Sat, 12/18/2021 - 1:23am

Mr. Poodle

After three-quarters of a century in dogs, Wendell Sammet looks back on the breed with which he is synonymous

Poodles are, without question, a glamorous breed.

But there is glamour, and then there is glamour.

The latter, in all its italicized glory, encapsulates style with substance. It’s the ice cream under the maraschino cherry, the cheekbones beneath the rouge, the motor below the hood – pick your metaphor. It’s the difference between Elizabeth Taylor and Pamela Anderson, between Tiffany and Target.

And in the case of Poodles, between then and now.

To be sure, Poodles today are still formidable contenders in the Non-Sporting and Best in Show rings. How could they not be, with their pouf-perfect coats and aristocratic carriage? But in the previous century – which wasn’t so long ago – the breed arguably reached its apex, with a depth of quality, and identifiable families of dogs, that likely could never be replicated again.

And there is still one person in the fancy today who watched the Poodle ascend into those heights of popularity in both the show ring and the public consciousness – and, in fact, whose efforts helped it get there. An indefatigable student of anatomy, a generous mentor to those willing to learn, he was the first fancier to be awarded the AKC’s prestigious Breeder of the Year Award when it debuted in 2002, and similarly was the inaugural recipient of the Anne Rogers Clark Hall of Fame Award in 2008.

“If I had to pick somebody in dogs who I wanted to be just like when I ‘grow up,’” said the late handler and judge Frank Sabella, himself no stranger to the Poodle stratosphere, “it would be Wendell.”

Today, having recently celebrated his 96th birthday, Wendell J. Sammet of Bryantville, Massachusetts, no longer breeds Poodles, nor shows them. But having spent the better part of a century in their company, he still lives them, whether as vivid memories that interrupt his life in retirement, or persistent urges to create more of his anatomical drawings and articles, in the hopes of educating those new fanciers who still do not know what they do not know.

 

Sammet was the first recipient of the prestigious AKC Breeder of the Year award.

 

Sammet’s start in dogs, ironically, began with a wash-and-wear breed: After returning home from World War II – where he fought at the Battle of the Bulge and was a prisoner of war for six months – Sammett went in search of a show dog. He acquired a Dalmatian, and not a very good one at that. Undaunted, he began to compete in obedience, and soon found a mentor in Mary Barrett of Roadcoach Kennels in Dover, Massachusetts. The first dog she sold him, Am/Can Ch. Boot Black from Dalmatia, won the breed at the vaunted Morris & Essex Show; two years later, his son, Ch. Roadcoach Roadster, took Best in Show.

Sammet began to breed those spotted dogs under his Dalmatia prefix, which continued until the early 1970s. But when Barrett added Standard Poodles to her kennel mix, Wendell became fascinated by the elegant dogs. Having studied graphic design, he instinctively knew how to groom them to accentuate their graceful lines. And, of course, he ventured into the ring with them, where he inevitably caught the attention of Ruelle Kelchner of Hollycourt fame.ee

Kelchner had based her line in large part on the famous Blakeen kennel of Charlotte Hayes Blake Hoyt, which had reinvigorated the breed’s popularity in the United States in the 1930s. Impeccably turned out in white gloves, Hoyt became the first women ever to go Best in Show at Westminster with the incomparable Ch. Nunsoe Duc De La Terrace of Blakeen on the other end of her lead. Bred in Switzerland and sold to Britain before Hoyt acquired him, “the Duke” was shown only 18 times, but nonetheless earned an enviable recording, including winning the group at Westminster and Best in Show at Morris & Essex in 1934.

 

Nunsoe Duc de la Terrace of Blakeen.

 

Wisely, Kelchner had incorporated Duc’s bloodline to establish her kennel, which maintained about 30 Miniatures – all in full English Saddle trim, including the retirees. Sammet began working there on weekends, then full time. Handling soon followed, with Sammet showing a string of five or six Hollywood dogs. In 1958, Kelchner’s black Ch. Hollywood Elegance became one of Sammet’s first Best in Show dogs.

Still, “the winning wasn’t the most important thing,” Sammet says. “The important thing was more or less the dog itself.”

Today, “definitely, we’ve forgotten about that,” he continues. “It’s really a beauty contest, and many of the wins are really not on the dog, but on the dog that had the most wins. When new people start, all they want to do is win. The first thing they say is, ‘How do you do up a topknot?’ – not ‘What is the head supposed to look like?’ Dogs aren’t judged for conformation anymore, and there are fewer and fewer people who know about it.”

Always willing to mentor, Sammet sketches out his vision of the perfect Poodle.

“First of all, the Poodle should be a Sporting dog, as far as I’m concerned,” he explains. “Basically, what he was years ago was a retriever, with that sporting type to do the work he had to do. Poodles had to have a good rear end to keep themselves above water, and a good shoulder and long neck to keep their head above water.

