Nelson Algren (1909–1981)
Nelson Algren was an American novelist and short story writer, known as the “Poet of the Chicago Slums.” His novel The Man With the Golden Arm, published in 1949, won the National Book Award and was adapted as a 1955 film of the same name.
Algren showed his tough love for Chicago with Chicago, City on the Make, written in 1951, and was referred to as "a bard of the down-and-outer”, reifying the world of the Chicago demimonde. He moved to Paterson, NJ after researching and writing on the boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter in The Devil's Stocking.
Hemingway called him the greatest post-war novelist writing in his day. He moved to Sag Harbor at the end of his life, somewhat embittered by his lack of fame. Algren was then accepted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and planned to celebrate his induction, but died in his kitchen while preparing for a celebration party.
George Balanchine (born Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze) (1904 – 1983)
George Balanchine was one of the 20th century's most important choreographers. Called the father of American ballet, he co-founded the New York City Ballet and remained its Artistic Director for more than 35 years.
Balanchine took the standards and technique from his time at the Imperial Ballet School of St Petersburg and fused it with other schools of movement that he had adopted during his tenure on Broadway and in Hollywood, creating his signature "neoclassical style”.
Balanchine was a choreographer known for his musicality, working extensively with leading composers of his time like Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith. Balanchine was invited to America in 1933 by the young arts patron Lincoln Kirstein. Together they founded the School of American Ballet, and it was also with Kirstein that Balanchine co-founded the New York City Ballet. Balanchine also spent extensive time on the west coast, creating dances for movies, and briefly served as choreographer for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Balanchine remains a towering figure in ballet who will not soon be surpassed, transforming and modernizing ballet while keeping it a vital form.
Lady Caroline Maureen Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood (1931-1996)
Caroline Blackwood, Guiness heiress, novelist, biographer, journalist & critic, had an unhappy, abusive-nanny childhood. She was an awkward teenager who blossomed into a lithe blond woman who wrote with an acerbic wit and tongue, was shortlisted for a Booker Prize, and lived abroad for much of her life.
She eloped to Paris with Lucian Freud, and had, among many others, an affair with Robert Silvers, founder of The New York Review of Books, married composer Israel Citkowitz, and later poet Robert Lowell. She was also with photographer Walker Evans for a time.
Lowell described her as a “mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers". A famous painting of her by Lucian Freud titled “Girl in Bed” figured in the death of Lowell. Their marriage was a wreck when he left Ireland and flew to New York City, arriving at the apartment building where writer Elizabeth Hardwick, whom he’d left for Caroline, also lived. Hardwick was summoned by the taxi driver, who found Lowell slumped over in the back of his cab. When the door was opened she found Lowell, dead, clutching “Girl in Bed”.
Blackwood was known for novels The Stepdaughter and The Last of the Duchess (1980), and for her numerous stringent articles.
In 1987 Blackwood settled in Sag Harbor, writing until her death from cancer in 1996.
Olivia Ward Bush-Banks (1869-1944)
Olivia Ward Bush-Banks was born on Glover Street near Main (exact address unknown), and moved as an infant with her family to Rhode Island. She returned to the Sag Harbor area many times to attend tribal meetings around the turn of the century when Native Americans were vying for civil rights.
Bush-Banks was a dramatist, essayist, editor, and published poet, and her writing reflects her rich heritage. She was featured regularly in the journal Colored America, and she served as an official historian for the Montauk nation. Her books include Driftwood and The Trail of Montauk (A Dramatic Sketch of Indian Life). A compilation has been published, titled The Collected Works of Olivia Ward Bush-Banks. Bush-Banks became an advocate for the “New Negro Movement” and developed her own Bush-Banks School of Expression, a nexus for writers, musicians, actors and artists of color. She also participated in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. Her friends included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Paul Robeson, Julia Ward Howe, and W.E.B. DuBois.
