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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.

John Cassavetes: The Father of Indie Films

John Cassavetes graduated from Port Washington High School.

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

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

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

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

QUINTESSENTIAL OUTSIDER

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

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

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

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

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

EARLY KICKSTARTER

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

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

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

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

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

Related Story: Remembering Diahann Carroll, A Trailblazing Mother

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Remembering Diahann Carroll, A Trailblazing Mother

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

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

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

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

PEACE IN THE PINES

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diahann Carroll

SHATTERING THE RACIAL CEILING

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

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

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

MOTHERING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SILENT STOWAWAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NIMBYS REVOLT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Frances Benjamin Johnston Showed The World What A Woman Can Do

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

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

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

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

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

BLAZING TRAILS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRESERVING THE PALACES

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

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

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

She passed away in 1952 at age 88.

Langston Hughes: Writing Black America

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

He was drawn to it.

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

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

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

A WELL-TRAVELED BUSBOY

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

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

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

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

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

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

POETRY ON THE PORCH

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

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

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

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

Bogie and Bacall: A Lovely Life Together

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

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

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

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

“The boy’s good, isn’t he?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was 89 when she died in 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

MIRACLE ON DERBY ROAD

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

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

SKEPTICISM NOT ALLOWED

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

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

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

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

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

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.