Inside the Baron’s Mansion in Westport
WESTPORT — Hidden from view by a long and curving driveway stands a stately home. It resembles a small Georgian manor, a place with a heritage. But details stand out. The columns and trim, for starters, are tinted a subtle pink.
Over the years, the house has been used for library storage, U.N. hospitality planning and police training, with dogs combing through rooms looking for planted drugs, according to former Westport Selectman Helen Garten. The Westport Arts Center hopes it will be next to call the house a home.
People in the town refer to the building colloquially as the baron’s mansion, a name providing ample fuel for the romantic imagination. Aspiration, after all, was Baron Walter Langer von Langendorff’s business. He was a perfumer.
The story goes that the Austrian baron, who immigrated to the U.S. during World War II, founded Evyan perfumes with his first wife, Evelyn Diane Westall. The war weighed on French perfume houses, and Langer was a chemist and his wife a savvy marketer. Their company made them millionaires as women across America bought into the brand, which the couple turned into a lifestyle (their home echoed their perfume’s packaging, and the Evyan logo is even featured on their mausoleum). Popular fragrances included Golden Shadows, the actual name of their Westport home, and White Shoulders, later taken over by Elizabeth Arden.
“My ex-wife used to wear White Shoulders,” recalled Michael Brennecke at the mansion on a warm Wednesday afternoon. Brennecke had spent his teenage summers working as a gardener for Langer.
“I was 15 years old when I was working for the baron,” Brennecke said. “This is 30 acres, and he kept it, all of it, like a botanical garden.” He looked out the window and remembered the white gravel paths that he and nine other gardeners weeded by hand. There had been a fern garden and a fragrant forest of flowering rhododendrons ringing the estate.
Real Estate Listings
“So when you looked out, you didn’t see any signs of other houses or any other civilization,” he said. “This place was just an island in and of itself two blocks from downtown Westport. And it was spectacular. It was incredibly groomed.”
In addition to the home, the grounds held gardens for cut flowers and a greenhouse with an Olympic-sized pool. As for the baron himself, Brennecke remembered a reserved man. “But keep in mind I was a grunt,” he said with a laugh.
However, New York Times writer Wolfgang Saxon supported Brennecke’s view. “Dr. Langer was prominent in New York social circles but kept his private life out of public view,” Saxon wrote in 1983.
The hint at to what lengths Langer and his wife went through to keep certain facts a secret are apparent inside his home at 68 Compo Road South.
The Golden Shadows lobby is dominated by a staircase swirling toward a pale blue ceiling. To the right is a large room where they entertained guests, and to the left is perfectly preserved ’50s-era kitchen, in which everything from the tiles and cupboards to the oven, refrigerator and even cup hooks are a rosy shade of pink. (The use of color throughout the home is enveloping and eminently Instagramable.)
But hidden off to the side, in what appears to be a closet door, is a staircase fitted with a lift. The home was built after Westall suffered a stroke, and it was designed so she could get between the first and second floors without any clue to tip off guests she struggled with the steps.
And like the fictional Jay Gatsby, while the baron was known for his wealth and entertainment, little was known about his past.
“Any genealogist who tries to work out what they say they are runs into a wall — it doesn’t work,” said Morley Boyd, a local preservationist. “They have documents about their lives written in their own hand that have conflicting information.”
“He definitely was Austrian and he definitely was a refugee, so that we know,” said former Westport Selectman Helen Garten.
The two had joined Brennecke to walk through the home, and they stood together in Langer’s library, relating what they knew of Westport’s baron.
“It appeared that they were to a certain degree obscuring their background,” Boyd said. “And likely, given the time that they came here and where they come from, it appears he’s likely of Jewish heritage.”
While Boyd thought Langer may have fled persecution in Austria, Garten thought he may have hid his past to avoid anti-Semitism in America.
But they agreed the couple successfully created their own image once they arrived, one that was mirrored in their flowered oasis of an estate.
“They’re not the first people to arrive in America and reinvent themselves,” Boyd said. “And that’s what they did — and they did it in a spectacular way and gave themselves titles. To this day, we call it the baron’s property.”