James Fenimore Cooper (1759-1851)
James Fenimore Cooper was a particularly American writer known for historical fiction depicting frontier and Native American life. Cooper served in the U.S. Navy where he learned about sailing vessels which influenced many of his writings. Some of his well-known works include The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie, The Pioneers, The Sea Lions, and The Bravo.
Cooper was young when he stayed in Sag Harbor, and newly married. His family had founded Cooperstown, NY, from which he’d moved. He had a naval background, and bought a whaling ship “The Union” to make his fortune in 1820, at the beginning of the whaling boom. His wife had poor eyesight, and he’d read her English novels. Once, while reading a novel to her, he complained that it was garbage, and she challenged him to write one himself. His first novel, Precaution, was hardly a success, but subsequent works became the first that were truly American novels, with New World content.
Natty Bumpo, the famous protagonist of his novel The Pioneers, is thought to be based on a Sag Harbor resident, David Hand, whose renovated house still stands on Church Street, having been one of the oldest buildings in Sag Harbor.
Nathan J Cuffee (1854-1912)
Nathan Cuffee was born in East Hampton to whaler Jason James Cuffee, a member of the Eastville Band of the Montaukett tribe and Louisa R. Cotton of the Naragansett tribe from Rhode Island. Cuffee grew up in the Eastville section of Sag Harbor on Liberty Street, spending time at the house 2 doors down as well, and later moved with his wife Marie to Shelter Island.
While almost blind, in 1905 Cuffee co-authored a novel with Lydia Jocelyn called Lords of the Soil: A Romance of Indian Life Among Early English Settlers which was well-received, making Cuffee the first published Native American from Long Island. Its content was described by one reviewer as "Duplicitous English colonists in the company of Captain Lion Gardiner on Long Island in the year 1654 conspire to obtain Indian land by having "Heather Flower," daughter of the Montauk sachem [chief], Wyandanch, kidnapped and held for ransom by the Narragansetts, a warring tribe." These familiar names obviously associate Cuffee and Jocelyn's work with the East End.
Edgar (E.L.) Doctorow (1931–2015)
E. L. Doctorow was born in the Bronx and named after Edgar Allen Poe by his second-generation Russian Jewish parents. His first brilliant novel, Welcome to Hard Times, was inspired by script reading, a job he took for a motion picture company after his military service ended.
Doctorow then worked as an editor at the New American Library where he worked with Ian Fleming and Ayn Rand, and later at Dial Press (working with James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and William Kennedy, among others). In 1969 he decided to pursue a writing career full time, and instantly won the highest possible praise for his fictionalized account of the Julian and Ethel Rosenberg trial and execution in The Book of Daniel.
He went on to write Ragtime, World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate, and The March, winning countless awards and honors. Many of his novels were made into movies. He taught at Yale, the University of Utah, UC Irvine, and New York University.
Sag Harbor was a fond and largely summertime second home for Edgar and his wife Helen, a novelist and singer.
Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
In 1963, Betty Friedan published a book called The Feminine Mystique that galvanized American Feminism in the second half of the 20th Century. By the year 2000 more than three million copies had been sold, and it had been translated into many languages. The Second Sex, an earlier book by French author Simone de Beauvoir, also dealt with similar issues but did not quite strike the same cultural nerve. The Feminine Mystique exploded the pervasive myth that a woman kept by her husband in a housewifely role is necessarily a fulfilled woman: “The problem that has no name”, as she called it.
The publication of The Feminine Mystique also led to her co-founding and presidency of the National Organization for Women in 1966, which sought equal rights and standing with men in American society. This was followed by the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970, which took place on August 26th, the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. She was slow to accept the cause of LGBTQ rights, but eventually saw its essential worth.
There is no question that Friedan’s book and work has had enormous effect on culture worldwide, and its importance is undiminished.
Spalding Rockwell Gray (1941–2004)
Spalding Gray was an American actor and writer. He is known for the autobiographical monologues that he wrote and performed for the theater, most notably The Wooster Group, in the 1980s and 1990s.
Theater critics John Willis and Ben Hodges described his monologue work as "trenchant, personal narratives delivered on sparse, unadorned sets with a dry, WASP, quiet mania". Gray achieved celebrity status for his monologue Swimming to Cambodia, which was adapted into a film in 1987 by filmmaker Jonathan Demme. Other one-man shows by Gray that were captured on film include Monster in a Box, directed by Nick Broomfield, and Gray's Anatomy, directed by Steven Soderbergh.
His death in 2004 is widely considered to have been suicide by drowning after Gray leapt from the Staten Island Ferry into the East River. His neurologist, Oliver Sacks, said that he had more than once spoken of what he called a “creative suicide”. A documentary by Steven Soderbergh, And Everything Is Going Fine, compiled of film and video clips of Gray’s early life and career, was released in 2010. Gray was deeply enamored of Sag Harbor.
James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Langston Hughes was a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright and columnist.
Growing up in a series of Midwestern towns, Hughes became a prolific writer at an early age. He graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio and soon began studies at Columbia University in New York City, where he made his career. Although he dropped out from Columbia, he gained notice from New York publishers, first in The Crisis magazine, and then from book publishers, becoming known in the creative community in Harlem. He eventually graduated from Lincoln University. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote plays and short stories, and also published several non-fiction works.
From 1942 to 1962, as the civil rights movement was gaining traction, he wrote an in-depth weekly column in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. Hughes was a frequent guest in William Pickens’ Sag Harbor house in the early 1950s.
Hughes was one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, and one of the innovators of "jazz poetry". His well-known poems include "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", "Mother to Son", "Let America Be America Again", "Dreams", "The Weary Blues" and "Harlem".
Hal McKusick (1924 – 2012)
Hal McKusick was an American jazz alto saxophonist, clarinetist and flutist. He worked in the big bands of Les Brown, Woody Herman (1943), Boyd Raeburn (1944-'45), Alvino Rey (1946), Buddy Rich, Claude Thornhill (1948-'49), Terry Gibbs, Elliot Lawrence and many others. McKusick also released albums under his own leadership, including a 1957 album for Prestige titled Triple Exposure.
In 1958 Hal McKusick led a small group with Bill Evans that recorded Cross Section – Saxes, which included contributions from Art Farmer, Paul Chambers, Connie Kay, and Barry Galbraith. For this album, McKusick commissioned arrangements from George Handy, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell and Ernie Wilkins. He also worked on sessions with other prominent jazz musicians including Lee Konitz and John Coltrane.
McKusick worked with nearly all the famous musicians in the genre, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He settled in Sag Harbor in 1972, where he taught at the Ross School in East Hampton. In addition to being a jazz great, he was also an impeccable woodworker, and worked in his studio at the Prime House, one of the great old historic houses of Sag Harbor dating from 1795. It was lovingly preserved and maintained thanks to his extraordinary care and talent.
Gordon Roberto Echaurren Matta-Clark (1943 – 1978)
Gordon Matta-Clark was an American artist best known for the site-specific artwork he made in the 1970s.
Matta-Clark's parents were artists Anne Clark and Roberto Matta, the Chilean Surrealist painter. His twin brother Sebastian, also an artist, sadly committed suicide in 1976.
In 1969, curator Willoughby Sharp introduced him to members of the New York art world. Matta-Clark's work, Museum, was shown at Klaus Kertess’ notorious Bykert Gallery.
Matta-Clark, Carol Goodden, and Tina Girouard co-founded FOOD, a restaurant in SoHo, New York in 1971, which was managed and staffed by artists. FOOD hosted the Philip Glass Ensemble, Mabou Mines, and the dancers of Grand Union, among others. It was in the context of this artistic community that Matta-Clark developed the idea of "anarchitecture", a conflation of the words anarchy and architecture, to suggest an interest in voids, gaps, and left-over spaces.
The artist tragically died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 35 on August 27, 1978 in New York, NY.
Herman Melville (1819 –1891)
Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, and poet. Among his best-known works are Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), Typee (1846), a romanticized account of his experiences in Polynesia, and Billy Budd, Sailor, a posthumously published novella. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is considered one of the greatest American novels.
Sag Harbor is mentioned several times in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, in one instance as a model of depravity, as the "savage" harpooner Queequeg recounts how he decided to remain a pagan after seeing how Christians in Sag Harbor behaved:
"But, alas! the practices of whalemen soon convinced him that even Christians could be both miserable and wicked; infinitely more so, than all his father's heathens. Arrived at last in old Sag Harbor; and seeing what the sailors did there; and then going on to Nantucket, and seeing how they spent their wages in that place also, poor Queequeg gave it up for lost. Thought he, it's a wicked world in all meridians; I'll die a pagan." (Chapter 12, Moby-Dick, or The Whale)
Amaza Lee Meredith (1895–1984)
Amaza Lee Meredith was an American architect, educator and artist. Meredith was unable to formalize her profession as an architect because of "both her race and her sex" as an African-American woman, and working as an art teacher at Virginia State University, where she founded the art department. She is best known for her residence, Azurest South, built in 1939, where she and her partner Edna Meade Colson resided together.
Despite having no formal training in architecture, Meredith designed many homes for family and friends in Virginia, New York and Texas. Azurest South is considered a rare example of Virginia's International Style and displays her interest in avant-garde design. Meredith actively documented her lifestyle and accomplishments at Azurest though photographs.
In 1947, Meredith began developing a 120-lot subdivision in Sag Harbor called Azurest North for her family and friends. She and her friends created a group called the Azurest Syndicate, which enabled the creation of an African American leisure community. Terry Cottage and Edendot were both designed by Meredith. In 1958, she retired from teaching but continued to design buildings and paint throughout the 1960s. In the 1970s, Meredith designed logos to be used for a proposed name change for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Prentice Mulford (1834–1891)
Prentice Mulford was an author and literary humorist born in what was then the Mansion House Hotel, now the Municipal Building on Main Street in Sag Harbor. The hotel was owned by his father.
Mulford moved to California in 1856 where he spent several years in mining towns, and later became well known as part of the San Franciscan “Bohemians”. In the late 1850s, groups of young, cultured journalists deemed themselves Bohemians, flourishing in cities across America. The San Franciscan Bohemians, and their “Bohemian Grove”, still exist today.
Mulford wrote for a paper called The Golden Era in San Francisco, and became a prolific writer, editor and lecturer, returning to New York City in 1872. The “New Thought" philosophy he founded with Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others, still has a following. Mulford’s books and guides for it were Thoughts Are Things and Your Forces and How to Use Them, which are still being read today. He also coined the term “Laws of Attraction”.
James Salter (1925 – 2015)
James Salter was an American writer and U.S. Air Force pilot. He attended West Point and during WWII was stationed in the Pacific theater. He flew more than 100 combat missions, using his Korean experience for his first novel, The Hunters (1956). A 1961 novel, The Arm of Flesh, drew on his experiences flying with the 36th Fighter-Day Wing at Bitburg Air Base, Germany.
Salter came to disdain both of his "Air Force" novels and took up screenwriting, first as a writer of independent documentary films. His most famous film work is Downhill Racer with Robert Redford. After moving to New York City with his family, his 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime was published to acclaim. It received his kindest self-critical review, saying that it came close to living up to his standards.
In 1976 he began living with journalist and playwright Kay Eldredge. Eldredge and Salter co-authored a book entitled Life Is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days, in 2006.
His 1997 memoir Burning the Days chronicles the impact his experiences at West Point, in the Air Force, and as being an ex-pat in Europe. A collection of short stories titled Dusk and Other Stories, published in 1988, received the PEN/Faulkner Award. Salter was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000. His last book, All That Is (2013,) received wide acclaim. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor.
John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
John Steinbeck was an American Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning author. His well-known novels include East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men. Most of his work is set in the Salinas Valley of central California, where he was born. Later in life he moved to Sag Harbor with his wife Elaine Scott and his dog, Charley. It is here that he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent and Travels with Charley.
Steinbeck would stop at the still-extant Cove Deli, at the corner of Glover and Main Streets, chatting with all the locals in Sag Harbor on his way into the village. A man here once asked him, “Aren’t you John Steinbeck?” to which he answered, “I’m John, just call me John”.
He was perfectly at home in Sag Harbor, walking into town from his home on John St. and bringing his dog Charley (of his book Travels With Charley) into his favorite bar, The Black Buoy, which was notorious for unfriendliness toward non-locals. Steinbeck helped start the HarborFest fall celebration in Sag Harbor, then known as the Old Whalers Festival, serving as its chairman from 1963-1968. He is honored by a plaque on the Windmill at Long Wharf in Sag Harbor for his dedication to the Festival.
Elaine Stritch (1925 – 2014)
Elaine Stritch was a legendary American Broadway and TV actress and singer. She made her professional stage debut in 1944 and appeared in numerous stage plays, musicals, feature films and television series. She was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1995. She has received four Tony Award nominations: for the William Inge play Bus Stop (1956), the Noël Coward musical Sail Away (1962), the Stephen Sondheim musical Company (1971), and for the revival of the Edward Albee play A Delicate Balance (1996).
Her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, won the 2002 Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event. She starred in the TV sitcom Two's Company (1975–79), which earned her a 1979 BAFTA TV Award nomination. She won an Emmy Award in 1993 for her guest role on Law & Order and another for the 2004 television documentary of her one-woman show. From 2007 to 2012, she had a recurring role as Colleen Donaghy on the NBC sitcom 30 Rock, for which she won a third Emmy in 2007.
Daisy Tapley (1882-1925)
Daisy Tapley was an African-American contralto singer and pianist. A musical prodigy, Tapley (née Robinson) was raised in Chicago where she studied piano and organ with celebrated musicians, including Clarence Eddy, Emil Liebling and Pedro Tinsley. After marrying Vaudeville musician Henri Green Tapley in 1901, they both toured the British Isles in a Williams and Walker Company production of In Dahomey. On that tour was a young soprano, Minnie Brown, who eventually became Daisy’s same-sex partner.
While in the United Kingdom, Daisy had the opportunity to concertize as a classical pianist and meet the eminent Afro-British composer, Samuel Coleridge Taylor as well as her idol, Clara Butt. The two become friends. Butt encouraged Daisy to abandon the vaudeville stage and pursue the career she was trained for as a classical musician. Following that advice, Daisy set up a studio in her Harlem apartment, and established a thriving music practice where she taught voice and keyboard. In 1910 Daisy made history by being the first African American woman to record commercially. While she was primarily a musician, Tapley became prominent in many social movements of her time including leading roles in the 1917 NAACP-sponsored Silent March to protest African-American racial violence; the Anti-Lynching movement, and she planned and participated in many fund-raising concerts to assist causes which benefitted racial justice. By the early 1920s, she had become New York’s musical maven with a national reputation as a classical performer. She died from ovarian cancer in 1925 and is buried in Sag Harbor, where she had kept a summer home.
Lanford Wilson (1937-2011)
Lanford Wilson was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and the co-founder of Circle Repertory Company. Some of his best-known plays are 5th of July, Talley’s Folly, Balm in Gilead, The Hot L Baltimore, and Burn This.
Lanford Wilson was born in Missouri, moving to Greenwich Village in 1962. After 1970 he spent half the year in Sag Harbor, NY and lived there full time after 1998.
In 2010, he was presented the Artistic Achievement Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards "in recognition of his brave and unique works that helped establish the Off-Off-Broadway community and propel the independent theatre voice as an important contributor to the American stage.” He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980 and was elected in 2001 to the Theater Hall of Fame. In 2004, Wilson was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award as a Master American Dramatist. He was nominated for three Tony Awards and won a Drama Desk Award and five Obie Awards.
Wilson was also a collector of outsider art, and an avid and accomplished gardener. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor.