Yes, it’s true. Much to my surprise, I am 80 years old. Frankly, I don’t know how that happened.
It’s also true that, on the occasion of the 60th summer of Dan’s Papers, the staff has invited me to tell the full story of this newspaper I founded and have spent all my life nurturing. They said write it as long as you want. So here goes. I hope you are not disappointed.
The newspaper began in 1959 as a thought in my head two days before Christmas, when I came home to Montauk for the holidays from my sophomore year at the University of Rochester. The president of the country at that time was Dwight D. Eisenhower. A few years earlier, a senator from Minnesota, Joe McCarthy, headed up a Congressional committee determined to either ruin the reputations or throw into jail anyone who had socialist leanings or positive feelings toward communism. He was doing it on television, something that had never been done before, and it appeared he might subpoena the president himself and seize control of the government. My mom and dad, who were not communists, did at that time throw away from their own library a half-dozen books they owned about communism. “I can’t believe I have to do this,” my dad said.
Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and McCarthy was censured by the Senate. He died soon thereafter. And freedom of speech was preserved. It was in this atmosphere, in my teenage years, that I began to think about what I wanted to do with my life when I grew up.
People think I am a local boy, but I am not. I grew up in Millburn, New Jersey, where my father worked as the sales manager of a national cosmetics company that had its main office in Manhattan. We lived in the suburbs in a nice house. I have a sister who came along when I was seven. And when I was 15, in 1955, dad left the firm and took his family along to Montauk, a five-hour drive away, to a store there called White’s Pharmacy. He had bought this store. He was going through a midlife crisis, and he wanted a simpler life in a small town. And he remembered he had a Pharmacy degree and a license to practice in the State of New York. So he’d buy a pharmacy in New York and he’d take us all along.
None of us, except dad, had ever been to Montauk before. The only reference I had for the place was when weather forecasters spoke of it, either on the radio or on one of the seven black-and-white TV stations based in New York City we received at that time.
That first day we came to Montauk, I was stunned by the beauty of it. Nothing in my life had prepared me for it. It was windswept, wild, hilly, with views in every direction of the ocean and bay. The air was cool and salty. The remains of a failed attempt to develop the place years earlier were still there and now pretty much abandoned—a dude ranch, a polo field, the Yacht Club, the Surf Club, the golf course, the English Tudor Montauk Manor Hotel high on a hill next to its enclosed glass tennis court building, at that time falling to ruin.
“Downtown,” as I soon found out—which this developer Carl Fisher had laid out with roads and sidewalks crisscrossing what had been a field—continued as a field but featured one seven-story-tall abandoned skyscraper facing a plaza. There were also about 10 stores on the “Main Street,” all a block from the Atlantic Ocean. The pharmacy was on this street, so was the post office, a bar, a liquor store, a bait-and-tackle shop. All this had been built in the 1920s, abandoned in the 1930s, and then, over time, restored again. Also there, mostly on the grid of roads that the developer had set down, were about 20 brand new motels, built just a few years before we got there, some gas stations and stores and, off tucked away in other parts of the peninsula, as I soon found out, a small fishing village, an Air Force radar base and various cottage colonies.
For me, the most striking thing, sitting in the back seat with my sister as we scooted through the Hamptons—sleepy and little-known villages where businesses shut down for church on Sundays and dogs slept on the white line in the middle of the road—was this big hill you went down when you left Amagansett, with Montauk 10 miles further on. The temperature dropped suddenly by five degrees. There were billboards advertising this odd summer resort 10 miles ahead, and the music on the car radio—there was only AM radio then—turned to static. Also, as I soon found out, the signal from the seven New York TV stations did, too. On TV in Montauk—this was long before cable—there were only three stations, all ABC affiliates from Connecticut and Rhode Island and all broadcasting the same shows at the same time. It was to stay that way for years.
I was studying for a degree in English at the University of Rochester at the time. I revered the famous American and English authors. I loved the various journals and newspapers from those times long ago. I found the newspapers of the era I was living in boring. But there was a ray of hope. My mother would get in the mail, once a week, a newspaper called the Carolina Israelite. It was a running commentary by a Jewish humorist who was stuck in North Carolina, by the name of Harry Golden. For example, he advocated AGAINST building a new superhighway through North Carolina for the New York crowd driving to Florida, which they did at the time. “Let them stop and spend some money when they get to North Carolina,” he wrote. I read this and enjoyed it as my mother did. I’d become a writer in college. I worked on the college humor magazine. Maybe I could find a place to get my work published when I grew up.
In the years 1956 to 1959, I worked for my dad in the store during my summer vacation. I liked it at first, but soon took to daydreaming about the various stories the local folks in town told. By 1959, when my mom suggested I could get a degree in grad school in Pharmacy, I became alarmed at the idea. I would want to do something else. I wanted to be outdoors. And I wanted to be a humorist.
What I certainly had noticed by that Christmas vacation in 1959 was that there was a need for a newspaper in Montauk. Montauk may have been loved by its fishermen, yachtsmen and beachgoers, but it was treated with alarm by the people of East Hampton, whose newspaper was the only publication covering Montauk. They took every opportunity they could to denounce Montauk and its tourists, seemingly hoping to make it go away. They were proud of their more-than-300-year heritage in East Hampton, they were proud of their windmills and their summer social set and their old New England town founded in 1648. The idea began brewing in me over time that I should publish a newspaper for Montauk.
