Today I begin my journey home after being away for 20 years, and am doing it by train. It should prove quite an experience. In 2008 I did a piece for Ralph Lauren Magazine on chartering vintage railcars, and while I won’t be heading out west in quite that style, I will be in a sleepercar with three days to reflect on my two-decade journey from SF to LA, from there to New York, followed by my surreal year spent in Newport in 2020.
Below is the RL article rescued via the Internet Wayback Machine. But first another bit of nostalgic Americana — Louis Jordan’s jump-blues classic from 1946 “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” — a song I’ve danced to many times since lindy-hopping aboard the swing revival in 1997. It’s the only song I know whose lyrics are based entirely on a single rhyme sound.
Oh, and the bottom section of the train article is a sidebar on Lucius Beebe, a Harvard man, the first openly gay celebrity, and a model of retro-eccentricity for those seeking escape from the modern world, which Beebe did on a grand scale. We’ll hear more about him in an upcoming post. — CC
By Christian Chensvold
Ralph Lauren Magazine, summer 2008
With marble bathtubs, gold plumbing fixtures, cedar closets, and ornate ceiling murals, it’s no wonder the private railcars of America’s richest families were described as “mansions on rails” by American journalist and railroad historian Lucius Beebe. So when the bon vivant society columnist bought his own decrepit railcar in 1954, he vowed to make the Virginia City worthy of any Rockefeller, Gould, or Vanderbilt.
Today the Virginia City still rides into Western sunsets, rocking like a velvet crib to a clickety-clack lullaby-a rolling testament to Beebe’s outlandish taste and retro-eccentric personality. And for about $6,500 a day, you can charter the rolling palace of the man who called trains “the only civilized way to travel.”
“This is probably the biggest secret in travel,” says Wade Pellizzer, owner of the Virginia City since 1984. While state-of-the-art yachts and jets have undeniable appeal, for some nothing beats the relaxed luxury of a private railcar. About one hundred cars from the Golden Age of rail travel are currently available for charter, leased by owners who see themselves as caretakers of history.
It’s relatively easy to charter a railcar,” says owner and enthusiast Stan Garner. “They sit more than they run.” In addition to working as a train consultant on such films as 3:10 to Yuma and There Will Be Blood, Garner charters his own car, the Pony Express. Although America’s railways have been controlled by Amtrak (which is federally subsidized) since 1971, privately owned railcars have linkup privileges, provided they meet current safety regulations. As a result, travelers today can book a private railcar through one of a half-dozen leading chartering services and arrange to go anywhere Amtrak goes in North America.
For Garner, the appeal of train travel is that it is mesmerizing and meditative. “Sitting with a cocktail in hand, watching the world go by-it’s both relaxing and fascinating,” he says.
Most owners strive to replicate the luxurious experience of Golden Age rail travel with private bedrooms and baths, an attentive steward, an onboard chef, and all the Manhattans you can drink. “Private railcars allow you to feel a sense of what luxury was, and what it can still be,” says John Tyson, owner of the Metis, built in 1928. “It is the gentlemanly way of traveling.”
Beebe, whose own gentlemanly indulgences were legendary, hired Hollywood decorator Robert Hanley to select a crystal chandelier, 17th-century clock, red silk curtains, and working fireplace in a decorating scheme commonly referred to as Venetian Renaissance baroque, though some find “Barbary Coast bordello” more accurate. Pellizzer has preserved the car’s original decor as much as possible. “I think it’s the best car out there because of its history,” he says. “And it’s certainly the most gaudy, ostentatious, and over-the-top.”
Where the Virginia City is baroque extravagance, the Chapel Hill is streamlined deco-modern. Built in 1922 for investment banker E.F. Hutton and his wife, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, the Chapel Hill boasts a mahogany interior, black leather club chairs, and period railroad china and silver salvaged from vintage dining cars.
Other charterable cars known for their elegance include the Warren R. Henry and Evelyn Henry; the New York Central 3, originally built for Harold Vanderbilt in 1928; the Georgia 300; and the Survivor. Garner’s Pony Express is good for day trips, and the charter fee of $4,300 can be spread among 40 passengers. Although winding your way through the Adirondacks en route from New York to Boston fuels deco-era fantasies of glamour-think John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century– railroad enthusiasts say it’s across the West that the romance of train travel reaches full steam. A two-day trip from San Francisco to Denver is a dreamlike journey into archetypal America, with stunning vistas straight out of a John Ford movie. The sagebrushed plains and rocky canyons of Nevada and Utah are breathtaking, with the winding track the only reminder of civilization. “You see a part of America you can’t see anywhere else,” says Tyson. “There’s one part in eastern Utah where you could swear a band of cowboys and Indians are going to come riding by and attack the train.” The final leg of the trip includes a breathtaking ascent of the Rocky Mountains, peaking at 9,239 feet in the six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel before arriving in Denver. Departure times are carefully planned so that the most scenic passages are traversed during daylight hours.
In an era of airport security and canceled flights, private railcars are a chance to travel in luxury at a leisurely pace, as spectacular vistas unfold one after another like cards from a deck, and time passes slowly with the sips of a martini. Whether or not you decide to dress for dinner, private railcars will make you understand the old saying, “Getting there is half the fun.”
* * *
Half Gilded-Age dandy, half Wild-West legend, Lucius Beebe was born to a rich Boston family. He became a newspaper columnist covering café society in New York and later San Francisco, and was known for his keen observations and trenchant wit-especially when it came to venting his whiskey-soaked spleen at the vulgarities of the modern world. Near the top of his list was air travel.
Known for his anachronistic elegance, Beebe was pictured on the cover of Life magazine with the headline “Lucius Beebe Sets a Style.” He was fond of custom suits from Savile Row’s Henry Poole, thick gold watch chains, and derby hats. His love of fine food, cigars, and liquor ultimately led to five kidney-stone operations, which he considered a small price to pay for the good life.
Beebe essentially created the market for railroad history books. However, his most famous tome was The Big Spenders, a fascinating journey into the luxury and excess of America’s early millionaires that painstakingly chronicles every last diamond tiara and solid-gold cufflink. Beebe owned the Virginia City with his life partner Charles Clegg while they lived in Nevada and were reviving the Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper that had once employed Mark Twain.
When the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, a friend of Beebe’s, first saw the Virginia City‘s baroque interior, he supposedly said, “Tell the madame I’ll have a drink, but I’m too old to go upstairs.”