Billie Burke and Florenz Ziegfeld

For 15 years Billie Burke and her husband, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., two of the biggest names in the world of New York entertainment, made their home at Billie's estate, Burkeley Crest, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Billie and her mother had purchased the property in 1910 before Billie was married. When their daughter Patricia was born, Billie and Flo moved there full time.

The Ziegfelds loved to entertain. Many of the biggest stars of the era, including Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Johnny Weissmuller, were among the guests who came to enjoy their beautiful home and gardens as well as the family's menagerie. However, the center of their world while at Burkeley Crest was their daughter, Patricia (1916-2008), who wrote of her childhood in The Ziegfelds' Girl: Confessions of an Abnormally Happy Childhood (1964). Although the family primarily kept to themselves while in Hastings, they employed several local residents, and both Flo and Billie occasionally stepped forward to help with community events.

Billie Burke

Billie Burke. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Westchester Power Couple

Billie Burke was a popular and successful Broadway actress long before she met impresario Flo Ziegfeld. Born Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke, she was the daughter of a popular circus clown, Billy Burke, and she and her mother traveled with him on tour in both the U.S. and Europe. This gave Billie her first stage opportunity; she debuted in London in 1903 in a play called The School Girl. When she arrived in New York she became a Broadway favorite, eventually catching the eye of Flo Ziegfeld.

After the stock market crash of 1929 when the family finances were wiped out, Billie moved to California to try her hand at film. In 1938 she was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in Merrily We Live, but the role for which she is most remembered is Glinda the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Ziegfeld grew up in Chicago, where his father ran the Chicago Musical College and later opened a nightclub. Flo Ziegfeld's first taste of the entertainment world was as business manager for a strongman who appeared at his father's club. Ziegfeld moved to New York where he met producers Marcus Klaw and A. L. Erlanger. They were looking for a way to compete successfully with the Shubert brothers, who were staging reviews and building good audiences. Klaw and Erlanger agreed to finance Ziegfeld in putting together a show based on the very successful Folies Bergère in Paris.

Ziegfeld's first show opened on a rooftop garden in the New York theater district on July 8, 1907. Even with no stars, the show ran for 70 profit-making performances, which gave Ziegfeld the opportunity to stage another show the following year. He soon became known for his annual extravaganzas, which featured elaborate costumes and sets, beautiful women and carefully choreographed musical numbers. The name, Ziegfeld's Follies, began to be used in 1910.

Florenz Ziegfeld

Florenz Ziegfeld. WCHS Picture Collection.

Many who became headliners of the day got their start under Ziegfeld's banner: W.C. Fields, Marion Davies, Theda Bara, Ed Wynn, Paulette Goddard, Eddie Cantor, Nora Bayes, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Marilyn Miller. George Gershwin began his career as a rehearsal pianist for Ziegfeld. The Follies also helped popularize many songs of the 1920s, which were written by composers like George M. Cohan, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern. Some of the titles that were introduced in the Follies were "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," " Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee," " Second Hand Rose," " By the Light of the Silvery Moon" and "Shine On Harvest Moon." Dances such as the Turkey Trot, the Glide and the Dip all became the rage after being performed in a Ziegfeld extravaganza. Ziegfeld also broke the color barrier by hiring Bert Williams, the first black man to co-star on Broadway in a show with white performers.

Ziegfeld was very committed to detail in his shows. He once said: "Details are what makes a show's 'personality'…I hunt for chances of putting in a laugh or taking out a slow bit. I keep [my shows] combed, polished, and groomed." Unfortunately Ziegfeld's wandering eye for the chorus girls, his penchant for overspending both at home and in his work (further complicated by big gambling debts) eventually led to his undoing.

Burkeley Crest: Home and Gardens

The property that became known as Burkeley Crest was first spotted by Billie and her mother, Blanche, while Billie was still single. The land was situated on a pretty piece of property in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and it had a three-story house built by William A. Hall, who had purchased the land in 1855. The house was built of white dolomite marble. In 1880 Hall sold the property to August Kirkham, whose family used it as a summer home. Blanche and Billie bought it from the Kirkhams in 1910 for $60,000. Billie added additional property in 1912, including a house near what is now Farragut Avenue. Blanche moved into that home when Billie married Flo.