That Christmas vacation, while listening to a college football game between Army and Notre Dame on a New England radio station that came in loud and clear, I used newsprint, paste and crayon to create a mockup of a newspaper that could serve Montauk. Montauk was really a frontier town. I considered calling it the Montauk Frontier. But when Jack Kennedy had won the election two months earlier using the slogan “New Frontier,” I decided instead to call it The Montauk Pioneer.
I designed a logo showing where the stories could go and where the ads could go in this eight-page mock up. The stories would highlight the news of Montauk and feature its history, which included rumrunning, catching giant fish, Teddy Roosevelt and the failed development of Carl Fisher.
This newspaper would be published only in the summertime, when the tourists were staying at the 40 motels. Its first edition would be July 1, 1960. But how many should I print and who would buy it?
I knew The East Hampton Star sold 145 copies a week in Montauk because they sold it only in my dad’s store and in Martell’s, a stationery store further up Main Street. My dad sold 120. I asked Mr. Martell. He said they sold 25. That was it.
But 40 motels had lots of people staying in them. I did some math and made a few phone calls to a few of them that were open. I learned the average motel had 50 rooms, had an 80% occupancy rate in July and August, and had two in a room on average. The average stay was two or three days. That would mean about 3,000 people a week were in town (served by 850 locals, according to the census). I would publish, that first summer, every other week, and I’d print 5,000 copies and give them all away. This was a very novel idea at that time, giving a newspaper away free, something that, as far as I knew, had never been done before. I’d put stacks of the paper on the cigarette and soft drink machines in the lobbies of the motels, and I’d put them in all the stores and restaurants. I drove around town. There were 150 places of business. If I made it funny and beautiful and interesting, who would want to turn it away? I imagined everybody in town reading my newspaper.
I spent much of the rest of that vacation reading the history of Montauk in the East Hampton Library—when I turned 17, I had passed my driving test and dad had bought Dr. Robbin’s old Plymouth for me as a gift, and that was how I got around.
I spent the ensuing spring vacation in that library and also interviewed former rumrunners who lived in Montauk, who now in their later years had so many tales to tell. Also on that vacation I began going around town with my mockup to sell the advertising. Five thousand copies of an eight-page paper five times in the summer would cost me $1,500—about $15,000 in today’s money. My dad told me he would approve of the effort if I could make as much as he paid me to clerk in the store, which was about that much. I aimed to make $1,000 more than that. I had put 30 blank ads in my mockup. Each was 1/12 of a page. I wrote $100 on each blank in pencil. Take the space for the summer for that amount. Thirty of those would fetch me $3,000.
As near as I could see, the printing would be my only expense. I had a bedroom in my parent’s house. I had access to a telephone. I had a desk and chair in my room. I had a car. Allow $500 for whatever other expenses there might be, though I didn’t see any. That would satisfy my dad’s request.
Yes, I sold all 30 ads. They included my dad (who bought two squares,) Gurney’s Inn, Gosman’s Dock, Salivar’s Restaurant, Martha Greene Real Estate, Perry B. Duryea and Son, the Viking Fleet and Tuma’s Bait and Tackle. I also got an ad from the Montauk Improvement Company, which was handling the remains of Carl Fisher’s resort enterprise at that time. Also in there were the Shagwong, Ruschmeyer’s, the Crow’s Nest and the Deep Hollow Ranch.
I asked for no money down. I didn’t use contracts. I said their signature in the box they wanted in the mockup would do for that. I’d collect the money at the end of the summer, and, indeed, in the end, everybody paid.
I still remember July 1, 1960, when I delivered the 5,000 copies I had stayed up all night helping the printer create the night before. (A week before printing, my printer said he wouldn’t let the paper out of his shop unless I handed him $350. I was surprised at this but did not blame him. I suppose my dad would have footed that for me, but instead, I went back to some of the advertisers I’d sold and asked if they’d give me $50 deposits. Nobody said no. When I got seven to do that, I had enough. And that’s what I paid the printer with.)
Bundles of The Montauk Pioneer totaling 5,000 copies fit tightly in the passenger seat, the back seat and the trunk of Doc Robbin’s car, with barely room for me to drive them back out east. I had written about a giant shark Frank Mundus had caught. I had written the story of Carl Fisher. I had a piece about rumrunners in it, and I had my name under an elaborate fake corporate shield showing a fishing rod crossed with a beach umbrella. Owner and Publisher. Underneath it said Founded 1960. It was 1960, so it was a joke. That was then.
I had filled a composition book with a zigzag drive through all the streets of Montauk to deliver the papers, 10 to 20 in a store or motel, all on the right, to the end of the street and then a turnaround so I could deliver the other side by also delivering on the right. I did not want to get run over. I delivered the bundles on my shoulder—in the same way my dad had shown me how to carry big boxes from the storeroom to the shelves out front in the store—and delivering papers took all day. At each destination, I plopped down 10 or a whole bundle of papers, cut the ribbon, told the person at the desk it was free and hoped they’d like it, and left. It was done blitzkrieg fashion. I never asked ahead of time, and as I had predicted, there were that day dozens of people to be seen reading what I wrote as I drove out from my last stop on my way to the beach, where, all tired and sweaty in t-shirt and shorts, I ran across the sand and dove happily through a wave and into the ocean.
