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Annie Wilkinson

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Annie Wilkinson is an award-winning associate editor of the Long Island Press. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have run her features and cover stories.

The Life of Captain Kangaroo’s Bob Keeshan: LI’s Favorite Grandfather

captain kangaroo
From left, Dancing Bear, Bunny Rabbit, Captain Kangaroo, Grandfather Clock, Mister Moose, and Mister Green Jeans. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

One never knows where life’s early influences may lead. Before we had today’s internet to answer our questions, we would harness our imagination if we wanted to create, educate, or entertain. No one could have predicted that a boy who was interested in live dramas, romances, thrillers, and other 1940s audio entertainment would find success by clowning around and producing original plays.

That boy was Lynbrook, Long Island native Robert James Keeshan, who got encouragement — from parents who listened and a teacher who praised his nice voice and suggested he work in radio — that propelled him into a career as a world-famous television actor, producer, recording artist, and author. His creations were an eclectic mix of slapstick, animation, costumed characters, puppets, music, a sad-faced and silent clown, and celebrities, all gathered around America’s favorite grandfather: Captain Kangaroo. 

NO KARATE CHOPS

Keeshan was born in 1927 in Lynbrook; When he was 6, his family moved to Forest Hills, Queens. He displayed early chutzpah at Forest Hills High School, broadcasting his plays over the loudspeaker system. As a senior, in 1944, he worked nights as a page, seating radio program audiences, earning $13.50 a week at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center. 

He graduated early in 1945 and enlisted in the Marines, but World War II ended before he could see combat. He earned a bachelor’s in education at Fordham University, then returned to NBC. His desk was next to the office of Buffalo Bob Smith, a children’s program host whom Keeshan helped with research. When television came along, Keeshan made his acting debut on Smith’s popular Howdy Doody Show playing Clarabell, a clown who delighted in squirting Smith with a seltzer bottle. But Keeshan was fired after several years, because Smith suspected that Keeshan and the other actors wanted to unionize. 

Months later, NBC asked him to create a new show, Time for Fun, built around the soft-spoken Corny the Clown. Keeshan next appeared as the grandfatherly host of Tinker’s Workshop, which beat out The Today Show in the ratings.

But Keeshan was bothered by the commercials, which he saw as violent or featuring products he viewed as inappropriate for children. He told CBS’ 48 Hours, “On commercial television, their problems are solved with a karate chop,” and lobbied successfully to reduce the violence. CBS asked him to develop a show. 

Publicity photo of Bob Keeshan as Captain Kangaroo. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

KINDNESS, NOT GLITZ

Captain Kangaroo debuted in October 1955, the same day as Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club. Keeshan told Variety, “I was impressed with the potential positive relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, so I chose an elderly character.” The kindly host with the bobbed wig and walrus mustache got his name from the pouchlike pockets on his jacket.

As reported by The New York Times’ Richard Severo, Keeshan said to director Peter Birch that the goal was to talk to the child at home one on one during the program, with no studio audience. 

“The children should never be excluded … and should never have the feeling of being part of an audience,” Keeshan told Birch. “The Captain” engaged children in a gentle, nonthreatening way: Show good manners. Respect animals and playmates. Celebrate “be kind to mothers and others day.”

Captain Kangaroo “introduced millions of children to the notion of civility,” wrote The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik. “The emphasis was on kindness, not glitz.” 

The program conceived by the man UPI Hollywood Correspondent Vernon Scott dubbed the “world’s greatest babysitter” became the longest-running nationally broadcast children’s television program of its day, aired more than 9,000 performances in its nearly 30-year run, and won six Emmys, three Peabodys, three Gabriel Awards, and numerous other awards.

LONG ISLAND LIFE

Keeshan commuted to Manhattan after moving to Melbury Road in Babylon on Long Island, taking the 4:20 a.m. train to arrive by 6 a.m. His show featured celebrity guests and he appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sonny and Cher’s Christmas Special

But fame did not rule his life. He served on the boards of the West Islip School District and Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, and supported the Suffolk County Police Athletic League, Boy Scouts of America, and many other charitable organizations. Observers described the children’s advocate as completely reachable, generous, and dedicated to the community.

When not starring on Captain Kangaroo, recording vinyl albums, or serving the community, Keeshan spent time with his family of five, indulged in his photography hobby, studied French, played golf, sailed and fished on Long Island Sound, and dug in the garden surrounding his 24-room colonial house. When asked by The New York Times how he had time for all this, he replied, ”One of the big secrets of finding time is not to watch television.’’

The Captain died in January 2004 at age 76, in Windsor, Vt.

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Renegade Chef Anthony Bourdain’s Favorite Vacations Were on Long Island

anthony bourdain
Anthony Bourdain poses backstage with the Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" at the 2014 Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California August 16, 2014. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian

Anthony Bourdain was a famous chef and respected journalist who was accessible and willing to rewrite — “an editor’s dream,” wrote Ruth Reichl, longtime Gourmet editor and former New York Times restaurant critic.

His friend Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin executive chef and co-owner, told People, “He was an exceptional human being, so inspiring and generous. One of the great storytellers of our time who connected with so many.”

But Bourdain was also an abrasive and arrogant renegade who slammed his fellow top TV food personalities, from Guy Fieri to Rachael Ray. A professional annoyance. A curmudgeon. 

