On a recent fall day, gardeners at Franz Burda's home were putting in 20,000 tulip bulbs. Once they've bloomed next spring, each bulb will be dug up and donated to charity.
The German publisher's three full-time staff members clip and groom the impeccable gardens and emerald-green lawns, as well as tend the raised swimming pool on the $5.1 million estate.
For formal dinners, Burda's starched damask cloths are ironed on the tables -- after they are sprinkled with Pellegrino, some say -- before the guests jet in.
Palm Beach? The Hamptons?
Try 10 minutes off Route 50 on the Eastern Shore.
Unbeknown to the idle passer-by, dozens of storied estates of the wealthy, the eccentric and the socially rarefied dot the Eastern Shore's sluggish creeks and yawning rivers, particularly along the 588 miles of waterfront in Talbot County.
It is an exclusive, aristocratic world that moves to its own rhythms. Fall is "the season," when everyone who's anyone arrives and social calendars bulge with appointments. Next weekend is the season's zenith: the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, a fund-raiser for environmental conservation.
For the touring public, the three-day festival showcases the Chesapeake Bay, its conservation advocates and its artists, the duck carvers and watercolor painters. For the upper crust, though, the festival provides an opportunity to throw seated dinners and galas to showcase their tidewater estates to friends.
"People think it is the depths of the country -- and of course it is -- but this is a very sophisticated place," says Mary Donnell Singer Tilghman, whose ancestors, the Lloyds, have owned Wye House, a Maryland plantation outside of Easton, since the 17th century.
If the Chesapeake Bay region is "the Land of Pleasant Living," as the famous '50s marketing slogan called it, this aristocratic niche might be called "the Land of Perfect Living."
All along the Miles and Tred Avon rivers and Leeds Creek you'll find these estates -- an $11.7 million Queen Anne's County retreat, a 1922 Castilian-style fortress inset with hundreds of azure blue and yellow tiles, a 1790 mansion, a villa whose wine cellar holds a $4 million inventory.
Former Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady (he served under Ronald Reagan) and IRS chief Charles Rossotti have places near Easton. So does Mario Boiardi, of the Chef Boyardee spaghetti fortune, whose enormous home is across the Wye River in Queen Anne's County. Burda, the second generation of his family to publish German magazines, has several waterfront homes there, along with a private golf course.
And there's Ravens Stadium builder A. James Clark, who just donated $10 million to Johns Hopkins University, where he's a trustee; Maryland Democratic Party rainmaker Nathan Landow; the world's second-largest franchiser of hotels, Stewart W. Bainum Jr.; Chevy Chase Bank Chairman and real estate investor B. Francis Saul; and Harry Meyerhoff, owner of Spectacular Bid, the horse that won two legs of the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby and the Belmont) in 1979.
New York hedge-fund commodities broker Paul Tudor Jones II built a large Dorchester County hunting lodge -- only to be hit with a $2 million settlement and fine for federal wetlands violations. Washington power attorney Aubrey Daniel drops in for weekends at his new Leeds Creek villa, the one with the gardens he's having built to resemble those of the Chianti region of Tuscany. Many afternoons, John Eisenhower, son of the former president, has a bowl of black bean soup at Cafe 25, a small Easton restaurant.
Why are these people drawn here? More than a few like the value for the money: Real estate is cheaper here than in the Hamptons or in Palm Beach, and Talbot County has lower property-tax rates. Many say it's the serenity and privacy.
"To the outsider, the traveler, there's an invisibility to the manors and estates of Talbot County," says Robert J. Brugger, history and regional Maryland book editor for the Johns Hopkins University Press. "It is a quiet and mysterious place. The people there like it just that way."
Second in per capita income
It is hard to say just how many millionaires live here -- many reside for just part of the year -- but Talbot County's year-round population, 32,930, has some telling statistics:
The county trails only Montgomery in per capita income ($40,466 to $32,883) -- a curiously high ranking, given that so many Talbot residents are watermen, small farmers and Black & Decker factory workers.
Perhaps more to the point, the county leads the state in residents who derive a high rate of their income (41 percent) from stocks, bonds and other investments.
Talbot has been home to notables of name and quiet wealth ever since the Lloyd family (their origins are in Wales, home of the namesake Wye River) established themselves at Wye in the 17th century.
It was here that Frederick Douglass lived and recorded his recollections as a 7-year-old slave.
For the past 70 years, it has been the financial titans of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York who have bought and built here, drawn by the genteel sporting life.
But an uneasy change has come in recent years: Washington lobbyists and government figures whose names occasionally make it into the news have moved in, often on a weekend-only basis.
Nowadays, mossy old fortunes rub elbows with the sometimes strident and impatient money of the 1990s.
In this rarefied world, how old your estate is determines your social status almost as much as how old your money is.
Talbot County's old guard (many are avid gardeners and conservationists) cringe as buyers intent on instant housing gratification tear down hundred-year-old frame houses and farmsteads and throw up expansive new homes.
