Gregory Speck in Dining Room in front of two Pronghorn Antelope Bucks (native to Great Plains from Colorado north to Montana), Rocky Mountain Bighorn Ram (native to Rocky Mountains in USA north into Canada), two huge Bull Moose (both from Maine), and one standing Mink (native throughout continental states of USA and Canada south of tundra)
Some collectors are most passionate about their paintings, works on paper, sculpture, furniture, design, costumes, stamps, guns, old-fountain pens, vintage/antique buttons, precious jewelry, dirty underwear, etc. And then some collect some a little more extant, a little, if you like, too real a thing—a shade too life-like and therefore, a shade unnerving, for instance, taxidermy, otherwise known crudely as stuffed-animal, owning to the erstwhile method the animals were prepared then.
I was in large part prompted to conduct an interview with Gregory Speck simply because at one of his birthday parties, most of his guest merrily drank away but most intriguing of all—every now and then they whispered in mock horror how spooked they were that their otherwise, colorful, adorable host could easily live among dead, gorgeous, picturesque animals.
At first, I thought about asking them to come forward and give me their respective impressions and feelings about Mr. Speck taxidermy collection. And my idea was to collect their collective remarks and published under their names. I was surprised that none of them was willing to give their names to their less-than-flattering opinions of Gregory’s collection. Disappointed and appalled at their hypocrisy and cowardice, I decided to bring this issue to Mr. Speck’s attention and in effect to conduct an interview with him so that he can articulate with candor, the passions, judiciousness and intelligence that informs his collection and the collector.
Aptly enough and to boot he resides only a stone throw away from the New York Museum of Natural History. His apartment at the famed Beresford building on Central Park West an its various rooms are beautifully appointed, warmly lit and boasts his vast menagerie of still animals mounted, stood, displayed and/or hung in various positions, heights, corners and unexpected places that variously excites, startles or delights.
Gregory Speck was born in Harrisonburg, Virginia in 1953, near where the Martin Speck estate, itself originally a 1726 land grant of 35,000 acres from King George II of England, still exists, though the original log house was burned in 1762 during the French and Indian War, and the subsequent 1792 stone house was rebuilt as a still extant 1832 brick mansion, which is now a Bed and Breakfast, known as Clear Spring Farm.
In Harrisonburg he was a member of the first class of Anthony-Seeger Campus School (a laboratory private elementary school created to prepare future grade school teachers who were then enrolled at Madison College, which is now known as James Madison University) to matriculate from kindergarten through 7th grade, before he attended Harrisonburg High School for two years.
He then enrolled at the elite Woodberry Forest School, regarded as the pre-eminent boarding school of the South, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1971. From there he was accepted on an Early Decision basis at Amherst College, widely viewed as the most exclusive of America’s undergraduate educational institutions, from which he graduated cum laude in 1975, majoring in English and Fine Arts, minoring in French and Dramatic Arts, and writing his honors thesis on Charles Baudelaire and John Ruskin.
There he served as an editor of both the newspaper and the literary magazine, performed in several theatrical musical productions, and starred as a soloist with the famed Glee Club, which was chosen by the US Department of State’s Office of Cultural Presentations to represent America on two international concert tours throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe in the summers of 1972 and 1975.
He spent his junior year as one of two young men among 25 women on the prestigious Smith College year abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, focused on Marcel Proust, La Comedie Francaise, and Francisco de Goya at the Master’s level, under the tutelage of Bernard Dorival, former director of the Museum of Modern Art, receiving a License in 1974.
Following Amherst he moved to Manhattan, where he was employed first as a reporter, photographer, chief critic, and executive editor of Show Business newspaper, and then as a press agent for Studio 54, Fraunces Tavern, Radio City Music Hall, and other prominent venues with the public relations firm Gifford-Wallace, after which he accepted an invitation from the Lyric Opera of Chicago to promote the world premiere of the Krystof Penderecki opera “Paradise Lost” in 1978.
