Robert Goelet, New York Grandee and Naturalist, Dies at 96


Robert G. Goelet, a civic leader, naturalist and philanthropist whose marriage merged two families that date to 17th-century New Amsterdam and made the couple stewards of Gardiners Island, a storied sanctuary off the tip of Long Island, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 96.

His death was confirmed by his son, Robert Gardiner Goelet.

The scion of a real estate dynasty, Mr. Goelet (pronounced guh-LET) was 52 when he married Alexandra Gardiner Creel in 1976. Under a trust from her aunt, she held Gardiners Island jointly with her idiosyncratic uncle Robert David Lion Gardiner, and when Mr. Gardiner died in 2004, the Goelets took full possession of it — all 3,300 acres, 40 times the size of Central Park, complete with 27 miles of coastline, lush white pine and oak forests, colonial buildings, a 200-year-old windmill, a family cemetery and considerably more ospreys than people.

The couple went on to maintain the island as a bird sanctuary while restoring its colonial buildings and natural habitat. Mr. Goelet also established a large penguin reserve in Patagonia and collected some 20,000 bees and wasps, which he donated to the Museum of Natural History. A genus of bee found in Peru, Goeletapis, was named after him.

Independently wealthy, Mr. Goelet devoted much of his time to civic causes. By late 1975, when he was named president of the American Museum of Natural History, he had served in the same role at the New-York Historical Society and the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society). He was later the museum’s chairman, until 1989, when he retired from the post.

“He was really good at coming in when there was an emergency and pulling things together,” William G. Conway, a former president of the conservation society, said in a phone interview. “He got down and dirty.”

Robert Guestier Goelet, known as Bobby, was born on Sept. 28, 1923, in Amblainville, France, in a chateau nestled amid 10,000 acres owned by the family of his mother, Anne Marie (Guestier) Goelet. The Guestiers were partners in the wine merchants Barton & Guestier. His father, Robert Walton Goelet, managed his inherited real estate, railways, hotels and other holdings from homes in New York, France and Newport, R.I. In “Who’s Who in New York,” he listed himself as a “capitalist.”

The Goelets were originally French Huguenots. The first to arrive in America was 10-year-old Jacobus, who was brought from Amsterdam in 1676 by his widowed father. Jacobus’s grandson Peter, an ironmonger during the Revolutionary War, went on to invest in real estate — so successfully that by the end of the 19th century the family was said to own about 55 acres on Manhattan’s East Side, from Union Square to 48th Street.

The Gardiners also prospered from the beginning.

“We have always married into wealth,” the British newspaper The Daily Mail quoted Robert Gardiner as saying in 2003. “We covered all our bets. We were on both sides of the Revolution, and both sides of the Civil War. The Gardiner family always came out on top.”

The privateer Captain Kidd buried treasure on Gardiners Island. Julia Gardiner Tyler, the future wife of John Tyler, the 10th president, was born there.

Like the first immigrant Gardiner, Robert Goelet moved to New York before he was a teenager, arriving when he was 12. One result of his European upbringing, he told The New Yorker in 1976, was that he had never seen a baseball game, nor did he care to.

He graduated from the Brooks School in North Andover, Mass. During his sophomore year at Harvard, he enlisted in the Navy and was trained as a Helldiver bomber pilot, but he did not see combat. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1945.

Mr. Goelet was introduced to Ms. Creel, a graduate student in forestry and environmental studies, on a snowshoe hike in Harriman State Park, the vast tract straddling Rockland and Orange Counties in New York. They married on Gardiners Island.

In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Alexandra Gardiner Goelet. The two children, who run the family investment office, say the island will be preserved through trusts as the family home and as a wildlife sanctuary in perpetuity.

Robert Gardiner, an old money blueblood to whom virtually everyone across the water in the Hamptons was nouveau riche, had anointed himself the “16th Lord of the Manor” of Gardiners Island, which his ancestors had bought from the Mantaukett Indians in 1639 for a large dog, a gun, some ammunition, rum and a handful of blankets.

Mr. Gardiner was married but had no heirs, touching off a splenetic three-decade legal imbroglio with his niece over maintenance costs and visitation rights on Gardiners Island. He accused Mr. Goelet of various incivilities, among them trying to run him over with a truck. Given the island’s demography and interpersonal discomposure, New York magazine described it in 1989 as a “wasps’ nest.”

Among his various civic activities, Mr. Goelet was the board president of the French Institute/Alliance Française and a board member of the National Audubon Society, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Phipps Houses, and Chemical Bank (now JPMorgan Chase), which was founded by an ancestor, Peter Goelet, in 1824.

In 1957 he became a director of Air America, the private air charter company that was covertly financed by the Central Intelligence Agency and other United States government authorities.

While Mr. Goelet was an ardent conservationist, his real estate holdings and his fiduciary role on the boards of cultural institutions sometimes clashed with his preservationist instincts.

He was poised to sell Lever House, the celebrated glass-box skyscraper on Park Avenue, to a developer, but the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission spared it from demolition.

The commission also blocked the New-York Historical Society from building an apartment tower over its Central Park West headquarters; the tower had been Mr. Goelet’s solution when the society, its endowment eroded, was poised for bankruptcy.

When he was named president of the natural history museum, he expressed a boyish glee that went back to his days at the Brooks School. All those years ago, barred from participating in sports because of rheumatism, he had, as an alternative, taken to climbing trees to inspect birds’ nests.

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing,” he told The New York Times after his appointment by the museum. “I have a personal weakness for fish and birds. I’m nuts for fossils, and I have a healthy respect for poisonous snakes.”

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