Tea with Mr. Simons
By Judy Bross with Todd Schwebel
Appointed by Massachusetts Governor Charles Duane Baker Jr. as Vice Chair of the Plymouth 400th Anniversary State Commission and Mayflower 400 gala host, Brenton Simons manned phones, sent emails and did whatever it took mid-March to successfully postpone until April 2021—due to the coronavirus pandemic—the multifaceted event cosponsored by the Social Register. Honoring former United Kingdom Prime Minister Sir John Major, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award in Public Service, the gala will also recognize the Earl and Countess of Devon, patrons of Mayflower 400 (UK), and Philippe de Montebello, longtime Director of the Metropolitan Museum and current Chairman of the Hispanic Society of America, among others.
The celebration will be a four-nation commemoration combining the efforts of the United States, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and the Wampanoag Nation. Among the multitude of events will be a ceremony at the State House in Boston with Governor Baker, where William Bradford’s original 17th-century manuscript on the history of the Pilgrims will be making a very rare appearance, as well as tours, exhibits and a regatta of wooden ships.
Oil portrait of Brenton and his longhaired dachshund by society portraitist Sergei Danilin.
Credit: Pierce Harman
We caught up with Simons after a long day of coordinating the change of schedule due to current events. We were glad to hear that he had a moment on his couch with Sedgwick, his longhaired dachshund, who had waited patiently for his master’s attention.
“Four hundred years ago, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people they encountered lived in a time when ‘plagues’ decimated entire villages and took lives indiscriminately, so it is ironic that a pandemic is happening now as we look back at their experiences. My organization has survived the Civil War, World Wars, the 1918 flu epidemic, the Great Depression, 9/11, etc., so from an institutional position one just has to stay nimble and make the best of it,” said Simons. “I have said to several people, rescheduling a host of ceremonies, galas, processions, luncheons, book launches, it’s a little bit like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, but this time it will work well. We will spread out some of the events that were clustered together in just one week. For our gala, it means we will have more time to prepare and make it a perfect, sparkling evening. Sir John greatly looks forward to coming over for it. Elsewhere, Plymouth 400 now intends to reschedule the Plymouth 400 Opening Ceremonies originally planned for Friday, April 24, in Plymouth. Our board meeting and Newport dinner for Lord Julian Fellowes, remain as presently scheduled.”
Simons continued: “It all began on September 20, 2016. Governor Charlie Baker signed an Executive Order, which reaffirmed and expanded the 35-member Plymouth, MA, 400th Anniversary Commission, charged with ensuring a befitting national and state observance of the settlement of Plymouth Colony in 1620, including opportunities for local, state, national and global educational programming and interaction and a reflection of Massachusetts’ rich history, natural resources and diverse cultural contributions.” The Social Register Association’s Chairman, Christopher R. Wolf, stated, “The Social Register is proud to be the sponsor of this gala, which is being rescheduled to April 2021. Brenton has done a wonderful job with the NEHGS, and we’re excited to be working with my friend and his team on this wonderful, celebratory event that will mark a truly historic occasion in this nation’s history.”
Brenton Simons, host of a gala in Boston for author David McCullough, with Andrea Webb and His Grace The Duke of Rutland, of Belvoir Castle, Grantham, UK. Credit: Pierce Harman
Longtime SR member Todd Schwebel sat down with Mr. Simons last summer at Mr. Schwebel’s home in Murray Bay, Quebec, Canada, for a wonderful afternoon of conversation, excerpts from which follow.
Q: Please tell us a little about your genealogy.
A: I have lived in Boston for more than 30 years and I have written so much about its history. I consider myself a Bostonian now, but I am originally from Connecticut. I went to boarding schools in South Carolina and Switzerland, and I spent college and post-college time in England. My paternal family, the Simonses were originally from the Vale of Belvoir in England and my maternal family, the Fitches, were New Yorkers from the high gentry in Essex, England. Answering where I come from may bring us all the way back to the Middle Ages!
Q: The New England Historic Genealogical Society, also known as American Ancestors, is the oldest and largest nonprofit of its kind in America. Tell me what you do there.
A: Today we are the flagship genealogical society in America and we serve more than 325,000 members and millions of online users with the best genealogical materials available. Our website, AmericanAncestors.org, features 1.4 billion searchable records. Our mission is to inspire people about the past and provide them meaningful genealogical journeys. We publish bespoke family histories, and host exclusive tours of private houses and collections in England and Europe. This fall, we will visit Rome, and in early December, we will host “An English Country Christmas” at Weston Park, the former seat of the Earls of Bradford, one of the premier country houses in England—in a breathtaking Capability Brown landscape—where we will stay with our guests. We offer a multitude of online and in-person educational experiences, and we serve as the anchor location of the PBS television series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr., now in its sixth season. I am so proud of our staff. We have incredibly supportive members and trustees and council members all over the United States and beyond.
Q: Who is your most famous ancestor?
