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A renewed interest in the late Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge—and her strange tastes in art and life—has been brought about by the public sale of part of her $85 million estate. Last fall, a five-day auction at Giralda Farms, near Madison, N.J., the first in a series of sales, attracted 100,000 buyers and curiosity seekers. The results were as spectacular as the contents were bizarre: $1.3 million, a world record for a house sale. Auctions have continued through the winter, six in all, at Sotheby Parke-Bernet's New York galleries.
Next month the last of the Dodge estate will be sold. Some of the items are among the most valuable works in the collection, including 25 paintings by Rosa Bonheur. The entire group is expected to raise $500,000, bringing the total sale to nearly $7 million.
Mrs. Dodge, who died two years ago at the age of 91, would have been unimpressed. She was a woman obsessed, but not with figures. She was obsessed with animals, especially dogs. And she was obsessed with objects and with art—paintings, bells, jewelry, coins, bronzes, casts of hands, candelabra, door knockers, vases, clocks. She collected them by the scores, by the hundreds and by the thousands. But of all her possessions none was as precious to her as privacy.
Mrs. Dodge was the niece of John D. Rockefeller and wife of Marcellus Hartley Dodge of Remington Arms. Her son was killed in a motor accident in France in 1930 when he was 22. In her grief she became almost a recluse at Giralda, the 400-acre estate named for the patron saint of orphans.
Over the years she owned 85 different breeds of dogs, and she helped popularize the English cocker spaniel and the German shepherd in this country. Her dogs twice won best-in-show at Westminster. In 1933 she became the show's first woman judge of best-in-show, a distinction some were rude enough to suggest may have been motivated by a desire to remove her from competition.
She was known as the "first lady of dogdom," and there were seldom fewer than 100 dogs in her kennels. Many had their own quarters (6'x6'x6') with private fenced-in yard. Pregnant females were confined in a separate maternity cottage. Puppies also had their own house, a revolving structure that followed the sun to keep them warm all day.
She had her dogs' portraits done—romantic watercolors in pastel shades by the English painter Ward Binks. The portrait of a basset hound named Lloyd brought $750 in the public auction, seven times what the appraisers figured it was worth.
Mrs. Dodge always kept at least half a dozen dogs in her 30-room mansion—"the worst dogs in the place," according to Edwin J. Sayres, her longtime friend and estate superintendent. "They were her pensioners." She had a door built in her bedroom so they could go in and out without disturbing the rest of the house. At seven in the morning she would venture forth in a runabout harnessed to a Shetland pony. She would drive to the kennels, pick up 10 dogs and drive for an hour, the dogs running alongside, till the pony got tired.
Every year for 30 years the Morris & Essex dog show was held at Giralda—perhaps the swankiest event of its kind in the world. At its peak the show attracted 40,000 spectators and more than 4,000 dogs. Bright-topped canvas tents ringed the polo field, providing shelter for dogs, handlers, food and trophies. Sixty-five show rings, each with a red runway bordered with flowers, filled the central arena. There was a judge for nearly every breed.
The Morris & Essex must have been an ordeal for a woman who didn't like commotion and craved seclusion. In 1958 she abruptly announced the cancellation of the show. "While show dogs usually live a good life," said Mrs. Dodge in a prepared statement, "there are thousands less fortunate and in desperate need of help.... To this unhappy segment of dogdom I now give top priority of my time and strength."