By Joyce Marcel
Here’s a description of Manchester’s Wilburton Inn from Country Life magazine in October of 1933: “Splendidly constructed of tapestry brick, (it) crowns a steep, picturesque eminence approach over a well-built drive winding 1,000 feet or more up… Surrounded by charming gardens and delightful wall terraces, it commands superb panoramic views…an excellent trout stream and. many acres of lovely woodland on the slope of the foothills.”
Over the years, this stately, dignified, lovely old mansion, hung with stunning crystal chandeliers and furnished with antiques, has witnessed many lives. It’s been a private home, a school for children of Berlin’s artists and high society who escaped the Nazis, and an exclusive inn for sporting ladies and gentlemen. In the 1970s it was owned by a film studio, RKO, and became a retreat for movie stars and film executives as well as for the country club set.
Now it’s bursting with family, theater, creativity and glitz. It specializes in costumed murder mystery weekends (the guests wear formal attire), Downton Abbey weekends (the guests dress accordingly), Goddess weekends, weddings, yoga retreats, mindfulness retreats, writing retreats, silent mediation retreats, business retreats and disco dancing on Thursdays.
As the current owners sing, “We didn’t buy it/ to run it as a Hyatt.”
An inn is about the people who run it — that’s what makes a personal experience for the guests.
The current iteration of the Wilburton Inn began in 1987, when Dr. Albert Levis, a Connecticut psychiatrist, and his wife, Georgette Wasserstein Levis, bought the building and 30 acres of grounds and started running a B&B for country weddings and romantic weekends.
The first thing they added was a little spice.
“When RKO owned the inn, they had a relationship with one of the local golf clubs,” said hostess, performer, songwriter and Wilburton Inn mistress of ceremonies Melissa Levis. “When we bought it, every room had twin beds — even in the bridal suite. My mother shook things up. She put a king bed in the bridal suite and all the guests stopped coming. We changed our identity completely.”
The Wilburton can accommodate 125 guests in nine buildings on the property. The mansion itself is rented as a private home — “You can be your own robber baron,” Melissa joked.
Theatricality runs in this family’s bloodlines. Georgette Levis, who died in 2014, was the sister of the late award-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Wasserstein’s semi-autobiographical play, “The Sisters Rosensweig,” features a character called Gorgeous who is based on Georgette. (Gorgeous was her family nickname.) Madeline Kahn won the best actress Tony Award in 1993 for playing her.
“I was in bed with my mom and dad, watching the Tony’s.” Melissa said. “And they said ‘The best actress in a play goes to Madeline Kahn for her role as Gorgeous.’ And my dad looked at my mom and said, ‘But I’ve got the real Gorgeous.’”
Dr. Levis remains a dominating figure on the premises. His Museum of the Creative Process on the grounds occupies much of his time. He has also created a sculpture garden intended to lead guests through deep explorations of creativity — should they want something other than disco dancing on Thursday nights.
All four of the Levis children remain close to home. Max was a professor at Harvard University before coming home to manage the inn. Tajlei is a lawyer who was recently commissioned to write the musical adaptation of “Green Acres” for Broadway. During her summer residencies at the inn, she writes the murder mysteries. Oliver is a Cornell Agriculture School graduate who created Earth Sky Time Community Farm with his wife Bonnie. They provide delicious hearth-baked breads at breakfast and cater the organic vegetarian Farm Night feast every Wednesday during the Harvest season.
“My brother can do incredibly innovative food,” Melissa said. “He can do gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan or vegetarian. The Wilburton Inn restaurant can cater European-style classic or barbecue, but because of our relationship with the farm we can provide a whole package for the wellness community who seek nourishment of the mind, the soul and the body.”
The warm and effusive Melissa is a children’s songwriter and performer who still sometimes performs under the name of Moey.
“I was sort of Elvis to the 5-and-under set in New York City,” she said. She once told the New York Post, “I’m like a walking party.”
Then a weekend at a contemplative retreat changed her life.
“It was just one weekend alone and I had time to really think about my life,” Melissa said. “I loved the tranquility and quiet of the retreat. And I thought how much it was like the Wilburton Inn, in the sense that you can stay here and be so far away from all the city lights and the commercialism. I had huge realization. I hadn’t made it to Disney and Nickelodeon, but I had made my mark in New York. I had created a brand. My songs generated a lot of income. And it was enough. I could come home. I feel incredibly happy being able to share my songs at the WIlburton out of love rather than in New York City trying to make it a career move.”
So Moey/Melissa — and her lively young Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Jetson — returned to Manchester. Her star talent, city energy and artistic relationships make her a perfect mistress of ceremonies.
She still keeps her hand in the theatrical world.
“This part spring I wrote a song for a wedding in Israel,” she said. “I write songs for special occasions, and I still perform for children. I was recently flown to North Carolina for a two-year -old’s birthday party. But now I’m a hostess. Now I’m not the star, I’m the facilitator. I get to welcome people.”
The Wilburton attracts an international clientele.
“Many of our guests discover us by fluke,” Melissa said. “We don’t have the marketing budget of the Equinox Resort or Stratton.”
Family inns are becoming rare, Melissa said.
“In Manchester, mom and dad were part of the Historic Inns of Manchester,” she said. “They were all owned by families. Now we’re the last man standing, along with the Inn at Manchester. Just the two of us that are still family-run inns. And guests feel it. A jaded New York writer who came this fall said, ‘I find it very healing visiting your inn because the only time my family gets together is when we fight in family court. To see you working with your siblings and your father harmoniously is a healing experience for me.’”
Melissa has found happiness and fulfillment at the inn.
“I never thought I’d come back to Vermont,” she said. “I always thought the whole point was you start in the country and you move to the big city and the desire is to be a star in the big city. But now I’m incredibly grateful for this. We’ve stayed here for 28 years as a family. We offer a very genuine hospitality experience.”