A LITTLE LOCAL HISTORY: The Spymaster and the Author

Recently, The New York Times reported on the investigation by the F.B.I. of an espionage case involving a prominent former U.S. State Department diplomat.

Published December 8, 2014 3:15 AM
5 min read


JJ-thRecently, The New York Times reported on the investigation by the F.B.I. of an espionage case involving a prominent former U.S. State Department diplomat.

By Paul Hicks

Recently, The New York Times reported on the investigation by the F.B.I. of an espionage case involving a prominent former U.S. State Department diplomat. The Times noted, “Counterintelligence — the art of spotting and thwarting spies — is the F.B.I.’s second highest priority” (its first stated priority is to protect the United States from terrorist attack).

johnjayThe F.B.I. shares the mission of counterintelligence with the C.I.A., whose website traces the agency’s role back to the intelligence accomplishments of three founding fathers — George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay. Of Jay, who is best known for serving as the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, it states that, “he clearly deserved to be considered the first national-level American counterintelligence chief.” 

Suzanne Clary, president of the Jay Heritage Center, has written about the friendship between John Jay and James Fenimore Cooper, whose visits to the Jay family home in Rye inspired parts of his popular early novel, “The Spy: a Tale of the Neutral Ground.” Cooper based the story loosely on the exploits of actual American counterintelligence agents who were hired by John Jay to spy on Tory loyalists during the Revolutionary War.

Jay’s counterintelligence work began in the summer of 1776, when he was a member of the New York legislature. He chaired a committee that was investigating a Tory plot to recruit people to sabotage defense and infrastructure targets in New York City and its environs. Jay had employed a number of agents, but after publication of “The Spy” in 1821, it was widely believed that the model for the protagonist in the novel was a man named Enoch Crosby. 

In a memoir, Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote about her father’s plans for “The Spy”: “It was to be…laid in West Chester County, during the Revolution. An anecdote which Governor Jay had told him relating to a spy, who performed his dangerous services out of pure patriotism, was the foundation of the new book. My father never knew the name of the spy; Governor Jay felt himself bound to secrecy on that point. But he never believed for a moment that Enoch Crosby was the man.”

Cooper wrote “The Spy” while living at a farm in Scarsdale, which was once part of the large estate owned by his wife’s ancestor, Caleb Heathcote. It was near the home in Mamaroneck, called Heathcote Hill, where he and Susan DeLancey were married in 1811 by the Reverend Samuel Haskell. He had recently become Rector of Christ’s Church in Rye, where the Jays were prominent parishioners. In her memoir, Susan Cooper recalled that, “when out in the gig, we frequently met the Rector of the Church at Rye, the parish to which the family at Heathcote Hill belonged.”

jfcooperShe wrote fondly of her family’s close friendship with “the Jays at Rye.” The elderly Mrs. Jay, who was then living in the home on the Boston Post Road, known as the “Locusts,” was the widow of Peter Jay, a brother of John Jay. Susan wrote, “With ‘Auntie Jay,’ I was very intimate; she was very fond of children, and our parents or grandfather or aunts were constantly taking us over to see her…We often drank tea with ‘Auntie Jay’; there were several lovely old blacks in the kitchen, ‘Caesar,’ and ‘Venus,’ and ‘Lily,’ with whom we were on the most affectionate terms.”

Among the characters in “The Spy” is a servant named Caesar, described by Cooper as a “faithful old black, who had been raised from infancy in the house of his present master.” According to Suzanne Clary, there was a slave in the Jay home named Caesar who was later freed and buried at the Jay farm in Rye in 1847. Susan Cooper wrote that the DeLanceys at Heathcote Hill were slave owners as well, recalling: “There were several dark-skinned servants in the house-slaves, I fancy they must have been at that late date, but enjoying life in a very free and easy way.” 

Susan showed some of her father’s literary talent, such as her description of Heathcote Hill: “The house stood on the brow of a low hill, immediately above the highway to Boston and facing a broad bay of the Sound…There was…a row of locusts along the fence, and some noble weeping willows in different positions. Cherry trees and peach trees, apricots and nectarines were planted near the house…and beyond all these orchards there rose a beautiful wood, the remains of the ancient forest…”

In “The Spy”, James Fenimore Cooper described the site of a residence very like the Jay home: “…the fall of the land to the level of the tide water, afforded a view of the Sound over the distant woods at its margin. The surface of the water, which had so lately been lashing the shores with boisterous fury, was already losing its ruffled darkness in the long and regular undulations that succeeded a tempest…” 

Thanks to the great preservation work that has been done over the years at the Jay Heritage Center, when you visit there and look eastward from the back porch, you can enjoy the same view that made such a strong impression on Cooper. There is a current campaign underway to preserve what is now known as the DeLancey-Cooper House (Heathcote Hill) in Mamaroneck. Many years ago, the building was moved down the hill and became an inn fronting on the Post Road.  

If you are interested in learning more about the project, visit Mamaroneckhistory.homestead.com (click on “DeLancey”).

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