Beach Reads

Live Local, Read Local: History’s Great Sag Harbor Writers

Delve into the lives of these incredibly talented Sag Harborites.

What began as a bustling port of entry and a rough-and-tumble whaling town eventually gave way to a sleepy, idyllic village. Sag Harbor has proven to be the perfect spot for fine artists and writers alike through each of its iterations

James Fenimore Cooper, Photo: Mathew Brady, 1850
James Fenimore Cooper, Photo: Mathew Brady, 1850

JAMES FENIMORE COOPER
In 1818, James Fenimore Cooper had just resigned from the Navy and, yet unknown to the wider world, married Susan Augusta Delancy, a relative of the Nicoll family of Shelter Island, whom the couple soon visited. While there, Cooper met Charles Dering of Sag Harbor and entered the then-booming whaling business. According to Dorothy Zayakowski’s Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty, “Cooper was said to have originated the practice of several people uniting and purchasing a vessel for a whaling voyage”—a practice later known as “company ships.” Zayakowski continues, “They outfitted the whaleship Union…and, to fill his leisure hours…Cooper decided to write a novel.”

It’s unclear what became of that attempt, but another story, which Zayakowski discusses, states that while reading a different novel aloud to his wife, Cooper commented that he could do better. With some encouragement, Cooper wrote Precaution, his first, though unsuccessful, novel.

His next novel, The Spy, written while he waited out two more voyages of the Union at the Nicoll mansion on Shelter Island and the Dering home in Sag Harbor, found success and established Cooper’s reputation as a writer of merit. His Leatherstocking Tales—a series of five novels, which includes The Last of the Mohicans—features a character, Natty Bumpo, said to be based on famous Sag Harborite and Revolutionary War hero, Captain David Hand. Finally, Cooper’s novel Sea Lions, features a vivid description of Sag Harbor.

Recommended Reading: The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years (by Wayne Franklin)

Prentice Mulford, Photo: Needham Portraits, 1876
Prentice Mulford, Photo: Needham Portraits, 1876

PRENTICE MULFORD
Woefully unknown, Mulford was born in Sag Harbor in 1834 on the third floor of what is now the Municipal Building, but was then the Mansion House Hotel, in that village. In 1856, Mulford moved west to California where he became a successful writer—he was friends there with his contemporary, Mark Twain—and an unsuccessful miner.

Mulford left California in 1872, returning to New York as a correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle. He eventually became a leading figure in the New Thought movement. His book, Thoughts are Things, served as a guide to this new belief system and is still popular today.

Eventually, Mulford became disillusioned with the world and moved to the swamps of New Jersey where he lived a simple life and wrote philosophy. In May of 1891, Mulford left New York via his boat, according to the Sag Harbor Corrector, “for a cruise intending to sail through the Great South and Peconic Bays to [Sag Harbor].” He was found dead of a stroke in his boat, the White Cross, in Sheephead Bay with “a camping outfit, provisions, a banjo, artist and writer’s materials, 25 dollars, and had started one of those trips [he] was so fond of, and so often undertook.” He was buried in Oakland Cemetery, the phrase “thoughts are things” serving as his epitaph.

Recommended Reading: Thoughts Are Things

John Steinbeck, Photo: McFadden Publications, 1939
John Steinbeck, Photo: McFadden Publications, 1939

JOHN STEINBECK
“Nothing has pleased us more nor given us more pride than to be considered Sag Harborites,” John Steinbeck wrote to then-Mayor James McMahon in response to McMahon congratulating him on his receipt of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in far away Salinas, California, Steinbeck moved to Sag Harbor in 1955.

In the opening scene of his travelogue/novel, Travels with Charley, the author braves the high winds of Hurricane Donna in July 1960, struggling to secure his 22-foot cabin boat, Fayre Eleyne, in Sag Harbor cove, behind his John Street home, also known as “Bluff Point.” The protagonist of another of his novels, The Winter of Our Discontent, works as a grocery store clerk, just like his good friend, Schiavoni.

The Sag Harbor Express caught up with Steinbeck not long after he took up residence in the village, noting that he “proved to be very affable in the short encounter.” His affability lasted as long as he did. Steinbeck also helped establish, and was appointed Honorary Chairman of, the Old Whalers Festival (now HarborFest) in 1963, a rowdy weekend party, which brought sailors and boozers alike to the village. Steinbeck even invited President Lyndon Johnson, whose letter declining the invitation can be seen inside the Windmill on the Long Wharf in Sag Harbor.