“They’re not supposed to be a tall, short-backed dog,” he continues. “You don’t get a really good shoulder from a tall, short-backed dog.”

And then there’s the issue of coat, which Sammet says is often overemphasized. “It covers a multitude of sins. It’s an illusion.” Instead of quantity of coat, he advises fanciers and breeders to focus on its quality. “You have to have a good coat – they are water dogs,” he stresses. “You have to have the right texture – not so that the water soaks in and they drown.”

 

Above: Sammet set up at a dog show in the early years. Below: While Sammet is best known for his association with Poodles, he exhibited other breeds as a professional handler. Pictured here is Am/Can/ Ch. Carousel Calamity Jane.

 

In the early 1950s, thanks to his success showing the Hollywood Poodles, Sammet landed on the radar screen of Mrs. George Putnam of Puttencove fame.

Putnam had a sticky problem: She had sold a bitch by her famous stud dog, Puttencove Promise, to Alyce Kaiser, a wealthy Poodle fancier on the opposite coast. “Tammy,” as Tambourine de la Fontaine was informally called, was being shown by Putnam’s handler, Bob Gorman. Realizing that Kaiser was serious about winning, and seeing a conflict in the offing, Putnam set about finding Kaiser a handler of her own. And Sammet fit the bill.

The match was a good one: Not only did Kaiser appreciate how beautifully Sammet presented her Tammy, but in short order she asked him if he would assist with her breeding program. Spanning both coasts, the geographically challenging arrangement would split their responsibilities: Sammet would show the dogs and breed the bitches on the East Coast. Once they were in whelp, he would ship them to Hawaii, where, once the mandatory quarantine was over, Kaiser could concentrate on her favorite part of the process: Raising the adorable balls of fluff at her sprawling, International-style estate overlooking Honolulu’s Maunalua Bay.

 

Sammet with Ch. Alekai Airy.

 

Before committing, Sammet had one requirement: He needed to see Kaiser’s other dogs. And once they arrived at his Massachusetts kennel, he had a bleak assessment for her: After five years of breeding, Kaiser had assembled an exceptional collection of mediocre pets, acquired for her by various handlers. If she was serious about making her Alekai kennel – an amalgam of her first and last names – into a world-class operation, they needed to start again from scratch.

To say that money was not an obstacle would be an understatement: Kaiser was married to a man Time magazine had dubbed “perhaps the most remarkable industrialist since Henry Ford.”

Born in upstate New York, Henry Kaiser left school at age 13 to work in a dry-goods store to support his parents and three sisters. Lured by the promise of the West, he swapped coasts, building shipyards and ambitious construction projects, including the Hoover Dam. During World War II, Kaiser was the largest supplier of vessels to the U.S. Navy, even manufacturing the steel used to build them. Rosie the Riveter aside, Kaiser invested in Hawaii before it became a state, building resort properties like the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

An omnivore when it came to business opportunities, Kaiser even founded the nation’s first non-profit HMO, and his Kaiser Permanente hospital in Walnut Creek, California, innovated with maternity rooms that featured “baby drawers”: Retrofitted file cabinets installed in the walls allowed babies to pop out beside the beds of their waiting mothers, whose maternity rooms ringed the circular nursery.

It's intriguing to ponder whether that innovative layout inspired the famous Alekai kennel-in-the-round. In addition to having runs that ringed the central grooming area, the facility had its own veterinary clinic, complete with X-ray machine, and was outfitted in gold-anodized aluminum, which could be completely steam-cleaned in 10 minutes. To say nothing of the multi-million-dollar views from its perch near the famously pink Kaiser mansion.

 

Above: The famed Alekai kennel in the round, Manalua, Hawaii, mid-1950s. Below: Baby drawer at maternity ward in Kaiser Permanente's Walnut Creek hospital in 1953. The maternity rooms were arranged in a circle around a central nursery just like Kaiser's Alekai kennels.

 

As that kennel proved, Henry Kaiser spared no expense for his new bride, who had been the private nurse for first wife of 30 years. When she died, in 1951, the couple married less than three weeks later, reportedly with the first Mrs. Kaiser’s blessing.

For his part, Sammet began to acquire dogs with an eye toward pedigrees that went back to “the old Duc dog,” whose strength he admired. “If you look at some of my early dogs, they were sturdy,” he says. “They weren’t the fancy hackney ponies that walk in the ring today.”

 

A treasured memento of times past: A framed photo of Henry and Alyce Kaiser with Tambourine de la Fontaine.

 

As impractical as it sounded, the Alekai arrangement worked for four decades: Sammet would visit Hawaii twice a year, for two or three weeks at a time, helping evaluate puppies and sharing breeding plans. A staff maintained the kennel’s 15 to 20 white Standard Poodles – all in English saddle show trim.

