A Portrait of the Leith Family

[John Alan Leith. Silver gelatin print, taken by a Zeiss Ikon camera. Leith poses with five business associates, cigar held up to his mouth. Leith does not look directly at the camera, but at a focal point to the left]

John Leith made his fortune in oil. He quickly became known for his business tactics of sinking a massive amount of money into a well and then selling it at what appeared to be the zenith of its production. Buyers would be astonished to find that not only were the wells tapped out, but that the yields had been inflated on paper.

Leith was a fixture at gentleman’s clubs and social events. He bragged of touring the world and going on frequent safaris, though his escapades were easily debunked due to his complete lack of geographical knowledge. When Leith built Montbello, the 120-room house in the Catskills, he populated it with hunting trophies he purchased overseas.

[The Ladies’ Auxiliary, group photo. Silver gelatin print, taken by a Kodak “brownie” camera. Margaret Cornelia Van Allan stands seventh from the right, third row. She is wearing an empire-waist gown with a frilled lace collar capped by a pearl pin, and her hair is loosely marcelled. Margaret does not smile at the camera, only squints as if caught between expressions.]

Margaret Leith was almost 30 years her husband’s junior. The decade between their union and the birth of their first son led to gossip about her inability to produce an heir. Whispers abounded about Leith’s infidelity, unspeakable illnesses caught in his youth rendering him sterile, or even Margaret’s own illness. Whatever the cause, Margaret produced only two children and then retired from motherhood, choosing instead to busy herself with various goodwill societies. When John Leith died in 1954 of a stroke, he left her several business debts that ate into what little personal wealth she had left. Margaret set up a trust with an oddly vague purpose: “to maintain the household.” The named trustee was Abigail Reyes.

[A candid moment: Margaret Leith, mouth open, hand pointing to a place somewhere out of the frame. Abigail Reyes, in a white headscarf and maid outfit, is nearly invisible due to the poor exposure of the film. A penciled message on back proclaims this photo the work of John Alan Leith, jr. This is the only known photo of Reyes.]

Abigail Reyes had been born in a small village outside of Manila. Her parents sold her to the Leith household with the understanding that she would get an American education. Abigail never set foot back in the Philippines, never learned English above a sixth-grade level. Associates of the prickly Margaret vouched that the maid was the closest thing she had to a friend. Indeed, something deeper seemed to bind them together. Even after dismissing most of the house staff due to lack of funds, Margaret retained Abigail at cost. Reyes would outlive most of the Leith family, dying in 1989 in a hospice.

[Black and white, tinted by hand. Taken with an Argoflex. John Alan Leith and son both shoulder rifles that would never be fired. John jr wears a coonskin cap and a rawhide jacket two sizes too large for him. Beneath a smattering of freckles, his smile is cocky.]

John jr. always expected to come into wealth on the day he reached adulthood. It was often said that he was the biggest casualty of John sr’s lies, for he was the only family member who believed them. After an idyllic youth filled with surprise gifts and long holidays, John jr. found that his 18-year vacation was funded by his father raiding the inheritance set up by his maternal grandfather. Dreams of living the high life in Monte Carlo and other such exotic locations evaporated, and John jr. found himself living at home well past thirty. After several ill-advised business ventures, John jr. died running his cherry-red mustang into an embankment. His death was ruled a traffic accident, though absence of brake marks belied that.

[The first color print, taken with a handheld Kodak. Maretta Jane Leith sits atop a Shetland pony in jumping gear. Maretta sticks her tongue out at the photographer. The buttons on her red hunting jacket are unbuttoned.]

It was always said that what little love remained in Margaret Leith was squeezed out in her second birth. Maretta was a rebellious second child. Ignored by a father who favored his only son, and shunned by a mother who palmed her off on a revolving series of nannies, Maretta was the most ambitious of the Leiths. From an early age she set her hopes on Olympic competition. Her father indulged her by building a show-jumping arena and purchasing a number of horses for her. However, her career was cut short by a pelvic fracture at fifteen. Like her brother, Maretta turned her hand to a series of unsuccessful bids to reclaim the Leith fortune, increasingly stymied by her mother spending all available cash for the upkeep of the Montbello house. Ironically enough, Maretta had purchased IBM stocks that, had she not died of cirrhosis of the liver at 45, might have replenished all her money and more.

[Montbello. Taken by a professional photographer for a magazine spread that never materialized, the photograph captures the house in its most endearing light. The architecture is based on French chateau style, with extensive manicured lawns and a carriage house just visible beyond the side of the house.]

Montbello’s future was uncertain. Margaret Leith had outlived both of her children, but not her husband’s debt. After Margaret was given a city funeral at the Leith family plot, Abigail Reyes retired to live a life of quiet anonymity in the Los Angeles suburbs. After her departure, she left a cryptic note reading, “all this and no more.”

Executors of the Leith estate found little of value in the late John sr’s paperwork. Forged checks, doctored bank balances, and a birth certificate of Margaret Helen Leith, a stillborn from the early days of their marriage. The furnishings and architecture of the house, save for a few repairs, still held value. An estate sale was in the works. However, two hurdles remained before the sale could be complete. The first was more minor: the house had an odor that would not go away no matter how they cleaned. The second was an architectural error: one room had a wall far thicker than normal. It was the maid’s quarters.

Examination of the wall found a loose patch of wallpaper. When peeled up, it disclosed not bare wall, but a door.

[Taken by a police camera. The wide shot completely discloses the metal cot and crude toilet structure in the corner of the room. The ceiling, glimpsed in the upper-right corner, is abnormally low. The cot holds a woman. She has been shackled at her wrists to the bed and wears a crude rope harness. Her unkempt hair and long fingernails speak to a long-term imprisonment. Though she has been dead for some time, the  drawn nature of her flesh tells that she died not from any illness, but dehydration. She wears a pinafore in a child’s size, one that barely fits her stunted frame. Closing the neck is Margaret Leith’s pearl pin.]

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