Subsequently he enrolled in the New York University MBA program, graduating in 1981 with that degree in International Strategic Corporate Management and Planning, while at the same time he served as Executive Director of the NYS Alliance to Save Energy, a non-profit public service media corporation established by Senators Jacob Javits and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, with funding by Nelson Rockefeller, Brooke Astor, William Paley, Jock Whitney, and other philanthropists, who supported his interest in energy conservation, renewable resources, and environmental stewardship.
In 1982 he returned to journalism, first with Horizon magazine, and then at the trend-setting (212) magazine, which he edited, and then, at the invitation of Andy Warhol, at Interview magazine, where his interviews with Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, Ava Gardner, Douglas Fairbanks, Loretta Young, Marcello Mastroianni, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Lillian Gish, and many other legendary stars were published to great acclaim and syndicated by The New York Times.
During this period, from 1985 through 1988, he served also as Chief Cultural Correspondent of the New York Tribune, reviewing essentially every significant New York City production of theatre, cinema, opera, ballet, and art, resulting in a total of 472 essays and reviews in that daily newspaper, while contributing also to such publications as Stagebill, The World and I, and Elle magazine.
The New York Daily News also published his interviews with James Stewart, Helen Hayes, and others during this period, as did numerous other major magazines, such as Us (Lauren Bacall) and The Cable Guide (Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Gina Lollobrigida, Jack Lemmon, and Audrey Hepburn), after which in 1992 he published his book “Hollywood Royalty,” featuring the actual quotes of 24 of his greatest subjects.
In 1993 he began in earnest to collect taxidermy, but by 1997 his menagerie of 400 was sufficiently extensive, which led him to turn to another passion, ancient mythology and archaeology, which led him to travel the world to ascertain the meaning of life, as concealed or revealed in the records of past civilizations, such as Egypt, the Mayan, Incan, and Aztec empires, Angkor-Wat, Stonehenge, Carnac, and The Four Corners, the result of which intense scholarly study led to his writing “The Revelation of Prophecy as History.”
In this millennium his investigative journalistic contributions to the New York Post, through such columns as Page Six, Liz Smith, and Cindy Adams, have been complemented by those to New York Social Diary, for which he has written about his travels to such destinations as South Africa and New Zealand, and elsewhere. Today he maintains his residence at the Beresford on Central Park West and his family homestead in Virginia, which is known as El Dorado.
Gregory, I had initially wanted to literally collect all manner of approving and disapproving things that I overheard your various guests saying about you and your collection, during the course of your birthday party. Do you have any idea the range of provocative opinions that your taxidermy collection causes in people?
Do I have any ideas? I wonder how philistine, insensitive, and unsophisticated those who seek to see only murder in my museum must be, and indeed I have heard vapid responses and inane remarks and fatuous reactions to these glorious divine treasures, the most beauteous among all of God’s creatures, which I have attempted and succeeded in collecting in the interest of the preservation of their memory, itself soon to be lost, along with this pathetic and grotesque excuse for social life we call human civilization. Do they in their courtesy and wisdom approach the American Museum of Natural History next door to me with violence, as PETA might approve? I created my museum out of love for the beauty of these splendid, intelligent, inspired creatures, none of whose deaths I caused. My profound knowledge of the natural taxonomy of their graceful identities, as soon to be extinct living artwork of the Lord, leaves me in contempt of those who would approach my temple to the Ark with anything less than faith in me and my severe judgment upon them all.
It is important that you’ve set the record straight: you are a collector and not an animal hunter. There is always a danger in conjectures that are based on half-truths and outlandish assumptions. Why is it that people who are worked by your taxidermy collection resist to see them in as much the same framework as, say an art collection, sculpture and/or cultural artifacts as one finds in museums?
