Tragic extravagance

“Madame Sherri”

By Eric Stanway

EMU Books

153 pages, $9.95

After Paris-born Antoinette Bramare changed her name to Madame Sherri, she ended up building a castle in West Chesterfield where she lived more in the state of celebrity than in New Hampshire.

Eric Stanway of Fitzwilliam tells this exotic real-life tale in “Madame Sherri” about the rise and fall of both the castle and its keeper.

Madame married Andre Riela, who was 13 years younger and also changed his name. In 1915 they shipped themselves to glittery New York City.

There they set up an entertainment costuming business amid the bright lights of the Broadway theater district. Forever flamboyant and stagey, Madame Sherri made headway in and up high society.

Then Andre went blind and insane (maybe bathtub gin was the cause, maybe syphilis). The coroner listed the cause of death as “general paralysis of the insane.”

In 1929, Madame Sherri headed for more peaceful New Hampshire and by 1933 had bought 437 acres through nine purchases. No farm life for Madame Sherri.

She preferred a castle, and Charles LeMaire, “whom she adopted as her own son,” writes Stanway.

Then she bought 600 acres on the side of Rattlesnake Mountain off Gulf Road in West Chesterfield, “and began to build her dream home — all to be paid for by Charles LeMaire.”

Central to all, she decided, “was to have a huge staircase, carved out of New Hampshire rock, ascending to the private quarters on the second floor.”

Local quarrymen and construction workers were eager to sign onto the project. They were not eager for her constant instructions and re-constructions.

Madame Sherri, one workman Stanway quotes, “was right beside everyone who worked for her, demanding this or that, and telling them how to do the job. There were at least two contractors who worked for her for only one day.”

Besides this, she delivered her instructions in person in her fur coat with nothing beneath.

Madame Sherri, one foreman reported, “had the modesty of a rooster. And, if you know anything about roosters, it doesn’t make any difference.”

The castle emerged from the woods as a Franco-Roman hybrid of stone arches, huge oak door, massive balcony, a statue of Aphrodite in a large round pond.

Inside, a tree grew through the bar room, portraits of The Famous hung from the walls, animal furs were scattered across the floors, bathrooms were lined with mirrors. In summer, New York friends flocked to her castle party house.

New Year’s Eve parties were for the elaborately dressed, with Madame Sherri out-lavishing her guests as she descended the staircase for her extravagant entrance.

Then Madame Sherri held court from the cobra-backed chair she called “The Queen’s Throne.”

Meanwhile, Madame Sherri lived like a disheveled hermit in her nearby farmhouse with no electricity or running water. She lived there for 30 years.

Madame Sherri was a myth-maker. When a “chauffeur” drove her to downtown Brattleboro in her prized 1927 Packard convertible, she gathered the attention of the sidewalk stop-and-lookers. She claimed the Packard was built on commission for the prince of Wales.

“In actuality,” Stanway writes, “it was one of three that the Packard Company had built as custom touring cars.”

Madame Sherri paid $3,550 and had the custom car painted cream with red wheels. (She sold it to a collector in 1963 for $7,000).

Madame Sherri was known for lighting one match a day, igniting the series of cigarettes with the previous cigarette. A pet monkey kept company on her shoulder as the shiny Packard paraded the streets, with more svelte young men around her than the few young women en route.

“Apparently,” Stanway writes, “whenever Madame paid for her groceries, she would either pull money from her bosom or else from a purse strapped to her thigh.”

After World War II, her life turned hollower. Her generosity turned to grasping. The Madame sat in her rocking chair and smoked Fatima cigarettes.

For milk, firewood and car rides, she had to rely on the neighbors she once scandalized. She stretched for elusive fortunes — to turn the castle into a nightclub, to invest in a South American gold mine, to mine ore from her own land. She was ineligible for Social Security.

Eventually, she stayed with friends in Quechee, Vt. In 1959, she returned to her castle that had been vandalized, its paintings, tapestries and much of the rest trashed. She became a ward of the town of Brattleboro.

Two years later the town of Brattleboro filed suit against “The Belle of Chesterfield” for expenses and outstanding bills.

On Oct. 20, 1962, Madame Sherri’s castle, vacant for 15 years, was destroyed “by fire of undetermined origin.”

The staircase and some other stone work remain, plus many photographs and official papers in Eric Stanway’s book romp through history.

The Ann Stokes Loop Trail in the Madame Sherri Forest is now part of the holdings of The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

On Oct. 21, 1965, Antoinette Sherri, 87 years old, died at Maple Rest Home in West Brattleboro. Six people attended her funeral.