Spencer Robinson, a groundskeeper working at the Lyndhurst estate in the 1950s and 1960s, lived with his wife Nina in a gingerbread cottage near the Hudson River. His death in October 1965 went unrecorded in the local press.
But Spencer Robinson, better known as “Ahmet Robenson”, had an extraordinary career in sport. Educated at the Galatasaray school in Constantinople, Ahmet went on to work there as a sports instructor. He was goalkeeper for the well-known Galatasaray soccer team before the First World War, and later briefly served as President of the Galatasaray Sports Club.
Robenson also introduced basketball to the then Ottoman Empire. In one of the first basketball matches he organized there in 1911, the game had to be abandoned because most of the players, unfamiliar with the rules of a sport never played before, had injured themselves. In addition, Ahmet set up the first Scout units and Girl Guide groups in the Ottoman Empire. Today, the Galatasaray museum in Istanbul has much memorabilia related to his life and work.
Spencer Robinson migrated to the US from Turkey in 1929. His real name was Peel Harold Robinson and he was the son of English parents, born in Kalimpong in India in 1889. He was renamed “Ahmet Robenson” after his mother, Hannah, converted to Islam, re-married and re-located to Constantinople where “Robinson” became “Robenson”. Hannah’s second marriage – to a supposed Afghan warlord, who was actually an imposter – was a disaster. Amazingly, the Ottoman Sultan came to Hannah’s rescue by providing her with a military officer as a third husband.
In the 1920s Ahmet was employed as a sports instructor for the YMCA. He was involved in social and educational projects in Ankara and Izmir which aimed to strengthen cultural ties between the US and the new Republic of Turkey.
So, how did this famous sportsman become a caretaker at Lyndhurst? It seems that a disillusioned Ahmet Robenson abandoned Turkey after his work with the Americans was opposed by hard-line Turkish nationalists who were suspicious of his English origins. There were even unsubstantiated allegations that he had worked as a spy for the British at the end of the First World War.
Arriving in the US, Ahmet first attempted to earn a living as an oriental rugs merchant in downtown New York, but by the mid-1950s he was employed at Lyndhurst. Helen, one of the daughters of Jay Gould, had been a major financial backer of the YMCA. This may have encouraged Anna, Helen’s sister, who had acquired the Lyndhurst property in the 1930s, to employ Ahmet, given his past connections with the YMCA.
And why had Ahmet renamed himself Spencer and not Peel Harold? Spencer was the name of his father, and of his eldest brother who had died in the First World War. In his petition for naturalization to become a US citizen, Ahmet had actually given the birth date of his brother, Spencer. Why he had chosen to do so remains a mystery to this day.
Researching my book, Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons (Amberley, 2019), a collection of stories about the surprising Robinson family, I spoke to Richard Miller, the former official historian of Tarrytown, about the mysterious, illustrious Mr Robinson. Mr Miller told me that Mr Robinson “was always soft spoken, and I believe, a true gentleman.”
Gareth Winrow is a writer, researcher and academic based in Oxford, UK. He previously lived and worked in Turkey for twenty years where he was a Professor of International Relations at two universities in Istanbul.