The wonderful American Museum of Natural History next door has been an inspiration to me for years, but it would be absurd to attempt to compete with its absolutely comprehensive collections, many of which animals one would need a special license to possess, such as songs birds, birds of prey, spotted cats, great apes, and others in danger of imminent extinction. Many of my largest mounts, as you know, are shoulder mounts of 2,000 pound mammals, such as moose, bison, buffalo, and eland, whereas the AMNH displays mainly full body mounts, which are so large I could not get them into my apartment. Although some of my trophies are superior to those shown at the AMNH, I feel no competition at all with them, only admiration and fascination for that world-class repository, where I have found their library resources of enormous assistance in identifying trophies I bought from their former owners, who did not know exactly what subspecies they were. My collection is certainly world-class because of its quality and depth and range, and it is said that I possess the world’s record largest, for someone who has never hunted at all; I again stress that I did not kill any of my companions, whom I regard and treat as my guests. I plan to leave it all as a museum, which will be in Virginia at my home there, where another 200 mounts await the arrival of the 200 now at my apartment in Manhattan.
Better yet, what do these false assumptions and ambivalence by some to your collection reveal or conceal about them?
Having grown up with horses, ponies, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, swans, and peacocks in the Virginia countryside, I have always loved the creatures raised on farms around my home there. Although I never hunted or killed anything domestic or wild, I was accustomed to seeing wild deer, bears, foxes, hawks, owls, and even bobcats in the fields, forests, and national parks near my home, and of course on many camping, hiking, and boating trips as a cub scout, boy scout, and explorer scout. Even today at my little plantation I have families of rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks living around the property, which is regularly visited by woodchucks, opossums, raccoons, skunks, and foxes, as well as the occasional eagle and even coyote. This experience as a key part of my youth and background has fostered in me a sense of communion with the animals, and so I always feel comfortable in their presence, whereas those who are frightened or repelled by what they view as dead monsters show that they never enjoyed the advantage of growing up closer to the natural world.
I can understand how people who were born and raised in the center of an intensely urban setting like Manhattan have never known the pleasure and liberation of being out in nature, but it is simply provincial and unenlightened to see artistically preserved masterpieces of Mother Nature as evidence of my own insensitivity to them and their plight, when the exact opposite is true.
Is it relatively correct to assume that you prefer animals in the taxidermy framework than to say, in the plastic arts: painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, etc.?
The virtue of taxidermy is that it is lifelike, as close to the actual appearance of the specimen as it is possible to attain, albeit no longer living. The finest painting or sculpture or photograph or drawing, no matter how expert and brilliant, cannot possibly capture the same vividity, the illusion of actuality, the unique texture, the particular 3-D scale, or the innate character of the animal. I say this as a devoted art historian, by training and degree and profession, who knows the limits of the plastic arts to represent life, which is the true goal of taxidermy.
When or how did you start this collection?
The collection began quite unexpectedly in 1983. At that time I was the editor of (212) magazine, and was driving a couple of friends north up through Westchester County on the way to tour three historic Hudson River homes I planned to write about. At a stop light in Sleepy Hollow I noticed an enormous raccoon lying by the road, so I jumped out and put it into the trunk to take it with me to have it stuffed.
Immediately the odor provoked the protests of my guests, so I took the coon out and laid him out of sight behind a hedge, noting the exact street location.
Ten years later I was again driving up the Hudson, when in Cold Spring Harbor I stopped into another taxidermy shop, and found the owner working on a gigantic elk shoulder mount. His shop was filled with huge trophies, six of which he wanted to sell, to I decided that they were so beautiful and the prices so low that I should take them. A few days later I returned to his shop in a friend’s van, and we loaded the elk, two caribous, a cape buffalo, a greater kudu, and a roan antelope into the back, then got them one by one into my apartment, which shocked the neighbors when they saw these huge antlered and horned creatures riding up the elevator.
