NOTE: As with all Mr. Local History retrospectives, we often update the post when we learn stories and are sent photos from our community. We will continue to grow this piece as information becomes available.
A Small Part of Camelot in the Somerset Hills
While the Somerset Hills plays home to many a power broker and celebrities, there was no one who captured the time and essence of the Somerset Hills quite like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. While her life was filled with unimaginable tragedy, we look at her life in Bernardsville and Peapack as she turned to family and her equestrian hobby as she resided in the Somerset Hills for over 30 years.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, nee Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (1953–68), Jacqueline Kennedy or simply Jackie, was born on July 28, 1929 in Southampton, New York. She was America’s first lady (1961–63) as the wife of John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States. Her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, was one of the wealthiest men in the world. Jackie died May 19, 1994 in New York City.
In 1951, Jacqueline met John F. Kennedy, a popular Congressman from Massachusetts, and two years later, after he became a U.S. Senator, he proposed marriage. On September 12, 1953, the couple wed in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Newport, Rhode Island.
“I don’t share the same passion with horses that Jackie does.”John F, Kennedy – He was allergic to horse hair.
November 22, 1963
The Day The World Changed Forever
Ask just about anyone over the age of 65 and they’ll know where they were on this terrible day.
It’s Confirmed – Bernardsville
In October 1965, there were rumors around the Somerset Hills of Jackie sightings. The Secret Service was with her as she had lunch at the Far Hills Inn. Then, later that month, the secretary for Jacqueline B. Kennedy confirmed that the former first lady was “leasing a small farmhouse in the Bernardsville-Peapack area for the fall and winter months.” The rental was a 10‐room “badly made‐over barn” rented from Mr. & Mrs. Douglas Burden. The Bernardsville News reported it with a front page story on Thursday, Oct. 21, 1965.
A week earlier, on October 15, 1965, The News reported that Mrs. Kennedy, joined by two Secret Service agents, had taken a limousine from her Fifth Avenue apartment in New York and visited the home of former Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon on Larger Cross Road in Bedminster.
Jackie loved the area. It was everything she wanted. The area was secluded, there was plenty of room for riding horses, and the nearby Essex Hunt Club in Peapack was a perfect gathering place for her interests. The area was noted as one of the largest equestrian communities in the country: a perfect place to bring her kids.
It was quite the neighborhood as well. The Gambrills, Onassis’ neighbors were on a hill at the end of a long private drive in nearby Peapack. The house was surrounded by more than 350 acres of land including fenced pastures, a 16-stall stable complex and formal gardens. The estate was built in the 1920s for Richard Van Nest Gambrill and his wife, Edith Blair daughter of C. Ledyard Blair who lived nearby at their Blairsden estate. They called it Vernon Manor, but when the widowed Blair left, she took the name with her. Now it is called Four Seasons after four alcoves and four seasonal statues that were on the estate.
Vernon Manor was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Richard Gambrill. Richard was director of the National Horse Association and Secretary of the United Hunts Racing Association. He was also a master of the Essex Fox Hounds and had a pack of his own beagles called the Vernon Somerset Beagles Pack, the forerunner to the Tewksbury Foot Bassets (different dogs). So you can see why Jackie Kennedy Onassis loved renting a cottage in the area.
1968 – Jackie Becomes an Onassis
In October 1968, Jacqueline Kennedy wed the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, whom she had known for a number of years. According to reports, however, the marriage soon became troubled, and she continued to spend considerable time in New York and Peapack. Although the bulk of his estate went to his daughter after his death in 1975, Jacqueline inherited a sum variously estimated at $20 million to $26 million.
1969 – 1974 “Woodwinds”
The Peapack Rental
The attractions for Mrs. Onassis included the natural beauty of the Somerset Hills, the horsey atmosphere (more than 15,000 acres for foxhunting with the Essex Fox Hounds and bridle paths for riding), her children’s friends and a fairly casual way of life. For five years, Mrs. Onassis and Caroline and John Kennedy came to “Woodwinds,” a house leased to Mrs. Onassis by Mrs. Richard Gambrill. It was a seven room gray clapboard house up off Main Street which was a very modest property located in the center of the Peapack valley.
Jackie would often spend the anniversary of her husband’s assassination in the Somerset Hills under Secret Service detail that unfortunately had to be used a few times with paparazzi and stalkers.
“There were often times when reporters would try to stalk, typically in November or when there was a Kennedy crisis, and there were a few arrests. But after a few years, things settled down and we would have dinner once in a while or I’d chat with Caroline and John while they were playing around the neighborhood. And yes it was true that Ari Onassis was pulled over by local police and questioned as a trespasser. But no he was not taken in and he was not arrested. But the police did question that he was who he said he was.”Peter Villa – Neighbor. Peter was one of six children; Tonly, Nick, Blair, Ann, and was the great grandson of C. Ledyard Blair.
