Annie Wilkinson

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

John Steinbeck: The Sage of Sag Harbor

The last thing he wanted was to be recognized. Wearing a fisherman’s cap and rubber boots, the famous writer walked the streets of what he dubbed “a handsome town,” chatting with locals at Cove Deli or relaxing at The Black Buoy bar with his dog Charley. Sag Harbor offered him peace, he told friends and colleagues. 

Recently, on August 16, to honor the writer posthumously, officials broke ground on what will become John Steinbeck Waterfront Park. The 1.25 acre property will connect with its iconic windmill and Long Wharf Village Pier through a walkway. The grassy parkland, one of the last remaining waterfront parcels downtown, is open to the public. 

The picturesque scene is a far cry from the dust-stripped earth and starving migrant farmworkers whose hardscrabble existence Steinbeck captured in The Grapes of Wrath. His novel earned accolades from peers and readers — selling 10,000 copies per week at one point — but if not for this college dropout’s sharp reporter’s eye, the searing story would have been limited to magazine articles.

SHY BUT SMART

John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. was born in Northern California in 1902. By the time he was 14, the shy but smart kid was locking himself in his room, writing poetry and stories. He wanted to be a writer.

He attended Stanford University for five years but quit in 1925. Moving to New York City, he worked briefly in construction and as a newspaper reporter, but returned to Monterey County to do manual labor while developing his beautiful and simple writing style. 

As Steinbeck labored over words and physically exhausting work, the decade-long Great Depression created chaos as more than 1 million Americans fled the dried-up Midwest and Southern Plains, heading to California. But with too many laborers and too little employment, unemployed workers’ ramshackle tent camps proliferated. In 1936, the San Francisco News hired Steinbeck to write “The Harvest Gypsies” series about the corruption-plagued government camps and horrific conditions the migratory families endured. Steinbeck described them as “nomadic, poverty-stricken harvesters driven by hunger and the threat of hunger from crop to crop, from harvest to harvest … The migrants are needed … and they are hated.”

In 1937, documentary photographer Horace Bristol proposed a photo essay to Life magazine about the workers, inviting Steinbeck to visit the camps. Life rejected the pitch saying it was “not important enough,” Bristol told the Los Angeles Times, but Fortune magazine approved.

Steinbeck and Bristol traveled together, documenting the social phenomenon. Bristol remembered Steinbeck as “an extraordinarily sensitive man,” recalling that “the writer’s approach was so soft and good that no one could take offense,” reported the Times.

But the investigative journalist realized the story was too big for a magazine: It should be a novel. That 1939 book revealed the farmworkers’ plight. His years of blue-collar labor enabled him to write what he knew — masterfully — earning him the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the Nobel Prize, and his book was made into an Oscar-winning film. Some of Bristol’s photos were published in Life  that year and were used to cast the movie.

On receiving the Nobel Prize, Steinbeck said the writer’s duty was “dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”

CHARLEY AND SAG HARBOR

Over the next decade, Steinbeck served as a New York Herald Tribune war correspondent and wrote another best-selling novel, East of Eden. In 1953, he rented a Sag Harbor cottage, and in 1955 bought a small house in Sag Harbor Cove. He loved the village and helped found and co-chaired the Old Whalers’ Festival, now called HarborFest, and helped create the windmill next to Long Wharf.

He spent mornings writing in the property’s shed or on his boat, writing his Newsday column or another novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. He wrote to editor Elizabeth Otis, “I can move out and anchor and have a little table and yellow pad and some pencils … Nothing else can intervene.”

Afternoons were spent fishing or hobnobbing at Sal and Joes or Baron’s Cove resort, or with Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, and other writers at The Black Buoy, his beloved standard poodle in tow.

Steinbeck’s legacy includes 31 books, including Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men. His last work was Travels with Charley, about seeing America with Charlie after departing from Sag Harbor. 

His son Thomas Steinbeck told The New York Times that his father had been accused of having lost touch with the rest of the country. Travels With Charley was his attempt to rediscover America.”

John Steinbeck died of heart disease in New York City in 1968.

Camp Siegfried: Hitler’s Long Island

Courtesy of Longwood Public Library, Thomas R. Bayles Local History Room

On the shore of Upper Yaphank Lake, happy children picnicked, hiked, and explored 54 wooded acres deep in Suffolk County. At least 150 children summered at Camp Siegfried in the 1930s, learning camping skills and studying international ideologies as their families struggled through the Great Depression. 

By 1933, unemployment nationwide was at 25 percent; in Yaphank,  jobs for tradespeople and craftspersons were scarce. Few graduated from high school, toiling instead in potato and cauliflower farm fields for 50 cents an hour.

When Siegfried’s operators, the German-American Settlement League, proposed an 11-acre housing development opposite the camp in 1936, the Town of Brookhaven Planning Board approved the German Gardens project, hoping it would bring business.

It looked like a win-win deal.

Happy Campers?     

Camp Siegfried and many camps across the nation were sponsored by the German-American Bund (“Bund” means “alliance” in German), which focused on Americans of German descent. The group’s aim: Blend American democracy and European fascism.  

