Summer vacation might mean a trip to the beach or the mountains, a few days at Disney World or a whirlwind tour of Europe, but two people who live near Charlottesville had another idea. They invited the public to spend four days visiting with their neighbors.
Castle Hill is an estate in the horse country near Charlottesville - with a long, tree-lined driveway, 600 acres of rolling green land, a spectacular view of the mountains, a swimming pool and lush gardens. The original house was built in 1765, by people who were close to Thomas Jefferson, but today it is owned by two refugees from New York. Ray Humiston had a hedge fund there. When the market collapsed, he got out with enough money to buy a farm in Virginia for his three children and his wife Stewart.
“My first name, actually, is Jane, but my mother called me by my middle name and a family name all my life, so I don’t know. It’s sort of like a boy named Sue.”
When the couple learned that a developer planned to build 200 homes on the mountains behind their farm, they decided to buy that property and the homestead that came with it - Castle Hill. Stewart restored the place and learned it had a long literary history.
“William Cabell Rives, who with his wife built the federal part of the house, was minister to France twice and wrote numerous historical books, and then there was Amelie, who was his granddaughter, who basically wrote the first dirty book in America during the Victorian Age called The Quick and the Dead. It would seem very tame now, but in its day women were reading it in their closets.”
Stewart Humiston wanted to share such stories and her newly renovated home with others, so she and her neighbor, Hugh Wilson, decided to host readers and writers retreats.
“He said, ‘Well I think I can get John Grisham and Sissy Spacek,’ who were both friends of his, and I said, ‘I know Jan Caron. I think I can get Jan. And Donna Lucy wrote the book on Castle Hill, and her husband just wrote about Thomas Jefferson. We needed to go to Monticello, so that led to Peter Hatch.”
Hugh Wilson himself is a writer - of screenplays. At 30, he quit a job in advertising to become an intern at Mary Tyler Moore’s production company.
“I got to watch the writers write and rewrite the Mary Tyler Moore Show-Rhoda, Phyllis, Bob Newhart, and it wasn’t long before I sold a Bob Newhart script to them, and I became a staff writer there, and the following year I worked for a genius of a guy- Tony Randall, a very bright man and a wonderful actor, and then after that I lucked out and created my own show, WKRP in Cincinnati, and then I tried to make the jump over to movies. I had to take whatever I could to write and direct, and I wound up despoiling the culture by directing the first Police Academy.”
He and Stewart charged about $3,500 a person to visit the mansion and meet the neighbors. Sissy Spacek, who had just published her autobiography, agreed to speak in exchange for a contribution to charity. It was, she says, a pleasure.
“Meeting all these writers - John Grisham and Donna Lucy and Henry Wiencik - was spectacular, but to be able to come to such a beautiful, historic home - just to see -- it would be worth it if you did nothing but see this beautiful garden.”
Aside from posing with the famous actress and several well-known authors, guests at Castle Hill said they learned a lot from the experience. James Henry Harris is a published academic author and a Baptist preacher from Petersburg. Barbara Mackey is a writer who hails from Houston, and Liz Muraro is an avid reader from Miami:
“I wanted to see what I could learn about writing. I have had a novel in the making like so many writers for the past 10-15 years.”
“I think I’ve really, truly made some friends for life here.”
“And I think I enjoyed hearing about how writers struggle -- how people overcome, persevere and then make it.”
Case in point - best-selling author John Grisham who recalled that his law firm’s checking account was overdrawn on the Sunday when his wife answered a call from Grisham’s agent. He had gone early to church, but she quickly caught up.
“She said you have to go call New York right now. Something big is going to happen. And I said, ‘What,’ and she said, ‘Something about movie rights to The Firm.’ Well I flew home and I called my agent, and he said, ‘I need your authority to take the highest offer from Paramount, University or Disney Touchstone for the film rights to The Firm. I said, ‘What happened to the book rights?’ I didn’t know if the book was going to be published. He said, ‘We’ll talk about that later. We can’t talk now, because the studios are sitting by their phones for the final round of bidding. Well the word ‘bidding’ had a nice ring to it. So I was like ‘Okay - just for fun, how much money are we talking about?’ He said, ‘I’m asking for half a million. I think I can get $400, 000,’ and I said, ‘You want my authority to do that?!’”
The final bid was $600,000 - an amount Grisham and his wife vowed to keep secret in their small Mississippi town. The next day, Paramount issued a press release with all the details - and the Grishams made plans to move to Charlottesville.
In addition to storytelling, guests visited Monticello, took in a play, dined al fresco by the pool and vowed to return for another intriguing visit with the Humiston’s Castle Hill neighbors.