He called himself the 13th Lord of the Manor, as if he were the member of a long-lost American wing of English aristocracy. His family's remarkable saga spanned nearly 400 years of Long Island history, beginning with an ancestor's arrival in the 17th century, and Robert David Lion Gardiner knew every chapter of it.
The family story began with Lion Gardiner, an English mercenary and fort builder. He acquired a 3,300-acre island from the Montaukett Indians in 1639, off the north shoreline of what is today East Hampton, that he bestowed with the family name.
On Aug. 23, 13 generations later, Robert David Lion Gardiner, age 93, died in his home on Main Street in East Hampton, N.Y. No cause of death was reported.
An imperious man who could talk endlessly, and proudly, about his history, Mr. Gardiner was the last member of his family to call himself "lord of the manor," a reference to the land grant ratified by King Charles I of England after Lion Gardiner acquired the island from the Montaukett Indians. It is still in family hands today.
Ten years ago, Mr. Gardiner, who was childless, set out to find an heir to whom he could bestow the island and continue the family line. He said that if he found the right person -- male, a Gardiner and very wealthy -- he would name him the 14th lord of the manor. That effort produced little more than ridicule.
Years of court fights between Mr. Gardiner and his niece, Alexandra Creel Goelet of Manhattan, left the island jointly operated by both parties.
With Mr. Gardiner's death, it fully passes to the niece, according to previously filed court documents. She could not be reached to comment yesterday.
A family friend who asked not to be identified said that through last summer, Mr. Gardiner, whose health had been failing, gave guided tours of Gardiners Island, where he proudly pointed out the carpenter's shed built by Lion Gardiner, the wooded spot where Captain Kidd buried treasure and the cemetery where the family's slaves were interred.
The friend said that Mr. Gardiner's wife, Eunice, lives primarily in Florida and had been visiting her husband intermittently.
The friend said Mr. Gardiner would be buried in the South End Cemetery on Main Street, where Lion Gardiner is buried along with many other family members, including Robert Gardiner's parents.
The Gardiners were the first white family to acquire land on Long Island. After acquiring the island in 1639 -- the first purchase by a European on Long Island -- Lion Gardiner negotiated deals with other Indians for huge tracts along the broad width of Suffolk County, from what is today Smithtown south to Islip Town.
In family lore, Lion Gardiner was a fair partner with the Indians, helping the Montaukett chief Wyandanch retrieve his daughter after she was kidnapped by the Narragansett tribe and taken to the New England mainland.
In 1699, a descendant of Lion Gardiner helped the pirate William Kidd hide treasure on the island, a spot marked by a pile of boulders that Robert Gardiner was fond of pointing out to visitors on tours of the island.
Included in his tours were visits to the family home on Main Street in East Hampton, where he showed visitors the portrait of his wife painted by Salvador Dali, and the family plot in the South End cemetery. His visitors rode on the backs of trucks while Mr. Gardiner provided commentary over a loudspeaker in an accent that was somewhere between British and New York.
Along with the spot where Kidd buried his treasure, Mr. Gardiner pointed out the acres of untouched oak forest and the Colonial-era windmill.
Always the patrician host who seemed like a duck out of water among mere Long Islanders, he would criticize those who asked questions he didn't like and drop names of English gentry and members of the royal family with whom he'd recently dined. He once ran as a Democrat for a congressional seat when Rep. Otis Pike threatened to turn Gardiners Island into a park.
His business world was rather small. He managed a small family real estate empire and lived off his family's millions. He had a reputation for being cranky and overbearing and acting like an annoyed dilettante.
"He greeted everyone like he was the 18th-century lord of the manor," said Richard Welch, editor of the Long Island Forum, a journal of local history. "He was a great Long Island figure and eccentric. He was a real character."