Before he was a star! Humphrey Bogart and his Finger Lakes Summer

Bogart at age 15 or 16, circa 1916.
06/18/2018
by Jan Bridgeford-Smith

In the summer of 1899, Dr. Belmont DeForest Bogart of New York City purchased a 55-acre estate on Canandaigua Lake for his pregnant wife, Maud Humphrey. They christened the Seneca Point property “Willow Brook.” A few months later, on Christmas Day, their first child was born. They christened the boy Humphrey DeForest Bogart, a huge name that with time and fame would shorten to the iconic “Bogie.” For the next 15 summers, Bogie would call Willow Brook home.

Many years later, local residents recalled the family’s arrival from Grand Central Station on the overnight Pullman. According to the 1998 book, Bogart, by Ann Sperber and Eric Lax, they would get off the train to board a lake steamer headed for their landing. “The doctor, six feet tall and broad-shouldered, immaculate in his heavy suit, boiled shirt, and stiff collar; his handsome wife, nearly as tall, thin, fashionable in starched cottons or flowing silks of gray or mauve, with lavender-ribboned high-heeled high-button shoes that accentuated the tininess of her size 2-1/2 feet, of which she was so proud; the small, dark-eyed boy and his two little sisters Frances and Catherine, all three under the close watch of a nurse in a starched uniform. They swept aboard the steamer, a splendid caravan, the rear brought up by a sour faced servant couple straining under the weight of abundant trunks and packages.”

To get to their destination, called “the Point” by Canandaigua locals, the Bogarts may well have taken a leisurely voyage on the 600-passenger Onnalinda, considered Canandaigua Lake’s “Queen of the Steamboat.” Launched in May of 1888, the vessel was larger and more modernized than others of the time, and provided travelers with amenities such as bathrooms, a few private cabins, and a snack bar. On deck, passengers enjoyed the sweet aromas of fresh grapes, peaches and other fruits being ferried to the railroad spur on Canandaigua’s pier, which were then shipped to city markets in New York and Washington.

Though many of the homes scattered along the shoreline could be reached using narrow carriage roads, the preferred access was by water. To accommodate this need, the steamboats of the Canandaigua Lake Navigation Company regularly traveled the 16-mile long lake making stops, scheduled or flagged, at the 70 or so landings that dotted the shoreline.

Dr. Bogart purchased the Seneca Point property – a dandy piece of real estate that included fields, pastures, streams and woods – from the McKechnie family, founders of Canandaigua’s famed McKechnie Brewery. Dominating the acreage was a charming two-story Victorian cottage built in 1871. It was fitted with broad, awning-covered steps that descended from an expansive, gingerbread-trimmed front porch to a manicured lawn that stretched to the lake’s edge and a curved, shale beach.

On the north end of the building was a handsome circular tower with a rooftop spire that floated above the trees. The home’s sweeping 400 feet of lake front was guarded at one end by a boat house and marked at the other by a tumbling brook lined with tall stands of oak, ash, poplar, and the willow. At the end of a long wooden dock, the doctor moored his champion-class racing yacht, the Commodore, the craft that seduced young Humphrey into a lifelong love affair with sailing.

Despite their New York City address and urban sensibilities, Dr. and Mrs. Belmont Bogart had local roots. Belmont moved to Manhattan as a young child but was born in Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake. Bogarts had lived in that region of the Finger Lakes since the late 1700s. Described as “handsome with a thatch of dark hair,” Belmont was gregarious and social but harbored a wicked temper. Maud was a native of nearby Rochester, raised comfortably in the chic neighborhood known as the “Ruffled Shirt District.” Her family circle claimed judges, lawyers, successful merchants and a distant connection to the English Churchills. Described as “beautiful, stately and fastidious,” Maud had an imperious demeanor that commanded attention but discouraged closeness.

Most of the year, Belmont, Maud and their three children resided in a four-story town house at 103rd street off Riverside Drive in Manhattan’s then-fashionable Upper West Side. The family’s posh lifestyle was partially supported by Belmont’s $20,000 income from his medical practice. A cardio-pulmonary specialist, he saw patients in his offices located on the brownstone’s first floor. But Maud was the household’s primary wage-earner, and she worked in a studio on the home’s fourth floor. At the time, she was one of the highest-paid illustrators in the country, earning approximately $50,000 per year – more than twice as much as her husband. Her commercial work, which never fully showcased her talent, usually featured ornate, sentimental renditions of cherry-cheeked moppets dressed in fussy Victorian-era clothing. The popular images were in high demand for calendars, magazines, children’s books, and product packaging.

For Bogie, life in the Manhattan house, sandwiched between the demands and pressures of his parents’ livelihoods, was stifling.

Small for his age, with a “sissy” name and dressed in fussy clothes by his mother, Humphrey was a target for his peers in the city; ruthlessly teased or patently ignored depending on the day and its pursuits. His home life was equally brutal. While the Bogart family appeared to define Victorian sensibility and reserve, the household was often turbulent and vicious. Maud battled migraines and suffered from a painful bacterial skin condition, erysipelas. She abused alcohol, flew into rages, and occasionally needed morphine injections to survive her afflictions. Maud controlled her children through cold indifference and scathing criticism.

Belmont, in chronic pain from a carriage accident that occurred soon after he graduated from medical school, sank year-by-year into morphine addiction. He vacillated between agitated, explosive anger, and sober calm; enforcing discipline on his children with a belt.

At Seneca Point, where Bogie could easily escape to more welcoming families, Humphrey – Hump to his lake chums – flourished.

Eight miles south of Canandaigua village, the point was an idyllic Arcadia bordered on three sides by grapevine-covered hills. Property owners were solidly affluent, socially conservative and politically Republican, though there is a story that a young Franklin Roosevelt once visited on a romantic escapade. The tale goes that on a luminous summer day in July, the vain and virile Mr. Roosevelt was showing off his swimming talent to impress a young woman when he was seized with cramps. He sank into the lake’s cool waters, but was pulled ashore by a local resident. By one account, he was taken to the Bogarts’ cottage where he was tended by Dr. Bogart and spent a night recuperating in Humphrey’s bed. According to the Bogart book, when FDR’s New Deal policies offended local sensibilities decades later, the Good Samaritan who dragged him to shore declared, “I should have let the son of a bitch drown!” Had Eleanor known of her husband’s trip and mishap, she might have agreed.

The summer of 1914 was Hump’s most memorable in the privileged, genteel, lakeside environment. That season, he appeared as a handsome 14-year-old with a studied “coolness” and bouts of sullen moodiness that made him a hot property with the local girls. His newfound charisma also upped his cachet with the boys. He became leader of the Seneca Point Gang, a misnomer, given that the “delinquents” were headed to banking boardrooms, not prison cells. For Hump, one of the joys of leadership was directing the gang’s daily activities: boating, swimming, staging improvised versions of “The Perils of Pauline” on the beach, or watching a local farmer butcher a steer. He also had first crack at hopping on a ferry when it docked, then shinnying barefoot up the steamer’s side to dive back into the lake – a prohibited, therefore daring maneuver.

But Hump’s most notable deed that season was hauling Arthur Hamlin, youngest grandson of the local banker, out of the lake. The child, who’d fallen off a dock, never forgot the rescue. Eighty years later, he told authors Sperber and Lax, “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him.” It was a high note to go out on.

In that final golden summer, Humphrey DeForest Bogart was at last a hero among his peers. He remembered those months as the happiest of his first 40 years.

By 1916, Willow Brook was sold. Maud had taken a position as art director for a popular magazine, The Delineator, and insisted she needed to stay close to Manhattan. For Bogie, it was the end of a beautiful friendship. He never returned
to Seneca Point.