It was all just wonderful.
I needed more pages for more ads and stories in the second issue. In the end, I made about $3,000 that summer, enough for me to pay for my college without my parents’ help at all. At the end of the summer, dad had a surprise for me. He took me to Plitt Ford in East Hampton (where the post office is today) and pointed at a shiny silver 1957 Ford Fairlane convertible with red leather seats and tailfins.
“It’s yours,” he said.
I loved my parents, particularly my dad, who in subsequent years so often gave me advice that put me on the straight and narrow. He was beloved not only by me but by Montauk—he’d get up in the middle of the night to fill a prescription and deliver it to wherever it was needed. And he was beloved by his wife and daughter.
One excellent comment he offered me came eight years after this first year’s editions. I had finished college and grad school in six years, coming home in the summertime to do The Montauk Pioneer each year, and I was now thinking a lot about what I ought to do now that my schooling was finished. I was thinking of the winter. The summer was obvious.
Indeed, during the next two years after college I had gotten various jobs in New York City, and none had lasted long. That first autumn, my mother told me she had a friend at The New York Times who said she could get me a job there. I went for an interview. I was to work in the City Room as the clerk to the Foreign Editor. I moved to a fleabag hotel in Times Square, across from where they had their building, thinking I’d stay there a week or so then find my own place. But in the City Room I was told the editor I would be working for was on a trip, and so I could work as one of the messenger boys until he got back.
Two weeks after starting with that, for pay half of what I would get as the clerk, I had what can only be described as a panic attack—no Foreign Editor had shown up—and was told to go home and take the week off. During the week off they called to say I was fired. “We can’t have that,” is what he said. “So you’re blocked here. Try the Herald Tribune.”
Then I got a job working as a copywriter trainee for Foote, Cone & Belding, an ad agency in the Pan Am Building. I liked the work and took on an apartment on West 10th Street, but in the heart of the winter, a new creative director arrived and fired everybody in our division to bring in his “own people.” It broke my heart.
From there, a friend and I founded an underground newspaper called The East Village Other. After six months, however, I felt Montauk calling and so left. The East Village Other lasted another 10 years as a big counter-culture newspaper for New York City. But it was without me.
The next fall, I began walking around the city, trying to sell cartoons I had drawn. It got me some jobs—I had them in Esquire, The Realist, The Saturday Review of Literature and other publications, but it did not bring in enough to pay the rent. I vowed I’d go back to Montauk in the spring. In March, I had been down in St. Thomas with my roommate from grad school at Harvard two years before, and we’d partied and had a good time, and I had befriended a New Yorker who had a business there and wanted to come home to New York.
“Dad,” I told my father, “I’ve figured out what to do in the wintertime next year.”
“Well, I met this guy in St. Thomas who owns two 20-passenger launch boats. He has contracts with the cruise ships to take passengers back and forth between the ships and Charlotte Amalie, the resort town there, and he has put the business up for sale. It just operates during the winter resort season. I can buy it with no money down. Just some of the profits, for five years. What do you think?”
“I think that’s the stupidest idea I ever heard,” Dad said. “Why do you want to work all year? Your mom and I skinny down the store to just two employees and go to Mazatlan, Mexico for two months in the winter. Why don’t you do something like that?”
“Well, I can’t make enough to support myself for a full year with the money from just the summer paper in Montauk.”
“Why not open another summer newspaper in East Hampton?” he suggested. “And if that works, you can open one the next summer in Southampton. You’d make a full living. And then you could go to Mazatlan to visit with us, or go to anywhere else in the world for that time of year. Most of the merchants do what we do.”
Well, the truth was, I wasn’t turning out to be any good at anything other than running my summer paper.
I told him I would see if I could sell ads in East Hampton. It will work, he said. I’ll bet you $50 dollars it will work. I took the bet. He paid up the following year. And I never cashed the check.
I did think, when I took on this task, though, that it could only work if I moved out of the house and rented something in East Hampton. Otherwise I was another foreigner, this time from Montauk. I was now 26 years old.
I couldn’t afford the East Hampton rents. But somehow I found something. I had been visiting John Reed in late May, a man who owned a photography store on Newtown Lane in East Hampton, and I was there in the store to buy a good but used Nikon camera from him when I heard somebody calling him from the basement. He said he’d be right back. When he opened the door going down, I could see it was a brightly lit finished basement. A steel pole holding up the ceiling was striped as a candy cane. There was a table and chair with silverware set up next to it.
When he came back up after taking care of whatever was going on down there, I asked if he was living there, and he said he and his family were indeed doing that.
“We rented our house for the summer,” he told me.
I told him I was looking for a place to live for the summer, too.
“Well, you should try to get what I got last summer,” he said. “It was cheap last year, but this year I can’t because it’s become too risky.”
The place he had rented the prior summer was now the centerpiece of an escalating divorce battle. Neither party would let the other live in it. It had been how Mr. Reed had been able to handle it the year before, cheap, but now full-blown war had broken out between the parties.
“If you rent from one,” he told me, “the other will have you evicted. That’s different from last year. I have a family, but you’re a single guy. Maybe you could work it out.”
I got a tour of the house the next day from the husband, who was in the rug-cleaning business. He had alcohol on his breath. The house was a former 40-by-20-foot single-story barracks building from the abandoned World War I army training camp in Yaphank. With the war over, it had been sold to a veteran named Lieutenant Keeler for $1 in exchange for him moving it off the property at his own expense. In 1919, he had mules tow it on a wagon to its present site on the south side of the Montauk Highway in East Hampton. It didn’t have regular heat but instead had a gas heater in the floor in the center of the house. It had electricity and water. It sat on a quarter of an acre. The present owner told me he had bought it in his wife’s name and I could live there if I just paid the monthly mortgage payments, which his wife was stiffing him for.
“How much is the mortgage?” I asked.
“$52 a month.” He said this pronouncing it as if it were a lot. A big deal.
“Give me a day to think it over,” I said.
“Okay. But she’ll try to throw you out.”
That evening I went to see Saul Wolfe, an East Hampton lawyer who did work for my dad. He said go ahead and do it. Just change the locks.
“She’ll get it back eventually,” he said, “but it won’t be until autumn. She could file papers to evict you, but I can hold her off till then with postponements. And then it won’t matter.”
So that’s how I got my first house. The wife did come by. She was a polite English woman, but after trying the door, she demanded I leave. I opened the door and handed her my lawyer’s business card. Call him, I said. She came back a day later, in tears, and I invited her in and we had tea and she told me how bad her husband was. Then she left and wished me well. That fall, I bought the place with enough money for the two of them to complete their divorce. It was $9,250.
Four years later, with a new wife, our new daughter and some new prosperity, I sold this place. I got $22,000 for it. More than double my money. I’ve owned my own place since, trading up and up. Never bought much more, but I was on the merry-go-round and certainly never regretted it.
Here I was, established. And with that done, I would like to tell about and thank some of the people who helped me along the way after that.
The first is Ron Ziel. In 1966, my dad had opened a brand new White’s Pharmacy building he’d had constructed around the corner from the old one. It really was his own place now. There would be no more paying rent to a landlord at the old location. However, he made the decision to continue paying the rent on the old store for one year so it would be vacant and people would get the idea they’d have to go around the corner for White’s.
In this interval, I asked, and got permission from my dad, to establish my first office other than the one in my bedroom at the house. It would be in the prescription room at the back of the old store. It was there, one day in 1966, that I held a meeting with a scrawny kid my age who lived in Bridgehampton and was determined to start a narrow-gauge tourist railroad in that town. He was a railroad buff, and his idea was to lay the tracks on the old railroad right-of-way from the time, decades before, that the Long Island Rail Road did have a railroad train that went from Bridgehampton to Sag Harbor. That had been before World War II. During the war, the tracks were pulled up and the steel used for the war effort. Putting down new tracks would be perfect for a tourist train.
During the course of things—he showed me a photograph of a sign he had on the front lawn of his house, announcing the fact, THE SAG HARBOR & SCUTTLEHOLE RAILROAD—we began talking about the Montauk Lighthouse, about which I had learned the day before something new and shocking. He was a history buff and I wanted his opinion.
“Every year, the cliff in front of the lighthouse gets a few feet closer to it,” I told Ron. “The cliff is crumbling. I called the lighthouse, and a Coast Guard official answered. I asked him what the number of feet the lighthouse was from the edge this year, and he told me it was 64 feet instead of 67 feet. But then he told me it didn’t matter anymore, because the Coast Guard intends to build a steel tower further back on the property and abandon the lighthouse. It will be a ruin.” I turned to Ron. “Do you think they cando that?”
“They’ve already done it with other lighthouses,” he said. “It’s a cost cutting measure. They dynamited the Hampton Bays Lighthouse.”
“There is no Hampton Bays Lighthouse,” I said.
“Not anymore. It got dynamited in 1948. There’s a framed photo of it being dynamited—it’s halfway down with a puff of smoke—on the wall in the barbershop where they cut my hair.”
I wrote the story about the Sag Harbor and Scuttlehole Railroad, but nothing came of it. Meanwhile, the photo he told me about stuck in my mind. I called him and asked if he could get a copy of it. He said he would and did.
With that in hand, I published a front page of a subsequent issue in Montauk showing that lighthouse coming down with two big words for a headline: LIGHTHOUSE DYNAMITED. In the copy, I explained that this was the Hampton Bays Lighthouse but it most certainly could happen here.
That issue caused such a stir, I decided to form a one-man “Save the Montauk Lighthouse Committee,” and with that asked readers to join me in a demonstration in the parking lot in front of the lighthouse on the Saturday evening of Labor Day weekend at 9 p.m., just after dark.
“Bring a light. Lantern, flashlight, flare, torch, flaming baton, whatever you can light up.” I called it a Light-In.