Billie Burke, ca. 1920

Billie Burke seated at her desk at Burkely Crest, ca. 1920. Courtesy Hastings Historical Society.

Flo loved entertaining. It was said that Delia, the cook, knew that if he said 20 guests were coming, she should prepare for 40, and Flo stopped at nothing to provide his guests with what they loved. The dining room seated 16 to 18 guests, but the grounds were beautiful, so meals were often served outside. Above the chair rail in the dining room was a partially finished mural by Albert Herter, an artist who painted murals for businesses all over the country. Perhaps his success was why the mural at Burkeley Crest was never finished.

Delia commanded the world of food preparation. There was a big porch out the back door where there was a huge ice box. The ice man delivered a block of ice a couple of times each week. Outdoors there was a big cast iron stove that had barbecue broilers and huge ovens, and the staff often prepared lavish meals there for guests.

A highlight for guests at Burkeley Crest was watching movies. A projection room was tucked away behind the living room; films were shown on a screen that could be pulled down at the far end of the living room where guests could sit comfortably. A projectionist worked on Saturdays and Sundays, and if the servants were free they were often included at the screenings.

The sun parlor at the rear of the home was filled with flowers from the garden that were changed daily during the warmer months. It was also home for the family's three parrots. According to Patricia in her book, the parrots picked up Billie's laugh and were also frequently heard to say, "aw shutup."

There were stables on the property, a garage for the automobiles, a "motor room" where guests could freshen up after a ride in the open cars of the day, an elaborate swimming pool and fountain (designed by Ziegfeld's set decorator, Joseph Urban), tennis courts and several Japanese tea houses to offer shade for anyone walking the property.

The gardens were an important part of the estate, and Ziegfeld took a personal interest in them, sometimes spending Saturdays visiting area nurseries to select the plants he wanted. Ziegfeld frequently hosted the Westchester County Children's Society Flower Show. Andrew Ryan, one of the gardeners, remembered trellises of rambler roses, beds of rhododendrons and laurel, and thousands of daffodils blooming in the springtime along the driveway. On the south of the lawn was a formal garden and cutting flower beds. There were vegetable gardens and greenhouses as well as grape arbors, and gardeners grew rhubarb and several types of berries.

Burkeley, Crest, 1930.

Burkely Crest, 1930. Courtesy Hastings Historical Society.

Life at Burkeley Crest

Ziegfeld needed to be in touch with his office so there were phones in two locations—his bedroom and in a telephone booth on the main floor under the stairs. Each telephone set had two lines, one that went directly to Ziegfeld's office and another to make regular outgoing phone calls. (One additional phone was hidden inside the china cabinets; it was a direct line to the garage so the family could call for the cars.)

Ziegfeld never shaved himself so the local barber, Jake Hoffman, arrived each morning to shave Ziegfeld. Eventually Jake had health problems and needed to give up his barber shop, so Ziegfeld put him on staff to be on hand for the daily shave and also to take care of chickens and ducks.

Ziegfeld left for New York City in a buff-colored Rolls Royce between 10 am and 1 pm each day. The earlier departure was when shows were in rehearsal. The property had a copper beech tree that was thought to date to the 1700s. It grew near the driveway, and Flo was said to use its lower limbs to do morning chin-ups before leaving for work in his Rolls Royce.

Allen M. Thomas, who lived in Hastings from 1920 until 1966, left this reminiscence of seeing Flo on his way to work: "…I remember seeing him many a morning with his pearl gray homburg at just the right angle above his Jimmy Durante-type nose, gray suede gloves held elegantly folded on the silver head of his mahogany cane, riding down Broadway in a long Mercedes-Benz limousine with his chauffeur and footman (alias bodyguard, I suspect) in inclement weather or his blue Hispano Suiza cabriolet in fair weather." Ziegfeld's route took him through Yonkers, where he sometimes handed out tickets to his shows, and at Christmas he handed out $10 bills as he passed through.

Billie Burke, Florenz Ziegfeld, Patricia

Billie Burke and Florenz Ziegfield with their daughter Patricia at Burkeley Crest, ca.1925. Courtesy Hastings Historical Society.

