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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.

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.”

Perry Como: The Man Who Invented Casual

Perry Como during rehearsal in 1961. World-Telegram photo by Walter Albertin.

What made him successful? Was it dazzling special effects? Booty-shaking dance routines? Ear-splitting guitar riffs?

No, it was the warm, relaxed manner of the man Bing Crosby dubbed “the man who invented casual.” With his soft and inviting baritone, wearing his unassuming cardigan, Perry Como characterized popular music of the 1940s and ’50s on radio and on the upstart medium of television. His easygoing style was the perfect antidote to the chaos of the World War II years, a show so popular that it racked up 15 years of awards.   

His program pioneered the musical variety format, broadcast live from Manhattan in black and white, with a chorus, full orchestra, and dancers, as well as sought-after guest singers and musicians. After each broadcast, the famous yet low-key crooner would headed back from the studio to Sands Point, his beloved home for 25 years. It was his sanctuary: As he said, “The world that fussed over Perry Como never made it through the front door.”

Unlike many, he didn’t hone his craft through lessons and classes. He developed his style while working in an unrelated field — as a singing barber.  

CROON AND A HAIRCUT

He was one of 13 children of Italian immigrants, born in 1912 in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. His father was a tin plate factory worker who loved to sing and somehow scraped together enough money to give his son Pierino Ronald Como instruction in organ and baritone horn. Young Perry learned to read music and played with Italian street bands. 

By the time he was 11, he was working in a barber shop, earning 50 cents an hour and singing as he swept. He’d cut the coal miners’ hair and serenade grooms of wedding parties with romantic songs. He had his own shop by his mid-teens and figured he’d have a career as a barber. But his customers and family persuaded him to become a professional singer. 

A TREMENDOUS CAREER

He quit barbering and hit the road with big bands. His wife Roselle, whom he had married after meeting at a hometown picnic in 1933, was a major supporter. By wartime 1941, Como was performing Copacabana gigs, riding the subway home to their small Long Island City apartment in the wee hours. He recalled that he wasn’t always successful: “…There were some rough times when I thought I’d quit [show] business. Roselle always stood by me.”

In 1943, RCA Victor Records signed him to what would become a 50-year contract. His first hit record, “Long Ago and Far Away,” a radio series, and a string of million-selling recordings followed; he even beat Frank Sinatra to be named second in Billboard magazine’s annual poll. Disc jockeys called him “Mr. Jukebox.”

He perfected ballads like “Till the End of Time” and “It’s Impossible.” The New York Times’ television critic John J. O’Connor compared his personality “to a marvelous hot toddy on a cold and blustery evening.” But audiences also loved his novelty hits like “Hot Diggity,” and “Papa Loves Mambo.” 

Como made his television debut in 1948 on The Chesterfield Supper Club, sponsored by the tobacco company. By 1950, the highest-rated shows were variety programs like Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town. The Perry Como Show and Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall cemented Como’s popularity, despite the runaway success of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s. 

Yet he remained humble, once saying, “For the amount of talent I had — and I couldn’t dance, act, or tell a joke — I enjoyed a tremendous career.”

HOME PORT

In 1946, the Comos and their children settled in Sands Point near Port Washington on Long Island’s North Shore. He was active at Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church, supported St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, shopped in Port stores, headlined a free high school concert, and drove his gray Caddy, license plate number PC-42, around town. In 1962 his show broadcast live from the Sands Point Golf Club with legends Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player golfing for the cameras. 

In the 1970s the Comos moved to Florida, but he maintained a Great Neck office and visited LI often. His 1976 Westbury Music Fair concert at age 64 drew high praise from John Wilson, a former New York Times jazz and pop-music critic: “Although his movements consist of little more than an occasional hand gesture or a subtle rhythmic switching of a foot, he conveys a sense of vitality and involvement merely though the glimmer in his eyes and a little lifting quirk in his smile.”

The people of Port never forgot their approachable neighbor. After his passing at age 88 in 2001, Main Street was renamed “Perry Como Avenue” during Pride in Port week.

 

Witch Trials: Hexing in the Hamptons

The infamous Salem Witch trials, pictured above, came decades after another such case in the Hamptons.

Elizabeth Gardiner Howell felt chilled, feverish. She was delirious. Hearing unexplained sounds rattling the room, she feared she was losing her senses.

“A witch! A witch!” she shrieked. “Now you are come to torture me because I spoke two or three words against you!”

She swore she saw “a double-tongued woman who pricks me with pins.” Then she coughed up a metal pin.

She insisted that the double-tongued woman was Elizabeth Garlick, who lived down the street — but Garlick was not there. Howell also said, in the language of the 1600s, that there was “an ugly black thinge at ye feete of ye bedd.” 

Howell was a married 16 year-old who had recently given birth to a child; she was the daughter of Lion Gardiner, one of the town’s most prominent residents. But the joy of that happy family occasion was shattered when she fell ill. 

She cried out, “Oh mother, I am bewitched.” She died the next day, after accusing her poor, quarrelsome neighbor of witchcraft.

Was this some Halloween performance? Actually, the description is part of an official account of witchcraft in colonial Long Island life. The accusation led to one of the earliest witchcraft trials in the American colonies — and it took place in East Hampton in 1657, 35 years before the notorious Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 and 1693.  

VILLAGER WARS

In the isolated English Puritan colony, battles for economic dominance pitted neighbor against neighbor. Accusations flew, paranoia and injustice reigned, and all vestiges of civility unraveled.

The accused, Elizabeth Garlick, was known as “Goody” Garlick (short for “Goodwife;” Goody was a term of address for working-class females). The 50-year-old often quarreled with neighbors who said she was a witch, according to the town records of East Hampton, as it was known then. She was said to cast evil eyes and order animal familiars to do her bidding. She was blamed for the death of a baby she held, and for the disappearances, injuries, and death of livestock. 

She was slandered by neighbors, rivals scrabbling to survive in the fishing and farming settlement. To explain the ordeals of Puritan life, before the dawn of scientific thinking, villagers believed in the power of magic, and that the quarreling and distrust were the work of the devil.  

Garlick was jailed and tried as a witch by three judges, all men. 

INNUENDO, RUMOR, AND RYE

Witch hysteria had gone viral throughout Europe from the 1300s to the 1600s, when tens of thousands of supposed witches were executed. Women who were single, widows, and others on the margins of society were usually the prey in widespread witch-hunts. Accused and declared guilty, they were tortured to confess, burned at the stake, or killed by hanging. 

Nearly 80,000 suspected witches were executed in Europe between 1500 and 1660, mostly women said to be lustful and in league with the devil. The highest execution rate was in Germany.  

Fueling the fire and brimstone of prejudice was the immensely popular 1486 book Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), written by two inquisitors for the Catholic Church. The guide labeled witchcraft as heresy and dictated how believers could flush out, interrogate, and convict witches.

In the mid-1600s, bias against women continued to flourish, especially among Puritans. They believed that women would yield easily to temptations like desire for things of material value or sexual promiscuity, targeting women who were homeless, poor, or childless. 

While many practicing Christians and those of other religions blamed the abnormal behavior of certain women on the devil, there may have been a simpler explanation: diet. The colonists cultivated rye, wheat, and other cereal grasses containing ergot, a fungus. Toxicologists discovered that ingesting foods containing ergot can lead to muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions and hallucinations, according to a 1976 Science report by psychologist Linnda Caporael. 

SAVED BY SCIENCE 

The Easthampton magistrates referred Garlick’s case to a higher court in Connecticut after Easthampton became part of that colony. The new sheriff, John Winthrop Jr., was a scholar/healer who explained nature’s magical forces as a case of community pathology, not demonic possession. The verdict: not guilty. Garlick was freed and lived to be 100. 

Some modern-day researchers conclude that witchcraft accusations are caused by patriarchal institutions seeking to dominate matriarchal ones. The patriarchal attitude can be seen in attacks that target and bully women online more often than men. Some would say that not much has changed, arguing that today’s criminal justice system targets poor, vulnerable, and unruly females, just as it did in colonial times.

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.