Oh, life is a
glorious cycle of song,
A medley of
And love is a
thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie
I don't often cross paths with royalty. I've done so conceptually by
way of Dorothy Parker – and at Maryhill, where railroad baron and
entrepreneur Samuel Hill perched an Italian Renaissance mansion and a
full-sized replica of Stonehenge above the basalt cliffs of the
Columbia Gorge. A few rows of Lombardy poplar provide just a
superficial resemblance to Italy, as well as a windbreak. And it's
rather more desiccated than Wiltshire, that part of England featuring
the original Stonehenge. A Neolithic monument and a born-again
classical estate in the desert of the American west – out-of-place
doesn't begin to describe it. What the Sam Hill was he thinking?
What Hill did there is one thing,
but why he chose the site is spectacularly obvious. The Gorge is now a
huge funnel of activity – a procession of barges moving up and down
river, railroads on both sides, I-84... It's a kinetic, noisy place.
However, Maryhill overlooks slack water impounded behind The Dalles Dam
about 15 miles west. When Hill first came here, he viewed a live river,
with current quickening toward Celilo Falls, just out of sight
downstream. It's noisy now, but nothing to match the former thunder of
those falls. It's still a busy place, but for thousands of years,
Celilo was the cultural center of the native Northwest. With evening
and a little awareness, one can feel a “dark Encroachment” of an “old
catastrophe,” to borrow from the poem Sunday
Morning by Wallace Stevens.
dad told me as a kid that Hill built the mansion to lure a royal love
interest into his life. Marie became the Romanian queen, but she was
also the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and grew up as Princess Marie
of Edinburgh on a country estate not far from Canterbury. As more
wealthy than most European royalty, Hill might have been attractive to
her. However, Marie came out west for a look, and decided that
Maryhill, during the early decades of the 20th century, was too
isolated for her refined social tastes. She returned to Europe.
At least, that
was the story. We were wrong.
The story is
believable, and rather compelling:
an accomplished American seeks acceptance among the rulers of Europe.
He's rebuffed due to the rough edges of the country, and perhaps of
his own personality. Unlike Athena, most stories, though hopefully
embodying wisdom, don't burst forth, fully armed, from the forehead
of Zeus. They might begin, evolve and mature in a more circuitous
fashion. They might begin as total fabrication – as purposeful
deceit – or spring accidentally from some collection of facts. This
story had some factual basis.
For one thing,
Sam and Marie actually were
friends. I don't know about Hill's personality, but besides her royal
blood, her personality might very well have been an attractive
feature. She once spoke of her dislike of an evangelical she met: “He
spoke of God as if He were the oldest title . . .” in the book of
aristocracy. And Marie considered confession to be “spiritual
nudism.” However, with a deep interest in the Bahá'í faith, she
was not spiritually indifferent. Spiritual concerns might have been a
shared interest. Unique among railroad executives, Hill was a Quaker.
As for the
connection with Dorothy Parker, it's obviously ironic that she
compares herself to royalty. But the comparison becomes more
interesting as we unearth similarities. Dorothy Parker was of course
in no position of power, but was a well-known literary figure in the
century. Her a career stretched from New York to Hollywood, and from
the 1920's through the 1960's. She was an accomplished poet, screen
writer, and critic – and extremely unhappy in her personal life.
This manifested itself in alcoholism and several suicide attempts.
But in her greatest achievement, she transformed her misery into
The irony of the poem thickens in realizing that
Marie also knew unhappiness in her love life. Those at the apex of
power don't automatically have the sympathy of commoners. However,
national imperatives to produce an heir trump personal happiness
every time. And the role of women in royalty might be considered a
form of indentured service – often pampered, materially
well-endowed service. Marie was forced to marry at 17 to someone many
years her senior. She subsequently bore six or more children, as many
outside the marriage as within it.
indeed visit Maryhill, but not to
check it out as a place to live, or investigate amorous
possibilities. If she had, she might have noticed that it was named
for Hill's wife Mary. His wealth might have overridden any related
concerns, well enough for royalty anyway, but understanding Mary Hill
is one key to understanding the story.
