Madame Sherri’s Spiral staircase to nowhere
I first heard the stories after I had been living in my quiet little town of Chesterfield, New Hampshire, for over 15 years. People spoke of a forest castle that had a vaguely infamous history, revolving around a mysterious character named Madame Antoinette Sherri. I first came across the castle ruins a few years later when I was looking for a trail that I had been told led to an isolated mountain pond. I eventually found the beautiful and pristine Indian Pond, but on my first exploration, I wandered right rather than left and stumbled on the “Castle.”
Madame Sherri’s retreat in the woods was never a castle, but by all reports, it was an elegantly proportioned house designed for comfort and, most importantly, entertainment. It was most notable for the grand spiral stone staircase which ascended to the second floor and it is this sturdy architectural detail which remains the one proud reminder of the castle’s former glory.
Over the years I learned pieces of the story behind Madame Sherri and her castle. I am especially indebted for the exhaustive research done by fellow Chesterfield Conservation
Madame Antoinette Sherri
Commission member Lynne Borofsky. Lynne has uncovered answers to many of the questions surrounding the Madame’s life and she has corrected many misconceptions and rumors which have clouded the true story. Madame Sherri was born Antoinette Bramare in France in 1878. She took the name Antonia De Lilas for her career as a Parisian music hall singer. It was there that she met Andre Riela, the son of an Italian diplomat. Andre was an acting student in Paris and had performed in silent movies, but other stories suggest that he may have had a more shady criminal past. Antoinette apparently enchanted the young man who was many years her junior, and they married in Puerto Rico before moving to New York City in 1911. Soon after arriving in America the couple changed their names to Andre and Antoinette Sherri and began designing elaborate theatrical costumes for the Zeigfeld Follies and many of the other major Broadway shows of the era. Their “House of Sherri” gained success with a number of innovations for the ornate costumes of the time. Sadly, Andre went blind and died in 1927 possibly of complications of syphilis or the toxicity of prohibition era bath-tub gin, but his early death did not seem to slow the Madame down. Early in her career Antoinette hired Charles Lamaire, a young impoverished vaudeville performer, who became her assistant. Later Lamaire became a renowned Hollywood costume designer, winning four Academy Awards for film such as “Miracle on 34th Street” and “All About Eve.” Lamaire never forgot his teacher and appears to have financially supported Madame Sherri throughout her life.
While visiting friends who summered in Chesterfield, Antoinette fell in love with the forest on Gulf Road. In 1931 she built her “Castle,” a summer retreat, in these woods. Antoinette apparently drove her builders to distraction with frequent changes in design and floor plan, but the final product was truly a physical manifestation of her unique theatrical vision. As described by Lynne Borofsky, “It was a theatrical French chateau of New Hampshire stone, wreathed in Roman arches and crowned with a chalet roof. An imposing stone staircase—grand enough for a Follies stage set … had stone flower boxes with red and white flowers earning the name “Primrose Path”. The main stairs, cut into the rock ledge, leading to a massive RED front door.” The indoor bar area even had a tree growing up through the roof. The few images that remain of the castle in its glory suggest a comfortable retreat fitted naturally into its rustic surroundings.
Madame Sherri knew Hats
Antoinette became famous (or infamous) for the parties she threw for visitors from the city. She was said to have greeted her guests from the top of the castle’s spiral staircase or sitting regally upon her ornate throne, dressed magnificently in costumes from her Broadway shows. There was much speculation about the goings-on at the castle, including rumors that Antoinette may have supplemented her income as a Madame in a more literal sense, inviting beautiful young girls and handsome men from the city to augment the festivities. Regardless of the rumors it does seem that a good time was had by everyone. All that her neighbors could conclusively know came from Madame Sherri’s travels around the community. She was said to have been driven about the town during the summer, in her custom cream-colored Packard, chauffeured by a handsome young man, a pet monkey on her shoulder, and wearing nothing but a fur coat. It is little known that Antoinette actually did not live
Madame Sherri at Indian Pond, Chesterfield, NH
in the castle. That palace was for entertainment. She actually lived in a modest and rather run-down old farmhouse in another corner of the property. She was certainly eccentric and the more scandalous she was the more she was loved by the community. Madame Sherri died in poverty, a ward of the town of Brattleboro, in 1965 at the age of 84, but for many years prior, the castle had fallen to neglect and vandalism. On October 18, 1962, it was destroyed by fire, leaving only the foundation and that remarkably incongruous staircase.
Madame’s 1927 Cream Colored Packard
For many years, the castle has been a popular local attraction, especially since the Chesterfield Conservation Commission improved and promoted the trails in the surrounding 488 acres of the Madame Sherri Forest. The site is easily accessible and has been the location for many activities including picnics, photo shoots, weddings and recently a motion picture, “Northern Borders” directed by Jay Craven. The arches have been a favorite location for group portraits, but the years have taken their toll. As can be seen in this image, serious shifting is visible in the stone work of the arches, so please resist the urge to climb the stairs. We don’t want to see them collapse any sooner than nature dictates. There has been something of a cult that has grown up around Madame Sherri’s Castle. Visitors report a sense of presence at the site, hearing the distant sounds of gay music or flashes of what they are convinced must be Antoinette’s restless spirit trying to welcome one more guest to the party. I’ve never heard the voices, but learning about Antoinette’s unusual life has given me a richer sense of place as I move about the remains of her former glory.
Most folks in town are aware of the basic outline of Madame Sherri’s history, but recently I’ve come to know the grand Madame more personally, and it all came about through pictures. In her research, in partnership with the Chesterfield Historical Society, Lynne Borofsky, has been assembling materials for a presentation of Madame Sherri’s unusual story and this has included access to a remarkable collection of Antoinette’s personal photographs.
Madame Dressed for the Ball, 1920′s
Lynne asked me to work on the restoration of the collection of images that chronicle important parts of Madame Sherri’s life. I spent several nights scanning and then repairing scratches, stains and spots on over 20 of the more important images dating from the turn of the century to the 1960s. I discussed the process of antique photograph restoration in last week’s article on my personal blog. Image restoration requires close, careful inspection of the pictures and in the process I found myself searching the faces and the eyes of the Madame, and those around her, and discovered a more intimate and personal understanding of who she was. It must be said that Madame Antoinette Sherri was not an especially attractive woman, but she somehow managed to live a remarkably full life within a circle of talented and interesting people. She must have possessed remarkable energy and after studying pictures of her, bedecked in layers of finery, it must be acknowledged that she had a fearless fashion sense.
I always love visiting the ruins, but for me it is the photographs that provide a connection to the mystery of past lives. For more pictures check out the companion photo album on my Getting it Right in the Digital Camera blog.
A visit to the Castle is always worth the trip and should include exploration of the great trails which have their origin from the Madame Sherri lot on Gulf Road. More information and directions can be found on the Madame Sherri Forest page of the Chesterfield Conservation Commission web site. Enjoy Madame’s spiral staircase, but, once again, please don’t climb the stairs. Over the years the arches have shifted and appear to be in danger of collapsing with any additional weight.
Then and Now
~ Jeffrey Newcomer
Partridge Brook Reflections