Ethelbert Frey was among the most memorable come-heres who ever came to the Northern Neck. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1885, and as a young lawyer he moved to Washington, where he opened his legal practice. As a young man, he began coming down the Potomac on the steamboats to Colonial Beach.
In selecting an adjective to describe him, the only one that comes to mind is “flamboyant.”
He sported a spiked wax mustache, and he dressed impeccably with a newly pressed and starched shirt each day, a bow tie, a fresh red carnation in his lapel, and—most significantly—gray flannel spats on his shoes. He drove a Plymouth hardtop convertible, which he traded in for a new model every two years. One never forgot an encounter with Ethelbert. To meet him was to remember him.
From his trips to the Northern Neck, he met his wife, LaVise, a native of Warsaw, who maintained the same level of decorum in her own demeanor. They bought an entire block of lots at Colonial Beach where they built their own cottage, adjoining a row of smaller cottages that they built to rent to summer visitors. The rooms of each cottage were paneled with heart pine. Ethelbert only bought the best. On the lot behind his cottage, he maintained a vegetable patch that was worthy of inclusion in a garden magazine.
The Freys were famous—and I do not use the word loosely—for their Christmas ensemble consisting of live wreaths on every window, the biggest freshly-cut pine tree which hardly could be seen because of the density of the decorations, and an extraordinarily extensive model train display. Each year, the entire arrangement grew and grew.
In legal circles, Ethelbert was equally well known. Shortly after opening his practice in Washington, he was representing a man accused of a crime that Ethelbert deemed to deny him his right to due process. Undeterred, Ethelbert somehow stormed The White House, getting past Secret Service agents all the way to the Oval Office, where he presented his case to President William Howard Taft.
The President, who later would serve as a law professor at Yale University and as Chief Justice of the United States, was sympathetic to his plea, and commuted the sentence.
Immediately upon stepping out of the President’s office, Ethelbert was arrested by the Secret Service. Ironically, 50 years later, when the Freys put their home in Chevy Chase on the market, as they were downsizing to the Northern Neck, the purchaser was James Rowley, the director of the U.S. Secret Service.
LaVise and Ethelbert were great chefs in addition to their many other talents. Their meals were both plentiful and personal. They concocted entrees that were unique to those who dined with them. Ethelbert became such a denizen of the Northern Neck that one had to concentrate to realize he originally hailed from the Keystone State.
His assimilation was most evident in watching him pick and eat hardshell crabs. I am positive that crabs must have been his favorite food. He would pick them with a razor-sharp paring knife, getting each morsel of meat out of the shell, and then sticking the knife in his mouth almost to the point of his tonsils. As a child I would shudder for fear that he would swallow the knife.
Ethelbert liked to hold court at Parker’s Crab Shore on Monroe Bay, a block from his home. Other diners liked sitting at the same long table with him for the entertainment value of his stories. He never disappointed. In his mid-70s, he developed an aggressive form of cancer, and he died in Washington in 1962 at the age of 77.
To use the modern, trite expression, knowing Ethelbert was “a trip,” one which I am happy to have taken, and one which I shall never forget.