Driving north on Route 20 past the Lee boat ramp, one is entranced by the sudden appearance of Laurel Lake, but pulled back to routine by the Cork n' Hearth restaurant, right on the road. Only the sharp eye catches an unimposing white colonial (whose once-black shutters are now red) almost shielded behind a parking area, a single tennis court and a polite sign: The Inn at Laurel Lake.
But guests did spot it, and returned for many years. When they drove in and walked around the back, they found themselves on a grand rock promontory with a sweeping panorama of the entire lake, from the causeway on the left, to the forest across the sparkling green-black waters, then past Foxhollow to the Mount.
My music-loving parents found the Inn in 1951 when they came to visit me at Shaker Village Work Camp in New Lebanon. They sent me a bubbly post card about Tanglewood and the Inn's high-shelved library and collection of LP's. Their decades of summers there coincided with the era of Bernard Morris, whose singular perspective, love of literature and music, and accent of his native Manchester, England -- still there as he turned 99 earlier this month -- were part of the Inn's rough magic.
Bernie, as he was mostly called, bought it after the war, as arriving Europeans discovered Berkshire cultural offerings and debated them at meals, six to a table. In 1996, he retired and sold it to Tom Fusco, who has developed his ownregular crowd in addition to the last few regulars from the old days.
My father, looking to the future, bought land adjacent to the Lenox Beach. He divided it in quarters, kept one on the point to build a house for his own family, and sold three to friends. Doing the deals, he stayed at the Inn and realized it would be easier to vacation there in one room, with three meals a day and no responsibilities. So he sold his plot to a stranger -- managing to offend all his friends at once -- and spent the next 40 summers in room 2, which has a terrace and another breathtaking lake view.
Every morning he would pick his way down the Inn's makeshift stone steps to the grass where the landing juts into the lake, and swim slowly on his back, past the Lenox beach, to the fourth dock. Up in the shaded house his friends were having breakfast, often with Russian members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They ate blueberries and discussed Iron Curtain politics.
Unlike great Berkshire cottages with an orderly progression of owners, the Inn before Bernie has a patchy history filled with discrepancies and missing records. Bernie says it was built for servants of guests visiting at the cottages. Servants slept in the cool outdoors on the lake where hay covered stored ice.
The Valley Gleaners newspaper reported that in 1872, William Boardman bought an ice business on the site. On April 26, 1899, The Gleaners announced:
"George Boardman is to open his new hotel, which he has christened the Laurel Lake house, about June 1st. It is new and modern throughout and the location all that could be desired. Judging from the history of other summer hotels in Berkshire it probably will not be long before Mr. Boardman will have to turn guests away or enlarge the hotel."
The Boardmans were from Cleveland, and William's son George left the Inn to Cleveland nieces and nephews, with lifetime occupancy rights to the maid, Ella Fillio, who was living "across the street" when Bernie bought it. ("Across the street" is now the Village at Laurel Lake, but some remember it as a miniature golf course.)
Encountering the Inn is part of what draws people back to it. Twenty-five years ago a regional sales director for hotels, Lydia Shelby, was driving south when she noticed it. She recalls, "I said to my husband, ‘Wonder if that's a B&B.' We were not in a rush, so we walked in. Bernie was at the kitchen table." It now serves just breakfast--sugar in a stem glass--and come summer, Lydia, 81, is there.
In 1969, tennis buff Herb Abedon was driving north, glimpsed the court as he passed, and turned back. Bernie, always looking for a tennis partner, invited Herb to stay. Now 79, he comes from Florida every summer to occupy two secluded rear rooms. When Bernie added them some 40 years ago, my father offered to pay the cost if I were allowed to use them and bring my baby.
No dice -- Bernie had a "no children" policy that never softened. Considering that his then-wife and young daughter were allowed down from Pittsfield only for the occasional afternoon visit, what part of "no children" could be questioned?
Jim Toole of Lenox Dale remembers that he sometimes ran across the rock promontory to get from the kids' hangout above the boat ramp (private property now) to Mrs. Hutchinson's Lenox Beach concession stand. Bernie shooed the boys off, and Jim, 61, says they called him the Crab of the Rock.
Kids are welcome now, but back then only pets were -- especially the resident cat, Morris. Over the years, Bernie buried a couple of my cats when I didn't have the heart to, on a hill of trees above the grassy beach.
Guests still swim before breakfast when the water is smooth. Annette Wolfson used to swim across alone and we wondered at her courage -- all that way, at 68! Now I rent near Lenox Beach and swim alone too, in the late afternoon of the lake's serenity before sunset, when Bernie would serve drinks out back.
On my back, I paddle slowly past the promontory, toward the steep forested hill where my cats rest, drawn back by the house whose jumble of accents, dominated by those Manchester cadences, seem to echo through its once-black red shutters.
Leslie Kandell is a resident of Lenox and New York City.