Brooke & Wes: The Untold Story
A Chapter in Cumberland’s History Many Know Nothing About
It’s a modest white and green house from the outside. One might even drive right by it without paying much attention. Situated among the more lavish and opulent homes in the historic district of Washington Street, this house – property of the Allegany County Historical Society for more than two decades – not only holds a chapter of Cumberland’s history but it also holds secrets and the untold story of a “modern family” who lived here.
This is the Brooke Whiting House of Art – a home not known for its architecture or grand design but for the art that is inside – a lifetime spent collecting fine works while traveling around the world – rare one of a kind pieces, first edition novels and childrens’ books, signed works by illustrators who would become famous, and even a few archeological finds.
But this was not a lifetime of collecting spent alone.
Cumberland socialite and librarian Brooke Whiting grew up in this house and in his later years, inherited his boyhood home from his parents. He and his sister, Anne, then made it their home away from home for vacations and family gatherings. And in his retirement from UCLA, Brooke finally “moved home.” But he did not return to his roots as a single man.
Brooke brought with him his life partner – today, it would be considered his husband – a bestselling author named Wesley Griswold. And together, Brooke and Wes continued to travel the world, collecting art along the way, documenting their life together in slides and photos – the majority of which are housed in massive cataloged volumes in the basement of the Whiting House. Sometimes, Brooke and Wes would bring Anne along on their adventures. Wes adored his partner’s sister and would often gift her with handmade and signed photo albums of their trips together after they had returned to Cumberland.
When giving tours of this house, docents have remarked how there is a master bedroom on the first floor and a “second master” on the second. The second floor also has a third smaller bedroom and two parlors. A tour guide once remarked – without any confidence in the knowledge -- that the smaller bedroom on the second floor was Wes’ room. But after several more tours of the home, it becomes clear that when Anne lived here with her brother and Wesley in their golden years, Anne inhabited the upstairs while the men lived on the first floor. This becomes obvious when observing furnishings, paint colors, accessory choices, and even the placement of the bathrooms in the home.
Brooke Whiting II was a curator for rare books and antiquities at the University of California in Los Angeles. It was a job he held and loved for 32 years. His roots in Cumberland began when he was born in 1918 into this bungalow house that was built by his father in 1911. There is a photo of Brooke and his sister, Anne, as children, on the very same rust colored sofa that sits to the right just inside the house.
Brooke Whiting acquired his Masters in Library Sciences degree in 1957 after driving an ambulance during the African and Italian campaigns of World War II. When his parents and sister passed away, Brooke and Wes made Cumberland their full time residence.
Brooke Whiting’s paternal grandfather had been a prominent attorney in Moorefield, West Virginia. His maternal grandfather was the president and CEO of the Old German Beer Company in Cumberland. His sister, Anne – four years older than him – had been one of only a few female undercover agents during World War II and later during the Cold War years and worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. She never married and after her retirement from the CIA never spoke of her job and joined her brother at their family home and on international trips.
The house itself is very typical of a bungalow house style of the time. By the time this home was built at the turn of the 21st Century, the class structure was being eradicated.
The collection inside is infused with reconditioned and original furnishings and rare and even priceless pieces of art. Brooke, Wesley and Anne often traveled to foreign lands and would shop for items that could go in the house. They would have the treasures shipped during their trips so that their finds were waiting for them when they returned. According to ledgers in the house, the shipping and insurance often cost more than the actual purchase.
There is an oil portrait just above the main fireplace dated 1680. The subject in the painting is a British artistocrat said to buried in Westminster Abbey. There is a Chinese urn dated 608 A.D. and a ceramic spoon surrounded and protected by a glass showcase that dates back to 200 B.C. The green patina of the spoon has survived more than 2000 years.
When Allegany Magazine first toured and photographed the house for a story in 2005, the historical society had only owned the property then for less than seven years. Everything was still in the place Brooke had left it. It felt as if Brooke or Wes would come through the door at any moment and be curious as to why someone was gallivanting among their belongings with a camera. There were very personal touches then -- unopened or unfinished bottles of wine, scotch and brandy sat on a sideboard in the dining room, for instance. Cloth napkins were folded neatly on a table nearby. A toothbrush was still in a glass in a bathroom. Since then, some items have been moved, removed, rearranged and repositioned to allow for public art tours of the property.
