Uh Oh: Ladies Village Improvement Society Hires a Man as Executive Director

East Hampton
Barbara Lassen

The Ladies Village Improvement Society of East Hampton, an all-women’s volunteer organization founded in 1895 dedicated to the beautification of downtown East Hampton, last month elected a new executive director, and it ruffled a few skirts and feathers. The new director is Russell Kratoville. That’s not “Russell” as in “Russellette” where the parents were hoping for a boy. That’s Russell as in Russell. A man.

As a result, many LVIS ladies handed in their resignations. And many of them have expressed themselves to the media. In an age when women are trying to break through the glass ceiling, here’s a board of directors, all women, reaching up above the ceiling to bring a man down to fill the top post.

“What does this say about the LVIS?” one woman said.

“They couldn’t find a woman? Among all the applicants, this is what they do?”

“What a great message this gives to our daughters.”

“Is this some kind of reverse prejudice thing where our board thinks they are ‘with it’ in the fight for equality so it’s okay to have a man lead the way?”

“Well, what do you expect from a group that recently was arguing back and forth about whether women should be listed separately from their husbands in the directory instead of as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’”?

(This is an apparent reference to the printed Blue Book of the Hamptons, which every summer lists alphabetically the names and addresses in both the city and the Hamptons of the members of high society who are out here. And if their summer cottage has a name, they name that.)

The New York Post quoted an anonymous recently resigned member. 

“There’s no way I’m going to sit in a meeting (when) the face of LVIS has a penis.”

The board of directors has held fast to their decision, digging in their heels. Kratoville, they say, was simply the best man (er, person) for this job. They had many applicants. And it’s the only paid full-time year-round job. So they kept a blind eye about that person’s gender.

Well, oh boy.

Kratoville’s resume: For many years he was the village manager, clerk and treasurer of the Village of Southampton. But last year he was asked to resign by the new young mayor, who wanted to go out with the old and in with the new. Kratoville obliged.

“A nice man. A man with a pleasant disposition,” one woman said.

Nobody denies that.

The first act of beautification ordered in 1895 by the LVIS was sweeping the dust off and then wetting down the dirt road that was Main Street back then. They held the first LVIS fair in 1896, published the first annual LVIS Cookbook the same year and soon they were putting flower boxes and benches on Main Street, creating the lovely Duck Pond on David’s Lane, and draining what had been a swamp into what is now Town Pond, complete with the beautiful white swans. In 1925, they prevented a gas station from opening on the Sheep Fold, the grass triangle opposite the post office, another year they prevented another gas station from getting built on the Main Street shopping area, and more recently they saved up and bought the Gardiner Brown House mansion, built in the 18th century but in 1987 slated to be bulldozed for more parking downtown.

There’s no mention I could find about their activities in the temperance movement leading to the banning of alcohol in 1919, or the suffrage fight leading to women’s right to vote that same year, but when I got here in the 1950s, their presence was described to me as, besides beautification, “the ladies who require good manners and behavior on Main Street, and tell tourists in Bermuda shorts not to eat ice cream on the street.”

My initial contact with them came at the annual LVIS Fair at the Mulford Farm around 1968. It was a Sunday afternoon. Down the street, all the stores in town were closed for church for the day. It was here the fair was doing a thriving business: pony rides, ring toss, clowns and sack races.

At the entrance, two LVIS blue-haired ladies sat at a folding table collecting admission fees. Along the sidewalk behind them was the snow fence that kept people from sneaking in without paying, and as I waited in line to pay the fee, I saw that 50 feet further down, some boys were sneaking in at a break they had made in the fence. When I pointed this out to them, one of them said, “Just mind your own business, we know what we’re doing, thank you very much.”

A few years later, I wrote about an encounter the LVIS had with a man who owned a souvenir shop on Main Street. Inside, but visible from the window of his store, was a life-size poster of a 300-pound, full-frontal naked woman. It was to be taped to your refrigerator door, the owner told me when I asked. You’d come down for a midnight snack, see this lady, and with a start, run back upstairs.

The LVIS, keeping vigilant on what could be seen through store windows – no big signs, not even a SALE sign, no neon – had stopped in to visit the owner and tell him it would not go well with him if he left it up.

Replying sharply, the owner, a liberal from Greenwich Village, said he had freedom of speech, this poster was art and he would not take it down. So up it stayed. The matter went to court. A trial was scheduled. But then the owner died of a heart attack. Served him right, people said.

Today, the LVIS sells secondhand clothing, books and furniture out of the mansion they saved on Main Street. The shop reportedly takes in between $60,000 and $100,000 a month. They have the fair, give away $150,000 in college scholarships, beautify downtown particularly wonderfully at holidays and tend to the giant and ancient elm trees that line Main Street.

And, as for now anyway, they’ve got a man running the show.

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