On October 30, 1969 the Bernardsville News reported “Dressed in a brown hood, checked coat and grey slacks, Mrs. Aristotle Onassis was scarcely noticed as she chatted with friends on the hillside at the Far Hills Race Meeting.”
1974 – Kennedy Takes the Plunge and Purchases in Bernardsville
1974 – Jackie Kennedy Onassis buys home named the Burden Estate once owned by Betsy Chance Burden, the sister-in-law to James Cox Brady (nicknamed Diamond Jim Brady) for $200,000. The 10 acre property off Stevens Lane was purchased from Mr. & Mrs. Grenville Emmett. The two story yellow structure was located on the Bernardsville Peapack border.
This is the same house that she had rented with here for years and used it as a weekend home. Neighbors often saw her in riding pants or sweatsuits, horseback-riding on her property.
The blue house off Stevens Lane marks the spot of the Kennedy home back in the 1960s.
The house overlooked the valley and was not served by a public road. Secret Service agents took up duty in a small, private cottage on the 10‐acre estate, as the children’s ponies grazed in the surrounding pastures.
The Equestrian Life and that BMW
From about 1964 till about 1969, Jackie Kennedy kept her horses at Fox Chase Stables on River Road in nearby Bedminster. She kept two horses, Winchester, and Surdan. Riding Winchester, Caroline Kennedy actually won a few local awards over at the Gill School Horse Show in nearby Peapack. They also had two ponies; Leprechaun and Macaroni. The King family cared for them.
History gets a little fuzzy after Jackie moved to Peapack. It is said that she lived off Highland Avenue in the valley area just below the current Matheny Medical Center and boarded her horses nearby.
What many people don’t know is that Bedminster is STILL one of the largest equine areas in the United States. The Somerset Bridle Path Association (SBPA) works tirelessly to help keep bridle paths open as landowners prefer to keep their property private.
The rest of Jackie’s years in the Somerset Hills were relatively quiet. Aristotle Onassis died March 15, 1975 at the age of 69. She turned 50 in 1979 and spent most of her time in the area enjoying her two passions; her children and her equestrian activities.
In 1975, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis auctioned off odds and ends from the house. The sale, which included a chair used by the late President Kennedy as a student at Choate, brought in a few thousand dollars.
She Loved the ” Blessing of the Hounds”
One of Jackie’s favorite activities while in the area was the annual “blessing of the hounds”, an event held on a private property in the area where members of the Essex Hunt Club joined on Thanksgiving morning, to sip a little champagne, see the preacher bless the hounds, and then go off on horseback for the traditional fox hunt with those blessed hounds.
On May 19, 1994 at the age of 64, Jacqueline Kennedy died. Even after her death, she ranks as one of the most popular and recognizable First Ladies, and in 1999 she was listed as one of Gallup’s Most-Admired Men and Women of the 20th century.
1997 – House is Sold by Family
In 1993, Jackie Kennedy transferred ownership of her Bernardsville house to Caroline and John for $100. Caroline Kennedy’s auction of family goods, including table linens and pillows from the country house, brought in $5.5 million at auction.
In 1997, three years after Jackie’s death, a neighbor who had tended to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ house bought the house and property from the Kennedys. Marjorie “Peggy” McDonnell Walsh purchased the home for $1.47 million on July 27, 1997. Not bad for an original $200,000 investment. Mayor Hugh Fenwick said Walsh was an old friend who was the reason Onassis bought the house in the first place.
Marjorie McDonnell Walsh’s husband was Philip C. Walsh who lived in front of the home at 121 Stevens Lane, Bernardsville. He died peacefully at his home in Peapack, N.J., on March 24, 2010.
There were rumors that the home was taken down to prevent tourists and gawkers from invading the property, but the former first lady’s weekend retreat was demolished in 2000 simply to make way for Marjorie to build a bigger house on the property.
Jackie O. Auction
1996 (April 26) – The Jackie Onassis Sotheby’s Estate four-day auction fetched $442,500 for one of John Kennedy’s oval office rocking chairs. Onassis’ engagement ring fetched $2.6 million. Her 1992 BMW 4 door 325i sedan fetched $79,500. The auction raised over $34.5 million.
- Residences and vacation homes of Jackie Kennedy Onassis
- In 2019, Coldwell Banker Global Luxury® completed the $6 million sale of “Four Seasons (Vernon Manor),” one of Peapack-Gladstone’s grand turn-of-the-century estates that sits on 50 acres of rolling countryside, fenced pastures and unobstructed views at 27-29 Willow Ave, Peapack Gladstone Boro. This was the highest-priced home sale in Peapack-Gladstone for 2019, per the Garden State Multiple Listing Service (GSMLS). It had been listed for as high at $13.5m with Turpin Realtors in 2015.
- The history of the Essex Hunt Club
Have a story to share?
The Mr. Local History project is always wanting to learn from members of our Somerset Hills communities. Please feel free to post a comment below. We will continue to build on the piece as we gather additional information about Jackie’s life in the Somerset Hills.