Yet the campers’ uniforms — brownshirts and jackboots — resembled those worn in  Germany by the Hitler Youth under Nazi party leader Adolf Hitler. All non-Jewish boys were required to join for paramilitary training.

Hitler had seized absolute dictatorial power in 1933 by delivering diatribes against economic policies, racial equality, and political stability, at rallies filled with enthusiastic crowds. He transformed Germany into a totalitarian state where almost every aspect of life was under government control, in accordance with Nazism beliefs. 

By 1935, Hitler supplied Camp Siegfried with teachers and German philosophy textbooks and smuggled in uniforms. Yaphank youth were taken on trips to Germany, including a 1936 trip to the Olympics, where Hitler urged Siegfrieders to maintain the kampf, the struggle, in the states.  

Camp Siegfried’s purpose was to raise future leaders of America; they had to be Aryans, adhering to another key Nazism belief: Aryans — Nordic-looking, non-Jewish Caucasians — were the so-called master race. But life was far from idyllic. Forced to sleep in tented platforms, campers cleared brush and trees, and built infrastructure. They were coerced into having sex with campers to preserve the Aryan race, and to attend anti-Semitic, white supremacist lectures by propagandists promising that they, the “Friends of New Germany in America,” would be as important as storm troopers, the private Nazi army known for violent attacks.

Racial politics came to Long Island as Bund leaders demeaned Jews, communists, and labor unions. In Germany, Hitler intensified persecution of non-Aryans.

Free Dances 

In Yaphank, the German-American Settlement League invited Bundists and other German-Americans to visit, promising free dances, celebrations, and camaraderie. The Long Island Rail Road Camp Siegfried Special ran from Penn Station every Sunday to Yaphank, where uniformed marchers greeted guests with Heil Hitler (Hail Victory) salutes and sang the Nazi National Anthem. With Hitler portraits prominently displayed, orators denounced Jews, insisting that German blood was different than others’ blood.

By 1937, pro-Nazi sympathizers occupied German Gardens’ bungalows on Adolf Hitler Strasse and on streets named after Hitler’s head honchos. Embedded in the houses’ brickwork were swastikas, fascist symbols of severe economic regimentation and forcible suppression of opposition. Residents drank beer with local political activists and gun enthusiasts (the Bund was affiliated with the National Rifle Association), and the development flourished. In August 1938, A New York Times article headlined “40,000 at Nazi Camp Fete” reported that nearly “40,000 persons attended the annual German Day of Long Island at Camp Siegfried.” About 2,000 uniformed Ordnungsdienst storm troopers kept order. 

At a Madison Square Garden rally in February 1939, some 20,000 attendees raised Nazi salutes to a George Washington portrait flanked by a picture of Hitler. Hitler invaded Poland six months later.  

The People Wake Up

Locals became disenchanted with the demonstrations and saw to it that the camp’s liquor license was not renewed. When Democratic leaders condemned the pro-Nazi behavior, campers blamed the media for negative accounts and supported the Republicans. Young villagers ripped apart the swastika-shaped flowerbed, fired buckshot at the camp water tank, painted “Down with Hitler” on the main camp building, and overturned outhouses.

All pro-Nazi camp activity stopped when America entered World War II after the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. The camp closed and the FBI placed many Nazi sympathizers in a nearby Camp Upton stockade. The property was incorporated into the town of Yaphank as Siegfried Park, no longer under German-American Bund control.

An American flag and a German flag now fly from the clubhouse where a swastika flag flew. The Nazi-named streets were renamed, including Adolf Hitler Strasse: It’s now Park Street.

Natalie Wood: The Heroine and The Hamlet

Left: Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood. Right: Natalie Wood

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
—William Wordsworth

In its heyday, the Patchogue Hotel on East Main Street and Maple Avenue boasted expansive banquet halls. Its popular restaurant was always booked. And in 1960, the whole town had something to talk about, when some 65 movie people checked in.

The dog days didn’t sap the energy of the film crew and cast. At the helm was lauded Hollywood director Elia Kazan; in his first major role was the devilishly handsome Warren Beatty; and cast as the conflicted heroine was the endearing child-star-turned-glamorous celebrity Natalie Wood. 

The cast and crew of Splendor in the Grass endured long, hot, humid days shooting outside at the old Tiger Nursery farm in Brookhaven hamlet, transformed to look like a windswept Kansas oilfield during the Great Depression. 

Wood’s stirring performance was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe. But years later she would meet a tragic end that no one understood — not the hotel guests, not her on- and off-screen lover Warren Beatty, and not the overzealous stage mother who goaded her into stardom. 

SMART MOPPET 

Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko would have turned 81 this month, on July 20. Her parents were Russian immigrants who raised her in San Francisco and struggled economically. Her mother often took her to films featuring young stars and moved the family to Los Angeles. 

Just before turning 5 years old, Wood made her film debut. Notable roles followed: An orphan opposite Orson Welles in Tomorrow Is Forever in 1946 (Welles called her a born professional — “so good, she was terrifying”). Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), said he had never met a smarter moppet. That year, she costarred in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street.