Three thousand people came (The New York Times reported it at 1,500, but the local police said 3,000), I had marching bands, dignitaries giving speeches, some bagpipers and the local police and fire departments. It was a great show.
The Coast Guard did nothing about their order for the rest of the year, and the following summer we staged another Light-In. This time the Coast Guard announced they had abandoned their plans.
All this came to the attention of a woman named Giorgina Reid, who, together with volunteers, devoted every Sunday to planting foliage on the cliff face to stop the erosion. She and her volunteers did this for 10 years! And they succeeded. Today, the lighthouse remains 64 feet from the edge.
Three years after the abandonment of their order, the Coast Guard invited Giorgina Reid and me to a luncheon in our honor at their headquarters on Governors Island. We drove into the city together to the ferry dock, and the Coast Guard took us out. They presented me with a framed document reading “Certificate of Appreciation.” They presented Georgina with one that read “Certificate of Accomplishment.” It was a classy thing the Coast Guard did.
But I want to get back to Ron Ziel, who was to be the Associate Publisher of this newspaper for the next 10 years. During this time, we’d shut down the office to go our separate ways in the wintertime. When my kids were little, I’d locate a place in the world I wanted to visit for four months a year—from November to March—and we’d go there and do that. We lived spending this time in the Canary Islands one year, in Maui, in Aix-en-Provence, France, in Panajachel, Guatemala, in St. Croix, in Luquillo, Puerto Rico and in Mazatlan, Mexico. We did this until the kids were ready for kindergarten. After that, when the kids were teenagers or off on their own, we went off to other destinations for a few weeks or a month, our trips including New Zealand, Turkey, Greece, South Africa, Moscow, Madeira, Japan and Berlin—which we went to see as the Berlin Wall was coming down.
Ron came back from his sojourn one year—he’d go alone or with a friend—to shoot photographs of steam engines around the world, which were to become images in famous hardcover books that he wrote. He returned with a pack of pictures taken in countries behind the Iron Curtain.
“You have to see these photographs,” he told me. He had them on a stack on the table. “It is rare to take photographs behind the Iron Curtain. This first one is Prague.” It was a picture of a steam engine. “Now here we are in Moscow.” Another steam engine. “And here’s Warsaw.” Another steam engine. The backgrounds were blurred. The steam engine in the foreground was sharp and clear. The man was possessed.
But he’s also the man who named Dan’s Papers.
At this point, our office was in a carriage house behind the Gay Real Estate Agency next to the new post office in East Hampton. We were publishing three newspapers—The Montauk Pioneer, the East Hampton Summer Sun and the Southampton Summer Day. People were calling us and the receptionist was answering the phone “newspapers.”
“Obviously this can’t go on,” I told a meeting of the staff. “We have to have an overarching name. Like Nabisco. It’s on the box. But there’s nothing they sell that they call that. It’s just the overarching name.”
I had two suggestions. “One is Ink Inc.” Nobody smiled. “The other is Summer Paper Publications.” Still nobody smiled. “It’s like I’d just like to hear the receptionist say that when she answers the phone. Like Peter Piper Picks a Peck of Pickled Peppers.” Still nobody smiled.
“You should call it Dan’s Papers,” Ron said. “Because that’s what it is. Like Joe’s Hots, if you sold hot dogs. ”
And that’s how Dan’s Papers got its name. Soon thereafter they gave up their separate titles and all got to be called Dan’s Papers.
Well, there was one exception. In 1969, a man named Bob King, who owned the Montauk-Caribbean Airlines (so much for winter-summer), called me up to say he wanted to schedule a regular airline service into Block Island, Rhode Island. He’d flown there to put an ad in their newspaper and found there was no newspaper.
He told me if I would put a newspaper on Block Island, he would put an ad in it. He flew me there in one of his planes and I met a woman who had run a mimeographed monthly called the Hooter. She told me she wouldn’t run a newspaper there for a million dollars because opinions of some islanders were always so opposite the opinion of others. But she did lead me to an author who was famous for books she’d written about quarter horses. Her name was Nonie Self.
Nonie grew up a Virginia horsewoman and was about 70 when I met her, and she reluctantly agreed to take up the reins of The Block Island Times, as I called it. She is the next person I want to thank.
“It’s a long shot,” I said. “I count only 49 retail stores and restaurants on the island. That’s just barely enough. But you could take around this mockup and see what you could do.” I handed it to her.
A week later she called me.
“How did you make out?” I asked her.
“I sold them,” she said.
“How many stores?”
“All of them. All 49.”
Nonie told me she would write the paper, not me, because she knew the island and I did not, which was true, and she edited it for nine years, all summer, spending her winters with her husband, the colonel, at their home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She grew it from its first edition of 8 pages in 1970 to nearly 60 pages an issue. Every issue she gathered up whatever material she had not yet sent to our office in Bridgehampton and flew with it on a Montauk-Caribbean Airlines plane, and later a Block Island Airlines plane, to East Hampton Airport. She also did her shopping in Bridghampton, even for food. It was cheaper than on Block Island. She’d fly back with shopping bags of stuff.
After a turn with another editor, Peter Wood, who succeeded Nonie, I sold the publication to Peter, and it is today the newspaper of record of Block Island.