Connecting with the Community

When the rector at Grace Church approached Burke and Ziegfeld for a donation for a new building, Ziegfeld was said to have offered to bring "Broadway to Broadway" for a fundraiser. The Moonlight Revue, which turned out to be a preview of the 1923 Follies, was staged on the grounds of the Behr estate on September 22, 1923, and featured Eddie Cantor, Paul Whiteman and Ben Ali Haggin, as well as Hastings' own Billie Burke.

Rain threatened all day, but the planning for the outdoor event continued. And though the theater in Hastings was reserved in case the heavens opened up, there was great incentive to keep the event outside since almost 2,000 guests were expected.

For most of the evening the weather held. A former resident, Florinda Cloeland Leighton, described the scene: "They built a stage on the lowest level of the tiered lawn on the south end of her [the Behr] estate. The chairs were set up on three levels as I recall. Everything was set for a gala evening and hopefully for a big fundraiser. They started, and I remember seeing Billie Burke on stage. Excitement was in the air, but alas! So was rain. It suddenly began to pour, disrupting everything, shutting down the show and we were all so disappointed." Newspaper accounts indicate that the rain did not halt the performances until about 11:15 p.m., and ultimately $2,760 was raised for Grace Church.

Burke and Ziegfeld patronized a few of the local stores, including the pharmacy, and residents recall that Billie would sometimes take local village children (as many as her car would hold) to the Bronx Park. In addition, anything that took place on the estate created interest. This note was from the archives of the Hastings Historical Society (April 19, 1929):

Much curiosity has been aroused in the past few days by persons who have passed the open field at the rear of the Billie Burke-Flo Ziegfeld estate on Farragut Avenue, by the erection of a small round house with a ventilator in the center that, during the inclement weather of the past few days has emitted smoke.

It now appears that the house, which is made of galvanized iron, is an incubator for the raising of pigeons. Squab seems to be a favorite delicacy on the Burke-Ziegfeld table, and this new addition to the service buildings will provide an unfailing supply.

Mount Vernon: Patricia's Playhouse

Burkeley Crest Playhouse

Playhouse at Burkeley Crest. WCHS Picture Collection.

On the northwest corner of the property sat every little girl's dream, her own two-story playhouse. This one was modeled after George Washington's Mount Vernon, and here's how it came to Hastings: Flo had gone to see Marion Davies do a few scenes in her movie Little Old New York. The front of the a miniature Mount Vernon was part of the set for the movie, and he asked what was going to happen to it after the film wrapped. When Flo heard the set was to be scrapped, he arranged to have it sent to Burkeley Crest. He then had carpenters make it into a child-sized mansion. A back was put on it, and rooms were created. The Hastings Historian of spring 1974 ran the following reminiscences of Joan Berston, who had visited the playhouse:

On entering its center door, one stood in a large room rising two stories. A steep staircase, with approximately 4-inch risers, led to the bedrooms on the second floor. To the left of the main room were the kitchen and dining rooms. The place was superbly furnished with miniature reproductions of colonial furniture.

Additional details describe a living room that was two stories high with a working fireplace. The kitchen had a small electric stove that could be used to make fudge and cookies. In the spring the gardeners planted flower beds around the playhouse and filled the window boxes with geraniums.

The Burkeley Crest Menagerie

Both Burke and Ziegfeld loved animals, so some of their pets were acquired the way any family might add an animal. However, at Burkeley Crest the numbers were different. There were 15 dogs—Pekingese dogs and cocker spaniels in addition to springer spaniels for hunting. Patricia also describes an "Irish water spaniel," a cross between a spaniel and a poodle, that was used for duck hunting. In addition, they had Sealyham terriers named Isabelle and Ziggy as well as a couple of "police" dogs that were used for protection. One of the police dogs slept in Patricia's room.

Stepping a bit beyond most normal families, Billie and Flo added parrots, a cockatoo, a bullfinch, canaries and other songbirds, as well as partridges and pheasants; the macaws, Harry and Lola, lived in a pigeon coop. There were also rabbits in hutches and three beehives. And, of course, any wealthy family with a child needed a pony. Jacinto, the polo pony, came to join Ramsey, a small ram, and Bessie, a cow.