The partnership was a productive one: Sammet’s original charge, Tammy, lived up to her promise, winning the variety and taking a Group 3 at Westminster in 1960; the next year, she bumped it up a notch and took a Group 2. And in 1967, Ch. Alekai Marlaine won the Non-Sporting Group at the Garden.

 

Ch. Alekai Marlaine and Wendell Sammet, Westminster 1967.

 

When Kaiser died in 1990, she bequeathed the kennel to Sammet. Wanting to commemorate the closing of that chapter, Sammet inserted a space into the Alekai kennel name, and carried on under the banner of Ale Kai.

Not many years before Kaiser passed, New York socialite Karen LeFrak looked out the window of a Manhattan restaurant where she was dining and saw a woman walking two beautiful white Standard Poodles. 

“It was the time in my life for a dog, and I wanted one like these,” remembers LeFrak, who put down her fork and caught up with the woman. She learned that the stunning dogs were bred by Wendell Sammet, and some time later, LeFrak acquired a female named “Ruffle” from him.

Fast-forward a decade or so. As Ruffle was getting on in age, LeFrak’s husband suggested she contact Sammet for another Poodle so she wouldn’t suddenly find herself in the position living without one.

“Wendell said he only had a female he was going to show,” LeFrak remembers. “After much pleading, ‘Ale Kai Diamonds and Pearls’ became mine, and I enthusiastically entered the world of showing dogs.”

LeFrak attended every show she could get to, “and I bit my nails with everyone else,” she says. “I became part of a unique group of people who shared the love of dogs, grooming, competition and breeding. Owners, handlers, breeders and judges welcomed me into this special family.”

 

Sammet with Karen LeFrak and Joseph Vergnetti.

 

After “Jewel” earned her championship, she was bred to Lake Cove’s That’s My Boy, producing the well-known Ch. Ale Kai Mikimoto on Fifth. Co-owned with Sammet, who also handled him, “Miki” won two consecutive Westminster Groups, in 2003 and 2004. And when he retired, so did Sammet.

“Miki’s career brought about my attachment to and fondness for Wendell,” LeFrak says, whose kennel name was On Fifth. “Not only did he try to teach me about the correct conformation, gait, expression and temperament of the breed, he shared and continues to share his wisdom about life, offering sound advice whenever asked.

“The bond between handler and owner is a special one. It encompasses mutual respect and trust,” she continues. “I am so fortunate that, in the case of Wendell and me, it also fostered a deep friendship. I admire this man on so many levels and feel great affection for him. I am honored and privileged that he has allowed me to be part of his life, and I am grateful that he has become part of mine.”

LeFrak remembers Sammet as “a true gentleman,” both inside and outside the ring. “If we lost, I watched how he never showed his disappointment or anger. ‘It’s all part of the game,’ he would say. Or, ‘Remember, chicken today, feathers tomorrow.’” 

 

Above and below: Ch. Ale Kai Mikimoto on Fifth.

 

Though Sammet left the show ring after Miki’s retirement, he didn’t forsake the whelping box, continuing to breed the occasional litter. But being an almost-centenarian status has slowed him down a bit: He recently closed his kennel, and hasn’t bred anything in more than five years.

“I miss it, but I can’t do it,” he concedes. Then again, there is this consolation: “I have seen everything, but, you know, I have seen the best. And I think the thing I’m most proud of is breeding Ale Kai dogs.”

For those new breeders who are still willing to accept some advice, Sammet offers this: “Study conformation, because the Poodle is no different than an ordinary dog,” he says. “The same rear assembly, the same front assembly, with a flat back. If one knows that, one knows conformation, and one could breed a good dog,” although he’s quick to add that’s not an easy proposition.

“Just because you breed to dog that has certain feature, you’re lucky if you get it in the first generation. You’ve got to breed that desired factor about two to three generations,” before you can hope it sticks, he reminds. To accomplish that, “I did a lot of line breeding and inbreeding. And to me that’s the only way to breed a dog.”

These days, Sammet doesn’t go to dog shows anymore, and to be honest, he doesn’t miss it. “I have no desire,” he admits. “I just think it’s changed so much –six-month-olds going Best of Breed. All these puppies finishing,” he muses.

“I’m not very anxious to go out in the world,” Sammet says. “I’m happy here with my garden. I have a beautiful home.” And, of course, a Poodle – a white Standard. “She is the worst house dog I have ever had,” he says cheerily. “Whenever I leave, she takes anything I have. She jumps on the counter. She’s eaten many of my suppers. And she’s not very pretty.”

But she’s a Poodle, and in the end, that’s what matters most. Sammet thinks he knows the secret to the breed’s enduring popularity: “They are still very, very prevalent because basically the temperament is wonderful. They haven’t destroyed that.”

He pauses to consider exactly what ideal temperament is.

“Knowing. Smart,” he says after some consideration. “They know before you do.”

Beauty combined with brains – the ultimate definition of glamour.

 

 

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