He was called awkward and withdrawn; Reichl observed, “Behind that swagger, there was always that tortured shy guy.”

Bourdain was all of these, with conflicting emotions competing to dominate his personality. Which one won? He secreted that truth away when he committed suicide. 

DOING NOTHING ON LI 

As executive chef in Manhattan’s finest restaurants, popular television host, and jet-setter, “Tony” Bourdain defined the term “celebrity chef.” It was as though he was possessed by an unstoppable demon of adventure, which drove him to try every dish and travel anywhere.

But his favorite vacation meant doing nothing on Long Island every August, relaxing in “an area of the Hamptons that none of the cool people go to and I never see anyone I know,” he told the Boston Globe

The icon took “an indecent pleasure in feigning normalcy,” he told Drift Travel. Starting in 2012, he did “the suburban dad thing,” loading up the car with luggage and heading Out East with his third wife, Ottavia, and their 7-year-old daughter Ariane. As northjersey.com reported, he said he was happy with “a pile of to-be-read books, a hammock, and a nice, warm body of water,” in a place with no parties or openings — “It’s mostly old people and golfers.” 

He posed with Ripert for Hamptons magazine in 2012 at Shelter Island’s Sunset Beach, appeared at East Hampton’s Guild Hall in 2014 in Stirring the Pot: Conversations with Culinary Celebrities, and studied jiu jitsu with champion Lucas Lepri. He drove, shopped at farm stands, and said his life was ruled by a 7-year-old, telling northjersery.com in 2016, “A child changes everything. I don’t drink or smoke as heavily as I used to because I have a responsibility to her to at least try to stay alive a little longer.

He cooked steamer clams, to remind himself of his Jersey Shore childhood vacations.

A $6 PRESIDENTIAL MEAL

His upbringing helped him develop food appreciation. He was born Anthony Michael Bourdain in 1956 in New York City; his mother Gladys (G.S.) Bourdain was a New York Times copy editor on the culture and metropolitan desks and his father Pierre Bourdain was a classical-music recording industry executive. The family vacationed in Montauk and crossed the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary, visiting relatives in France. 

He later recalled in his 2000 blockbuster memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly that it was as a fourth-grader aboard the luxury liner that he became conscious of enjoying food — specifically, “vichysoisse, a basic potato-leek soup that held the delightful surprise of being cold.” 

After high school and several lackluster years at Vassar College, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1978. He paid his dues, shucking oysters, washing dishes, and studying Cape Cod chefs.  

Throughout the 1990s his minute attention to detail drew Manhattan diners to the Rainbow Room, One Fifth Avenue, and the Brasserie Les Halles restaurants. Major TV series followed, including Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and Parts Unknown; starting in 2010, he received numerous nominations and wins from the Emmy Awards and the James Beard Foundation.

In Parts Unknown, he turned the focus away from himself, sharing discoveries and interviews at unassuming restaurants serving unusual dishes. One conversation was with then-president Barack Obama in Vietnam, in 2016. They discussed American and Vietnam politics, Obama’s last months in office, and being a father.  

Obama described their $6 meal on Twitter: “Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. That’s how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.” 

“THAT TORTURED SHY GUY”

Despite his success, his low self-esteem persisted. “I should’ve died in my 20s,” he told Biography, referring to his cocaine and heroin addictions. “I feel like I’ve stolen a car — a really nice car — and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights.”

His grueling travel and filming schedule helped end his marriage in 2016. He told People that living the dream was costly, but rejected retirement: “I just think I’m just too nervous, neurotic, driven … I might have deluded myself into thinking that I’d be happy in a hammock or gardening. But no, I’m quite sure I can’t.”

On camera, he told viewers, “… I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days.” He sought psychotherapy in Argentina for his dark moods.

He was 61 when he hanged himself in a Paris hotel room on June 8, 2018.

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How Estée Lauder Built a Makeup Empire With Long Island Ties

Estée Lauder
Estée Lauder giving a makeover. (Library of Congress)

It’s the 1930s. You’re a woman having your hair done at a salon, sitting under a bulky contraption that’s blowing warm air on your wet head. In those pre-handheld dryer times, the hooded device was the only way to dry your locks. You have to sit there, thumbing through movie magazines or chatting with other women hoping their hair dries before boredom sets in.

Enter an enterprising young woman bearing intriguing wares. As the dryers whir and hum, she deftly dabs cream on your face. She is in her element, believing that touching the consumer and explaining the flattering results make the sale.

Not bad for someone who skipped college to whip up skin creams in a stable.

QUEENS’ QUEEN OF BEAUTY

That woman was Estée Lauder, a pioneering beauty industry titan who revolutionized how cosmetics were marketed and sold. Her motto? “Never underestimate any woman’s desire for beauty.”

Josephine Esther Mentzer lived a rags-to-riches American dream. She was born at home to Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents in Corona, Queens, around 1906. Her Hungarian mother Rose Mentzer was fascinated by beauty regimens, buying the largest jars of hand lotion, visiting spas, and protecting herself from the sun with gloves or a black parasol. “Esty” (later “Estée”) worked with her siblings to help make ends meet in the hardware store owned by their Czech father Max Mentzer. A petite blonde with fine skin, she always tried to look her best.

In 1924, when she was attending Newtown High School in Elmhurst, her Hungarian uncle John Schotz moved in with the family. A trained chemist, he created an array of concoctions, from freckle remover and embalming fluid to velvety smooth lotions, in the kitchen and in a stable out back. His niece was hooked, learning how to make creams and apply them. 