Hill moved to
Seattle about 1902, while
transitioning his career from railroading into
utilities. His wife
and two children followed him there, but returned to Minneapolis
after six months. As a gold-rush town, Seattle must have been pretty
raw to compare unfavorably with winters in the upper Midwest. Perhaps
they were still dragging logs through the mud to Yesler's mill at the
bottom of the original skid road. Perhaps the main force for
progressive change was still the “Seamstress Union,” that is, a
group of prosperous, well-connected ladies of the night. In any case,
it was all too much for Mary. She packed it up, and headed home.
As for Marie,
she didn't come to Maryhill for
love, but for friendship. She was here in 1926 to dedicate the Maryhill
mansion in its unfinished state as
a museum, a dozen years after Hill began
construction. It has served splendidly as such – much better than
as a residence exemplifying the Quaker ideal of simplicity.
meantime, Sam Hill had also built his
Stonehenge – as a war memorial. On visiting the original, he heard
that ritual human sacrifice took place on an altar stone inside the
henge. Many Englishmen resist this theory, though concentrations of
iron in the surrounding soil prove that sacrifice occurred there –
human or animal. Anyway, in the midst of the First World War, Hill
commented that modern war is also human sacrifice. He built his henge
to make the point in concrete.
my dad is no longer, I must take full responsibility for the story of
Marie. I was wrong. Actually, I'm often wrong. Though it's not a
permanent condition, it happens often enough that I need to work with
it. Perhaps I should try to be wrong about the right things, or in a
more focused manner. If one is unwilling to be wrong, one might never
be right. My intent is to be provisionally wrong, as the best state
gazing from Maryhill down river
toward The Dalles and Mount Hood, I become aware of the larger story.
An interest in people brought me
here, but the
place itself is more poignant. I was
right about one thing – we were wrong, in a larger sense.
It's strange to see in a new country such artifacts of European
antiquity – a mock-up of a four-thousand-year-old monument – the
Renaissance in the sagebrush. But there's actually nothing new about
this country. The villages of Celilo and Wishram represented the
oldest continuously inhabited sites on the continent. Four thousand
years is nothing. People had lived there for some 15 thousand years.
And the reason
was salmon, 15 to 20 million of
them jumping the falls every year. The Chinook tribe had become the
custodians of the place, but it wasn't theirs alone. They understood
that some things were more important than ownership and control. The
Chinook people placed greater value on trade, and made their home in a
international. As a result, Celilo was the mercantile and spiritual
center of what became the American Northwest. People came from
hundreds of miles away to trade, and to spear or dip out fish. And
the Chinook language became the lingua franca of the
Scattered from Northern California to Alaska, place names
this legacy – Ollalie, Sahalie and Illahee – Lemolo,
Cultus and Kaleetan.
The names are
but most people don't understand what they mean. The meaning is like
the unextracted DNA of bugs preserved in amber. To explain the meaning
of those names, most people don't see
the blue berries in Ollalie, the Sahalie chiefs, or the land itself
in Illahee; they don't appreciate the wild quality of Lemolo, nor the
uselessness of anything named Cultus; they don't know that a sharp peak
called Kaleetan was named for its resemblance to an arrowhead.
The river is
now slack water, but a distant
dull roar once emanated along a 12-mile stretch of rapids and
cataracts. Celilo Falls was the biggest drop of water, which the
Chinook people called Wyam, the "echo of falling water.”
Up close, the basalt substrate around the
once reverberated in a seasonal
Now the falls
are gone – most of the salmon
are gone. The Cascade Mountains were named for such cascading
stretches of river. In his novel Sometimes
a Great Notion, Ken Kesey wrote of an “hysterical crashing of
This suitably characterizes Cascadia. But when the flood gates of The
Dalles Dam closed in 1957, six hours sufficed to silence Wyam.
We were wrong. We can now barge grain from Lewiston to
adept at counting kilowatts. But as Timothy Egan noted in The Good
Rain, without salmon, we've lost the very soul of the Northwest.
Knowing this, and again echoing Stevens, one has little “to
dissipate, The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” Hill built his
henge to remember The Great War, but it's become monumental oblivion,
overlooking a place of greater loss.