Behind The Baron

The Baron is back in the news.

For years, Westporters have talked about “Baron’s South” — the hilly, wooded 30 acres of municipal land, once owned by “the Baron” between South Compo Road and Imperial Avenue. (“Baron’s South” differentiates it from the old “Baron’s property,” the 32 acres across the Post Road on North Compo, renamed Winslow Park after the town bought it nearly 3 decades ago.)

The Baron’s house — Golden Shadows — is in the news too, as Westport debates what to do with that perhaps historic, perhaps blah 1959 home on Baron’s South.

But who was this guy? Was he a real baron? Or was this just a high-falutin’, self-styled nickname, the way Elvis Presley called himself “The King”?

Golden Shadows perfume, by Evyan.

Golden Shadows perfume, by Evyan.

He’s legit. His real name was Walter Langer, aka Baron Walter Langer von Langendorff of Austria. But I guess barons also need day jobs, so he became a chemist (and a Ph.D. doctor).

He founded Evyan Perfumes in the mid-1930s, bought the South Compo estate in 1967, and lived there until his death in 1983. Evyan was meant to “challenge the French perfume industry.”

His wife — the baronness — was British-born Evelyn Diane Westall. She was also known as “Lady Evyan.”

I know this thanks in part to Wendy Crowther. She loves the Baron’s property, and wants to preserve his home. She sent along a couple of fascinating articles.

An ad for White Shoulders perfume.

An ad for White Shoulders perfume.

One — from the “Vintage Perfume Vault” blog (“Where the scent of yesterday’s vogue lives”) — says that Evyan’s famed White Shoulders perfume was launched in the 1940s. It’s remained very popular, through Evyan’s sale to Elizabeth Arden. It may even be “the iconic American fragrance.”

(Fun factIt was named, perhaps, for Lady Evyan’s beautiful white shoulders.)

Wendy also sent a link to a 1987 New York Times story. Back then, all eyes were focused on the baron’s North Compo Road land. A referendum — ultimately successful — was held on whether to acquire the property by condemnation.

The cost was $8.75 million, and the town wanted to act quickly. With the baron’s estate “tangled” thanks to 5 wills and many legatees, the cost was expected to rise in the future.

The baron had bought it in 1970 — 3 years after purchasing his South Compo estate. He was seen as a savior, since the previous owner — developer Albert Phelps — wanted to put a B. Altman shopping center there. (Click here for a fascinating story on the previous history of what is now Winslow Park, including a sanitarium and the most luxurious estate in Westport.)

The Golden Shadows house, looking southwest. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The Golden Shadows house, looking southwest. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

But back to Baron’s South, and “Golden Shadows.” The estate — which at one point included not only his house but others on the land, plus magnificent gardens and arbors — got its name from another Evyan perfume.

Golden Shadows — the scent — was launched in 1950. The Baron created it himself. The New Yorker called it a “first cousin” to White Shoulders (with a “more nonchalant mien”).

Baron’s South will be a major topic of discussion in Westport, for months to come. We’ll talk too about the fate of Golden Shadows.

As we do, we should remember the man behind the land, the home, and the perfumes that provided the fortune that enabled him to buy — and preserve — such magnificent open space.

18 responses to “Behind The Baron

  1. Michael Calise

    Given its size and location Baron’s South should be forever open space. Any other use will forfeit the future benefits of generations of Westporters

  2. Sandy Soennichsen

    Regardless of his business acumen and his corporate achievements, the Baron’s house is an eyesore that really should be torn down. If Wendy Crowther wants to preserve the house, let her buy it and move it. This town is burdened enough in terms of upkeep required on town parks, areas, houses, etc. that never seems to be kept current and turn into eyesores themselves.

    • You really don’t care about your town do you??

    • Some appear to be unable to understand the concept of scarce resources. They feel free to spend other people’s money on their favorite projects. I think you made a good suggestion for those who want to preserve structures or land or whatever; they should put their money where their mouths are, not not OPM.

  3. Peter Mihalick

    11Thomas Rd

  4. This land needs to be preserved as “forever green” and not be allowed to raped by developers who could care less about the property and the historical significance

  5. Thanks for the in-depth story Dan – and Wendy. As it happens, the timing is great. Yesterday was the deadline for getting items on the RTM’s February agenda. Care to guess what isn’t on it? I’m not stating that anyone is slow walking the previously submitted citizen’s petition to have this matter heard by the RTM – just that it presents, at a minimum, a bit of an appearance problem.

  6. Suzanne Braley

    While living nearby, I did some research on the “Baron” and his property – I do not have it in front of me at the moment, but do recall that he was not really a Baron (real name Walter Langer), and Evelyn was not really a Lady. Golden Shadows is also on the site of a tear-down – the home of Angus MacDonall, one of the first members of the Westport artists colony and a prominent illustrator with multiple Saturday Evening Post and other covers in the 1910s and 20s (he died in 1927) The other two early 20th century houses still on the property were built in conjunction with his home.

  7. don l bergmann

    It is too bad the RTM does not move ahead with the issue of the preservation of Golden Shadows more quickly, i.e. beginning its efforts and legal role right away. I am not sure why the February meeting does not work. The process itself takes time and can be expected to be thoughtful and informative. It is my understanding the Historic District Commission supports the historic importance of Golden Shadows and I think most, though apparently not all, appreciate the physical qualities of the building.
    Don Bergmann

    • Why are you in a hurry to spend taxpayer dollars on a project of such dubious value?

      • don l bergmann

        The effort by the RTM does not involve money. As that process proceeds, the issue of costs, revenues, benefits, detriments etc. will all surface, though in all likelihood the big driver will be the interest of our Town and its residents in making a judgment as to historic significance. Don

        • As you can see from the process you outlined, money will most certainly be an issue. I know how to measure taxpayer dollars, but what exactly is the metric for “historic significance”?

  8. Sandy Soennichsen

    Peter, keeping the property as open space AND preserving that ramshackle house are two entirely different issues; one does not depend upon the other. Yes, keep the space, but make more space by tearing down that house.

  9. Love the passion and glad to know there are so many open space supporters out there. Stick around – we’ll make house huggers out of you yet.

  10. Wendy Crowther

    Thanks, Dan, for shining a light on this important piece of Westport history.

    I have one note of correction regarding the date the Langer’s purchased their first piece of property on South Compo. It was not 1967. It was much earlier.

    Evelyn Langer was actually the buyer of record. She purchased the Angus MacDonall property (7.17 acres) from Angus’ widow, Catherine, in 1941. From that point onward the Langers began buying adjoining properties that they gradually amassed into today’s Baron’s South. The Langers first appeared in Westport Directories as living on South Compo in 1946. These directories were published about every two years.