She married Joseph Lauder in 1930 and while raising her toddler son Joseph, built a business through personal demos. She possessed the ability to waltz into salons, smear creams and makeup on a woman’s face or wrist, tell her that the products gave her “a gentle glow,” and nail the sale.

JARS OF HOPE

Her chutzpah. Moxie. Gall. All led to the 1946 company launch of just four products. The couple manufactured them in the kitchen of a former restaurant, cooking and bottling products by night and selling them by day. Leonard stayed away from what he labeled “fiddling with other people’s faces” and handled the finances and production. 

In 1947, Saks Fifth Avenue ordered $800 worth of products; they sold out in two days. “We were selling jars of hope,” she later recalled.

She upended traditional marketing techniques by giving away samples and, especially, by promotions that created the “gift with purchase” concept. Her son Leonard wrote in his memoir The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty how she once interrupted a Salvation Army sister’s bell-ringing, saying she could help her skin look and feel fresher because “There’s no excuse for looking untidy.”

The empire builder trained women at sales counters and salons, teaching them to convey her philosophy that her products would help customers feel young. She knew what women wanted.

MOVING UP

In 1967, the first manufacturing site opened in Melville in Suffolk County, Long Island. The company added fragrance and haircare products to its lines and garnered as much attention as commerce giants including Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Disney. She hobnobbed with the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace of Monaco, Nancy Reagan, and other celebrities. 

Lindy Woodhead wrote in The Telegraph in 1973 that meeting Lauder was like being in the presence of royalty: “Small, with orange-tinted hair, wearing bright blue crêpe de chine that matched her chlorine-blue eyes, she swept me up in the aura of her personality.”

Lauder became the world’s wealthiest self-made woman and kept going to work every day until her mid-80s. But she never forgot her family, buying vacation property in Wainscott in East Hampton to be close to her children and grandchildren, who lived nearby and helped run the business. 

Her granddaughter Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer, who inherited the Wainscott home, told Harper’s Bazaar Arabia “how incredible it was … to have this passion and dream, and to create something out of nothing at a time when most women were not working.”  

Today, the company still leads the beauty industry, selling products in 150 countries and territories under brand names including Estée Lauder, Aramis (for men), Clinique, Origins, DKNY, Aveda, and others. Her company employs 48,000 people worldwide and the family’s net worth is $40 billion.

Estée Lauder died at age 97 in 2004 in Manhattan.

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How Daring Dancers Vernon and Irene Castle Shook the Industry

vernon and irene castle
Vernon and Irene Castle. (Library of Congress)

Young, attractive, talented, and in love, they twirled themselves into the hearts of audiences. America’s sweethearts — and trendsetters — Vernon and Irene Castle revolutionized dance and fashion. 

They kicked up their heels while standing their ground, challenging prevalent racist attitudes and advocating for animal rights. Even as World War I broke out, they brought the country a sense of fun and tolerance for all.

They were not always so fortunate: They started out broke and unemployed, living in a cramped apartment with three beloved dogs. Then success hit: Poor no more, they purchased a 5,000-square-foot waterfront mansion on Long Island’s Manhasset Bay, a fitting home for them and their resident animals large and small.

TWO TO TANGO

Vernon Castle Blythe was an Englishman performing in Manhattan as a magician, actor, and dancer when he met Irene Foote in 1910 at suburban New Rochelle’s Rowing Club. He was 23, she 17.  A New Rochelle native, she had grown up with show-business types, as her grandfather was a Barnum & Bailey Circus press agent. A high school dropout, she spent time dancing and singing in amateur theatricals.

They were married in 1911 and by 1912 were starring in a Broadway revue. They sailed to Paris and performed their first ballroom routine, to Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Ragtime, the African American forerunner of jazz built on syncopated rhythms, would never be the same. 

The Cafe de Paris hired them and their career took off, fueled by publicity, a new marketing tool. They sailed back to New York to perform and develop dances based on African American music styles — the one-step, turkey trot, grizzly bear, Castle walk, Castle polka, glide, hesitation waltz, bunny hug, innovation tango, and scads more.  

They bucked Puritan beliefs, as Douglas Thompson wrote in Shall We Dance? The True Story of the Couple Who Taught the World to Dance: “Fiery preachers across Europe and especially in America denounced ballroom dance as the devil’s work … The idea that men and women should dance so close together was evil.”   

But their appearance banished those attitudes, wrote Thompson: “You too could be slim and healthy and in love — if you danced.” Irene said she personified the girl next door, and they were “young, clean, married, and well-mannered.” They delighted in dancing together, their arms encircling each other, dipping, bowing, hopping, arching — and making it look simple. 

BEYOND BALLROOM

There was more to these stellar performers than fancy footwork. They skipped across upper-crust society with backstage behavior that elevated them as pioneers in social attitudes. 

Traveling with a Black orchestra, James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, the Castles believed that only Blacks could comprehend ballroom dance music’s rhythms. But segregation was prevalent. Blacks weren’t allowed to occupy whites’ train cars or enter nightclubs. Still, Castle persisted, and succeeded. The Castles introduced audiences to Black musicians through touring and endorsing their phonograph records. 

Over the next few years, the Castles opened a dancing school, Castle House, across from Manhattan’s Ritz Hotel; their supper club, Castles in the Air, was located on a Broadway theatre’s roof. They performed on Broadway and made films, splitting their time between the City and Long Island. 

They indulged their love of animals by purchasing Shorecliff House in 1914, a 4.5-acre estate on Manhasset Bay, with kennels and stables for 24 dogs, five horses, a donkey, and more, including animals rescued from the theater. The same year, they opened a resort/dancing school, Castles by the Sea, on the Long Beach boardwalk on Long Island’s South Shore (now the site of the Allegria Hotel). 

By 1915, Irene had become a fashion leader: She danced in long, floating skirts and distinctive headwear, bobbed her dyed-red hair, and discarded her girdle. When Vernon returned to England to support the war effort by flying combat missions, she continued performing but was unhappy dancing solo. He returned to America to train pilots, but died in a Texas plane crash in 1918.  

Her career mostly ended in 1923, except for summer stock, after she remarried and relocated to Chicago. In the late 1920s, she was labeled “The best-dressed woman in America,” but animal rescue was her passion. The antivivisectionist activist founded the Illinois dog shelter Orphans in the Storm. 

In 1964 she told The New York Times: “When I die, my gravestone is to say ‘humanitarian’ instead of ‘dancer.’ I put it in my will. Dancing was fun, and I needed money, but Orphans in the Storm comes from my heart. It’s more important.”

She died in 1969 and is buried next to Vernon Castle at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  

To see the Castles doing the Castle Walk, from the 1914 silent film The Whirl of Life, visit youtube.com/watch?v=qkqf9_Wr_Vs 

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How Long Island Suffragist Alva Belmont Helped Women Gain Equality

alva belmont
Alva Belmont on May 21, 1922.

In Washington, D.C., hundreds of flag-waving protesters rallied, displaying huge signs and shouting their message. More than 100 were arrested and jailed.

While this could be the narrative of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building by domestic terrorists who questioned election results, it unfolded 104 years ago. It marked the first time that protesters picketed in front of the White House. 

It was January 1917 when the group began their vigil, and they kept it up, whatever the weather, six days a week, for six months. Who were they?

Members of the National Woman’s Party, their cause was women’s suffrage: the right of women by law to vote in national or local elections. The NWP was formed by suffragette leader Alice Paul and by unexpected women’s rights advocate, wealthy Long Island socialite Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, the party’s president and primary benefactor.

Known for saying, “Pray to God. She will help you,” Belmont combined her wealth with public relations savvy. Working with Paul, she organized the White House protest and influenced major breakthroughs for women.

SOCIALITE/SUFFRAGETTE

In the early 20th century women were mostly perceived as demure second-class citizens. They were supposed to go along with the rules laid out by men. They were not supposed to be militant. 

Alva Ertskin Smith’s father was a prominent cotton trader in Mobile, Ala., where she was born in 1853. Her charmed life included summering in posh Newport, R.I., European travel, and a Paris boarding school education.

But key events shifted her beliefs to a bolder, broader worldview. When the Civil War devastated the cotton trade, the family moved to New York City around 1859. By the time she was a teenager, her parents had died. Insulating herself from poverty, in 1875, the 22-year-old married William Kissam Vanderbilt, heir to the enormous Vanderbilt family fortune.

“There was a force in me that seemed to compel me to do what I wanted to do regardless of what might happen afterwards,” Ava Belmont said.

To enhance her public image as Mrs. Vanderbilt, she cultivated relationships with journalists as well as businesspeople and politicians. The couple drew attention during the Gilded Age by building grand houses, including the lavish, 110-room country estate called Idle Hour on Long Island’s Connetquot River in Oakdale, a chateau-esque mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan which she helped design, and an opulent $9 million Newport summer palace they named Marble House. Later, she would build Sands Point’s Beacon House, described as a “gothic fantasy castle” by historian Howard Kroplick on vanderbiltcupraces.com.

But then she discovered her husband’s adultery. Their 1895 divorce yielded her a personal yearly fortune of $200,000 plus property. The gossips’ tongues wagged over the scandal, driven by chatter about her quietly taking a lover named Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, whom she wed in 1896. 

The New York Times reported that “Mr. Belmont’s attention to Mrs. Vanderbilt was talked about long before she secured her divorce from W. K. Vanderbilt …. The breach between Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt became so broad that a divorce seemed inevitable.”

Alva and Oliver Belmont had two summer houses in Newport and built the ornate Brookholt Mansion on 800 acres on Long Island off Front Street in East Meadow in 1897. He died at Brookholt of septic poisoning in 1908. 

SHIFTING TACTICS

Being divorced and widowed led to a deep depression; she took up charity work to fight it off, and attended suffrage meetings. She was so moved that she devoted her time, her fortune, and her home to women’s rights, especially suffrage and better standards of work and wages for working women. 

Her consciousness shifted: After witnessing a militant suffrage organization’s London rally, she wrote, “There was a force in me that seemed to compel me to do what I wanted to do regardless of what might happen afterwards.”

She became more confrontational and sanctioned stronger tactics. As reporter Karen Grigsby Bates told NPR, “Alva embraced feminism and was inclined to view the very notion of romantic love as a plot against all women.” 

Because of her financial and other support, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on Aug. 26, 1920, putting women on an equal basis with men. She continued working for women’s rights by writing articles and became a noted architectural designer; she was one of the first women elected to the American Institute of Architects.

She died in Paris in 1933. Her casket was draped with a purple protest banner featuring a quote by suffragist Susan B. Anthony: “Failure is impossible.” Belmont is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

A virtual photo exhibit on Alva Vanderbilt Belmont celebrates Women’s History Month at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum throughout the month of March. 

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Recalling the Often Forgotten History of Slavery on Long Island

slavery
First slave auction, 1655, Howard Pyle. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Long Island is known for its charming villages, historic structures, picturesque harbors, and popular festivals. But buried in the past, behind the intriguing small towns and hamlets, is an insidious truth that reveals the vicious cruelty and violence inflicted on certain residents.

That history reveals what happened in the best homes and the most well-respected families. It lasted, tolerated by nearly all, for more than 200 years.

Human beings were bought and sold, treated as property to be owned. They were enslaved and forced to live and labor under horrific conditions — legally — because the slave owners had white skin and the slaves were Black. 

“The effect of ‘whitewashing’ the history of slavery in the North is more topical than ever, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Claire Bellerjeau.

Most people assume that slavery was prevalent in the American South, with its sprawling plantations, but not in the North. But in 1703, 42 percent of New York City households had slaves. By 1827, in Suffolk County, Long Island, one out of five residents was Black, and most of them were slaves. 

From Oyster Bay to Glen Cove to Shelter Island to Southold to Setauket and beyond, Long Island — which included Suffolk and Queens counties before Nassau County was established — had “the largest slave population of the North for most of the colonial era,” according to Christopher Claude Verga, author of Civil Rights on Long Island.

Oyster Bay blacksmith ledger entry, courtesy of Raynham Hall Museum

LONG ISLAND’S SERVANTS

While most of the work slaves were forced to do was in agriculture, “slaves occupied every rung of skilled and unskilled labor,’’ wrote author Grania Bolton Marcus. The women labored mostly as domestic servants, while the men “cut stone, made barrels, blacksmithed, manned fishing boats and whaling ships,” she wrote. 

Between 1755 and 1812, slavery was common in homes such as Raynham Hall, the residence of the Townsends, one of Oyster Bay’s founding families. The home is famous because Robert Townsend — George Washington’s spy — lived there. The family enjoyed the free labor of slaves who served their masters not only as domestic and field workers on the family’s 350-acre farm and on five merchant vessels; the slaves were forced to serve an enemy occupation of British officers in the house during the Revolutionary War. 

“The effect of ‘whitewashing’ the history of slavery in the North is more topical than ever, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Claire Bellerjeau, director of education at Raynham Hall Museum (the Townsends’ former residence).

TECHNOLOGY SHINES A LIGHT

Forced to abide by strict rules, Black and Native American slaves were forbidden from running away, gathering in groups larger than three when not working for their owners, or showing what was called “stubborn pride.” If they disobeyed, their owners punished them — with government approval.

In the early 1700s, in the hamlet of Oyster Bay and across Long Island, residents would gather in the middle of town and watch as slaves said to be disobedient were restrained on a post and whipped — the most common punishment — often with 40 lashes. According to Town of Oyster Bay records, the public “negro whipper” was appointed by the town, and received as much as three shillings per slave.

Proof of this inhumane treatment was found by Bellerjeau. After the museum purchased the Townsend Family Bible in 2005, which belonged to the servants and listed details about the 16 “coloured people” owned by the family of Samuel Townsend in 1771, she searched previously unstudied museum archives from the late 1790s to the 1810s and found evidence of slavery in the North. 

“To find two 19th century records of the actual act of a blacksmith describing doing such things to an enslaved person is groundbreaking,” Bellerjeau told the Press. “It directly refutes the long-standing misconception that somehow Northern slavery was less cruel than slavery in the South.”

High-resolution scans illuminated the entries in blacksmith Daniel McCoun’s ledger of how slaves were controlled with iron collars and other restraints. One entry in the handwritten document described the act of “putting a band & a bolt on a Black” runaway slave for Thomas Youngs of Oyster Bay. 

Another account revealed that in 1755, the blacksmith was paid 8 pounds by the Town of Oyster Bay to repair the irons (the manacles that restrained a slave on the whipping post); another entry included a charge for “12 nails and putting on,” said Bellerjeau. This practice, which Bellerjeau described as “even more gruesome,” detailed a type of torture dating back to medieval times: “breaking on the wheel.” The enslaved person was strapped to a wagon wheel, then beaten or even killed.

A CHANGE OF HEART

After the Revolutionary War ended, Robert Townsend became a founding member of the abolitionist New York Manumission (the act of freeing slaves by their owner) Society. The process of freeing slaves in New York State started gradually in 1799; by 1827, all slaves had been freed statewide.

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This New Yorker Was The First Woman To Run For U.S. Vice President

Gerladine Ferraro, who had a summer home in Saltaire, was the first female vice presidential candidate on a major-party ticket. (Reuters/Peter Morgan)

It’s said that the third time works the charm, a phrase that proved true during the recent presidential election: For the third time, a woman ran for the vice presidency, and for the first time, a woman won. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) made history in November 2020 by being chosen the country’s first woman vice president.

In her acceptance speech honoring women candidates, Harris said she stands on their shoulders: “I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision, to see what can be, unburdened by what has been.”

Before Harris, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, was the second female to run for the office in the 2008 presidential election; her bid failed.

But 24 years earlier, in 1984, a tough New Yorker campaigned, the first woman to gamble on becoming VP: Geraldine Anne Ferraro. The New York Times described how Ferraro “rocketed to national prominence, propelled by fervid feminist support, a spirited and sometimes saucy personality, and canny political skills.” 

THE CANDIDATE

Ferraro was born in Newburgh, N.Y., in 1935. Her single mother was a determined Italian immigrant who earned money to send her daughter to good schools by crocheting beads on wedding dresses. 

The child excelled early, skipping sixth through eighth grades and earning a scholarship to Marymount Manhattan College at 16. After her 1956 graduation, she taught elementary school in New York City’s public schools. But she sought more: Although female attorneys were rare, she took night classes at Fordham University and earned her law degree in 1960. She married real estate broker John Zaccaro a week later. Working at his law firm part time while raising three children, she spent time with the family at a vacation home in the tiny Village of Saltaire on Fire Island.

In 1974 Ferraro was hired by her cousin, then-Queens District Attorney Nicholas Ferrarro, as an assistant district attorney, then transferred to the new Special Victims Bureau investigating sex crimes and child abuse; she earned praise for tenacity and talent in the courtroom, but found the work draining. Citing unequal pay at the district attorney’s office, she left in 1978 to explore politics: the 9th Congressional District.

Running on a successful platform emphasizing her Italian background, increased law and order, supporting the elderly, and neighborhood preservation, “Gerry” Ferraro became the first Congresswoman from Queens and was re-elected twice. She was seen as the new face of feminism who used her own last name professionally. “Her subsequent rise to prominence helped popularize the use of ‘Ms.’ as a title,” wrote cityandstateny.com.

As another first, in 1984, Ferraro was the first woman to chair the Democratic Party Platform Committee. The headlines exploded when Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale picked her as his running mate against incumbent Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Mondale later wrote, “I thought that putting a woman on a major-party ticket would change American expectations, permanently and for the better.” At the time, Ferraro said, “If a woman can be vice president of the U.S., what job is there that a woman cannot do?”

Ferraro’s plain-talking, visionary acceptance speech is remembered as one of history’s finest political speeches, laying out what she stood for: pro-labor, reproductive rights, social support systems for the elderly. 

She said, “It isn’t right that every year, the share of taxes paid by individual citizens is going up, while the share paid by large corporations is getting smaller and smaller,” and “It isn’t right that a woman should get paid 59 cents on the dollar for the same work as a man,” … “by the year 2000 nearly all of the poor people in America will be women and children.”

SURVIVING SCANDAL

Her candidacy was derailed three weeks after that speech by accusations against her husband. 

The accusers’ ammunition fueled attacks tying him to organized crime, tax evasion, illegal loans, building violations and more, all exacerbated by his delay in releasing his income tax returns. Some blamed anti-Italian-American sentiment; then-Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee later told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t think the press…would have put that kind of energy into it if we’d been talking about somebody called ‘Jenkins.’”

While most of the allegations were unfounded, the party’s damage control machine failed to polish her tarnished reputation. President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush won in a landslide.  

After that, Ferraro ran for the Senate twice but won neither race. She was appointed U.S.ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission by President Bill Clinton and campaigned for Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. She co-hosted CNN’s political talk show Crossfire for two years.

She and her husband were married for 50 years. She died of cancer at 75 in 2011, five years before their son John Zaccaro Jr. was elected mayor of Saltaire in 2016, a position he still holds.

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White Christmas Composer Irving Berlin’s Time at Camp Upton

Berlin at piano 1938 with Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, and Don Ameche.

Nothing conveys holiday sentiment like the wistful White Christmas and its longing for the perfect holiday setting. Crooner Bing Crosby’s 1942 recording of the classic wartime ballad is the world’s best-selling single and has sold more than 50 million copies.

But 22 years before Irving Berlin wrote it, he was a U.S. Army GI stuck on KP peeling potatoes at the remote Camp Upton in Yaphank in eastern Long Island. It was there, 100 miles from his beloved, bustling Manhattan, that the immigrant made the best of a sad situation — as he often did — by writing and performing songs.

OH, HOW I HATE TO GET UP IN THE MORNING

He was already a successful legendary lyric and melody writer by the time he turned 30 in 1918. Wanting to serve his country, he became a naturalized citizen and was drafted three months later. He wound up in boot camp surrounded by potato fields with other recruits who would likely be sent to France to fight. Aside from being away from home and family, what he hated most was getting jolted out of sleep by the early morning bugle.

World War I was in its fourth year. His commander tapped Berlin’s musical talent to give the fellas a morale booster and raise money for a community house for visitors. Berlin struck a deal: He would write songs for a show if he could sleep through reveille. The dreaded bugle inspired one of the songs, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” and in three months Berlin wrote and produced Yip, Yip, Yaphank. Subtitled “a military mess cooked up by the boys at Camp Upton,” the show dressed enlisted men as hairy-chested chorus girls, in a parody of Broadway’s lavish hit, The Ziegfeld Follies.

Berlin was adept at using music to entertain and put food on the table. When Isadore (“Izzy”) Berlin was just 5, his family had fled the persecution of Jews by the Russians and come to America from Siberia in 1893. When he was 13, his father died, so Berlin left school to earn money for the Lower East Side family of eight, working as a street busker singing for pennies and a singing waiter in a café in Chinatown.     

GOD BLESS AMERICA

At Camp Upton, Berlin wrote God Bless America. His mother, despite the family’s poverty, had often praised the country that sheltered her family of refugees, declaring, “God bless America.” But Berlin thought the song was too solemn for a comedy, and put it away in a trunk.

He continued composing nonstop, by ear, employing a transcriber to write down melodies because he had never learned to read or write music. He would write some 1,500 songs, many of them patriotic and mindful of fascism in Europe, which was escalating especially during the Great Depression starting in 1929. Wanting to write a song about peace, he revised the unpublished God Bless America in 1938. 

His daughter Mary Ellin Barrett later said that her father meant every word: “He, the immigrant who had made good, was saying thank you.” A refugee’s grateful song to his adopted country, penned at a desolate military installation, became an unabashedly proud, timeless unofficial national anthem.

“MAY ALL YOUR CHRISTMASES BE WHITE”

In 1940 Berlin composed White Christmas. The holiday brought mixed feelings: Being Jewish, he didn’t celebrate Christmas; his infant son had died from crib death on Christmas Day 1928, and each December 25, he and his wife visited the grave. So what some called the most wonderful time of the year often brought sadness.

As to the song’s origin, some say he wrote the melody in 1938, then shelved it until Paramount Pictures signed him to write the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. Others said he longed for a wintry setting while at Southern California’s La Quinta Hotel — or at the Arizona Biltmore. No, he was in Los Angeles, some maintain, with Tinseltown people lounging poolside, showing a false veneer of nostalgia. 

All these speculations would explain his rarely heard verse about palm trees: “The sun is shining/The grass is green/The orange and palm trees sway/There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A./But it’s December the twenty-fourth/And I am longing to be up North.”

Bing Crosby premiered the song on his NBC radio show The Kraft Music Hall on Christmas Day, 1941, 18 days after the Pearl Harbor attack and the U.S. entry in World War II. The war song that wasn’t about wars, but about peace, became a runaway hit, to its composer’s surprise, and inspired him to suggest a 1954 film based on the song.

Berlin told the Jamaica (Long Island) Press in September 1954, “Much as I’d like to take a bow and say I anticipated its future success, I must admit I didn’t.”

Irving Berlin died at age 101 in Manhattan in 1989.

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The Story of Long Island’s True First Thanksgiving

first thanksgiving
Weekes’ diary, courtesy of Raynham Hall Museum Director of Education Claire Bellerjeau

The history books have always told us how the first official recognition of a national Thanksgiving holiday came about. 

On Oct. 3, 1789, in New York City at Congress’s request, President George Washington issued the first formal proclamation of Thanksgiving in the United States, “President Washington’s National Thanksgiving Proclamation.” Henceforth, he said, the country would celebrate an annual day of public gratitude. 

Not so fast, George: An Oyster Bay schoolmaster living on Long Island’s North Shore beat you to it. Thanks to Zachariah Weekes’ 18th century diary entry and a local historian’s modern-day sleuthing, we now know that New Yorkers’ first annual observance actually took place in 1759 — 30 years before the president’s proclamation, before there even was an American president or a United States. 

THE PROOF IS IN THE PUBLISHING

The discovery in November 2018 of the faded, ink-stained pages was a major find for Claire Bellerjeau, director of education at the Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay. The entry in the sheepskin diary she discovered in the museum’s archives was written by hand in the flowing, ornate cursive of the day, dated Sunday, Nov. 25, 1759, and is the earliest known mention of Thanksgiving in the state. 

At a time when there was no standardization of holiday dates, Weekes wrote that the first Thanksgiving took place several days earlier, on Nov. 22, as proclaimed by New York State’s acting Governor James DeLancey: “…Last Thursday being a day set apart by our Governor for publick Thanksgiving for the Success of his Majesties Forces in America …” 

Who was Zachariah Weekes? He was Oyster Bay’s schoolmaster for 14 years. He took lodging in the Underhill house between Cove Road and Tiffany Road, and was a keen observer of life around him in Oyster Bay in Queens County, before Nassau County was created. He wrote about the busy maritime activity, the likelihood of smallpox spreading, the Seven Years’ War between the British and the French, religion, and the church.

And he wrote about his students and their prominent LI families —  the Townsends, Underhills, Youngs, McCouns, and more — who paid for their children’s tuition in goods including hardware, food, clothing, and, of course, “oisters,” rather than in coin.  

Weekes’ diary was never published, but there was other evidence — published proof — of the date he specified, according to Bellerjeau.  

 “I did find a corresponding record for the Nov, 22, 1759 Thanksgiving date,” she said, referring to an advertisement published on Nov. 26, 1759 in the newspaper The New York-Mercury. “Sadly, it is a runaway slave ad.”

ON THE MENU

Why was it important for the British colony of New York, an independent state, to set aside an official date? Colonists needed a morale booster, a respite from news of the ongoing Seven Years’ War. When the news that Quebec had fallen reached New York City, it was seen as one of the great victories of the conflict, giving the colonists reason to celebrate.

The settlers of all 13 colonies, including New York, were also enjoying a robust economy, so an official holiday gave them the chance to give thanks. One observer wrote that by the 1770s, the general standard of living in the colonies was the highest in the world.