A hallway outside a stately master bedroom – on which Brooke’s military uniform and flag are displayed – showcases paintings purchased in Europe. The Asian inspired touches in the home are often credited to Brooke when in truth, it was Wesley who loved the artwork and design from the Orient.
In town, and during the time he was best known, Brooke Whiting was regarded as the “gentleman’s gentleman” records say. His private life with Wes and his family history with his sister was never much publicly discussed. The folks who lived in this house were simply known as “the Whitings” or “Brooke and Wes.” And that is how they introduced themselves to others. And people simply gravitated toward them. And toward this house.
Social gatherings here were said to include elected officials and teachers, educators and engineers, artists and doctors, newspaper editors and the newspaper delivery boy. If Brooke and Wes found a person fascinating and that person had a story to tell, Brooke and Wes wanted them around. They loved to hear stories and they loved to sit on the grand front porch and read books. It has even been said that on more than one occasion, Albert Einstein paid a visit to the couple.
Except for the artwork, artifacts and photos they left behind, the tragedy of Brooke and Wes’ life together in a same-sex committed 30-year relationship in Cumberland is that much remains relatively unknown. There is much history in the house but very little of it their own.
It is suspected the pair met while still in California. Wes was an author – his books were regarded as the “Bible of Railroad History.” Brooke was a librarian who grew up in a railroad town. It seems destiny that the two would meet. Wes was also a part time antiques dealer and there are receipts dated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, of pieces Brooke bought from Wes’ shop.
There is one personal photo album that belonged to Wes still in the house in Cumberland. It is believed all of his other personal belongings were probably given to his family when Wes passed away.
Wesley Southmayd Griswold was born Nov. 3, 1909 in Middletown, Connecticut. He received his bachelors from the University of North Carolina in 1929. He was a feature writer and later an editor for the Hartford Courant newspaper from 1930 until 1941. After serving during the end of World War II, Wes worked as a marketing consultant and publicist for Travelers Insurance briefly before becoming a copy editor for the prestigious New Yorker. It was a job he held for six years before moving to the West Coast. There, he would become the editor of Popular Science Monthly and would publish his first book, A Work of Giants in 1962 – a book that for years was regarded as the authority on American transcontinental railroad history.
Wes and Brooke were acquainted by then because Brooke is mentioned in the book’s credits. And Brooke is also credited as the photographer for Wes’ author photos on everything Wesley Griswold published after that. There is a signed copy of A Work of Giants among the collection in the Whiting House – with an inscription made out to Brooke’s mother.
Wesley died at the age of 86 in 1996. He is buried in Miner Cemetery in his birthplace of Middletown.
Shortly after Wesley’s death, life in the Whiting House seems to have halted. There are no records of purchases, no photos, no slides, no receipts for anything dated beyond 1996. And Brooke stopped traveling. He stopped collecting. Instead, he started cataloging his life and making plans for what would become of his possessions after his death.
He would be seen strolling Washington Street and there is a photo of him wearing a sombreo on what would end up being his last birthday party held for him at the former ChiChi’s restaurant in Lavale.
Brooke Whiting died less than two years after Wesley Griswold. He was 79.
Both Brooke and Wes were members of the Allegany County Historical Society and Brooke had left detailed instructions that upon his death he wanted the Cumberland house and all of its contents bequeathed to the society. He also granted the organization a substantial endowment so the house, its interior and personal collections could be revealed to the masses. It was his last wish to bring his world of art to Cumberland. But one can only conjecture that after a life lived very privately, was this final act his way of making his relationship with Wesley finally public?
The Brooke Whiting House is open for public tours but by appointment. For more information, visit www.thewhitinghouse.org. Special thanks to Suzanne Trussell, Oxbow Cultural Research, and the Allegany County Historical Society, for the assistance with this story.