THE GILDED LEAF is a book about a compelling journey into the past of a family, taken by Patrick Reynolds, one of R. J. Reynolds’ six grandsons. This prologue, which takes place at an extraordinary auction of his dead father’s belongings, sets the scene.
AT MUSGROVE PLANTATION on the resort island of St. Simons, off the coast of Georgia, dinner on August 6, 1975, was a strained affair. Sixty-seven-year-old Nancy Susan Reynolds, last surviving child of tobacco magnate R. J. Reynolds and one of the richest women in the world, was entertaining relatives of her late brother R. J. (Dick) Reynolds, Jr. Dick had died nearly eleven years earlier; even so, he was the focal point of the evening. The guests at the buffet included some of Dick’s sons, who were Nancy’s nephews, as well as Dick’s fourth wife and widow, Annemarie, and Annemarie’s daughter, Irene, born just thirty-six hours after Dick’s death. Some of the sons had brought wives or girlfriends. One was also accompanied by his lawyer.
The dozen visitors were almost lost in the enormous living room. At 483 acres, Musgrove was the largest private plantation on St. Simons, with ten principal buildings. The drive from the front gate to the main residence, the “Boat House,” was more than a mile.
During his lifetime, the late Dick Reynolds had been married four times, and the first two marriages had produced six sons, four from the first and two from the second. All six of these sons had been disinherited by Dick’s last will, a consequence that had shocked them and whose effects had not disappeared more than ten years after Dick’s death. Nancy had invited all of the sons to St. Simons; three of the older sons had declined to come. There that evening, having flown in from North Carolina, Florida, and California, respectively, were the youngest “first-marriage” son – Will, thirty-five, an investor and businessman – and the two “second-marriage” sons – Michael, twenty-eight, a Vietnam veteran and owner of a dinner theater, and Patrick, twenty-six, a fledgling actor. They were curious to meet their half sister, Irene, whom they had never before seen.
Patrick was unsure what to think or feel about Irene. Her chin was dimpled, as were all of the Reynolds brothers’, but otherwise she didn’t resemble their dead father. She spoke mostly German, principally to her governess. She looked more like her mother, Annemarie, a plain, no-nonsense woman in her forties who had inherited Dick’s estate – a fortune in the tens of millions, possibly in the hundreds of millions – after Patrick and his five brothers had been entirely cut out of their father’s will.
Tomorrow they were all going to Sapelo, an island a few miles north of St. Simons. Sapelo had been his father’s private kingdom. Patrick had had mixed emotions about coming here. He was furious at being asked to pay for the chance to own a few pieces from what he felt should have been his rightful inheritance, but he tried to conceal his emotions as he made conversation with Nancy and Annemarie. Patrick felt coming from the women a sense that the third-generation Reynolds “boys” were not conducting their lives to the satisfaction of the wealthy aunt and widow.
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The last time Patrick had been on Sapelo was sixteen years earlier, when Patrick was eleven and Dick was a dying man of fifty-three. Dick was already racked with emphysema, confined to an air-conditioned section of the mansion. Old and withered beyond his years, Dick had been an emotional weather vane, professing at one moment to love his sons, at the next sighing gratefully as he waved them away. Yes, Patrick had to go to Sapelo because he wanted to have in his home – in his life – something of his father’s, but he dreaded going there because of his conflicting emotions about that same father. After all, Dick Reynolds had disinherited his sons: it was a central fact in all of their lives, one that was very hard to bear and even harder to understand.
A few months before he died, Dick had written out by hand a short will revoking all others and leaving everything to Annemarie. It wasn’t as if any of the six brothers were in danger of starving. Each had $2.5 million from their grandmother, Katharine Reynolds, wife and widow of R.J. This bequest Dick had been unable to take from them.
In the morning several planes took the group of a dozen the few miles north to Sapelo. Approached from the air, Dick’s private fiefdom made Musgrove seem small. St. Simons had been commercialized, but Sapelo was pristine and magnificent. From above, the island was spectacular, a rectangle about twelve miles by four. Patrick could see the eight miles of untouched beach where, when he and Michael were young, they’d spent a whole fruitless day digging for Blackbeard’s treasure.
The very sight of South End House, with its elegant white-columned front, hit Patrick like a slap in the face: here was the home of his infancy, where once his father and mother had lived like king and queen. Even though he’d thought about seeing it again the previous night, he wasn’t prepared for the rush of feelings that engulfed him now.
As Patrick wandered through the halls it struck him that he knew very little personally of his father. Only in the late 1950s, when he was a preadolescent, had he been allowed five visits to a remote, beleaguered, off-putting father who seemed more like a dying god than a living man.
Patrick began to feel his anger rising. Had his father really wanted to abandon and disinherit his boys? Had Dick believed that the money was not good for them – or that they could escape the fate of being Reynoldses if they had less of it? Was Dick’s attitude a consequence of his own childhood experience, when his own father, R.J. Reynolds, had passed on, leaving Dick and three other children – the youngest just six – fatherless, but with an inheritance that eventually totaled $100 million and controlled all of their lives? As it was, Patrick’s only real legacy from his father consisted of the Reynolds name. At auditions for acting roles being a grandson of R.J. Reynolds was a clear hindrance: jobs didn’t go to people who “didn’t need to work.” Often he wished to change his name, forget about his patrimony.
One part of Patrick wanted to chuck everything, withdraw his bids for the Sapelo furniture, go away from here, and never think about R. J. Reynolds junior – or senior – again. But he couldn’t run away any longer. He entered bids on the few pieces of his heritage he was being allowed to purchase. Then he inquired about the portrait of “the founder,” his grandfather R. J. Reynolds. That was not for sale. What a joke: from this morass of memories he couldn’t buy a hint of a starting point, he couldn’t even take home this portrait to brood upon. He’d wanted to do so because he’d realized that, despite the emotional pitfalls, he must now spend serious time and energy trying to come to terms with the conundrum of accumulation, dissipation, and fatherlessness that seemed to be the real heritage of the R. J. Reynolds tobacco family.