Frances Gardiner Collins, Was 92

Remembering a colorful descendant of East Hampton’s first English family

    Frances Gardiner Collins made no bones about preferring animals, horses in particular, to most people. Nevertheless, there was a warmth behind her tough-talking exterior, her cowboy boots, unfiltered cigarettes, jeans, silver-and-turquoise belt buckle, and her beat-up station wagon with its dogs, saddles, and a whip antenna that connected her to the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
    Fanny, as she was known, died at the age of 92 on Jan. 8 in a retirement home in Virginia. Her daughter Frances Gardiner lives nearby.
    People who didn’t know her background might have recognized her as a character, and wondered where she came from. The answer was well known here: She was a member of the 16th generation of Gardiners, the first English family in East Hampton, whom some viewed as local aristocracy.
     Lion Gardiner, East Hampton’s first white settler, was given the island that bears his name by Charles I of England in 1629, after battling the Dutch in Connecticut, where he also sided with the Montauketts against the Pequots. He had already received the island from the Indians for a token that took the form of a large black dog, Dutch blankets, and powder and shot.
    Frances Gardiner Collins was born on March 13, 1919, a daughter of Winthrop Gardiner Sr. (who was born on the island) and the former Isabel Tasker Lemmon of Virginia. It might be said that she had horses in her blood.    
    John Gardiner, her grandfather, raised standard-breed horses on the island. At the time, the island had a half-mile-long track where Mr. Gardiner schooled horses as trotters. At one time there were over 100 horses on the island. Her maternal grandfather, Col. Richard Dulany, started the first national horse show in the 1840s, the Upperville, Va., Horse and Colt Show.
    Fanny Gardiner grew up in the Gardiner house on James Lane in East Hampton Village, where her family lived until her father inherited the Gardiner Brown House on Main Street, which is now the headquarters of the Ladies Village Improvement Society. She attended schools in Virginia and Massachusetts. Her siblings, Isabel Gardiner Mairs and Winthrop Gardiner Jr., who was married to Sonja Henie, died before her.
    In an extended interview with The Star in 1985, Ms. Gardiner Collins said, “They couldn’t keep me out of the barn when I was 2.” She was given a pony a year later. At 4, she began taking English riding lessons on a horse named Punch and another named Judy, and, at 7, she won her first blue ribbon. Although qualified, she told the interviewer, Joanne Furio, why she did not enter the National Horse Show in 1929.
    “I could ride any horse, but not having formal instruction in English, and not having a show horse and four grooms, I didn’t go.”
    She traced her lifelong desire to “do some good” for animals to a lesson from an uncle, Jonathan Thomas Gardiner. She was riding down Main Street one day and stopped to help a box turtle get to the other side. Her uncle saw her from a distance. When he learned why she had dismounted, he reached into his wallet and gave her a $5 bill. “‘This is to remind you never to be so busy you cannot help,’” he said. The gesture was powerful, she said, not only because of its message, but because “$5 was a lot then.”
    From 1934 to 1936, she was an amateur rider for the Rolling Rock Hunt Club in Pennsylvania and showed on “the circuit” in Southampton, East Hampton, the North Shore, and Smithtown. Eventually, she came to prefer riding western style.
    “English horses are kept up a great deal. You can’t go doodly squat down to the Candy Kitchen and tie them up to the hitching post. You live on a quarter horse.”
    As a kid, she trotted around town on her horses. In the 1920s she was noticed by the eminent artist Thomas Moran, who did an etching showing her hitching a pony to a post on Main Street.
    Over the years, Ms. Gardiner Collins worked as a  breeder at local stables, including Stony Hill and Dune Alpin Farms, and helped deliver well over 50 foals. She also boarded horses and taught riding at her own stable in Springs.
    In the mid-1960s, she worked for Dr. Leon Star at the Startop Ranch in Montauk. “I had 100 percent breeding and 100 percent foaling. If you are a horseman, that means a lot. It means each horse that comes in there was pregnant when it left. There are very few thoroughbred farms that can say that. I don’t handle horses like other people,” she said.
    When not riding or caring for horses, Ms. Gardiner Collins was often seen in her boat on Gardiner’s Bay. As a longtime active member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, she was the first to alert The East Hampton Star to the crash of T.W.A. Flight 800 on July 17, 1996. She once said she would retire “when they put me in a box.”
    Ms. Gardiner and Ed Gardiner (same spelling, no relation) were the parents of her daughter Frances, who was a Star reporter for a time. She said her father, who died in 1955, was a popular radio personality who helped create and starred in the show Duffy’s Tavern. The couple’s relationship was brief.
 Ms. Gardiner Collins later married Philip Collins. Their daughter, Mary Gardiner, an East Hampton Town Trustee who ran Pig Pen Produce, a farm stand on Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton, died in 2007.  
    In recent years, Ms. Gardiner Collins could be found most days having lunch at John Papas restaurant on the Reutersham parking lot in the East Hampton business district, across the pavement from her childhood home.
    “Her long life is a testament to unfiltered Camels and black coffee,” said Gardner (Rusty) Leaver, who owned the Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk until recently. Mr. Leaver and Ms. Gardiner Collins had a partnership that offered riding lessons for a time in the late 1960s.
    “She was a dyed in the wool horse girl. She lived with horses,” Mr. Leaver said. She could walk into a room with her cowboy hat on, he said, and remind people of a piece of local culture, the western influence with which the long established horse and cattle culture of East Hampton and Montauk had become imbued.
    “When I was a kid I saw her as Annie Oakley, irascible, one of the great storytellers,” Mr. Leaver said.  
    In 2004, Ms. Gardiner Collins left East Hampton for South Boston, Va., to be closer to her daughter Frances. “Mother had so much to her name,” her daughter said. Plans for a springtime memorial will be announced.