Her mother pushed her relentlessly, warning her that a fortune teller had predicted death by drowning. That revelation instilled in Wood a lifelong fear of water. 

At age 16, Wood earned an Oscar nomination, costarring with James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause (1955); the next year LIFE magazine called her “The Most Beautiful Teenager in the World.”

SPLENDOR IN BROOKHAVEN 

The film’s Brookhaven location was found by Assistant Producer/Unit Manager Charles H. Maguire of West Islip: the old Tiger Nursery farm backlot’s 200 acres, stretching from Beaver Dam Road south to the bay marshes. 

The Town Board gave the okay for filming to the property’s owner, Sullivan Gallo of East Patchogue, reported the Long Island Advance on August 5, 1960. An August 18 Patchogue Advance photo shows Supervisor August Stout Jr. on the set, giving Wood a symbolic key to the Town of Brookhaven. Her husband Robert Wagner, the internationally famous film actor she had married when she was 18, also visited the set. 

Director Kazan cast 22-year-old Wood because he saw in her a “true-blue quality with a wanton side that is held down by social pressure.” Kazan’s directing wizardry of her wrenching portrayal of a sexually repressed, hysterical young woman committed to a mental institution during the Great Depression produced what was arguably her most powerful performance.   

During shooting, gossip persisted about Wood’s alleged affair with Beatty. Ten months later, she and Wagner separated; they divorced in 1962.      

THE FINAL TAKE 

The years went by. Wood starred in West Side Story and Gypsy, setting a record as the only actress to be nominated for an Oscar three times before age 25. The Patchogue Hotel was demolished in 1969 and replaced by an apartment building; Murray Pergament’s once-dominant home improvement downtown store closed, unable to go up against big-box stores Home Depot and Lowe’s; and the Chevy Corvairs advertised in the paper were discontinued. Wood and Wagner reconciled and remarried in 1972. 

On November 29, 1981, they sailed their yacht The Splendour to Santa Catalina Island off the Southern California coast. Late that night, Wood disappeared.

Her body was found floating in a dark, lonely cove.

Ironically, a year earlier, Natalie told an interviewer, “I’ve always been terrified … of dark water; sea water…” Because detectives could not determine why she was in the water,  her cause of death was listed as “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

Fame and glamour fade. But Wood’s onscreen radiance and memorable roles will live forever. Kazan wrote that his favorite scene was the final Kansas-Brookhaven one, when Wood visits her lost first love. 

“It’s terribly touching to me. I still like it when I see it.”

 

Groucho Marx: Lights! Camera! Insanity!

L-R: Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx, A Night in Casablanca, 1946. (Creative Commons)

There was no mistaking that bent-kneed loping walk plus the black greasepainted eyebrows and mustache, wild hair, and razor-sharp wit. 

Cigar in hand, he spat out barbed one-liners and zany asides to the camera with devilish irreverence, hamming it up and captivating audiences for 45 years. 

“Groucho” Marx and his brothers used sight gags and pratfalls perfected on burlesque stages and movie sets, through two World Wars and the Great Depression, to make people laugh and divert attention from the world’s bad news. 

As CBS News’ Lloyd Vries wrote, audiences “were startled, then amused and finally convulsed by a kind of comedy they had never seen before … The four Marx Brothers brought to the screen their own chaotic — and subversive — view of the world.” 

At the height of their popularity, Groucho and his parents lived in Great Neck. Local children would line up to watch the madcap brothers dashing around and jumping in and out of windows. 

The unruly pack’s leader was Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx. His grandmother was a yodeling harpist, his grandfather a ventriloquist; was there any doubt that the Marx Brothers would be entertainers?

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Groucho was born in 1890 to European Jewish immigrants and raised in Manhattan’s poor Yorkville section of the Upper East Side. He started performing in vaudeville and burlesque in a singing trio; his brothers later joined the song-and-dance comedy act managed by their mother. Comedian Art Fisher gave them names reflecting their personalities during a 1914 poker game; Groucho was the self-described “moody one.” 

By 1924, Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo Marx had perfected the act and were starring in a successful Broadway run in The Cocoanuts. They kept company with the notable elite around the famed Algonquin Round Table, T.S. Eliot, and George Gershwin. 

When Groucho was 36, he bought a house at 21 Lincoln Road in Great Neck Villa, near the Long Island Rail Road station, for $27,000. His son Arthur Marx later described Great Neck: “Our house overlooked hundreds of acres of deep forest rich with birch and oak trees, unpolluted ponds and streams, and all sort of wild flora ….”

 Groucho played croquet at Sands Point’s Lands End mansion with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, traded witty quips with satirist Dorothy Parker, and partied with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. 

The Marx Brothers continued their winning streak just as sound enhanced silent pictures as “talkies” in the early 1930s. The plots revolved around the brothers bursting in noisily to an elegant soiree, or a cruise ship, or a roomful of stuffy dignitaries, where they would disrupt everything with annoying insults and physical antics. 

Life was fun — most of the time.

Groucho Marx

“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

The New York Times described 1930s Great Neck as “one of the few Gold Coast communities that welcomed or even allowed Jews then, mixed in as they were with the theatrical and literary crowd that flocked” there.

Groucho and his son tried to join the Sands Point Bath and Sun Club on Manhasset Bay, across from Kings Point. He recalled, “The head cheese of the place came over and told me, ‘Well, we’re very sorry, Mr. Marx, but we don’t allow Jews to swim at our beach.’ We couldn’t join because I was Jewish. So I said, ‘My son’s only half Jewish. Would it be all right if he went in the water up to his knees?’’’

Later that day, Marx joined the more expensive Lakeville Country Club in Lake Success, “with all the other showbiz Jews.”

One interviewer asked Groucho about the 1933 Marx brothers film Duck Soup’s attacking anti-Semitism philosophies, which were gaining ground in Europe. Groucho’s response? “What are you talking about? We were five Jews trying to get a laugh.”     

“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.” 

The Marx Brothers made Time Magazine’s cover in 1932; in 2004, the magazine called them “the fathers of every aggressive film comic from the Stooges to Sandler.” They made 13 films, then in 1947, Groucho switched gears. On his radio quiz show You Bet Your Life, the Q&As mattered less than his wisecracks. He won two Hollywood Walk of Fame stars, one for radio and one for TV broadcasts from 1950 to 1956.

In 1974, he was awarded an Honorary Oscar for the brilliant creativity and unequaled achievements of the Marx Brothers in the art of motion picture comedy. He died in Los Angeles in 1977 at age 86.

Audrey Hepburn: Our Fair Lady

Audry Hepburn in Sabrina

When Audrey Hepburn filmed Sabrina in 1953, she was a bona fide movie star starring with Humphrey Bogart and William Holden in tony Glen Cove on the fabled Gold Coast. Wearing the timeless designs of couturier Hubert de Givenchy and legendary designer Edith Head, she was surrounded by lavish wealth and would become wealthy herself as the highest-paid actress in the world, earning $750,000 per film.

But just seven years earlier, in 1946, she was a child living through Europe’s post-World War II famine. What must she have thought of the excesses around her, this talented yet secretive actress who had survived being abandoned in wartime?

DUMPED

Life started out well in Brussels, Belgium for Audrey Hepburn Kathleen Ruston, born into semi-royalty on May 4, 1929. Her mother was Dutch noblewoman Baroness Ella Van Heemstra; her English-Austrian father Joseph Victor Anthony Hepburn-Ruston was a Bohemian banker.

But by the mid-1930s, the British Union of Fascists was popular in England. Hepburn’s parents sympathized and met fascist leader Adolf Hitler; Hepburn’s mother bragged that Hitler kissed her hand and she published a pro-Nazi article. When anti-Semitic ideology spread, though, Hepburn’s mother distanced herself — but her husband joined an extreme splinter group and abandoned his family. After Hepburn’s parents’ divorce, she was sent to a London boarding school. She “was dumped,” she said later.

Her mother moved their family to the Netherlands, which was safe until the 1940 Nazi occupation. Hepburn remembered watching trainloads of Jewish families being deported to concentration camps.

Her father had left his family with no money. Meals consisted of bread made from beans, or broth and a potato — or no food for days.

Hepburn supported the Dutch pushback against Nazi occupation, stuffing resistance newspapers into her woolen socks and wooden shoes and delivering messages and food to downed Allied pilots. Her secret efforts included ballet performances to raise money for the cause. The shy child became a brave, expressive young woman.

After the “Hunger Winter” of 1944-1945, living without electricity or water, the family survived on endive and tulip bulbs. After the Germans blockaded food imports, Hepburn suffered from severe malnutrition, weighing 88 pounds. She developed anemia and jaundice.

STAR POWER

To quiet her hunger pangs, Hepburn read books and continued her ballet lessons. In 1946, agents of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) rescued her from the famine.

She dreamed of becoming a ballerina. But at 5 feet 7 inches, she was too tall. She moved to London, modeling and acting in revues and cabarets to support herself and her mother and training to become a dental assistant. In 1951, entranced by the actress’ distinguished bearing and elfin-like innocence, the French writer Colette cast Hepburn to star in the stage production of her novel Gigi.

Hepburn starred opposite Gregory Peck in her first American-made movie, as a runaway princess in Roman Holiday in 1953, one of many stylish romantic comedies she would make. She won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Actress.

That year, the Sabrina cast and crew filmed at Kiluna Farm, the estate of CBS creator William S. Paley. Once a working farm, it is now the luxury development Stone Hill Manhasset off Shelter Rock Road.

In autumn of 1953 the Long Island Rail Road’s Glen Cove station hosted real royalty when Hepburn was filmed and photographed there, “looking devastatingly chic in her Givenchy suit and hat,” according to VanityFair.com. Formerly called Nassau station, it was built in 1895 to provide a dignified station for local millionaires such as J.P. Morgan.

HUMAN KINDNESS

Audiences worldwide loved her and she earned numerous awards. But at heart she was the mother of two sons, who described “being miserable” when she was away from them. So in 1966, she walked away from acting to stay home to raise her children.

She never forgot how UNICEF saved her. In 1989, after her children were grown, she was appointed UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador. Advocating for children’s rights, Hepburn visited drought-ravaged villages and met with members of Congress. Her granddaughter Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer said her mother would not just say hello to the children: “She would really pick them up and cradle them and kiss the mothers’ hands.”

In her final film Hepburn appeared in a cameo as a graceful, serene angel in Steven Spielberg’s Always. She worked with UNICEF until 1993, when she passed away from appendicular cancer.

Ben Bradlee: Digging Through Decay

President Barack Obama awards the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Ben Bradlee during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Nov. 20, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

America is ripping apart at the seams under the weight of a crisis of corruption. It falls to the media to reveal the facts, for the pen is mightier than the cover-up.

Sound like the current state of our nation? Actually, it happened 45 years ago, when one newsman captained his ship through epic waves of scandal. The helmsman was Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, The Washington Post executive editor who authorized breaking the news that broke the president: Richard M. Nixon resigned in 1974.

The New York Times called Ben Bradlee the “last of the lion-king newspaper editors.” Just who was this indefatigable leader? And what possessed this history shaper who dined with presidents and princesses, who was awarded accolades and medals, to buy a crumbling, flea-infested Hamptons mansion?

OPENING THE WATERGATES

The Harvard University alumnus was tough: As a youth, he successfully battled polio, and as a reporter, he dug deep for political dirt. Starting out at the New Hampshire Sunday News, he was hired by the American embassy in Paris. In 1952 he joined its propaganda unit, used by the CIA in Europe. As a Newsweek reporter, then Washington Bureau Chief, he befriended his neighbor, then-U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, and covered the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon presidential campaigns. Joining the Post in 1965 as managing editor, Bradlee was promoted to executive editor in 1968.

In 1971, he wrestled with a whopper of an article that would yield Pulitzer Prizes: With publisher Katharine Graham, he ran a piece on the Pentagon Papers, an incriminating Defense Department study of the U.S.-Vietnam conflict. A federal judge had barred The New York Times from running the story but the Supreme Court ruled the government could not restrict newspapers from publishing a story before it ran. In 1972, the Post investigated a burglary attempt to bug the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex, leading to Nixon’s resignation.

The Times dubbed Bradlee “the Watergate Warrior.” As Martha Sheyrill wrote in The Washington Post, “Nothing pleased Bradlee more than a piece that nailed the corrupt, pricked a narcissist, uncovered a creep, exposed a phony, felled a climber, and really told it like it was.”

ARCHEOLOGICAL ADVENTURES

In 1978, the order-shouting, profanity-loving newsroom hero married journalist Sally Quinn. The power couple entertained an “eclectic mix of media, celebrity and political types,” wrote Washington Life, at their D.C. and Maryland homes.

During those investigative reporting glory days, Republicans and Democrats behaved less acrimoniously. “You could differ politically during the day but at night you could sit around the table, break bread, have a few drinks, and there was a camaraderie — and a lot of that happened at Ben and Sally’s table,” wrote Harry Jaffe, senior writer at Washingtonian magazine, in a USA Today article.

Bradlee also supported historical and archeological research. In 1979 he and his wife rescued an 14-room, gray-shingled, 1897 mansion surrounded by East Hampton’s soft dunes and sea mists.

As The New York Times tells it, Bradlee took one look and told Quinn she was out of her mind. He reportedly wrote, “In all my life, including years reporting about slums from Washington to Casablanca, I have never seen a house in such dreadful condition: attics full of raccoons and their droppings, toilets stopped up, a kitchen stove that had fallen into the cellar…”

Ever the clever phrase-turner, he said, “There were 52 dead cats in it, and funeral arrangements had to be made for each one.”

The home had inspired Grey Gardens, a 1975 documentary about mother-daughter hoarder-owners who lived in squalor, surrounded by garbage and wild animals. Sally Quinn told Architectural Digest, “The floor was part dirt. The ceiling was caving in … Still, I thought it was the prettiest house I had ever seen.”

The power duo poured money into restoration. Their “archeological expedition,” as Quinn described it, restored the home’s former glory, and in old Hamptons style they entertained local luminaries — Nora Ephron, Paul McCartney, Steven Spielberg — and hosted philanthropic and arts organizations benefits.

In 2014, five years after being diagnosed with dementia, Bradlee entered hospice care. He had retired as the Post’s executive editor in 1991 but served as vice president at large until dying of natural causes in Washington at age 93 in 2014. Several years before, Quinn interviewed him, asking how he wanted to be remembered.

He replied, “To leave a legacy of honesty, and I guess to live a life as close to the truth as I can.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett: Fighting With the Wind

Frances Hodgsen Burnett

All through her life, she broke the rules. Her formal education ended at age 13. She challenged society’s notions about womanhood at a time when few women worked, and set the gossips’ tongues wagging with her scandalous two marriages and two divorces, adultery with a man 10 years her junior, and affairs.

But her force as a writer crushed the notoriety: She won a legal suit revolutionizing copyright law to reimburse writers for profits from plays based on their works. A women’s rights advocate, she signed a writers’ petition on women’s suffrage before the House of Representatives in 1910, a year after building her Plandome estate on the North Shore.

Frances Hodgson Burnett penned adult novels, children’s books, and short stories — 52 novels and 13 plays — and produced works for the stage. At one point she wrote six books in 10 years, despite battling ill health. What drove her?

Riches to Rags

Like her riches-to-rags-to-riches characters, the author started life in 1849 in affluent, mid-Victorian Manchester, England. But their fortunes collapsed with her father’s death when she was 4 years old. Her widowed mother ran their iron foundry until America’s trade declines caused it to fail and forced the family to move to a marginal area. The behavior of other 10-year-old street children around Frances Hodgson fascinated her; observing their Dickensian existence nurtured her flair for fiction, writing on a slate or on old account books.

Still impoverished, her family moved to America to live with relatives in a log cabin near Knoxville, Tennessee. But the Civil War economy worsened and their mother’s health failed; only neighborly generosity kept them alive. The practical, independent little girl stepped up, opening a small school, raising chickens, and teaching piano.

In 1867, using postage she paid for by selling grapes, she submitted a story, for “remuneration,” as she put it. Godey’s Ladies Book published the 17-year-old’s first two stories, paying her $35. Her serialized magazine pieces became popular and earned enough to support her family after their mother died in 1870.

Her first adult novel, That Lass o’ Lowrie’s, contained realistic detail about a feisty woman working in a coal mine. It was published in 1877, four years after she married — reluctantly — Dr. Swan Burnett.

A self-described “story maniac,” Frances Hodgson Burnett churned out fluid adult manuscripts needing little editing. She typified the ”new woman,” wrote biographer Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina: self-supporting, independent, and a shrewd businesswoman. The New York Times praised her “treatment of adultery, spousal abuse, illegitimacy and female independence.” Burnett also zeroed in on unhappy unions, based on her faltering marriage.

Garden Therapy

In 1886, her Little Lord Fauntleroy, about a curly-locked boy in velvet and lace modeled after her son Vivian, sold half a million copies. Attributing her dedication to a spiritual force, she wrote constantly, her sons at her feet under her writing desk. She bought extravagantly — clothes, houses, and gifts for relatives; more than 90 gowns; and home decor for her English estate, Great Maytham Hall. And, exhausted and anemic, she suffered nervous breakdowns.

She crossed the Atlantic 33 times for business and pleasure, often with men, unchaperoned. Her stressful marriages, bitter divorces, and the death of her teenage son Lionel in 1890 brought on depression. She found comfort in what Gerzina calls ”a romantic friendship” with Harper’s Bazaar Editor Elizabeth Garver.

In 1897, her plays earning $1,000 a week, Burnett settled at Maytham. There, outside under the trees, rejuvenated, she wrote A Little Princess in 1905.

Some say Maytham’s crumbling garden wall — and its tame robin — inspired Burnett; others believe it was her childhood home’s back garden. The Secret Garden (1910) was written among hundreds of rose plantings at Fairseat, her Plandome estate. It told of an orphaned girl finding solace in a neglected garden, who “made herself stronger by fighting with the wind.” Like her other children’s classics, it rose above the era’s florid style and morality.

She spent her last years at Plandome among spacious gardens and roses that sloped down to Long Island Sound. In 1914, she wrote, “To live in the best suite of rooms in the best hotels in any part of Europe is strict economy in comparison to living at Plandome Park, Long Island.’’

She died in 1924 and was buried in the Roslyn cemetery. A fire later destroyed Fairseat except for its original stucco carriage house and garden balustrades.

 

John Coltrane: Speaking to Our Souls

From the outside, the suburban Dix Hills home looks like many other ranch-style structures that dot Long Island.

But this modest Candlewood Path house has a distinctive history: In 1964, in the upstairs practice room, homeowner John Coltrane composed his Grammy award-winning album A Love Supreme. The work’s spiritual tone captured the essence of a world protesting war amid the emerging pride of African Americans seeking to honor their heritage and contributions to American culture.

Coltrane’s composition changed the world of jazz forever. But the road to success was an uneven path for the jazz saxophonist, bandleader, and composer, blockaded by the pressures of performing and the ravages of drug addiction.

A QUIET VOLCANO

His music was sometimes called “volcanic,” but interviewers called him thoughtful and conscientious. He emphasized the best in others and was noted for being a quiet, gentle man.

His bandmate Miles Davis observed, “…It was like he was possessed when he put that horn in his mouth. He was so passionate — fierce — and yet so quiet and gentle when he wasn’t playing.”

Those bold sounds are still popular after 60-plus years. Coltrane described his motivations by saying, “I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.”

Born in 1926, John William Coltrane grew up listening to the sounds of the many instruments his father played at home in North Carolina and to Count Basie recordings. The youngster picked up the alto saxophone and clarinet and his mother encouraged him to attend music school. He was drafted in 1945 and played with a U.S.Navy band until 1946; in 1947 he switched to tenor sax.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Coltrane (nicknamed “Trane”) performed with the prestigious Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra and as a session musician. “The Duke” Ellington took notice and hired Coltrane. But, like many other “hopheads,” Trane was a drug addict. Ellington fired him.

Miles Davis took a chance and hired Trane to play in his First Great Quintet, but drugs, mainly heroin, intervened; Davis fired and rehired him several times.

JAZZ REHAB

Trane kicked the habit and rehabilitated himself, undergoing a metamorphosis just as jazz was changing. In the late 1950s, the danceable, big-band sound gave way to “bebop,” densely rhythmic improvisation over dissonant chord changes played by small ensembles.

Trane joined pianist Thelonius Monk’s adventurous quartet for six months, developing an increased harmonic and rhythmic sophistication by playing notes simultaneously amid cascading scales, a technique dubbed “sheets of sound” by critic Ira Gitler. After recording under his own name, in 1958 Trane rejoined Davis’s group, emphasizing scale patterns beyond major and minor (“modal jazz”).

Starting in 1960, Trane’s acclaimed quartet focused on mode-based improvisation, experimenting with free jazz and incorporating the spirituality of music of India and Africa.

In 1964, the year Trane moved his family to Dix Hills, he wrote A Love Supreme. As The Guardian noted, “It became a hit with the hippie audience … and … rock guitarists too, notably for the mantra-like chant inspired by Coltrane’s absorption in Indian music and Eastern religious thought.”

The multi-award-winning big seller brought global acclaim. His grueling schedule — practicing 10 hours a day while touring extensively — had a bizarre effect: He’d put his horn down, beat on his chest and scream into the microphone, said his drummer Rashied Ali in 1966 in The Sixties. Ali said Trane was inspired by a Buddhist chant “where you could pound your chest and it would change the sound of your voice. He wanted to get that quiver on the horn.”

Others said that after 1965 Trane was using LSD. Miles Davis claimed that the hallucinogen caused Trane’s death at age 40 in 1967, but the cause of death was listed as liver cancer.

In 2007, the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded the musician a special posthumous citation. The home where he spent his final years has been designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which will help renovate it as a museum and cultural center. The designation honors a prolific artist who left a formidable legacy — a legacy that will no doubt influence musicians for decades to come.   

 

In Her Own Way: Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Fitzgerald

She was a high-spirited, unconventional 1920s Southern belle and aspiring ballerina embracing independence. He was a struggling novelist bedazzled by her wit and unconventional behavior who dubbed her “America’s First Flapper” and stole her words. They loved each other deeply but destructively, across Alabama, Connecticut, France, Switzerland, Maryland, and Long Island.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and F. Scott Fitzgerald practiced emotional cruelty, drunkenness, infidelity, plagiarism, and mental illness. And yet they remain celebrities personifying the rebellious youth of the Lost Generation.

WHEN ZELDA MET SCOTT

Merriam-Webster defines “flapper” as “a young woman of the period of World War I and the following decade who showed freedom from conventions.” As the spoiled daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court Justice, Zelda flirted, drank, and smoked in public. She turned 18 and graduated high school in 1918, as the war ended. She met 22-year-old Scott at a Montgomery country club dance; he was a U.S. Army officer stationed nearby, after flunking out of Princeton University.  

Acclaim for his 1920 debut novel, This Side of Paradise, brought sudden prosperity as the Roaring Twenties burst upon the country. As he chronicled the Jazz Age, she danced on tables and cartwheeled across hotel lobbies; after their 1920 marriage, she splashed in Washington Square fountain. They indulged their whims, spending wildly beyond their means.

The next few years bore fruit: They honeymooned in Westport, Conn., and Frances (“Scottie”) Fitzgerald, was born in 1921. In 1922, they moved to 6 Gateway Drive in Great Neck, where Scott wrote magazine short stories and an unsuccessful play. Zelda dreamed of becoming a prima ballerina, painted fantastical scenes and family portraits, and wrote the essay Eulogy on the Flapper for Metropolitan Magazine. She would pen more than a dozen articles and stories; many appeared under the joint byline “F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.”

Some say the seeds for Scott’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby were sown in Westport, while others insist they germinated in Great Neck on “that slender riotous island.” In any case, the Fitzgeralds befriended their LI neighbor, railroad industry heiress Mary Harriman Rumsey, whose Sands Point estate at 235 Middle Neck Road reportedly inspired Scott’s “East Egg” setting for Jay Gatsby’s mansion.

Gatsby was published in 1925, a year after the Fitzgeralds moved to Paris. Zelda was Scott’s muse, and more: He quoted her words as the voice of his female characters and took material from her diary and letters for his writings. As she wrote in a book review, “Mr. Fitzgerald … seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”

THE MAD WIFE

By the late 1920s, their lives were disintegrating. He could not write without drinking to excess; she practiced ballet excessively yet refused an offer to join a Naples dance company.

She accused Scott of having a homosexual relationship with his friend Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway called her “crazy”), had an affair with an aviator, and asked for a divorce. Scott locked her in their Riviera house and she attempted suicide. Friends noticed serious behavioral shifts and, suffering from nervous exhaustion and hysteria, she entered a health clinic in 1930. The diagnosis was schizophrenia; today, the condition might be called manic depressive disorder, characterized by her spending sprees, melancholy, and passionate personality.

During her confinement she wrote her only novel, Save Me the Waltz, in six weeks. The largely autobiographical 1932 work was panned by Scott and the public, crushing her confidence. She continued painting but abandoned writing after he said, “…You are a third-rate writer and a third-rate ballet dancer.”

Some say that Scott confined Zelda because she disturbed his writing; he blamed his inability to finish another novel on medical debts. Scott moved to Hollywood in 1937 to write scripts, dying of a heart attack in 1940 at age 44.

She was discharged and readmitted for breakdowns and relapses for the rest of her life. In 1948, a fire tore through a North Carolina mental hospital where Zelda was locked in a room awaiting shock treatment, killing her and eight other women.

Critics have reassessed her work. The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani wrote that Zelda “managed to distinguish herself as a writer with, as Edmund Wilson once said of her husband, a ‘gift for turning language into something iridescent and surprising.’”

Art gallery curator Everl Adair concluded that Zelda’s artwork “represents the work of a talented, visionary woman who rose above tremendous odds to create a fascinating body of work … that inspires us to celebrate the life that might have been.”

Clement Clarke Moore: Mr. Santa Claus

Author Clement Clarke Moore, right, is credited with devising the modern image of Santa Claus.

For nearly two centuries, Santa Claus has been a plump, jovial, good-hearted soul who travels worldwide in a sleigh pulled high above the rooftops by magical flying reindeer. Each Christmas, when this wise old elf flies over the Northeast, perhaps he gives a nod to the Long Island neighborhood where his iconic image was said to have originated: the Moore Homestead Playground, originally called Elmhurst Playground.  

Before Nassau County was formed in 1899, that neighborhood, today’s Elmhurst, was originally called Newtown. The wealthy Moore family had established their 1660s farmhouse and acreage there. In 1779, Clement Clarke Moore was born at the family’s Chelsea estate; he spent many Christmases in Elmurst, which many historians believe it was the setting for his classic 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (popularly known by its first line,’Twas the Night Before Christmas). But while readers praise the inventive revamp of its central character, Moore’s own character may not be as admirable as that of his creation.

SANTA GETS A MAKEOVER

Moore attended Columbia College (now Columbia University) and become a scholar of the literature of the ancient Greeks and other civilizations. The expert in Dutch folklore mixed myth and reality to come up with a memorable tale of Santa Claus’ epic journey. The poem’s merry, generous Santa was unlike the real Saint Nicholas, the ancient Christian bishop who told children to live disciplined lives and gave only occasional gifts.

On Christmas Eve in 1822, Moore was going to buy a turkey to donate to the poor. As he rode in a sleigh through Greenwich Village’s snow-covered streets, he began writing a poem for his six children. Some say his image of Santa Claus was inspired by the sleigh’s bearded driver, by a local Dutch tradesman, by the first governor of New Netherland (now New York and New Jersey), or by Moore’s portly neighbor. Others say that Moore’s black slave drove the sleigh.

ROOFTOP PRANCERS

Those airborne reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh? In 1000 B.C.E. ancient Mongolians carved hundreds of gravestone images of flying hoofed creatures. Greek mythology told of leaping reindeer outrunning flying arrows. The arctic indigenous Sami shamans of Northern Scandinavia and Eastern Russia imagined strong creatures who coursed through the skies. Flying goats pulled the Norse god Thor’s sleigh.

Other modern-day observers speculate that many of the poem’s concepts (like the Dutch reindeer names) were lifted from earlier work by Moore’s friend Washington Irving. In 1809 in Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Irving wrote how St. Nicholas advised a sage then “laying his finger beside his nose, gave a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.”

MAGICAL MYTH

A friend of the Moores sent the poem to the Troy Sentinel newspaper. It was published anonymously in 1823; Moore did not claim credit until 1837. He was seen as a grumpy parent whose other poetry urged his children to be humble and refuse transient delights. Did he really pen the light-hearted verse? He did not publish it under his name until 1844, wanting to be revered as the author of a scholarly Hebrew dictionary. Instead he became famous for a work he referred to as a ‘trifle.”

A controversy erupted around 1900 when the descendants of Major Henry Livingston Jr., a Dutch Hudson Valley gentleman farmer and poet, claimed that Livingston was the poet. In 1919 the Dutchess County Historical Society ruled that a comparing the poem with Livingston’s verses “adds internal evidence supporting the correctness of the family’s position.”

The truth? In 2000, the Encyclopaedia Brittannica wrote that many scholars concluded that computer-aided analysis “showed that it had more in common with poetry written by Livingston than with poetry by Moore.”

Santa and his reindeer may never reveal the truth about who really invented them — but that won’t stop children everywhere from reciting “Now, Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen!…”