It seemed to many who met Frank Margesson that he had inherited a special role: that of curator of his family’s history in general and of its unique association with Swami Vivekananda in particular. As the grandson of Francis and Betty Leggett, on his mother’s side, and of Lady Isabelle and Lord Mortimer Margesson, on his father’s side, this was no small undertaking. Most of Frank’s stories had been published in various sources, including his mother’s autobiography Late and Soon. Yet, through him, the past came to life in the intimacy of a direct connection. He was telling the story of his own family; that he spoke with the eloquence of an English lord gave added charm to his natural gifts as a storyteller.

Frank’s death on November 11, 2014, at the age of 92, has prompted fond  memories of our association with both Frank and his wife, Helena, which began  through a mutual friend, Betty Zimmer.

Knowing that the Margessons were planning to put Ridgely on the open market, Betty contacted various centers of the Ramakrishna Order to encourage them to purchase the estate where Swamiji had stayed. Unable to arouse interest, Betty then called her friend Joan Shack, who was the president of Sri Sarada Society, an organization of devotees that had recently formed. On  April 25, 1994, Joan went with Betty to meet the Margessons and tour the estate. After having the property appraised and hiring a real estate attorney, Sri Sarada Society decided to enter into negotiations to purchase Ridgely. Joan recalls:

  1. Frank was just plain gracious. And so expressive....When one of the contracts written by his lawyer was sent to Frank, he asked me: ‘Isn’t it ghastly?’ Indeed it was!  Pages and pages of legalese...And he was mortified when he came to learn that the contract contained a clause stating the Society could be sued...He called right away to apologize.

  2. The negotiation process between attorneys proved difficult, resulting in three breakdowns in our conversation...Eventually, we had to write up a contract ourselves: something simple, but binding.  Frank let the Society’s lawyer create the legal document.

The first of two contracts between the Margessons and Sri Sarada Society was signed on December 23, 1994. It provided the Society the opportunity to work towards a purchase agreement, while offering hopeful fulfillment of Frank’s wishes for the estate. On Swami Vivekananda’s birthday, January 23, 1995, our fund drive began.  With an agreement in place, Frank and Helena joined forces with Sri Sarada Society in preparing information about the estate’s significance.

Major focus went into producing “Swami Vivekananda at Ridgely,” an eighteen-minute video that explores the history and nature of Swamiji’s association with the Leggett family and the estate. Frank assisted with  filming and scripting, and both he and Helena contributed to the narration. The VHS video was distributed to Vedanta centers, organizations, and individuals—any who might want to help with the effort to “Save Ridgely.” Three brochures were also released outlining aspects of Swami Vivekananda’s legacy, the significance of Ridgely Manor, and Sri Sarada Society’s mission statement, respectively.

April 22, 1995, marked the centennial anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s first stay at Ridgely. Swami Sarvatmananda, then assistant minister of the Vedanta Society of Boston, took part in the centennial celebration, giving a brief talk on Swamiji and answering questions. 

Guests were met at the entrance to the property and invited to ride to the Manor by a carriage drawn by Morgan horses, the same breed that had brought Swamiji. There they were greeted by the Margessons, who gave tours of the house. In the dining room, Helena delighted guests with the story of how Frank’s grandmother, Betty Leggett, would draw Vivekananda back to the table by announcing  that ice cream would be served. 

In the afternoon everyone gathered on the back lawn of the Manor  to enjoy a concert of musical selections offered in honor of Vivekananda by the New York Vedanta Society choir, under the direction of John Schlenck. 

In the months that followed, as they had done for many years prior to placing the estate up for sale, the Margessons continued to graciously receive expected and unexpected pilgrims who would arrive at Ridgely in search of the home that had been dear to Vivekananda.

Efforts by Sri Sarada Society to purchase Ridgely came to a close late in the summer of 1997, when Swami Swahananda was authorized by the Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math, to acquire the estate as a retreat center. Sri Sarada Society has continued to sponsor retreats at Ridgely, led by visiting pravrajikas from Sri Sarada Math.

The friendships we formed with Frank and Helena during those early days continued after Mother lifted the task of purchasing Ridgely from the shoulders of Sri Sarada Society.

And like family members before him, Frank Margessson was able to realize his own legacy to Vedanta, especially Vedanta in America—through seeing the blessed estate, made sacred by the presence of Swamiji, preserved as Vivekananda Retreat, Ridgely.


Remembering Frank Margesson:

In Words

“Frank Margesson As We Knew Him” originally appeared

in the Spring 2015 issue of Sri Sarada Society Notes.