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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.

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

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Suzie Brunner: A Courageous Carrier

Suzie Brunner was the first woman to deliver mail on what would become the Gold Coast.

Nothing could stop her — not snow, not rain, not wild animals nor robbers nor deserted dirt roads in the dead of night. She defended herself with a gun and thrashed thieves with her buggy whip.

As one of only two women in the country who carried the U.S. mail, Susanna (“Suzie”) A. Brunner was the first woman on Long Island’s North Shore in New York to be entrusted with the Port Washington-Great Neck route in the 1880s. Guiding the reins of the horse she named “William J. Tilden,” the tough daughter of immigrant German parents known as “a devil of a mail carrier” got the job done. 

One has to wonder: Were she alive today, would she let politics, or prejudice, or the actions of any human decimate her postal power and sabotage her appointed rounds? Or would she just load up the buggy with precious cargo and keep on riding?

NO SHRINKING VIOLET

The gun-toting young woman chose a career that followed in the carriage tracks of women who, since before the Revolutionary War, had delivered the mail. They were popularly called “postmistresses” but the proper term is “postmasters,” according to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, because, as one female postmaster put it, they were “not to be known as ‘any man’s mistress!’”

Brunner was born on Dodge’s Island (renamed O’Gorman’s Island then Manhasset Isle) in 1858. Her family moved when she was 1 year old to the Samuel Dodge House at One Sandy Hollow Road on the Cow Neck Peninsula, as Port Washington was then called, to a house she would live in until her death in 1933; the house still stands today. 

As a young woman in her early 20s, she set out to be a letter carrier with a horse she had broken to harness herself. She knew that the mail must go through, rain or shine — a dictate that sometimes meant digging Mr. Tilden out of snowdrifts. 

The job was physically draining and fraught with danger, but she faithfully worked at her routes from 1881 to 1885. Keeping regular schedules throughout Queens County — before there was a Nassau County — carriers were often targeted by thieves and other attackers, like one drunken, out-of-control photographer that crossed her path. After disappearing for a day, he was found with blackened eyes and body bruises, and died several days later. Legend has it that Brunner told a reporter that the previous day she had beaten him with the butt of her whip in his face and eyes because of his bad conduct while intoxicated. Others believed that the man died of alcohol withdrawal.

DOING A MAN’S JOB

After retiring from her route, she lived a well-rounded life and was respected in the community. When not working on her family’s farm, she and Mr. Tilden plowed others’ fields. She worked as a public school janitor and opened a store that catered to children walking to or from school, according to an account by Ross Lumpkin, a trustee at the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society. “Aunt Suzie,” as the locals called her, always wore an apron, even when she went to church. 

After her father died, she became what one observer called “the man of the family.” Sensing the town’s rising prosperity, she purchased three properties around Sandy Hollow Road as well as the old schoolhouse, which she moved across the street.  

Cow Neck was moving into the modern world: In 1898, it was renamed Port Washington, which became part of the newly established Nassau County. The same year, the Long Island Rail Road extended its Great Neck line to Manhasset and Port Washington by building a train trestle viaduct over the marshes at the southern end of Manhasset Bay. The first electric trolley line opened in 1908, carrying passengers from the Manhasset Bay Yacht Club to Roslyn.   

THE MAIL MUST GO THROUGH

Despite the nation’s growth, there were still many not-so-modern beliefs, including the conviction many people had that a woman should not be doing a man’s job. In 1908 the Washington Post reported that when the civil service proposed allowing women to take the clerk-carrier exam in Alexandria, Virginia, the entire masculine population stood in the streets and denounced the proposal. One Col. Yancey shouted, “Lives there a man with a soul so dead that he would permit his mail to be carried by a female mail carrier?”

Still, although women were popularly regarded as delicate and fragile, the ones who carried mail were seen as larger-than-life legends, as prejudice began to give way to acceptance: By 1902, about 25 women worked as rural mail carriers throughout the country, and in 2019, nearly 37 percent of the country’s postal service mail carriers were women.

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The Duke of Windsor’s Royal Summer on Long Island

L.: This majestic French Normandy brick manor home that was formerly the summer retreat of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is listed for sale at 11 Horse Hollow Rd. in Locust Valley. R.: The Duke of Windsor with his wife, Bessie Wallis Simpson.