The next person I wish to thank is Elaine Benson, the famous art gallery owner of Bridgehampton. In 1971 I sold the barracks building in East Hampton and bought a grand turn-of-the-century mansion on Lumber Lane in Bridgehampton. The following year, I bought a two-story private home on Main Street and converted it into a new office, more centrally located in the chain of newspapers, and next door to, as I quickly found out, the Elaine Benson Art Gallery.
Until her death nearly 20 years later, in a place that increasingly began to be about painters and sculptors, she ran the most important art gallery in the community. She knew every dealer in the art world and nearly every artist and sculptor. Her gallery openings were legendary and she often entertained, and though I was half a generation younger than her, sometimes she included me and my wife in the proceedings.
Early on I asked her to write a column every week for the paper. I put her on the masthead as “Den Mother.” She wrote about parties, gallery openings, marriages, friendships, trips and big art sales. For payment, she asked for a weekly stipend that would equal what she paid her cleaning lady for the week. I agreed, and as the cleaning lady’s price went up, so did Elaine’s stipend. I am so grateful for what she brought to the show. I was out selling advertising to merchants and writing humor and local news. She handled the social stuff. Her columns are priceless.
In 1988, after a five-year disastrous attempt to make a chain of Dan’s Papers throughout America—including publishing unsuccessfully the first of the group in Martha’s Vineyard, Maui, Marco Island, Cape Cod, Daytona and Nantucket—I was almost bankrupt, but didn’t yet quite know it. When it became clearer to me, however, I sold a majority stake in the paper to a wealthy New York businessman named Jerry Finkelstein. He, essentially, saved the newspaper.
As minority owner, Jerry continued with me as Publisher and Editor—that was sort of a given—and he paid me handsomely. He also sort of upped my exposure to the world.
“Dan knows every bartender in the Hamptons,” he once said to a friend. I was standing next to him at the time he said this, and of course the fact was not really true but everybody got the idea. “And I’ve got to get him out of that car.”
I was at that time driving a bright red but dented 17-year-old Buick convertible, a Skylark. And loving it.
I wouldn’t hear from him for a while, but then he’d call. There was somebody he wanted me to meet and do a profile of. And so I came to meet so many of the new celebrities and billionaires who were now arriving out here. Everybody loved Jerry. Through his efforts, I met and wrote about John Catsimatidis, Roy Scheider, Bob Pittman, Alan Lomax, Mort Zuckerman, Barry Sonnenfeld, Jerry Della Femina, Barbara Corcoran, Bob Nederlander, Richard Adler, John Weitz, Martha Stewart, Bob Sillerman, Donald Trump, Ralph Destino, Chris Whittle, Ted Kheel, Steve Frankfurt, Wilbur Ross, D.A. Pennebaker, Keith Reinhard, Tom Paxton, Gladys Nederlander, Christie Brinkley, George Plimpton and so many others, either from him directly or others who knew him, and also through my own efforts.
Jerry had been a close associate of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and after Jerry bought what was the largest house in Southampton at that time, the Governor came out in a helicopter for the weekend to visit him, landing on the front lawn. This was before my time with him, but vividly remembered by his sons Jimmy Finkelstein and Andy Stein, who he so adored.
As the newspapers merged and became Dan’s Papers, I began running events during the summertime, not to raise money but for the publicity. Thus I began holding the Dan’s Papers Kite Fly at Sagaponack, the Dan’s Papers 10K PotatoHampton Minithon in Bridgehampton and the Dan’s Papers They Made the Film Here Film Festival. This was back in the day when movies were being sold or rented as cassette tapes. I’d rent a copy of, say, Sweet Liberty, an Alan Alda production filmed almost entirely in Sag Harbor, and show it for free on a particular Saturday afternoon at a theater somewhere—for example, at the Arum Lecture Hall at Southampton College. I’d do this for six Saturday afternoons in a row. The Dan’s Papers They Made the Movie Here Film Festival.
One of the funniest things that ever happened to me was at another event I founded, the Dan’s Papers I Survived the Winter Party. It was held every year in late March at some disco or restaurant dining room and featured every hokey event I could think of. There was a talent show, a chili tasting contest, a beard-growing competition, a water slide and bouncy castle for the kids, T-shirts saying “I Survived” on them and square dancing. Someone once even suggested mud wrestling, but I thought that was an idea too far out there.
So in its fifth year, which was the first year (and last) where I had anybody else but myself run this event, I was late showing up because of a big snowstorm. The event was held that year at Harborview, a catering hall where Long Beach Road and Noyac Road meet up in Sag Harbor. Or so I thought. I drove over there through the storm, the place had a big party going on, people greeted me, I grabbed some food from the buffet and sat down and then began to wonder about the fact that nobody looked familiar here. It all became clear in an instant.
A master of ceremonies got up to the microphone, the band stopped playing, and he said, “Would the bride and groom please come up and cut the cake?”
I was at the wrong party. I asked around. Someone had heard that my party was at the Harbor Cove at the other end of town. But couldn’t I stay?
