who will tell you, in a video made in the 1980s as her house deteriorated around her, that the previous paint went on in 1910. “It was good paint,” she says, laughing.

In the same video, Miss Suckley (rhymes with BOOK-ly) also talks, almost in passing, about the last days in the life of a neighbor and sixth cousin who lived downriver in another mansion: Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was one of the four women with Roosevelt in his Georgia house when he died in 1945, yet she leaves the impression that she was little more than his dog walker. It is far short of the truth.

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