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When he is not trying to convert tennis players to VASSS, or raising money for the Tennis Hall of Fame, or pumping money into the Newport Casino, or performing his annual "Twas the night before Christmas" recitation, or writing poetry, or composing "play-by-number" ditties for the piano, that grand old eclectic James Henry Van Alen is as likely to be found shooting pheasant as anything else.
His pheasant shooting is not the ordinary walk-'em-up and blast-'em-down variety, but then, little that Van Alen has done in his 74 years has been ordinary. To begin with, the shooting takes place on the grounds of his estate, Avalon, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Newport, R.I., a locale never previously noted for its pheasant population. Further, the shooting is at high-flying, fast-moving birds, which is far different from flushing the big, slow pheasants and shooting them on the rise. Most ringnecks take off like old B-29 bombers, which is exactly why Jimmy Van Alen started his own kind of pheasant shooting. That it occurs in Newport is not nearly as extraordinary as its quality. It is some of the most challenging and sporting bird shooting to be found anywhere in the country.
The origins of Van Alen's shoot are European and go back to his own extensive experiences in the field in Britain and on the Continent. Although he was born in Newport into a family that included a number of Vanderbilts and Astors, Van Alen grew up in England, where bird shooting is part of every gentleman's education. There, as in most of Europe, driven or flighted birds, whether wild or raised specifically for the gun, are more challenging—and therefore more popular—than those that are walked up. In this country, where most hunting is public, such shoots are seldom feasible except on private preserves. And even on preserves, birds are more commonly planted in cover to be flushed by hunter and dog.
After four years as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Van Alen returned to this country to live. To his disappointment, he found nothing here to equal the shooting he knew in Europe. Typically, this only served to tweak Van Alen's imagination. If the kind of shooting he wanted was not available, the logical solution was to import it. Which, more or less, is what he did.
A perfectionist by nature, Van Alen began by making a detailed analysis of the methods, techniques and physical layouts of the best flighted shoots in England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Spain. This was not exactly a hardship. He had just taken a new bride, whose credentials as a journalist, war correspondent and sportswoman qualified her admirably as a collaborator on the project. The couple spent a year-long honeymoon checking out the shooting spas of Europe.
"Candy is the only woman I have ever heard of," says Van Alen of his wife of 28 years, "who went on a shooting honeymoon and stayed married to the man."
From their research, Van Alen came to some conclusions about what would and would not work in America. Wild birds were out for a dozen reasons, most prominent being their unavailability. Of pen-raised birds, the best-suited to the kind of shoot he had in mind was the ringneck pheasant. The bird was readily available, easy to raise, adaptable to a wide variety of terrain and, under proper circumstances, offered the kind of sporty shooting Van Alen was looking for.
In the late '40s the concept of preserves, of private land set aside for pay-as-you-shoot hunting, was a relatively new one in this country and was having a hard time catching on. Part of the basic American hunting philosophy is the belief that game belongs to the public, which has the right to shoot it. It is a concept that has died hard. Europeans, on the other hand, recognized long ago that raising, managing and controlling the killing of game was not enough. To survive, game must also have commercial value to the landowner, for he cannot afford to support it on his property unless it brings him a return, either through the meat or the sport it provides. Americans are slowly beginning to get this message, but when Van Alen tried to convey it, the response was about what he received from tennis players when he went around proselytizing VASSS.
After 18 years, the tennis players have finally learned that it takes a good deal of adversity to discourage Jimmy Van Alen. Bird shooters are still learning. Van Alen bought 350 acres in Millbrook, N.Y. and established an experimental preserve in the Continental tradition. Pheasant were already the bird of choice on the handful of preserves in operation at that time, but they were all being planted in the conventional manner and flushed on foot. Van Alen built a series of 30 blinds in a broad circle around a hill. By releasing the pheasant from the top of the hill, high above the hunters' heads and a minimum of 50 yards from their positions, he ensured that the birds would be in full flight before they came within range of the guns. A pheasant flying 40 yards overhead at top speed is quite a different target from one lifting off the ground 20 yards in front of the shooter. At least that is what shooters at Van Alen's Separate Farm soon found. Their average bag was only 60% of the birds released.
Van Alen's shoot at Newport grew directly out of the one at Separate Farm. It has been refined and polished in the interim, and the shooting is even better. There are fewer guns (eight as compared to 24 to 30), more atmosphere, heavier and more varied cover and more challenging shooting conditions. Instead of 30 positions ringing a hill, there are 16 (only eight of which are ever used at one time) located along a maze of channels cut through the heavily wooded grounds. Van Alen was obviously influenced by his boyhood in the formal gardens and hedgerows of Britain.