I headed quickly for a payphone—this was before cellphones—and from deep in the back of the coat closet where there was the only payphone, I put in a quarter to complete the connection beneath the fur coats dripping of snow, and the damp umbrellas and wet galoshes.
“I’ll be right there,” I said. I shouted this through gritted teeth to the party planner who was summoned to the Harbor Cove phone.
“We’ve started without you,” she said.
I went through a terrible divorce in those years. I’d go out selling my ads to my loyal customers and wind up commiserating about what I was going through. They’d buy advertising, but increases in sales amounts were few. And then there was Florence Palmer, the next person I want to thank. Florence owned the Silver Sea Horse marina and restaurant on Three Mile Harbor Road. She’d been a faithful customer for years, and after hearing my sad tale asked if I’d like to live on a 55-foot yacht for the summer at her place that some rich yachtsman had actually abandoned in one of the slips. It was in poor condition and had been used the year before by her staff, but in the upcoming year it was not needed for that purpose and I could stay there for free.
I took over this beautiful ship, a 1931 American Car and Foundry cruising yacht, called it The Phoenix and made it my home for the summer. On Saturday evenings when the sun would be going down, I’d hold covered-dish jam sessions on the sundeck in the stern, with banjo, guitar, drum, harmonica and whatever other instruments people would show up with. I’d put a small ad in the paper inviting anybody who would play to do so.
I’d also like to thank Eric Cohen of Sag Harbor, who invited me to live on a commune of some 35 people north of Route 27A in East Quogue for the winter that followed. I was an emotional wreck. The paper continued, but this commune, called Journey, helped me through. During my time there, the Dan’s Papers delivery van, with a mattress thrown in the back, rushed Eric’s wife Bobbie to the hospital, where, after going through labor, she gave birth to a daughter. Seventeen years later, that daughter was my son Adam’s date for his junior prom.
Also, after the commune disbanded, Eric came to work as Office Manager of Dan’s Papers for a number of years. He later ran a software company and, after that, became an officer of the John Jermain Library in Sag Harbor.
The next person I want to thank is Robert David Lion Gardiner, the 17th Lord of Gardiner’s Island. He was, during the beginning of the last half of the 20th century, the richest man in town. He helped me up when I fell down, literally, during this low point.
It was a rainy day, I had a sales pack under my arm and had just gotten out of a store and onto Main Street in East Hampton after a successful meeting with one of my customers. Skipping happily along on the sidewalk, I stepped into a crack and fell, scattering papers all over the street. I knew immediately, because of the sound that it made, that I had broken my left ankle, but I could only lie there, in pain, unable to get up.
I looked up and saw immediately who was taking charge of this situation. It was the 17th Lord of the Manor himself, in his blue blazer and tie, which he always wore, instructing people to call an ambulance and telling me to take it easy. He’d just been walking by when it happened.
I had met the Lord several years before. At this time, he was about 70 and I was about 40. He owned lots of property in town, a shopping center in Bay Shore and this private island off Amagansett that, 17 owners earlier, the first Gardiner, Lion Gardiner, had bought from the Montauk Indians in 1639.
I had met him in an odd way. Out of the blue one day after I’d been running the paper about 10 years, he called me up to invite me down to his marina, climb aboard his yacht Laughing Lady and take a tour of his island with him.
His whole life was about this island. It was all he talked about. He lived in a mansion on Main Street with his wife, Eunice, spent winters in Palm Beach and summers on the island. He took me and a staff photographer through the manor house on the island, showed us the hanging tree where one of his ancestors had hung a murderer, showed us the beach where Captain Kidd had buried treasure and told the Fourth Lord of the Manor, John, in 1688, that if any of it wasn’t there when he got back, he’d kill him. But Kidd never came back. He was caught and hung. So John dutifully returned all the gold to the crown after a few years.
The 17th lord told us about the time he went to the closing for the property he was leasing to the shopping center developers for the upcoming hundred years. It had to be postponed because he didn’t have a title search. A week later, he returned with the original deed he’d dug out of the J.P. Morgan bank vault in Manhattan, which showed the sale from Wyandanch, the chief of the Montauks, to his ancestor. No sale had ever happened after that. That single piece of paper was his title search.
Robert David Lion Gardiner had been to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and had danced with the Queen. He had a list of Captain Kidd’s treasure that was returned aboard ship from Boston and showed it to her, asking if the list matched the list presented by the sailors who returned with the booty to London. She got the list. It didn’t match. Some things had been purloined. A 300-year-old crime never known about and never solved. While in Europe, he commissioned Salvador Dali to paint a portrait of his wife. The resulting painting hung by the front door of his East Hampton mansion. She was very beautiful.
My favorite story he told was about a 17th-century grandfather clock. Made by one of the Dominys in East Hampton around 1680 and handed down to him, it had stopped working. He and his chauffeur were struggling to get it out of the back of his limousine in front of Corwith Jewelers on Main Street in Southampton to get it repaired when a dowager from the DuPont clan in Southampton strolled by.
“Oh, Mr. Gardiner, wherever did you buy that beautiful old clock?” she asked.
Old money from DuPont was new money to Gardiner.
“I didn’t buy it,” he said. “We had it made.”
