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Horses of Aiken, South Carolina

In 1930, Louise Eustis Hitchcock, then 65, was featured on the cover of Time magazine—a smiling, vital-looking woman with bobbed hair, wearing a fedora and a monocle around her neck, whom the magazine, in an article about the prospects of the U.S. team, called "polo's matriarch." She continued to ride in hunts, even though by then she could hardly see (her grandchildren would stand by jumps in the woods and yell "Jump, Gran!" as her horse approached). On the day after Christmas, 1933, while leading a hunt, she fell and broke her neck in the woods. She is buried at the edge of the Hitchcocks' hunting preserve, which is now the Hitchcock Woods. Upon her death, the London Times noted in its obituary that "she was one of that small band of sportsmen who have justified sport as a way of life and a means to the end of character." To this day, Louise Hitchcock remains the spirit of Aiken, and it's not surprising that many riders still see her in the woods, a lone horsewoman soaring over the jumps and disappearing into the Spanish moss and the mountain laurel.

One night during my most recent visit to Aiken, I organized a small party at the Willcox—a test to see how well the hotel might serve as a stage on which a modern interpretation of the Winter Colony could be played. Among the guests were the Joye Cottage authors, Steve Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, as well as Latham and Paddy Ann Burns, who come from Toronto each winter. The Willcox's capable general manager, Libby Cook, a native of the South, made all the arrangements: drinks in the Roosevelt Suite, followed by dinner downstairs.

During the drinks portion of the evening, I followed Paddy Ann as she inspected the Roosevelt Suite—two huge rooms, a sensational bathroom, and a 52-foot-long balcony. P.A., as her friends call her, is not a Master of the Aiken Hounds, but she is one of the hunt's boldest riders, and every time I catch a glimpse of her flashing over the jumps like a crazy person, I wonder if I've actually seen the spirit of Loulie Hitchcock. P.A. is also a charming and generous hostess, who every year throws a party in her pink hacienda-style house on Easy Street for all riders who attend Hunt Week.

The Willcox's bedrooms, like its public rooms, have an eclectic mix of furniture, much of which comes from antiques shops around Aiken, complemented by Axminster carpets, Japanese wall coverings, and a refreshing lack of chintz. It's horsey, but not overbearingly so. The bathrooms have Kohler sinks and deep tubs with Harden fixtures, as well as remarkably soft towels and an elaborate assortment of bath gels, face creams, soaps, and shampoos. P.A. was nonplussed by this array. "Let me tell you something, honey," she said. "If I'm the type of woman who can afford to spend eight-fifty a night for a room, I travel with my own face cream."

We proceeded downstairs to dinner. The food was excellent. When the chef, Bob Conte, came out to ask how we had enjoyed our meal, the pear and rosemary risotto and seared quail breasts, along with the potato-wrapped Chilean sea bass, got the highest marks. The "intermezzo," a sorbet palate cleanser between courses, was a nice touch, but P.A. thought it should be called the "check"—a riding expression for the breather given to hounds and horses during a hunt. "Intermezzo isn't going to cut it in Aiken," she said.

After dinner, I suggested we linger by the fire, but, in the true spirit of Aiken, everyone had to go home—there was an early hunt. Paddy Ann and her husband walked into the warm spring evening.

"Have a good ride," I called out.


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