Once I got them hung on the walls of the ballroom I realized that I could curate a museum-quality collection of these now politically incorrect but still splendid examples of nature’s art, and so I began to go about adding to my collection to assemble comprehensive presentations of all the African antelopes, all the North American mammals, game birds, and fish, and even all the Asiatic pheasants, which breeders raised on farms in the mid-Atlantic states.
Are all of your collections what one sees at your home or are they more in safe storage?
Nothing is in storage, and everything is on display.
Do you rotate these “animals” at all or are they, each, on permanent display?
I have arranged everything meticulously to show each piece to greatest advantage and to compose a tableau combining animals with artworks, furniture, and fixtures. I never rotate the big animals, since they require precisely placed bolts so that their sometimes-large horns and antlers fit into the available space and balance one another.
The design is intended to show nature’s breathtaking range and variety in creating such a diversity of related species, whether feathered or furred.
Your use of the word companion in relation to various animals that hang on your wall is rather interesting, isn’t it?
I use the term “companion” in several ways: they are all my companions, for I imagine them as alive, the illusion which the art of taxidermy seeks to create; they are also the companions of one another within their family groups as well as within the rooms of my homes. For example, the foxes, whether red, gray, arctic, blue, silver, kit, or bat-eared, are all closely related by species, genus, and order, and of course are also members of the wild canine family that includes coyotes and wolves.
The members of the weasel family, which embraces short-tailed weasels, long-tailed weasels (both appear in both summer (brown) and winter (white) pelage, the latter known as ermines), minks, martens, fishers, skunks, raccoons, otters, badgers, and wolverines are rival carnivorous companions. The hoofed mammals of North America (white-tailed deer, black-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain goat, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, desert bighorn sheep, Stone sheep, Dall sheep, elk, caribou, moose, bison, and musk-ox) are companions as herbivores, grazers who dine only upon vegetation.
The African antelopes (eland, roan, sable, waterbuck, kudu, oryx, wildebeest, hartebeest, topi, sassaby, nyala, sitatunga, bushbuck, impala, lechwe, kob, puku, gerenuk, reedbuck, gazelle, dik dik, duiker, and oribi) are companions on the savannahs in the wild, and so I have arranged them as in a family portrait, so that their similarities and differences are immediately apparent to anyone who looks closely. This same concept applies to all of my animals from both the educational point of view and the interior design perspective.
Do you perhaps see them in some sort of conversation with one another?
I do not converse with my animals, though I do call my cougar “Pussy Galore,” my black bear “Smokey,” the American Bison, I call “Buffalo Bill, my wolves “Max” (who was the Alpha male of the original Yellowstone pack), “Francisco,” and “Ebony,” and I refer to my five caribous and three elks by the names of Santa’s eight reindeer. The lynx is “Big Puss,” while the bobcat is “Bob.” The turkey I call “Tom,” the swans I call “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal,” the Rocky Mountain bighorn ram I call “Aries,” the Rocky Mountain goat I call “Billy,” the gaur I call “Brahma,” and the peacock I call “Juno,” though he is a cock bird with a lady’s name.
If I were Dr. Doolittle, I suppose I could talk with them in their own languages, but if I ever felt they were talking back to me I would become concerned for my state of mind.
Do you sometimes speak to them or them to you in a sublime sort of way?
My communication with my companions is visual and spiritual, for I do not verbally talk to them, and only a very few of them have names. For instance, I named my first moose “Bullwinkle,” for the moose in the old cartoon TV series about the Canadian Mounted Police and their flying squirrel named Rocky. My moose was hit by a train in Maine, and he was given to me by the retiring Secretary of the Board of Directors of the Virginia Taxidermy Association. He informed me that the state and federal regulations governing taxidermy and hunting and fishing were becoming so onerous that he chose to leave that business to become an undertaker. Thus he now embalms dead people, and not dead animals, and finds it more profitable.
How do living with massive, extensive collection of taxidermy inform your sense of life and death?
If I had embarked upon the creation of a zoo I would insist upon having live animals, but these substitutes, who not so long ago were quite alive, are much more convenient, since they make no noise, pose no danger, eat very little, do not move about, create no mess, and have placid dispositions. Inasmuch as each of us sooner or later is going to go the way of all flesh, perhaps it is wise to see them as modern mummies, preparing for the afterlife in paradise. In modern culture cinema is probably the best way to ensure immortality, so that the beloved dead, such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, will live forever. In my home, this is the closest I can come to the Garden of Eden, where all of God’s creatures look as they did in their prime, just like the great movie stars did when they were young and healthy. While my affection for great personal friends like Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, and Audrey Hepburn has not dimmed with their passing, I prefer to recall them when they were in the full bloom of youth, not as ancient and wrinkled, or as ill and fragile. In that sense, taxidermy is a constant reminder of the transience of life, which is precious and fleeting, and the older one gets to be the more conscious one becomes of how brief our time here on earth is. “Carpe diem,” they seem to say with their gazes into the beyond, whence they speak to us if we are willing to listen.
Bobcat, also known locally as Wildcat (native to all 48 continental states, as well as Mexico and Canada), shown with Reeves Pheasant (native to Southeast Asia), Cloisonne Vase, and Chinese Jadeite lamp
Where does the phrase “stuffed animals” come from? And do you find the phrase low-rent or apropos?
The term “stuffed animals” relates to the method of stuffing skins with sawdust and other fillers in the early 20th century and before, back through the centuries. Today the technology of professional taxidermy is quite advanced, as is the business of tanning hides for preservation, of creating plastic forms in various poses to fit inside those hides in their various sizes, of replicating the unique eyes of each species, and so forth.
Tell me some of the illustrious historical personages that share your passion for taxidermy?
Theodore Roosevelt would be a prime example of a visionary leader attuned to the majesty and grace of nature’s noble and magnificent creatures. It was he who created the august American Museum of Natural History across the street from me here at The Beresford, long before so many individual species were in danger of extinction, through habitat loss, over-hunting, environmental degradation, and other ghastly effects of our civilization.
What was his collection like?
Today one is appalled that in our own depraved age ruthless criminals would happily exterminate elephants, rhinos, and even hippos for their ivory, horns, and teeth, would shoot and poison tigers, lions, and leopards into extinction for their pelts and organs, would harpoon endangered whales to serve their flesh in restaurants while claiming the hunt was scientific in purpose. It is too late for the Moa, the Dodo, and the Passenger Pigeon, and precariously threatening for gorillas, orangutans, manatees, and dugongs, thanks to man’s inhumane destruction of nature for profit.
While it might seem contradictory for me as a collector to be a fervent preservationist, it is my love for these creatures that led me to invite them into my homes, and I would not hunt any of them, though because of the imbalances in nature which man has created we are now overrun by White-Tailed Deer and Canada Geese, which should be culled around the calendar to provide food for the less fortunate to restore our natural surroundings to a state of equilibrium.
Will you eventually bequeath or want to have bequeath your entire collection to one single/several museum or—vanquish the thought—even sell them all off at some point?
My plan is to move the 200 animals here at The Beresford (mammals, birds, fish, reptiles) to my home in Virginia, where the other 200 animals already reside at my home there, next to a major university. I would like for these 400 museum-quality mounts to comprise the core of a future major museum of natural history at that location, where my architecturally significant houses already constitute and contain a museum of cultural history. There now on display are 19th century family memorabilia, extensive collections of antiques, decorative arts, paintings and drawings, photographs and programs of Hollywood and Broadway personalities and events from my career as an entertainment journalist and cultural historian, a vast library of literature and art historical catalogues and reference volumes, original letters from my friends and subjects such as James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, and the other actresses previously noted, and the archive of my own publications, numbering around 1,000 articles, reviews, interviews, essays, features, and books. Inasmuch as plans can change, I suppose I could auction or otherwise sell my taxidermy collections, but for the present I intend to keep them all together with me in my several homes.