The Mansion House in Robbinston has had many notable owners over the years. The first was General John Brewer, one of Robbinston’s first settlers, who built what has been called the “Downeast Mount Vernon” probably about 1815 in the elegant architectural style of George Washington’s Virginia home. General Brewer and after his death his wife lived in the Mansion House for decades. After the Civil War John S. Pike bought and substantially renovated the house and there were other owners between Pike and the First World War when it was purchased by Mary and Vladimir Simkhovitch from New York whose family lived in house, primarily as a summer residence, until the 1990’s. The photo above was taken in 1939, the year of the death of their son Stephen and four years after an intense family drama played out at the house with the life of their son Stephen at stake.
The Simkhovitches, father Vladimir, mother Mary, daughter Helena and son Stephen with his wife are shown above. Dr. Vladimir Simkhovitch, mustachioed and dignified was a professor of economic history at Columbia University in New York. Mary, in the black dress, poses in a library in the 1890s.
Mary Simkhovitch was a well-known social reformer and writer and is seen above in 1935 with Eleanor Roosevelt who once described Mary as one of the ten most influential women in America. A social reformer and writer, she was a “blueblood” of New York society, wealthy and deeply involved in women’s issues and the welfare of New York’s poor. Even with their deep New York connections, the family, including the children, spent as much of each summer and fall as possible in Robbinston.
Mary is seen here with Paul Didisheim, her grandson on the steps of Mansion House in 1917. Their daughter Helena had married Frank Didisheim after studying with several famous sculptors in Paris and establishing a reputation in the United States as a gifted artist. Her works remain on display in several museums.
And then there was Stephen, who went to Hollywood as a young man to become rich and famous but managed only to gain the type of notoriety which did not sit well in blueblood society circles. Articles describe Stephen as a script or screenwriter, although it seems nothing he ever wrote was produced on the silver screen. Instead he produced a child with a Norwegian actress. His mother Mary inveigled the young woman to sign a release relieving her son of responsibility for the child by threatening to have her son jailed for forgery if the actress refused. Having second thoughts after signing, the actress sued to have the release set aside. A settlement was apparently reached although we hear nothing more of either the actress or the child. Stephen however continued to play his role as “black sheep” of the family with verve; and in August 1935 precipitating what may be justly described as the mother of all family crises when, clearly a very troubled man, he agreed to be frozen alive in a bizarre scientific experiment.
Obviously, Dr. Simkhovitch misspoke when he stated his wife agreed that Stephen should be frozen alive if that is what Stephen wanted. Mary most certainly did not agree and the family conference in the Mansion House on that summer day must have been, to say the least, interesting. The adage that parents should allow their children to make their own mistakes somehow doesn’t seem applicable in the circumstances presented to Vladimir and Mary. Mary immediately cabled the Los Angeles DA her objections and presumably conveyed them to her son; but at least initially they made no impression on him.
Human Icicle Experiment Plans Progressing Despite Plea of Subject’s Mother Writer Ready to Sacrifice Life for Test to Aid Science
“Simkhovitch has volunteered and I intend to continue with my plans.” said Dr. Willard, young monkey freezing biochemist.
Hollywood, Cal., Aug. 12 (Associated Press) Dr. Ralph S. Willard and Stephen Simkhovitch proceeded today with their plans for a “human Icicle” experiment in the face of family and official protests.
“I have my own life to lead and If It is to be sacrificed for science it won’t make any difference commented Simkhovitch, 34-year-old Hollywood writer. The scientist plans to freeze Simkhovitch into a state of suspended animation and later revive him. He says germs of tuberculosis and possibly other diseases, including cancer, may be destroyed in this fashion. Dr. Vladimir G. Simkhovitch, professor of economic history at Columbia University, said at his Robbinston, Me., summer home that his son was of age and privileged to do as he wished, and added Mrs. Simkhovitch’s views were “practically the same.” Mrs. Simkhovitch, however, was reported to have telegraphed Dr. George Parrish, Los Angeles health officer, asking official Interference and describing the proposed experiment as “incredible.” Dr. Parrish and District Attorney Burton Fitts declared they would not permit the experiment to be made, and Dr. Willard countered with the assertion he would make it in Mexico or elsewhere if hindered here.
As both the doctor and his victim insisted the experiment was a go, Stephen oddly made plans in the unlikely event he survived, to marry; and, as events transpired, he would do both at least for a few years. The experiment was reported in every newspaper in the country and legitimate and well-regarded scientists and doctors throughout the country vehemently denounced the doctor as a quack and the subject a fool. Perhaps more importantly the DA made clear to the doctor that he would be charged with murder if Stephen died which seems to have concentrated his attention to the reality that he wasn’t a doctor, had never attended medical school nor had he resuscitated a frozen animal let alone a human being and it would be difficult to continue his life as a con artist from jail or, worse, after the switch was thrown on the electric chair. The experiment was abandoned but not everyone lived happily ever after.
Stephen did in fact marry, but his troubled life did not improve, and in 1939 he committed suicide. His death was reported in several national papers but only because of the notoriety he had achieved as the “Icicle Man.” The Simkhovitch family continued to summer in Robbinston and after the death of the parents the Didisheims lived at the Mansion House until the 1970s. However, unlike most summer residents they chose to remain in Robbinston after their deaths.
The family grave is in the Brewer cemetery. Located in the far-left rear of the cemetery, it is near the family plots of the Brewer family in whose home the Simkhovitches spent so many years. Vladimir, Mary, Helena and Stephen together with Helena’s husband Frank Didisheim are all buried in Lot 3A of the Brewer Cemetery on the Number Three Road in Robbinston. They must have had a very special affection for the town to choose the Brewer cemetery as their final resting place given their prominence as citizens of New York City.
In 1950, an article headed “Genius in Trouble Again” appeared in the Tucson Arizona Citizen. Willard had been arraigned in the court in Los Angeles on four counts of grand theft. The article mentioned the 1935 “Icicle Man” affair and a period Willard had spent in New York City posing as a Russian nobleman. The Feds were next in line planning to charge Willard with perjury in a recent Federal trial and his probation officer was probably interested in an explanation of his recent conduct, the good doctor being on probation for practicing medicine without a license at the time of his LA arrest.
Ralph S. Willard, formerly Rafael Soukeassian of Tbilisi (aka Tilfis), Russia, was born on 4 May 1903 and died in California on 4 September 1971.