A: I suppose the most famous would be Charlemagne or William the Conqueror, or maybe a Pilgrim like Governor William Bradford—since this is the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower—but I am partial to my great-great-grandfather Ashbel P. Fitch (1848-1904). I am considered his doppelganger. He was a successful New York City politician and financier who was educated in Europe and went on to establish the Trust Company of America, among many other things. He was a Renaissance man: he translated Goethe into English, knew the leaders of his day, including Otto von Bismarck, established a preserve in the Adirondacks, and even challenged Teddy Roosevelt to a swordfight. An excellent biography of him, Ashbel P. Fitch: Champion of Old New York, was published a few years ago. The press noted his elegant personal style, and his silver and vermeil punch bowl, the largest ever made by Tiffany & Co., is featured in John Loring’s Magnificent Tiffany Silver.
Q: Who is your most embarrassing ancestor?
A: I am not so much as embarrassed but intrigued by one of my ancestors in the Arnold family of Newport, RI. He married, as his second wife, a woman with very bad intentions. She poisoned him. Poor fellow! This saga was the subject of a recent book, The Poison Plot: A Tale of Adultery and Murder in Colonial Newport. Cousins of mine also include members of the Dalton Gang, the notorious bank robbers killed at Coffeyville, KS, in the late 1800s. I am amused, rather than embarrassed, by black sheep in my family tree. I subscribe to Cleveland Amory’s view in The Proper Bostonians: “has immense pride in his forbears and he includes them all. The portraits of past black sheep hang on his walls along with those of his stern-faced ancestors whose ways were more tried and true.”
Q: Tell us about the books you have authored.
A: The book I enjoyed writing the most was Witches, Rakes, and Rogues: True Stories of Scam, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in Boston, 1630-1774. Witchcraft cases fascinate people, and naturally, the subject is completely misunderstood today. For that book, I gathered stories of serial killers, con artists, and the like. Boston had let some of its most fascinating history slip away and some historians, including the great Walter Muir Whitehill, had gotten some of these stories wrong.
Q: Other than ancestors, what else do you collect?
A: I am from a family of inveterate collectors, on both sides, so it must be genetic. I had a great-grandfather who collected Chippendale furniture very seriously a century ago. One or more of his pieces is now at Winterthur. I had a great-grandmother who wrote collecting articles in the magazine Antiques, so I am just following in their footsteps. I love the “Chinese tents” paintings by the18th-century French artist Jean-Baptiste Pillement, and so that is a great interest presently. I also collect 18th- and early 19th-century English green glazed pottery, Sadler and Green printed tiles, armorial bookplates, and, very rarely, I find pieces of my family’s ca. 1725 armorial service from China.
Q: Who is your favorite tailor or designer?
A: I grew up going to J. Press in New Haven, especially for boarding school clothes, and so have always been decidedly “Ivy.” The late Charlie Davidson, the “Baron of Bespoke” who owned the Andover Shop, was a dear friend and great influence. Now I find most of my clothing in London—Turnbull & Asser, Cordings, New & Lingwood. I love Scottish tweeds in lively colors. Most of all in clothing, I like a dash of character. Earth tones are depressing to me. I am from the “virtues of pink and green” generation. Good shoes are very important, too. My favorites are Belgians, as well as Stubbs & Wootton and Alden. I am a detail person. My grandmother gave me monogrammed silver buttons from Ben Silver as a teenager and that ruined me. Now I change out buttons on my jackets all the time. “You can always tell a gentleman by his shoes” is an old adage to which I would add “and his buttons.”
Q: What famous people are associated with New England Historic Genealogical Society and what is the biggest surprise you have ever revealed to them?
A: Our first member was John Quincy Adams, followed by Daniel Webster and many others, so we have always had illustrious members. Julia Child and Charlton Heston were members in my years here, and most Presidents and First Ladies have been, too. We cover presidential genealogies and have also published books on the ancestries of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Duchess of Cambridge. My favorite surprise moments have included presenting David McCullough with a “literary family tree,” which connected him to Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, Hemingway, and several other famous authors. On another occasion, I gave Ken Burns his genealogy. I knew he revered Abraham Lincoln and, sure enough, we discovered that they are related. That was a showstopper. I also enjoyed giving Henry Louis Gates his genealogy; Oprah Winfrey included a lovely foreword in it. It was nice to give Skip a genealogy since he does that every week on television for so many other people. A sentimental favorite was giving Dame Angela Lansbury her family history at one of our galas. We showed clips of her films going all the way back to Gaslight, as well as her scenes with Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, and others. I interviewed her about her legendary acting career, which was tremendous fun.
Q: What is your favorite getaway?
A: I am growing very fond of Palm Beach. I love the sun and beach there, and that it has an intellectual core with institutions like The Society of the Four Arts, where I gave a talk for the Florida Society of Colonial Wars last year, and the Norton Museum, among others.
But I also love Cape Cod, the United Kingdom, and Italy—especially Venice, where I had an unforgettable sabbatical several years ago.