Philip Van Rensselaer: The Last Patroon


Van Rensselaer Manor, or just simply Rensselaerswyck, was the name of a colonial estate—a Dutch patroonship—owned by the Van Rensselaer family that was located upstate, largely in the Albany Capital District.

The estate was originally deeded by the Dutch West India Company in 1630 to Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, a Dutch merchant and one of the company’s original directors. Rensselaerswyck extended for 24 by 48 miles on each side of the Hudson River. 

Under the terms of the patroonship, the patroon had near-total jurisdictional authority, establishing civil and criminal law, villages, and a church. Tenant farmers were allowed to work on the land, but had to pay rent to the owners, and had no rights to property. In addition, the Rensselaers harvested timber from the property.

The patroonship was maintained intact by Rensselaer descendants for more than two centuries. It was split up after the death of its last patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1839. His mother was a Livingston, his wife a Schuyler, and his brother-in-law was Alexander Hamilton, now the celebrated idol of the Broadway stage.

At the time of Stephen’s birth in 1764, the manor was predominantly uninhabited wilderness; by 1840, it was estimated that there were approximately 50,000 residents, many of whom had migrated west from New England.

Like his predecessors, Stephen rarely sold land outright; instead, tenants were granted lifetime leases. This rent system, known as leases-in-perpetuity, was widely criticized as feudalistic by a burgeoning Republican movement that, as historian Gordon Wood wrote, “struck directly at the ties of blood, kinship, and dependency that lay at the heart of a monarchical society.” Many Republicans saw this rent system as the embodiment of the ills they wished to destroy. The election of George Clinton, a staunch Republican and political nemesis of Alexander Hamilton, as New York’s first governor in 1777 and the state’s abolishment of primogeniture in 1782 did not bode well for the landed aristocracy. 

Despite this, the manor survived the Revolution and extended well into the 19th century. Stephen was even known by many as the “Good Patroon” because of his reputation as a benevolent and lenient landlord who allowed many tenants to pay their rents partially or not at all. 

Stephen Van Rensselaer III had many civic titles and responsibilities, but perhaps his most lasting achievement was to found the Rensselaer School, which developed into the present-day Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Stephen III lived to be 75, dying in 1839. “The Good Patroon” is also remembered as “the Last Patroon” because he was legally the last patroon of Rensselaerswyck. At the time of his death, Stephen III was worth about $10 million (about $95 billion in today’s dollars) and is noted as being the 10th-richest American in history. 

At his death, the manor was split between Stephen III’s sons, Stephen IV, and William. Tenant farmers began protesting, and their anti-rent movement was eventually successful. Stephen IV and William sold off most of their land, ending the patroonship in the 1840s. 

However, the family persisted, if in greatly reduced circumstances, and, in the 20th century, among the most colorful members was the handsome and charming Philip Van Rensselaer.

Philip’s mother, Adele, was a glamorous Brearley graduate and beauty whose marriage to her impecunious husband, Charles Van Rensselaer, ended early.  She found consolation in the company of Frederick Lewisohn, the so-called “Copper King,” who summered in the South of France, but whom Society scorned so much for his Judaism and his and Adele’s unmarried state that he was once denied entry in the 1930s to the Maidstone Club in East Hampton.

Given this confusing childhood, it was perhaps understandable that Philip grew up undisciplined, and in one of his many school escapades, hid a Rolls-Royce he had acquired in the woods surrounding the Hun School in New Jersey, so that he and his chums could surreptitiously drive into the delights of midtown Manhattan on a Saturday night.

A supernaturally handsome man, he was attractive to people of all ages and inclinations. At one point, he became engaged to the troubled heiress Barbara Hutton, but in later years was described by Dominick Dunne as “the best B— Job in New York.” Finally, after a scandal in which he, increasingly befuddled by substance abuse, stole jewelry from Venetian friends, Philip Van Renssalaer was diagnosed as bi-polar, reformed himself, joined AA, pursued a modestly successful career dealing antiques,  and devoted himself to working with the homeless.

His highly readable memoir, published in 1990, is titled Rich Was Better (Wynwood Press), after the great Copacabana comedian Joe E. Louis’ famous line, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and, let me tell you, rich was a helluva lot better!”

Philip Van Rensselaer died in Los Angeles in 2008, at the age of 86, truly the Last Patroon.