During his Sag Harbor days, Steinbeck was a true local, with his own fishing and drinking buddies, all of whom would frequent the notorious Black Buoy on Main Street (now LT Burger). Steinbeck was also a regular at Cove Deli on Main Street, across from Glover Street. Of Sag Harbor, Steinbeck said, “I grow into this countryside with a lichen grip.”

Recommended Reading: Travels with Charley, The Winter of Our Discontent, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath

Betty Friedan, Photo: Fred Palumbo, 1960
Betty Friedan, Photo: Fred Palumbo, 1960

BETTY FRIEDAN
Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, is considered a neat starting point of second-wave feminism—and Friedan herself is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of the Movement.” Second-wave feminism sought to expand on the advances of first-wave feminism, which focused mainly on voting and property rights, by including issues such as sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities and official legal inequalities.

Around that time, Friedan began visiting the Hamptons, renting large houses with a group of friends, known to each other as “the commune.” The home they rented in 1970 became the staging grounds for the Women’s Strike for Equality march on Fifth Avenue and in other cities around the country, sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW). Eventually, Friedan decided to stay permanently on the East End and purchased a home at 31 Glover Street in Sag Harbor (just down the street from the first National Book Award–winner Nelson Algren), where she introduced many artists and academics to each other at her weekly Sunday lunches. But she remained socially and politically active.

Over Columbus Day weekend in 1987, Friedan, along with William Demby, Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow and others organized the Sag Harbor Initiative, which looked on the state of the democratic system and attempted to address such societal evils as fear, poverty, discrimination, crime and apathy. The event brought together intellectuals, activists, neighborhood residents and students to debate economics, culture, education, politics and “the retreat from racial equality.” Videos of the event, which took place at Pierson High School, can be found on c-span.org. Friedan died in 2006 and is buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Sag Harbor.

Recommended Reading: The Feminine Mystique, Life So Far

LADY CAROLINE BLACKWOOD
By the time Caroline Blackwood made her way to Sag Harbor in 1987, where she lived at 20 Union Street in the village, her career as a writer was mostly over. Years after her death, her daughter Evgenia, described a lunch the pair had in town: “We were sitting in a neighborhood tavern near her home in Sag Harbor. She ordered food, with her usual vodka with tonic on the side. She ate little but drank the vodka, leaving the tonic where it was—on the side.”

Even before she became a writer, Blackwood, the daughter of Maureen Guinness, heir to the brewery, was known as a great beauty and dazzling storyteller. Her semi-autobiographical 1977 novel, Great Granny Webster, was described as macabre and mordantly funny and was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. But Blackwood was perhaps best known for her marriages.

She was first married to Lucian Freud, the famous British Figurative artist. Ann Fleming, wife of Ian Fleming, first introduced the couple and, when they eloped to Paris she met Picasso who is supposed to have drawn on her—she then refused to bathe for several days. Blackwood sat for many of Freud’s most famous paintings, including Girl in Bed, 1952. Her second husband was the American composer Israel Citkowitz, with whom she had three daughters (though on her deathbed, Blackwood revealed one of those daughters to be the result of an affair).

Her third husband, the bipolar poet Robert Lowell, once described Blackwood as a “mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers.” Completing the nautical metaphor, Lowell affectionately nicknamed her “Dolphin” and titled a collection of his poems, winner of 1974 Pulitzer Prize, The Dolphin. In 1977, with their marriage falling apart, Lowell left, returning to New York, where he died of a heart attack in the back of a cab on his way to his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s apartment, reportedly clutching a print of Girl in Bed. Blackwood died in New York in 1996. According to her daughter Ivana’s memoirs, her cremated ashes were buried under a pine tree at her Union Street, Sag Harbor home.

Recommended Reading: Great Granny Webster, Corrigan, Never Breath a Word: The Collected Stories, Dangerous Muse (by Nancy Schoenberger) 

Join our celebration of East End literature and writing at the Dan’s Papers Literary Festival at Guild Hall on Thursday, August 23. Read all about here or visit DansLitPrize.com.

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