For Chappaqua Author Jean Van Leeuwen, A Prophetic Bond With Reader’s Digest

Personal perspectives on life in the county.


Published:

Illustration by Noah Patrick Pfarr

My relationship with Reader’s Digest began early. As a child in the 1950s who loved to read, I devoured just about every newspaper and magazine that came into our house. And that included my parents’ subscription to Reader’s Digest. I mostly read the jokes, many of which came under the heading, “Life in These United States.” My father, a minister, collected them for occasional use in his sermons. Our whole family was tickled by those jokes.

Flash forward to 1968. My new husband and I were living in Manhattan at the time and had just bought a new car. One spring day, we decided to take it for a drive in “the country.” Off we went, heading north on the Saw Mill Parkway, into the wilds of Westchester. We wandered around, taking in the bucolic sights. To our city eyes, everything looked so green! The streets were remarkably quiet. The houses had actual space around them, with grass and budding flowers. Somehow we ended up in the parking lot of Reader’s Digest. The company’s stately brick buildings, graced by a classic cupola on top, impressed me. It reminded me of a college. So that’s where they wrote all those jokes, I thought.

Now it’s 1977. By this time, we had two young children who were making our apartment feel way too small, and my husband had a new job at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights. Clearly, it was time to make a move to the suburbs. So we drove north on the Saw Mill once again. We looked at a lot of houses, and we finally bought one. Where? Strangely, almost across the street from the Reader’s Digest offices.

Jean Van Leeuwen is the author of more than 50 books for children. Her most recent middle-grade novel, The Missing Pieces of Me, was published in September. She and her husband, Bruce Gavril, live in Chappaqua.

The Reader’s Digest was a good neighbor. The company’s owners, DeWitt and Lila Wallace, were kind to their employees, bringing them in on buses in the morning and taking them home at night. They provided excellent lunches in the company cafeteria, half-days on summer Fridays, outdoor concerts at their beautiful campus, and free turkeys on Thanksgiving. The community got perks, too. In the spring, we were privileged to gaze at their hillside, which was covered with glorious sweeps of yellow daffodils and flowering trees. We took our excited children to their annual Easter egg hunt. And we toured the wonderful Reader’s Digest art collection, which included paintings by such renowned artists as Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, and Chagall—all chosen by the Wallaces for the enjoyment of their employees and neighbors. 

And then, a few years ago, it all came crashing down. The magazine my parents liked so much had fallen out of favor, and the company suffered financial difficulties. The Reader’s Digest moved out of Westchester, selling their property to the dreaded developers. And ever since, our town has been caught up in conflict about how best to use that beautiful property. Senior residences? Townhouses? Retail? Right now, it’s looking as if retail development is happening.

Oh, Reader’s Digest, how could you have left us? I miss you so. 


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