But there ended the list of the more traditional animals a family might have. In 1922 Ziegfeld accompanied John Ringling to the dock to watch as some animals were being unloaded for the circus. John suggested that Ziegfeld take a two-year-old elephant to Hastings to give to Patricia for her sixth birthday. The elephant and a trainer spent the summer in Hastings, but the weather turned colder and with no heat in the barn, elephant and trainer were sent off to Sarasota, Florida, to rejoin the circus.

Ziegfeld also acquired a tiger, two lion cubs, a herd of 10 deer, two bears named Dempsey and Tunney (Tunney was mean and was eventually donated to the Central Park Zoo, and the zoo gave them a cockatoo in return), and a pair of white donkeys named Mr. and Mrs. Murphy. When Patty couldn't catch a butterfly, Flo bought her a $500 butterfly collection to console her.

But that was not all. Ziegfeld had intended to produce a show about the Wild West written by J.P. McEvoy. McEvoy acquired a pair of buffalo to use to promote the show. However, the show never got underway, so Ziegfeld decided the solution was to bring the buffalo to Hastings. In a letter to the Hastings Historical Society in 1994, Patricia explained the tension surrounding the new arrivals:

Our paddock fence was not the sturdiest, and Mr. B[uffalo] could have easily pushed it over, or at least so we thought.…Every time either of them came close to the fence and lowered their head to graze, Lee, our gardener at the time, would hurl a bale of hay over the top of the fence. Needless to say, they grew quite plump.

The buffalo created quite a stir in the village; the bellowing led to complaints, and neighbors worried they would escape. However, Mr. and Mrs. Buffalo stayed in Hastings for four years and produced a baby buffalo that Patricia described as "hale, hearty, and mean."

At last the day came when the buffalo were going to go live elsewhere, but because bales of hay had been used whenever the buffaloes needed to be distracted, only Baby could fit into the original crates in which Mr. and Mrs. had arrived. Eventually the crates were modified and a new one created, and Patricia concludes with: "…When the truck finally rumbled down the driveway, we all stood along it applauding, waving and heaving a great sigh of relief."

End of an Era

In the late 1920s life continued as usual at Burkeley Crest, and Ziegfeld had persuaded William Randolph Hearst to put up the money for New York's brand new 1,600-seat Ziegfeld Theatre on Sixth Avenue at 54th Street. The theater opened in 1927 with Ziegfeld's production of Rio Rita, followed by Showboat, but the stock market crash of 1929 hit Ziegfeld hard, putting his personal and business life into financial chaos.

Billie and Flo had to let many of the servants at Burkeley Crest go at that point, and, shortly after, Billie left for Los Angeles to look for work in film. Billie was successful in finding work in L.A., and she took out a mortgage on the estate for $25,000 in 1931. That was the year that she moved with Patricia to California to live full time. Flo stayed in New York trying to rebuild, and he staged what would be his last Follies in1931. The following spring Flo became ill, and he died on July 22, 1932, after rejoining Billie and Patricia in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, he left Billie with substantial debts.

In 1937 Flo's assets were auctioned off, but when still more money was needed, Billie had the estate put up for sale. The local paper reported that the house was being sold through a realtor who was known to have dealings with the Reverend Major Jealous Divine, an African-American spiritual leader who is considered to be one of America's first modern cult leaders. The initial news reports were that the sale was "pending the approval of the bank." The community was up in arms, but Divine's financial situation was not good, so the bank may have closed down that particular sale without community involvement.

The next buyer to appear was French industrialist Dr. Jacques Gerard of Gerard Machine Company, who purchased the property for only $36,000. (The purchase agreement was signed by Gerard's representative, I. Gerszanowicz.) The original house was torn down and a 20-room French Baroque stucco mansion was built in its place.

Burke as Glinda

Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch in the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz." WCHS Picture Collection.

Billie lived the remainder of her life in Los Angeles. She enjoyed a successful film career, including her best-known role as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, and she remained near her daughter, Patricia, who had married architect William Stephenson. After Billie's death in 1970, Patricia arranged for Flo's body to be moved from a Los Angeles cemetery so that both of her parents could be interred at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla.