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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.

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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How Clara Driscoll Illuminated The Glass Ceiling

Clara Driscoll at her Tiffany Studios workroom with chief assistant Joseph Briggs 1901. (The NewYork Historical Society)

Today, exquisite, instantly recognizable Tiffany lamps and other stained-glass art nouveau masterpieces fetch hundreds of thousands at auction. Louis Comfort Tiffany originally claimed credit, but many works were actually created by female artists led by head designer Clara Driscoll.

She was one of the few employees invited to Tiffany’s sumptuous Laurel Hollow estate on Long Island, Laurelton Hall. He was particular about the pieces produced for Tiffany Studios, hiring only the most talented artisans. Why did Clara Driscoll become his foremost artist?

A 2,000-PIECE LAMP

Born in Tallmadge, Ohio in 1861, Driscoll was raised by her widowed single mother who defied popular thinking and encouraged her daughter to move to New York to enroll at the Metropolitan Museum of Art School, at a time when women working outside the home was frowned on. Her artistry became evident by 1888, when she was hired by the Tiffany factory in Corona, Queens.  

Tiffany, the son of famed jeweler Charles Lewis Tiffany, was a nomadic painter who devised glass formulas. From his renderings of outdoor scenery, he designed bronzes, enamels, ceramics, and jewelry — but it was through stained-glass pieces for his decorating business that his true vision shone.  

In 1892, Driscoll was named supervisor of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department, known as the “Tiffany Girls.” For the first time, women were allowed to cut out patterns and select glass for windows and mosaics; by 1897, about 40 of the most skilled female artisans were creating meticulous preparatory drawings known as cartoons. There was constant turnover, because the department would not employ married women.

Proud of her work, Driscoll wrote in an 1899 letter to her family, “There are three hundred square feet of small pieces of glass to be accomplished. There is nothing like having enough work to do and feeling able to do so.” That year, Tiffany sold the first electric lamp with a stained-glass base and shade. The lamps became coveted collectors’ items.

It was the women artists’ idea to make lamp shades from pieces of glass left over from window manufacturing. In 1900, Tiffany Studios’ Dragonfly lampshade, Driscoll’s design, earned a bronze medal at the Paris world’s fair. But in company literature, Tiffany credited only himself.

We know this because surviving along with painterly glass artifacts are thousands of Driscoll’s letters detailing her creations and those of her staff. The letters discovered in the early 2000s at the Queens Historical Society described Driscoll’s Gilded Age life: She lived in a Manhattan boarding house, rode her bicycle, and shopped at Lord & Taylor and Wanamaker’s, as electricity lit the city and the new subway rumbled underground. Her letters also contained sketches, designs for which she would not get credit, including the magnificent 2,000-piece Wisteria Lamp inspired by the lush lavender-hued plants cascading atop the pergola at Tiffany’s Long Island estate.

LONG ISLAND SHANGRI-LA

Echoing the pervasive belief of the art nouveau period, Tiffany said that women possessed a “natural decorative taste” and “keen perception of color.” He encouraged Driscoll’s creativity and sought her collaboration. During her 20 years in Tiffany’s employ, she was given more responsibility, an increased budget, considerable artistic freedom — and invitations to his palatial estate on the site of the once-popular Laurelton Hotel resort. On one visit, she was summoned to Tiffany’s bedside while he was ill to discuss the house’s Four Seasons window. She wrote in March 1906 of wearing her “fine new dress” to Sunday dinner at Laurelton.

And what an estate Laurelton was. Tiffany’s vision of Xanadu incorporated Turkish, Moorish, and Persian design throughout the eight-level, 84-room house on 580 acres overlooking Cold Spring Harbor. Stately peacocks roamed the terraced gardens near a chapel, stables, art gallery, studio, conservatories, greenhouses, museum, and railway station. Inspiration abounded for Driscoll amid woodlands, apple orchards, and wildflowers. Inside, calla lilies and floating lotuses (a co-worker called them “part of the exotic, garish decor”) graced an octagonal stone pool; rotating watercolor-hued lights illuminated tall iridescent Favrile glass vase fountains; a leaded-glass dome cast an amethyst hue upon the court; and so on.

GLASS OUTLIVES SILK

Driscoll made Tiffany famous by designing inkwells, tea screens, mosaic desk sets, and at least 30 lamps, and most likely originated the concept of kerosene- and electric-powered lamps of leaded glass.

After marrying and leaving Tiffany Studios in 1909, she turned to designing hand-painted gossamer silk scarves; none survived. Many Tiffany windows are still intact, illuminating several Long Island churches. He died in 1933 and she in 1944, before Laurelton Hall was largely destroyed by fire in 1957, when firefighters battling the blaze had to smash its stained-glass windows.

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John Cassavetes: The Father of Indie Films

John Cassavetes graduated from Port Washington High School.

Every class has one, that kid who’s full of quick, attention-getting wit. In 1947, Port Washington High School’s senior class had its own, immortalized in the yearbook as the “class wit,” who was “always ready with a wisecrack.” 

John Cassavetes got away with the brash behavior because of his talent. Ever the daredevil, he played “chicken” on Port Washington’s sand-pit cliffs and turned over cars. He also starred in school plays and earned top honors in the Red Domino drama tournament. He played sports and wrote for the school paper, The Port Weekly (later called the Schreiber Times), and the school yearbook.

Fueled by lone-wolf energy, as an adult the maverick actor-director-screenwriter acted in more than 80 projects, directed nine episodes of television and 12 feature films, and was nominated for three Academy Awards for acting, writing, and directing. The New Yorker Magazine called him “maybe the most influential American director of the last half century.”

Cassavetes said others saw him as a rebel and something of a rowdy. Where did all that passionate independence come from?

QUINTESSENTIAL OUTSIDER

The son of Greek immigrants, John Nicholas Cassavetes was born in New York City in December 1929 and was raised in Brooklyn and Queens. The family moved often before settling on Oakland Avenue, Port Washington, on Long Island’s North Shore. Struggling through the Depression era, they minimized their poverty. As Ray Carney wrote in his 2001 biography, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, it was a “household swimming with exalted and passionately held historical and political ideals.” At age 5, Cassavetes recited poetry and performed, and at 9, he shot 8-millimeter films with a Bolex camera, foreshadowing his destiny.  

Cassavetes the teenager was nagged by “feelings of oppression at the narrowness and conformity of American culture,” wrote Carney. Disinterested, feeling out of place in his upper-middle-class neighborhood, Cassavetes later said, “I was free to…express myself the way I wanted to, while the other kids were what their families wanted them to be.”

After graduating, he drifted, caroused with women, and was kicked out of college. By the time he was 19, the self-described dilettante said he feared work because “All I’d ever done was play basketball and run out with girls.” Then he heard that the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at Carnegie Hall was packed with girls. His father reacted to his plan to study acting saying, “You are going to be representing the lives of human beings. You will speak for all the people who have no voice.” 

After graduating in 1950, he went door to door, hitting 50 places a day, seeking work or an agent. He chained himself to a radiator at CBS television begging for a walk-on in You Are There; one theater manager called him “very intelligent but a full-of-energy wacko.” After landing his first film role in 1953 (Taxi), he acted in live TV productions and taught Method Acting. He also met and married actress Gena Rowlands. 

But he yearned to direct — without selling “himself and his art to that Satan known as Hollywood,” wrote The New York Times’  Manohla Dargis. 

EARLY KICKSTARTER

In 1959, he released Shadows, his low-budget directorial debut, shot on weekends for nearly three years. He had appeared on Jean Shepherd’s Night People radio program, which celebrated guerrilla (or street) theater, to peddle an unheard-of concept in a pre-Kickstarter era. Cassavetes asked, “Wouldn’t it be terrific if [ordinary] people could make movies, instead of all these Hollywood bigwigs who are only interested in business and how much the picture was going to gross and everything?” 

Money poured in; though he accepted only $5 per listener, the contributions financed the shoestring production, and the American independent film movement was born. Shot on rented and borrowed equipment with a handheld camera and natural lighting, the semi-improvised 16-millimeter cinema verité film dug into the aimlessness and wandering of the beat generation. It cost around $40,000, funded by Cassavetes’ acting earnings and radio listeners. 

Continuing to rail against the constraints of Hollywood and the television networks, he made more low-budget indie films, often starring Rowlands, including 1968’s Oscar-nominated Faces. He allowed a young, uncredited production assistant, Steven Spielberg, the opportunity to direct for a day on Faces. 

In the 1970s Cassavetes revisited Port landmarks and his childhood street to shoot Husbands, starring Rowlands and friends Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. Cassavetes acted in studio films, including blockbuster Rosemary’s Baby, mainly to fund his creations, casting family members as leads and using friends’ homes for locations.

The outsider who is still remembered as the father of independent cinema died at age 59 in Los Angeles of cirrhosis of the liver in 1989.

Related Story: Remembering Diahann Carroll, A Trailblazing Mother

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Remembering Diahann Carroll, A Trailblazing Mother

Diahann Carroll with her TV son, played by actor Marc Copage.

When Diahann Carroll died of complications of breast cancer in October 2019, many mourned for the first African American woman to lead an American TV series. She broke long-standing barriers playing a professional woman and single mother in the award-winning late 1960s TV sitcom Julia. 

In reality, she was also a single working mother, to her daughter Suzanne. But she augmented that role by becoming a mother figure for actor Mark Copage, who played her TV son. For years, he thought of her as the only mother he had ever known. 

Before Julia, Carroll was a singer, Broadway star, and advocate for breast cancer research and treatment. In the summer of 1967, she juggled these roles — plus recording an album and performing nightclub dates — from Fire Island. 

PEACE IN THE PINES

Earlier that year, The 31-year-old realized that she hadn’t taken a vacation in 12 years. 

She told Newsday, “I’m so uptight, I really need Fire Island.” 

She had gone through a divorce from first husband Monte Kay, and sought a place on the Atlantic Ocean for relaxing with her daughter Suzanne, 6. She found it in the Fire Island Pines, the hamlet where Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Julia Roberts, and other notables could stroll along on the car-less island. 

She rented the so-called “ugliest house on Fire Island,” previously rented by movie star Montgomery Clift before his death in 1966. She became the hamlet’s most photographed celebrity, and was praised for her community involvement. She vowed to build a home there, to “have a vacation every year from now on,” adding, “Have you ever seen me so relaxed in the city? Never.”

There, she had time to reflect on life’s challenges and her achievements. She was born Carol Diann Johnson in 1935 in the Bronx, to parents who struggled financially and abandoned her when she was 18 months old. They left her with her aunt in North Carolina for more than a year while they built a better life in New York’s Harlem. 

Carroll started singing with a Harlem church choir when she was 6 years old and later attended  New York’s High School of Music and Art. By age 19 she was acting in films and on Broadway; five years later the elegant beauty was appearing on Jack Paar’s and Steve Allen’s late-night television shows. In 1962 she won a best actress Tony award for the role created for her by revered composer Richard Rodgers in the musical No Strings

Diahann Carroll

SHATTERING THE RACIAL CEILING

She personified the new black woman. But her success was an entertainment industry rarity. She described herself as “living proof of the horror of discrimination” in late 1962, testifying before a congressional hearing on racism. “In eight years I’ve had just two Broadway plays and two dramatic television shows.”

The civil rights movement was gaining momentum. While in No Strings, Carroll had received anonymous death threats. The Ku Klux Klan threatened the cast and crew of the 1966 film Hurry Sundown, in which she costarred. The movie was the first to film in the South with an integrated cast and crew, infuriating some locals. They slashed tires. Someone set a cross on fire on the set late at night. 

In 1968, Julia aired the first episode of its three-year run on NBC. The premise generated controversy as America was ripped apart by the Vietnam War, riots, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. Julia was condemned for “glossing over the stark realities of life that black Americans faced daily,” wrote The New York Times. But, the paper’s critic Jack Gould added, “At all events the breaking of the color line in TV stardom on a regular weekly basis should be salutary.”

MOTHERING

After her Golden Globe award-winning turn in Julia, Carroll was nominated for an Oscar for the 1974 film Claudine, appeared on TV, and resumed her role as a glamorous chanteuse; three presidents invited her to White House receptions. 

She remained close to Mark Copage, who played her television son from age 5 to 8. Because he had no real mother to turn to — his mother left when he was a toddler — he saw Carroll as his real-life mother. Perhaps she became a motherly figure to him because of her own childhood abandonment.

Shortly after Carroll’s 2019 death, Copage wrote in a New York Times piece: “Carroll taught me to always be punctual and a person of my word, as she was …. She would let me know if I started to get a little too pudgy.

”I’ve always wondered if my real mother knew I was on a groundbreaking television show where an actress played the role my real mother didn’t want. For three wonderful years, I was lucky that Diahann did.”

Related Story: Runaway Flu: Could A Century-old Enemy Return?

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How The 1892 Cholera Pandemic Led To A Showdown At The Surf Hotel on Fire Island

A mob of Long Islanders trying to stop the S.S. Normannia from quarantining Europeans on Fire Island during a cholera outbreak was the cover of the Sept. 24, 1892 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

The deadly disease originated in Asia, roared through Eastern Europe, and killed nearly half of those affected. But officials downplayed the danger and the voracious germ shadowed everyone, rich or poor. Still, people kept traveling.

This isn’t yet another rehash of the early stages of the novel coronavirus in China and how world governments handled — or mishandled — what rapidly became a pandemic. It’s the older story of how travelers, including immigrants bursting with hope for new lives, boarded steamships bound for New York City in 1892 but fell ill en route and died. 

The cause: the bacterial pandemic cholera. As panic overtook compassion, armed Long Island residents and baymen stormed Fire Island’s Surf Hotel to block the passengers’ death ship from docking.

SILENT STOWAWAY

In late August 1892, five ships sailing from Hamburg, Germany were part of America’s great immigration wave between 1880 and 1930 — more than 27 million people. Seeking work, fleeing famine and religious oppression, they were desperate to escape Europe’s fifth cholera pandemic. 

Many of the immigrants on those ships were crammed into overcrowded lower-class steerage, while Americans and others luxuriated in upper-class cabins. But none of them realized that a highly infectious silent stowaway was sharing their quarters. During the journey, passengers showed symptoms — watery diarrhea, vomiting, and low blood pressure — caused by the Vibrio cholerae bacterium found in water contaminated with feces. 

There was no treatment and no cure for the scourge that thrived on overcrowding, poverty, and inadequate sanitation facilities. Like today’s coronavirus pandemic that stranded infected cruise ships at sea, cholera left 19th-century steamships anchored off coasts, denying them entry to port, or forced them to dock with afflicted passengers aboard.  

When New Yorkers learned that five steerage and first-class passengers had died aboard the disease-ridden Normannia which planned to dock on Sept. 3, they panicked. Public health officials knew that those with symptoms needed isolation, so they moved afflicted passengers —  mostly steerage immigrants — to Lower New York Bay’s Swinburne Island’s hospital tents.

The people with no symptoms, mostly the wealthy, were to be quarantined on board for 20 days. But when several of the ship’s steam-boiler stokers contracted cholera, the wealthy cabin passengers rejected quarantine on the pest ship. The solution? Move them into a once-grand, sprawling Fire Island hotel.

The 500-room hotel was originally opened in 1858 in Kismet by New York City hotelier David S.S. Sammis, hosting the rich and famous and their yachts during the Gilded Age, but within three decades it had deteriorated. Its isolated location convinced officials to buy it to quarantine healthy passengers. 

New York State Democratic Gov. Roswell P. Flower put down $50,000 of his own money and the hotel was purchased on Sept. 10 for $210,000. The next day, cabin-class passengers were transferred to the pleasure boat the Cepheus. Destination: the Surf Hotel on the South Shore near Islip, just a few hours away.

As journalist Abraham Cahan wrote, “For the rich first-class passengers they bought a hotel, and for the paupers, they put up military tents on a field in which they set up beds.”

NIMBYS REVOLT

The trip took nearly three days, with more than 500 passengers stuck on an overcrowded day boat lacking sleeping quarters and food. What caused the delay?

Fear. Islip residents, dubbed “clam diggers” by the press, worried about cholera’s spread. Baymen feared for their livelihood after standing orders of the Great South Bay’s fish and oysters were cancelled. Supporting its citizens, Islip officials secured a court injunction to block the health department from using Fire Island for quarantine.

But there was more to the uprising than fear of disease. The late 19th century’s mass influx of people who brought in unfamiliar languages, customs, and religions — and competition for jobs — led to widespread distrust of immigrants by native-born Americans, stoking the fires of prejudice against those perceived to be a threat: foreigners. 

Many harbored the belief that immigrants and disease were linked. Correspondent Casper Whitney, on board the Cepheus to chronicle events, expressed what many thought: “Let there be a suspension of immigration,” in the ending of his Harper’s Weekly essay.

Angry, armed with clubs and shotguns, at least 100 fearful citizens and baymen from Islip, Bay Shore, and Babylon crossed the bay in boats. They formed a mob around the hotel pier, shouting “Go back to Europe!” to prevent the quarantine ship from docking. 

On Sept. 13, Gov. Flower dispersed the mob by threatening to dispatch the infantry and naval reserves. A few days later, the injunction against the ship’s landing was dissolved by a higher court ruling: The state’s authority prevailed in matters of public health.

During quarantine at the hotel, two cases of cholera were reported. They turned out not to be cholera, but the hotel never recovered from its ordeal. In 1908, the hurricane-ravaged hotel became the first state park; today it is part of Robert Moses State Park.  

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Frances Benjamin Johnston Showed The World What A Woman Can Do

L.: Frances Benjamin Johnston poses with kids. R.: Frances Benjamin Johnston poses as an independent new woman self-portrait in her studio, surrounded by photographs of men. (Library of Congress)

Before tiny phones made point-and-click photos a no-brainer, a few artists shouldered bulky equipment to demonstrate their skill. But President Theodore Roosevelt was suspicious, even telling his children to run away from anyone approaching them with a camera.

Frances Benjamin Johnston earned his trust and he became the first president to be largely photographed. She photographed his daughter Alice Roosevelt with her pony, as a debutante, and at her wedding, and was allowed to sell portraits of Alice.

Johnston proved that a woman could master photography. She could also write. She could draw. She could paint. She could manage a successful business. She could — and did — write a published article, “What A Woman Can Do With A Camera.” 

And, in 1930, she became the first woman exhibiting photos at the Library of Congress. During her 60 years as a photojournalist and portrait, architectural, and landscape photographer, she focused on Long Island’s famous Gold Coast, South Shore, and East End estates. 

BLAZING TRAILS

Born in 1864, she learned to capture sights that no longer exist except on her film, showing how people beautified land and inhabited structures, from log cabins to classrooms to mansions. 

Much of her drive can be attributed to her politically well-connected parents’ encouragement. Her mother, one writer said, “acted as if equal rights for women were already a fait accompli,” and was a successful Washington, D.C. journalist; her father was head bookkeeper in the Treasury Department. They praised her talent, supporting her art study in Paris in 1884 when she was 20. In 1884, she returned home, determined to support herself as a magazine illustrator and freelance photographer, a female in a male-dominated profession. 

Victorian-era men believed that women could not handle weighty field cameras, afford expensive supplies and assistants, and were less talented. Johnston persevered, becoming the first woman to join the Washington, D.C. camera club. She processed her own glass negatives and in 1892 gained national recognition for mixing magnesium and potash to illuminate Mammoth Cave. She climbed onto boxcars and trucks to get the best shot.

In 1897, The New York Times ran her full-page spread of Mrs. Grover Cleveland and Ladies’ Home Journal published her article encouraging women to support themselves with photography. And yet, by 1898 there were only three women photographers in New York City. As one of the first photojournalists, she shot images to run with her articles. 

In 1909, she had the idea of using electric spotlights to light the inside of New York City’s New Theatre. She developed what she called “color photo-transparencies,” similar to large slides that let light through. In Europe, she learned autochrome, an early color process. Her successful portraiture studio attracted clients such as Mark Twain and dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, and several administrations appointed her White House photographer.

As women campaigned to secure the vote and defy domesticity, she photographed suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony and arranged exhibits by American female artists. She flouted tradition, photographing herself dressed as a man. In 1896, another self-portrait showed her holding a beer stein and smoking a cigarette, skirt hiked up almost to her knees.

She never married, but socialized with other bohemians, traveled unescorted, and showed interest in nudes. She lived and worked with rising photographer Mattie Edwards Hewitt between 1913 and 1917 in New York, Johnston taking most of the photos and Hewitt doing the printing. They documented estates and gardens of the wealthy, such as Cold Spring Harbor’s Burrwood, Roslyn Harbor’s Willowmere, Glen Cove’s Pratt estates, East Hampton’s Grey Gardens, and others.

The letters the two exchanged reveal endearments such as, “Ah, I love you better than ever you know.” Some scholars call these friendly communications, others say they are rooted in physicality, “a clue to a greater, if submerged, lesbian subculture,” writes Bettina Berch in her University of Virginia biography of Johnston.

PRESERVING THE PALACES

In the late 1920s, Johnston documented Southern architecture and gardens, describing the work as having great “urgency.” 

She wrote, “Many places are in a state of great dilapidation, with walls crumbing, roofs falling in, occupied by the poorest of the poor — tenants usually of indifferent owners; or by contrast more completely destroyed by so-called ‘improvements.’” 

Because of her dedication, society can view many antebellum structures that were later razed. She kept exhibiting, publishing books and taking pictures; even into her 80s, she would lie on her back on a hard floor to get the right angle. She fell in love with the South, and moved to New Orleans around 1945; several years later she donated some 20,000 prints, including her photojournalism pieces, to the Library of Congress.

She passed away in 1952 at age 88.

Langston Hughes: Writing Black America

Langston Hughes porch is featured on the Literary Sag Harbor Walking Tour. (Photo by Gordon Parks/1943)

He was drawn to it.

Maybe it was that serene stretch of Havens Beach that beckoned him to cast off the noise of city streets and explore the bay. Perhaps it was the chance to keep company with other creative artists. Or, possibly, it was finding freedom from the still-segregated societies of the East End, New York City, and the Deep South of the 1950s.

Before discovering that safe place, Langston Hughes, the “poet laureate of Harlem,” led the jazz-age Harlem Renaissance. The African American neighborhood’s culture inspired poets, artists, musicians, and intellectuals to celebrate black consciousness in the 1920s and 1930s. Throughout the 1940s, “Hughes, more than any other black poet or writer, recorded faithfully the nuances of black life and its frustrations,” wrote PBS Utah.

By the 1950s, the social activist, novelist, playwright, and journalist — the man whose musical poetry anticipated that of the Beats, Black Arts poets, and rappers — was ready to remove his shoes and feel sand between his toes.

A WELL-TRAVELED BUSBOY

Descended from paternal great-grandmothers who were African American slaves and paternal great-grandfathers who were white slave owners, James Mercer Langston Hughes’ started life in Joplin, Mo., in 1902. Abandoned by his father, the young boy was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother. Hughes later recalled being “unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome … and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books — where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language.”

In Illinois, his grammar school English teacher stressed the importance of poetic rhythm. With only two black students in his class, he was elected class poet because “everyone knows — except us —that all ‘Negroes’ have rhythm,” he remembered wryly. So he started writing poetry. In high school, he read Carl Sandburg’s work, edited the yearbook, wrote for the school paper, and sent his work (unsuccessfully) to magazines.

After graduation, he traveled to Mexico, down Africa’s west coast and to Spain on a freighter, and to Paris, exploring what he called “racial rhythms;” African American publications and Vanity Fair magazine published his poems.

He was influenced by the late Walt Whitman, whom he called “America’s greatest poet.” En route to Africa, in admiration of Whitman’s statements on equality with black slaves, Hughes tossed all his books overboard — except for Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Hughes’ poem I, Too became popular: “I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen …,” He included Whitman poems in his anthology The Poetry of the Negro and recommended that black writers read Whitman.

Back in the states, he pioneered jazz poetry’s simple style and syncopated rhythms backed by jazz combos. While working as a dining room busboy in Washington, D.C., in 1925, he slipped his poem “The Weary Blues” beside the poet Vachel Lindsay’s plate. After reading Hughes’ lines about the bluesman — “With his ebony hands on each ivory key he made that poor piano moan with melody. O Blues!” — Lindsay introduced the young poet-author to publishers. Hughes graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the first historically black university, in 1929; his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for literature.

Starting in 1942, he worked for the New York Post and the Chicago Defender; his poetry flourished, ignoring classical forms, incorporating improvisational jazz and black folk rhythms.

POETRY ON THE PORCH

About 100 miles east of Manhattan, summer bungalows for upper- and middle-class African Americans sprang up in the 1940s and 1950s in Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Ninevah, known as “SANS.” Returning World War II soldiers and other blacks bought properties because it was nearly impossible for them to get mortgages or have beach access anywhere else because of anti-black laws and attitudes that perpetuated mortgage discrimination and segregation.

Hughes frequently headed to Nineveh Place in the 1950s to stay with his college roommate, historian William Pickens. They read poetry on Pickens’ porch, about “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters…— people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten …,” wrote Hughes.

He continued writing what he knew about loneliness, despair, and humor, and recorded spoken-poem albums with such jazz greats as Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus before dying of prostate cancer in 1967.

Hughes’ pioneering works have survived for more than half a century: Today, Ice-T, Mos Def (Yasiin Bey), and other rappers celebrate Hughes’ jazz poetry, and in Nineveh, the poetry porch is featured on the Literary Sag Harbor Walking Tour.

Bogie and Bacall: A Lovely Life Together

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall from the 1946 film The Big Sleep.

They met on a film set in 1944 and wed a year later. She was 19. He was 46. He was in his third unhappy marriage. 

But unlike the Brangelinas and Bennifers who come and go, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart endured, keeping their love alive. After he died, she found consolation in her Amagansett home on Long Island’s East End, when not garnering awards for her performances onstage and onscreen.

Looking back on their paths to true romance, the outcome does not seem that far-fetched. The unlikely union succeeded, despite the age gap and earlier upsets.

“The boy’s good, isn’t he?” 

Humphrey DeForest Bogart was born in New York City in 1899 and raised by a well-positioned but dysfunctional family in Manhattan. They spent idyllic summers at Willow Brook, their Canandaigua Lake estate. When not sailing, he directed other wealthy boys in improvised performances based on film melodramas. In 1916, to his bitter disappointment, they relocated, summering in a Fire Island cottage.  

Bogart was raised by a morphine-addicted father and an undemonstrative, career-obsessed mother who fought constantly. He was a poor student, albeit one who quoted Plato; he excelled at chess, was well read, and admired writers and intellectuals. But weak grades got him expelled from several prestigious private schools; he joined the Navy, then found work managing a touring theatrical production. The next year, 1921, he landed a small part. His father, seated in the audience, said to a companion, “The boy’s good, isn’t he?” 

He learned from such talents as Spencer Tracy, who coined the nickname “Bogie” in 1930 when they were filming Up the River. Bogie gave legendary performances in The Petrified Forest and other movies, and by the early 1940s was making classics such as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, perfecting his persona as the cynical gangster with soul who eventually shows his noble side.

His offscreen life, though, cried out for a major rewrite as he negotiated a tumultuous divorce. Enter Betty Joan Perske.

“There is no way Bogie and I could be in the same room without reaching for one another, and it just wasn’t physical.”

Bronx-born in 1924 to Jewish immigrants from Poland and Romania who divorced when she was 6, Perske later said she had little or no love while growing up and remembered her father treating her mother badly. She was fascinated by the theatre, working as a Broadway usher in high school while Bogart became a star. But finances were tight and she dropped out of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which did not offer scholarships to women.

After some small Broadway and off-Broadway parts, her career was going nowhere, so she began modeling. Her 1943 Harper’s Bazaar cover was noticed by Slim Hawks, who challenged her husband, famed director Howard Hawks, to work with the starlet. 

Hawks coached her in To Have and Have Not, advising her to speak in a lower register. She was so nervous that before the cameras rolled she had to lower her chin and look up into Bogart’s eyes, to still the shaking; thus was born “The Look.” The New York Times praised her “insinuating pose and a seductive, throaty voice.” 

She became Lauren Bacall, remaining “Betty” to family and friends; to Bogie, she was “Baby.” They became lovers — “a real Joe,” he called her — and he divorced his wife. 

They married in 1945, made four more films together, then she stopped acting to raise their children. He won an Academy Award for The African Queen in 1951 and died of cancer in 1957, leaving her a widow at 32. 

When asked about their 12-year marriage, Bacall said, “It was much too short. We had a lovely life together.”

“She’s a real Joe. You’ll fall in love with her like everybody else.”

By the early 1960s, when not at her Manhattan apartment full of homages to Bogie, she had become a Hamptons regular, shopping at Iacono Fam and supporting fundraisers for Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theatre and the Hamptons Film Festival, lending that throaty voice to Hampton Jitney advertisements. 

“I talk to my birds, my trees. I love my house. It’s my haven,” she told People magazine in 1981.

The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn called Bacall “the personification of glamour.” Still, the star was normal, Quinn wrote: Her show business friends always felt she was one of them.

Bacall returned to starring in films and Broadway plays, winning Golden Globes, Tonys, and an Oscar. Even after selling her Hamptons home in 1995, she continued to support area arts organizations. 

She was 89 when she died in 2014.

The House That Santa Found: Miracle on 34th Street Partly Shot on Long Island

Holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street was partly shot in Port Washington.

Little Suzie Walker’s mother has raised her to not believe in fairy tales or fantasy, and especially not in Santa Claus. As a result, the child is far too skeptical for her 8 years. But she holds on to one Christmas wish: a house — not a dollhouse, but a real house, with a backyard tree swing — where she and her divorced mother can live. But then the little girl befriends a kindly old department-store Kris Kringle at Macy’s Herald Square on 34th Street in Manhattan who claims to be Santa Claus, and everything changes.

This is the story of Miracle on 34th Street, the 1947 holiday heartwarmer that nearly didn’t land on the silver screen. The project was given a low budget; it was considered controversial because it showed a divorced woman as the lead, Suzie’s no-nonsense mother, played by Maureen O’Hara; and shooting the revealing final scene outside 24 Derby Road in Port Washington was nearly nixed when the cameras literally froze that bitterly cold winter.

That scene shows how Suzie, played by child actress Natalie Wood, changes her mind about believing in Santa, after he makes her wish come true by finding the house of her dreams. Miraculously, the film survived the skeptics, the opposition, and the weather, and became a beloved black-and-white treasure. And throughout filming, little Natalie Wood actually believed that the actor playing Kris Kringle was the real Santa.

MIRACLE ON DERBY ROAD

During the last scene, when production was halted so the equipment could thaw, a woman named Vaughn Mele who lived across the street invited the crew into her home to warm up with hot coffee. That night, O’Hara took Mele and her husband to dine at the legendary 21 Club restaurant in Manhattan, but the Port resident was too excited to order anything but a glass of milk.

From the beginning, 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was not a fan of the film. He gave it a low $630,000 budget, believing it too corny to succeed. It was marketed as a comedy-drama and released in the summer of 1947; the thinking was that films did better at the box office in summertime, so its Christmas angle was downplayed. Then the film received a “morally objectionable” rating from the powerful Catholic Legion of Decency, which deemed that certain subjects — homosexuality, abortion, and divorce — were considered taboo in motion pictures. The movie was also ahead of its time in terms of feminism, because its lead character was a female corporate executive.

SKEPTICISM NOT ALLOWED

The studio executives were surprised when the movie was declared “the freshest little picture in a long time” by The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, and it won three Oscars, including best actor in a supporting role for Edmund Gwenn, who played Kris Kringle. When Gwenn received the award, he said, “Now I know there’s a Santa Claus.” Valentine Davies won for best writing, original story; Davies had dreamed up the story while shopping amid holiday department-store chaos for a present for his wife and wondering how Santa would view the rampant commercialization. The best writing, screenplay award went to director George Seaton. 

The movie was also nominated for numerous other awards and went on to earn $17.32 million (unadjusted for inflation). Lux Radio Theater broadcast an adaptation just before Christmas of 1947 which starred the original cast; since then, the film has spawned several sequels. A musical version plays at the Argyle Theatre in Babylon Village through December 29.    

Ever since the original film’s release 70-odd years ago, people have flocked to the northwest corner of Port Washington’s Essex Court in Upper Port to take selfies and group photos. One of the home’s owners, Orrie Frutkin, told the New York Post, “We’re happy to see people’s eyes light up when we tell them it’s the house in Miracle on 34th Street, but to us, it’s just a cozy, comfortable place to live.” 

Actress O’Hara wrote in her autobiography that the film endured “because of the special relationship of the cast and crew, the uplifting story, and its message of hope and love, which steals hearts all over the world every year.”

Perhaps the reason for the film’s universal appeal was best summed up onscreen by actor John Payne, who portrays the lawyer at the sanity hearing for Kris Kringle: “It’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”