HARRISONBURG, VA. — With Max the stuffed wolf propped on a baby grand piano behind him, Gregory Speck lounged in his darkened parlor and combed through an internal catalogue, searching for the answer.
“The capercaillie,” he decided, referring to the world’s largest grouse. No animal in his 400-member taxidermy collection had been harder to acquire than that bird, which is known for its elaborate mating display.
“When I was in New Zealand —,” he said, then paused. “No, I’ll start first with when I was in Russia.”
Many of Speck’s stories begin that way, with a rich adventure in a faraway place. Born to an old and wealthy Virginia family, he moved in the 1970s to New York City, where he became a socialite, celebrity journalist and connoisseur of taxidermy. About 200 of his “companions,” as he calls them, resided in his Central Park West apartment until, tiring of city life, he sold the unit last year for $3.4 million.
Determined to keep the motionless menagerie intact, Speck, who detests hunting, donated all but Max and a cougar to Martinsville’s Virginia Museum of Natural History, which will feature about 50 of the animals in an “Exploring Virginia” exhibit that opens Saturday.
Amassing hundreds of world-class taxidermy specimens has brought Speck attention, both good and bad, but that aspect of his life is, arguably, not the most interesting one.
Like a character from Downton Abbey with a genteel Southern accent, he has embraced the luxurious life his charm, bloodline and good fortune have bestowed upon him.
Speck, 62, lives alone at his late parents’ Harrisonburg estate, where he maintains a primary home and a guest house on a maple-shaded acre. (The “plantation” or “El Dorado,” he calls it; he has put the latter name on business cards.) He refers to several female comrades as “heiresses and dowagers” and counts Bette Davis, Ava Gardner and Christopher Reeve — all of whom he interviewed at length — among his friends who have died.
Wearing a white polo shirt with matching shorts, Reeboks and socks bunched at the ankles, Speck detailed over an afternoon that he has traveled to 101 countries and written an unpublished manuscript arguing that the histories of Israel, Egypt and the Greek gods are all versions of the same story.
“It’s quite controversial, but it’s profound,” he said. “I think it was too intellectual for editors at commercial publishers to understand.”
Talk of life’s meaning, however, had to wait, for yet to be told was the tale of an international quest to find a dead bird.
The capercaillie had long eluded him, Speck said. He reluctantly declined to buy one in Moscow a decade ago because the $1,000 price was steep and he feared that getting it back to the United States would be too difficult.
But before he finished the story — which centered on a meeting in New Zealand with a Swedish scientist who later brought him one of the rare grouses — Speck remembered that he had written about that excursion to the South Pacific.
He abruptly stood and retrieved from a dresser his article for the New York Social Diary, self-described as “society news and party pictures of the rich and powerful.”
That brief stroll, from the parlor to the living room, led to another story, then another, then a few more.
On a rug in front of the dresser stood the cougar, which Speck named Pussy Galore in honor of the James Bond character. Against the wall, among his hundreds of celebrity photos, was an image of Speck with Andy Warhol. Atop the dresser were three jade elephant figurines he picked up on a trip during which he ate caviar on the Great Wall of China. And inside the dresser was a copy of his 1985 interview with Katharine Hepburn, a piece of reporting for Warhol’s Interview Magazine that Speck described as “one of the greatest coups in journalistic history.”
Speck has always enjoyed fine arts and culture, literature and storytelling. In the third grade, he wrote a sonnet about the birth of Jesus that now hangs in a hallway next to his degrees from New York University, Amherst College and a Virginia boarding school for boys where the teachers were referred to as “masters.”
With the Amherst glee club, Speck said, he went on two international concert tours, at one point performing a solo before the Great Sphinx of Giza.
“There was one high note that I never really quite got,” he said, “until the biggest of nights.”
At college, where Speck lived in a fraternity suite nicknamed the “bower of bliss,” he developed a reputation as a “notorious character on campus,” he said, in part because he wrote blistering reviews of school productions.
“I wasn’t trying to get noticed,” he said. “It’s just the way I was.”
Speck spent his junior year in Paris, which gave him a welcome respite from the attention. “During that year, I acquired two girlfriends,” he said. “One of them was a princess.” (Well, sort of. He said she was a descendant of Nguyen Van Tam, a former Vietnamese prime minister.)
Speck moved to New York in his 20s “to make my fame and fortune, one way or another.” Between stints as a journalist, he worked as a press agent for the iconic Studio 54,, where he connected with Hollywood stars and in 1978 promoted Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday.
Around that same year, Speck met the woman who would become his wife and moved into her upscale apartment, which he later filled with the taxidermy. Like his family’s fortune, Speck prefers not to discuss his Russian-born spouse, who died of cancer in 1999.
“I spoke French, which really appealed to her,” said Speck, whose feathery brown hair is flecked with gray. “And she found me so handsome.”
They met at the opera, and, in a nod to a pair of famous paintings, she called him Blue Boy and he called her Pinkie.
The Virginia estate is a shrine to his celebrity pals, his writings and himself — one of Speck’s portraits is displayed behind the master bathroom’s toilet — but he exhibits no images of his wife. The memory of her death, he said, remains too painful.
He is quick to note, though, that she enjoyed their battalion of lifeless roommates almost as much as he did.
Speck started accumulating the creatures in 1993 after wandering into a New York taxidermy shop, where he discovered the heads of two caribou, an elk, a cape buffalo, a gaur (an Asian buffalo) and a greater kudu (an African antelope).
“I felt I was on a rescue mission,” he said. “I appreciate the animals as divine works of nature.”
He spent more than $200,000 on an assemblage that he estimates is now worth five times that.
Two years ago, his apartment was featured on CNBC’s “Secret Lives of the Super Rich.” In the episode, “mega broker” Dolly Lenz toured the unit. Speck walked her past Buffalo Bill the bison, Smokey the black bear, Big Puss the lynx, Bob the bobcat, Tom the turkey, Billy the goat, Aries the bighorn ram, Juno the peacock, and Lohengrin and Parsifal the swans.
The show not-so-subtly mocked Speck on occasion, repeatedly playing cartoonish animal noises and dubbing his voice onto a water buffalo’s chattering mouth.
No matter, he says. The experience was well worth it.
“Being on a TV show like that,” Speck said, “was a great coup.”
The episode, he added, was a hit with his society friends, who told him he seemed far less pretentious than other super-rich people who had appeared on the program.