"Tearing down a house is common," says Daniel R. Cowee, Talbot County's planning officer. "Sometimes the old places have termite damage or they are full of rot, but a lot of times the new owners just don't like the floor plan."
Despite the frictions, perhaps the haute monde of the Eastern Shore have more in common than they have differences. A love of privacy, for instance.
"I've heard it said down here the one with the longest driveway wins," says Hoppy Stafford, a Christie's Great Estates real estate broker in Easton.
"Neighbor is not a word in my vocabulary," says Peter B. Stifel, owner of a 280-acre estate on pristine Woodland Creek. Like so )) many of its counterparts, Hope House is visible only from the water, mainly in winter.
Many owners slip into their estates almost unnoticed. One Baltimore bank executive arrives by a Cessna plane outfitted with pontoons. First Mariner President Edwin F. Hale Sr. commutes from his pier on Baltimore's waterfront in the Canton neighborhood, across the Chesapeake Bay to his 186-acre place in Talbot. "It takes 15 or 20 minutes by plane," Hale says.
The estate owners move about in Easton and surroundings easily and unnoticed.
The collective desire for privacy and quiet means Talbot County has avoided the usual invasion of hotels and motels, and has never developed much of a night life. Entertaining, for the most part, remains in private homes.
Like the estates where they are staged, the best of these galas are much discussed in local social circles.
"People talk and they have ears -- all of sudden, the word gets out that someone new has moved here," says Easton interior designer Robert Esterson. "Soon an invitation appears. It may start with some drinks or a dinner, then go on to an invitation to a big party, with a tent and Peter Duchin's orchestra. Those invitations to the big houses are very important here."
Burda, the German publishing magnate, throws some of the biggest of these dinners. Many Eastern Shore dinner parties are far more casual. These are not. His guests typically arrive by jet and stay for a very cosseted weekend. The pilots, by the way, prefer to stay across the bay in Annapolis, where the night life is bouncier.
Burda's estate, Fairview, contains at least four residences, including his own sparkling-white mansion that looks across the Miles River toward St. Michaels. Look the other way and you can see the Kent Narrows Bridge and, on very clear days, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Fairview is assessed at $5.1 million, the highest property tax assessment in Talbot County.
Burda is locally renowned for the table he sets with the help of a phalanx of cooks, maids, servers and gardeners. When he travels, he takes his chef.
For his famed dinners, each place is set with four wine glasses and a party favor. Should a guest cancel at the last minute, a substitute of the proper gender is at the ready.
Caviar spoons, fish forks and knives appear and disappear with the comings and goings of each course. Palate-cleansing sorbets are served between courses.
"When I first came to Talbot County, I thought it would be very casual," says one guest, Bunny Dugan, an owner of the Cross Keys apparel shop Octavia's, who had a weekend house in Talbot some years ago. "I was soon being invited to black-tie dinners most Saturday nights. Everybody was dressed to the nines. I wound up taking more ball gowns down there than I'd ever worn in Baltimore. The people are very jetty.
L "This is where the Ferragamo and the Hermes meet the khaki."
Talbot's Top 10
According to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, here are the top property tax assessments in Talbot County for 1997. The figures are for house and land; the city of residence is listed when known:
1. Franz Burda, German publisher, Baden-Baden, Germany: 76 acres, $5.1 million.
2. A. James Clark, construction firm owner and Johns Hopkins philanthropist, Talbot County: 16 acres, $3.1 million
3. Retirement Community of Easton, 700 Port St., Easton: 6 acres, $3 million
4. Robert S. Evans, owner of Crane plumbing fixtures, Greenwich, Conn.: 412 acres (Courtland Farm), $2.9 million
Anstalt Almega, a Swedish firm: 31.5 acres, $2.7 million
6. MEBA School, marine engineering school near St. Michaels: 628 acres, $2.6 million
7. Stewart and Sandra Bainum, hotel/motel franchiser and nursing-home investor, Washington suburbs: 85 acres, $2.5 million
8. Peter and Flaccus Stifel, two brothers who own Hope farm outside Tunis Mills: 280 acres, $2.5 million
9. Jean duPont Shehan, Talbot County and Florida, philanthropist who has donated a 949-acre estate in Bozman to the National Audubon Society: $2.5 million
10. Helen Witt, Bruff's Island, Talbot County: 31 acres, $2.5 million
Source: Maryland Department of Planning
What: 28th Waterfowl Festival. About 400 wildlife artists display paintings, prints, carvings, sculptures, duck stamps, books, crafts and antique decoys. Also featured are retriever, shooting and fly-fishing demonstrations, goose- and duck-calling contests. Founded to promote waterfowl conservation, it attracts ZTC 18,000 people and has raised $3.6 million. Where: Downtown Easton.
When: Friday through Sunday, (10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10-5 Sunday). Cost: $10 a day per person, or $20 for a multiday ticket. Children, 14 and under, accompanied by a paying parent, are free. Information: 410-822-4567 or www.waterfowlfest.org
Pub Date: 11/08/98