Gardiner bought a weekly ad in Dan’s Papers for his marina every year. I’d bill him monthly. One year he cancelled it. When I asked him why, he said he had to write me 12 checks a year, and that was a lot. I kept him in the paper by agreeing to bill him annually.
And here he was, helping to put me on the gurney that the paramedics would wheel to the ambulance that had arrived there on Main Street for the trip to Southampton Hospital and the application of a cast I had to wear for six weeks.
By the way, someone asked me if I sued the Town for the crack in the sidewalk and I said no, I never did and never would. I was told the going rate to make such a lawsuit go away was $17,000. Never happened.
During those years, I befriended a whole lot of millionaires who soon became billionaires. They had seemed ordinary folk who had a dream and made good on it. I respected that, although I disagreed with some of them about their political views.
Among them over the years were Wilbur Ross, who, when I met him (through Jerry), was the President of the Southampton Bath & Tennis Club and the Director of the Rothschild investment bank operation in America. Another was Bridgehampton’s David Walentas, who had bought an abandoned section of Brooklyn waterfront and was converting it to a whole new neighborhood in that borough, which he called DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Overpasses).
A third, more recently, has been John Catsimatidis, who has developed supermarkets, gas stations and gas storage facilities, among them now in Northville near Riverhead. He recently had his hat in the ring to run for Mayor of New York. He also has just bought 77 WABC radio, which has the largest radio audience in the country. And he’d donated more than $100,000 so a building on the property of the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreation Center in Bridgehampton could be renovated. We named the building Margo’s Cottage, in honor of his wife. (I am on the Board of Directors of the BCCRC.)
Among religious leaders in our community, I give thanks for the friendship and help of Father Alex Karloutsos of the Greek Orthdox Church in Southampton, and during his time, Evan Frankel, who spearheaded the creation of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton—which my dad said that, since we were among just a dozen Jewish families in the town, we could ill afford.
Among the members of the art and literary community, I give thanks for painter Leif Hope, who brought me in to be the balls-and-strikes umpire behind the mound for the Artist-Writers annual softball game in East Hampton, now in its 71st year. I played beginning in 1969 and became umpire in 1978. I still umpire the first few innings.
I also give thanks for my friendship with artist Mickey Paraskevas, whose talented drawings have accompanied the articles I write and graced the covers of this newspaper since the 1980s.
Among the literary set, I am thankful for the friendships I developed with George Plimpton, Irwin Shaw, Joe Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. A recent book about the life of Kurt Vonnegut features a chapter I wrote about our friendship and plucked from my own Random House memoir In the Hamptons. Even more recently, I developed a friendship with Robert Caro and his wife, Ina.
Among celebrities, I’ve had a longtime friendship with Billy Joel, who I first met when he came up to my office unannounced one day with his then-girlfriend, painter Carolyn Beegan, with the intent of getting a painting she had made on the cover of Dan’s Papers. He came bearing Mallomars, which he had been told, correctly, I liked. I also had a longtime friendship with Roy Scheider and his wife, Brenda, and, more recently, a friendly relationship, I’d guess you’d call it, with Alec Baldwin, Jules Feiffer and Christie Brinkley.
Finally, I’d like to give thanks to some of the political leaders I have come to know, some of them very well. They have done wonderful things in helping to steer a course between development and public works, and most have served for long periods of time. They are Mayor Mark Epley and Bill Hattrick of Southampton, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Mayor Paul Rickenbach in East Hampton, Town Supervisors Jay Schneiderman and Tony Bullock and Judy Hope in East Hampton, among others.
Among current businessmen and colleagues, I have been helped by and have great respect for the current Dan’s Papers CEO and Publisher Steve McKenna and COO and Editorial Director Eric Feil. We share the same passions for the community and for the sort of feature writing that Dan’s Papers has become famous for. I am also thankful for Oliver Peterson, for Lee Meyer and for David Taylor in the editorial department, and for Genevieve Horsburgh, our Creative Director, and all the rest of our staff.
Most of all, however, I am thankful for the help and direction provided by Richard Burns, an Englishman who 10 years ago bought Dan’s Papers from a prior owner to become my senior partner in the venture. Richard is a beloved leader, very involved with our future, and with his considerable intelligence has expanded the scope of Dan’s Papers into the company Dan’s Hamptons Media, which includes Taste of Two Forks and GrillHampton and numerous other Hamptons’ food-and-wine events and dinners, an ever-growing digital and social media business, the glossy magazine Behind the Hedges and much more. He even spurred me on to develop the Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction, which, since 2012, has awarded tens of thousands of dollars to more than a dozen winners of the prizes for writing excellence from among the hundreds upon hundreds of people who choose to enter essays in this competition. At our awards ceremony at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, we have had keynote speeches given by Robert Caro, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, Carl Bernstein, Walter Isaacson, Dava Sobel, Gail Sheehy, Roger Rosenblatt, Jules Feiffer and numerous others.
Richard Burns also ordered a statue of me put up. It is 10 feet high and shows me riding atop a giant lobster, just where Sunrise Highway ends and County Road 39 begins, on the south side of the road. You may spot it in other locations around the Hamptons as well. Wave “Hi” when you see me.