He was a wannabe surfer and jazz drummer who personified the Roaring ‘20s, a decadent playboy partying at luxurious Long Island mansions. And this charismatic, fashionable 30-year-old who danced all night and played polo all day was the future King of England. 

The blue blood said, “America meant to me a country in which nothing is impossible,” embracing all things American — especially women. But one woman tamped down his promiscuity: a divorced American socialite he met in 1931 in London. His affair with seductive Bessie Wallis Simpson generated headlines, especially after he became king. 

King Edward VIII, formerly the Prince of Wales, abdicated to marry “the woman I love,” he said. Their marriage and globetrotting were scrutinized, especially as rumors swirled about anti-Semitic, Nazi sympathizer leanings. 

Today, their story may seem tame. But the myths and truths about the disgraced king — Prince Harry’s great-granduncle — are still news: Their summer retreat on the Island’s North Shore in New York is on the market for $5.9 million.

JAZZ COWBOY

If the LI mansions’ walls could speak, they would spill the salacious secrets of the over-the-top galas honoring the prince. Throughout the 1920s he hobnobbed with the North Shore elite at William R. Grace’s Crossroads estate at Old Westbury: home base was Woodside, iron magnate James Abercrombie Burden’s Syosset country estate. 

“One shindig featured a ballroom on a 600-acre estate with thousands of roses and hundreds of tables with lobsters piled several feet high. Another banquet at the exclusive Piping Rock Club [in Locust Valley] had Will Rogers roasting the prince about his late-night shenanigans and his uninspiring polo playing,” wrote the New York Post’s Braden Keil.

Enamored of the American West, Edward cultivated a friendship with Rogers, bought a horse ranch, learned to lasso, and wished to be a cowboy, far from the stultifying dictates of the family he claimed to despise.

And he loved surfing, which he mastered while visiting Hawaii, and jazz, whether sitting in with Duke Ellington’s orchestra or the Rivers Chambers society quartet in Baltimore (he told the bandleader, “I can play the drums a little”).

WOOING WALLIS, HEILING HITLER

The prince gave up his womanizing after falling in love with Simpson; by 1934 they were lovers. He looked away from the raw ambition others saw, did not hear them whispering that she was an opportunistic ladder climber yearning to be queen. But that title was beyond reach: The monarchy shunned her because she was still married to her second husband.  

After his father died, the prince became king in January 1936; in December of that year he abdicated. He wed Simpson in June 1937 in France, after her divorce became final; he was 41, she was 39. Royals were forbidden to attend, no wedding pictures were shown in Britain, and his name was seldom mentioned among his family. He was demoted and named the Duke of Windsor.

As if the abdication-marriage scandal were not enough, he allegedly supported fascist ideology, which valued nation and often race above the individual and supported a dictator-led autocratic government. When the newlyweds honeymooned on the Venice Simplon-Orient express, fascists showered them with flowers. Photos from 1937 show the couple at German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat, all smiles; the duke reportedly gave Hitler the Nazi fascist salute.

In 1939 England declared war of Nazi Germany. The ex-monarch was appointed governor of the Bahamas in 1940, to keep him away from the front. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor stayed there until 1945, then settled in France, exiles entertaining Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich, and other celebrities. 

EXILED FROM ENGLAND

The socialites traveled frequently to America, often as guests of American presidents including Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. The couple summered in 1948 at Severn, the French Normandy estate at 11 Horse Hollow Road in Lattingtown, surrounded by four acres of climbing roses, walled gardens, and specimen trees, just steps from the exclusive Creek Club.

In 1957, documents allegedly hidden by the British monarchy surfaced, revealing the Nazi dalliances. Pulitzer Prize winner Russell Baker discounted their validity, writing in The New York Times, “…whether they were merely … cocktail party gossip is impossible to tell from the diplomatic reports.” Celebrity biographer Andrew Morton wrote that the prince “thought Hitler was a good fellow and that he’d done a good job in Germany, and he was also anti-Semitic, before, during and after the war.”

History has judged the duke, as Emily Gaudette wrote in Newsweek: … “It feels especially hollow to remember that he simply lived out his life of luxury in France, socially ostracized but not tried for treason.”

After his death from throat cancer in Paris in 1872, Queen Elizabeth II invited his widow to stay at Buckingham Palace.

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