Chautauqua Conversations: Staying the entire season at the Athenaeum Hotel

Albert C. “Ace” Barclay is a dapper, urbane, well-dressed man who has passed his 70th birthday. Growing up in central New Jersey in places well known to New Jersey Turnpike travelers as exits around the Princeton area, Barclay graduated from Yale, then received a law degree from Harvard, served in the Army and settled into a comfortable life with his wife and children, maintaining a local law practice based in the area where he grew up.

As his wife fell ill and passed away a few years ago, Barclay began coming back to Chautauqua. This summer is not the first time he has rented a room in the Athenaeum Hotel for the entire season, on the hotel’s American full-meal plan. This seemed like a man worth talking to.

Your legal practice in New Jersey seems to have been quite analogous to that of an old-time country doctor.

Yes. I was in Hightstown when I started practicing law, transitioning from doing some work for my father who was an attorney in the same general geographical area. This was in the late 1950s. My wife met some people she liked from Princeton, which is about eight miles away, and said we should move there. And we did.

We actually had three or four houses in Princeton over the many years we lived there. My wife Marge was a house fixer-upper. We’d buy a place and she would settle in to fix it up. When that was done, often we would move on to the next one.

That’s where our kids were raised, in Princeton, and they loved the town. I remember it came as quite a shock to one of my daughters to learn that it would not be easy to gain admittance there.

I served on the boards of the Presbyterian church in the various places where we lived, and other boards as well. After Princeton, we moved nearby to Kingston and I spent the last 20 years or so of my career there.

Small-town life becomes one of familiar rhythms. There is a middle class and a kind of upper class, and once you manage to advance into those strata everyone knows you and there is a group of people you get comfortable with. In Princeton, we knew some very bright people and some very wealthy people who weren’t doing very much, but everyone got along fine. It was pleasant and very friendly. A lot of people we knew commuted by train to work in New York City.

You have an unusual perspective. You have degrees from Yale and Harvard, and you lived for many years in the neighborhood of Princeton. Which one made the greatest impression on you?

None of them. It was New York University, where I did some post-graduate training. The professors were all in the middle of what was going on in business generally and very smart guys. They were very smart guys, many bordering on brilliant. Great teachers.

Your wife Marge was from Jamestown, so you came up here frequently for family visits. And there was a long-standing connection with Chautauqua.

Marge’s father was a debt collector in Jamestown. Marge had several brothers, one of whom survives and will visit here this weekend. I owe a big debt to one of her other brothers, now deceased, who used to tell Marge all boys would love her and leave her pregnant and were generally a bunch of rogues. She believed it long enough to get through high school and college unmarried, so when I met her when we were both studying at the University of Mexico, she was still available. I thanked her brother at his funeral for his inadvertent assistance in our courtship.

After we were married, we came up here one Christmas. After a couple of summers visiting Chautauqua, Marge decided we needed a summer home here. She approached it as she had our homes in Princeton, and in the 1950s and 1960s things were pretty dingy around here in Chautauqua, so Marge had a lot of fixer-upper material to work with. You could get houses for a fraction of what they are now worth. But the Institution still had the fine summer programs and Children’s School and Boys’ and Girls’ Club, so we kept coming back. We bought a place on Ames Avenue initially — I think a commercial builder may own it now — and later on sold that and bought a place in Chautauqua Shores.

When did you retire from the law practice?

It was around the time I turned 65, about eight years ago. We went to Michigan to live near my daughter, and then when my wife died, I sold that house and moved in with my daughter. I am still there with my daughter. Those winters in the middle of Michigan are really something.

How did you come to spend the summer at the Athenaeum Hotel?

After Marge died, I sold the place in Chautauqua Shores. She had always liked the Athenaeum Hotel and had told me I should stay there in the summer. I would meet interesting people there, she said, and it would be a fine way to keep up the connection to this part of the country. The hotel is convenient to everything.

At first, things were pretty quiet for me at the hotel. I was just really enjoying the amazing cultural variety at Chautauqua. But after a year or so, I met my friend Scott, and we began hosting our afternoon cocktail parties and the community table at dinner.

Can you talk about the community table?

When I first came to the hotel, I would go into the dining room and would end up eating alone most of the time. I tried to do something about this, and used a website to figure out a sign to announce an idea to have a group table where people or even couples who were by themselves and wanted some company could share a meal with other like-minded folks.

If we are lucky, we get seated at a table for eight out on the porch. Sometimes, we wind up inside. But it’s always interesting to meet new people. We do get bumped off the porch when the Institution hosts a large group of visitors or sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw where we sit.

You said your nickname is Ace. How did that come about?

Well my first name is Albert and middle initial is C., so AC just morphed into Ace.

Since you have seen so much of the programming offered here on the grounds, do you have favorites?

I’m not a huge fan of the dance, although it is beautiful to watch. I think it’s mostly because I’m not too much of a dancer myself. I love almost everything else. I’ll often do the morning lecture, the 2 p.m. lecture, another lecture or class at 4 p.m., race back here for cocktails and dinner, then off again for the evening at the Amphitheater. It’s busy, but I love it.

How about the afternoon cocktail parties?

I tend to handle the white wines, and Scott handles the reds. I think people just pass by our little area and we extend some hospitality. They are often tired at the end of a long day of culture and the respite we offer is welcome. Some of our cocktail guests join us for dinner, and we have had six to eight guests at our community table in recent days.

What goes on in the winter, in Michigan?

Well, as I mentioned, I have moved in with my daughter and her husband, in East Lansing. Not a whole lot goes on, to tell you the truth. I have taken some community college courses in past years, and likely will do so again. But the highlight of my year is when I can return to Chautauqua and the Athenaeum Hotel.