A 2018 Newsday article reported on how the Universal Gazeteer, published in Dublin, described the Long Island of 1759: “The island principally produces British and Indian corn, beef, pork, fish, etc., which they send to the sugar colonies,…they also have a whale fishery, sending the oil and bone to England, in exchange for cloths and furniture. Their other fisheries here are very considerable.’’ 

Those fisheries provided different types of seafood that were likely on the menu at the 1759 feast, along with fruit from local apple orchards, and, of course, oysters. The observance also included a special sermon given by a minister. 

HISTORIANS’ NIGHTMARE

While Weekes’ diary has survived as the earliest known mention of Thanksgiving in New York State, so many proclamations of a so-called “official” holiday were issued — throughout the nation as well as in New York State — that they could confuse even the nosiest historian. History buffs who have gone sniffing around undisturbed, dusty archive drawers have found enough to keep them awake at night. Starting in October 1621 with the Pilgrims’ three-day feast in Plymouth, Mass., multiple proclamations were made. Between 1623 and 1775, at least six Thanksgiving holiday observances were proclaimed in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and other colonies.

After Weekes died in 1772, his family deeded his documents to the museum, which gave history detectives the proof they needed to rewrite history.

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The Legend of The Red Owl: An Uneasy Spirit’s Flight Over Brentwood

L.: “The Guardian Angel” by Armando Mariño, glass mural at the MTA Brentwood station, inspired by the legend. R.: Charles A. Codman, 1911. (Photo from the Collection of the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead)

It was a wild, stormy night. The evergreen boughs, loaded with ice, swayed heavily in the wind, sighing and moaning as they scraped against the house.

In the deep, despairing darkness, many may have been suffering. Some might even have perished, wretched on the treacherous coast, frozen in the rigging, or drowned in the surf pounding with a deep roar on the shores of the Island. 

The wind howled as the clock struck midnight. The night promised to be rough. 

These words paraphrase Charles A. Codman’s 1877 tale, a fable about a great uneasy wandering human spirit that swooped through the storm into Codman’s Brentwood house in the form of an owl — an owl that spoke and told a tale of woe.

EXPERIMENTAL SOCIETY

The place Codman called home was not your typical suburb. Originally created as Thompson Station and Suffolk Station in 1844 as new Long Island Rail Road stations, its character radically shifted in 1851, when it became a utopian village named Modern Times. It was one of many social experiments throughout the country that prized individual liberty and the absence of greed, the only such society on LI, and the first community to be built by the railroad tracks. Residents planted fruit trees along the roads to feed travelers and successfully cultivated the Pine Barrens, formerly perceived as an agricultural wasteland. Everyone enjoyed freedom of expression, food, and shelter, and there were no jails, judges, or taxes.

Codman became a resident in 1857 when Modern Times was at its peak and worked as a paper boxmaker, sign maker, and cabinetmaker; later, he was described as a bookkeeper and booklover because of his large book collection, as well as a painter and hermit. He was active in community improvements and served as a school board trustee. He was so well regarded that Brentwood named a street after him. Living in the pine-surrounded house he and his wife built on the northeast corner of Second Avenue and Brentwood Road, he saw Modern Times fail and be incorporated as Brentwood in 1864.

In 1877, he composed his occult fantasy, The Legend of the Red Owl.

SPIRIT RESCUE

The legend he imagined tells how he went to shut a window against the elements and saw two red eyes peering at him through the gloom. It was a red owl, perched on a nearby branch. To his astonishment, the bird spoke, asking him to be kind. 

Codman replied, “I rejoice in the equal freedom for others, each according to his kind, free and fair, and this includes birds of the air.” 

The bird fluttered its wings and flew to Codman’s extended hand. It told him it was not a bird, but the condemned, restless spirit of a slain Native American chief.

“Listen! Three thousand moons ago I was like thee in the flesh — a living man, chief of my tribe — Oriwos, by name, the terror of the Quinnebough….I ruled this Island when the white man landed, and him I did befriend, till slain in mortal combat when my braves fled hard pressed before the victorious Mohawks, who were as the leaves of the forest. I fell in yonder ravine, the last of my race, and there my bones remain unburied to this day, bleaching in the summer sun and mouldering in the winter storms.” 

Codman asked how the chief died and the owl answered, “I was slaughtered like any dog, paleface. I would have done the same by him, had I the victor been. But woe is me — there my bones unburied lie and, until they are in the bosom of the earth entombed, so long must I wander an uneasy spirit.”

The owl told Codman to bury its bones and hide its mortal remains from the sunlight, and flew away. The next day, Codman “reverently gathered the remaining fragments and gave them decent sepulcher, bestrewing the grave with needles of the pine to make all decent there,” he wrote.

Three days later, the owl returned in the glimmer of the gloaming and said, “Thou hast done well and from henceforth I will be thy friend, will shield thee from adversity and make thee respected of men. I will be thy guardian angel and providence. Hang thee my picture on the wall that thou might cherish my memory. I bestow my name on thy wigwam. It shall be known forever — for all time — as — “The Hermitage of The Red Owl!”

Codman ended his tale saying, “The spirit vanished, and since that hour all has been well with me.” He died in 1911 and is buried in Brentwood Cemetery. 

Related Story: Where Brentwood Is Today Once Stood Long Island’s Own Utopia

For more Rear View columns on Long Island history, visit longislandpress.com/category/past-present/rear-view

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