Fire Island: The Celebrity Sandbox
By Jeffrey Salzberger
with Nicole Pressly Wolf
There is certainly no lack of star power out here on the island. Our history is defined, in many ways, by celebrity. Some of our most famous residents, past and present, come here for the very same reasons we do: privacy, anonymity and, yes—loads of fun! I recently spent a quiet evening with some of these men and women in The Fire Island News archives. Here’s what I found out!
Having resided in the Pines, Jay Herman, producer of such hits as “Showboat,” attracted other Broadway actors like Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury. Other sightings in the Fire Island Pines included Peggy Fears, formerly of the Ziegfeld Follies and founder of the Botel. Her clients were no less famous. On any given night at the Botel you may have run into Jerome Robbins, Steven Sondheim, Judy Holliday, Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote, who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s here, by the way.
With John Whyte’s purchase of the Botel, marking his move from a career as a model to that of a businessman, a different sort of crowd began to appear. Partying was off-the-hook, with performances from disco divas like Melba Moore and Leslie Uggams. Dionne Warwick not only performed, but hosted the annual Pines fashion show as well. If you had the privilege of dancing the night away at any of these hot parties, you quite possibly rubbed elbows with the likes of Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Rock Hudson, Grace Jones, Carol Channing or maybe even Liza Minnelli.
More recently, Fire Island’s siren song has brought music mogul David Geffen and adult entertainer Robin Byrd to the Pines, where she is, for the most part, clothed these days. Madonna was around town as well, visiting her brother.
There is a reason why so many stars vacation in the secluded Fire Island Pines. “People come for privacy (lots are big enough here) and they get it. We don’t get sightseers,” said Peggy Fears in Islands In the Sun Club: Report to Members Fire Island.
Through the forest in Cherry Grove, on the right night, you could spot none other than renowned poet W.H. Auden and some of his writerly friends like Carson McCullers, Janet Flanner, Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles. In recent years, one might stumble upon actor and choreographer, Tommy Tune.
The Strasberg family summered in Seaview. Lee, founder of the Actors’ Studio, is credited with bringing Marilyn Monroe here to relax. She was often sighted on the ferry with no makeup and a flowered handkerchief on her head. Dana Wallace Jr. in his teens photographed her for the Fire Island News. According to an Ocean Beach realtor, he came out last year and is currently looking to buy an oceanfront home. The photograph of Monroe used in this article was taken by Hy Muchnick, and comes to us courtesy of the Ocean Beach Historical Society. The whereabouts of the pics from our own photog are currently unknown.
Also in Seaview, Herman Wouk, who founded the Fire Island Synagogue in his home, was a prominent resident. Cartoonist Jules Feiffer, singer and activist Harry Belefonte, writer Joe Heller (who very well may have written some of Catch-22 here), and comedian Carl Reiner also called the small community home.
In Lonelyville, Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks summered in an oceanfront house until recently. Anne was commonly seen in her garden tending herbs, or even skinny dipping with her sister. Mel Brooks, it should be noted, was fined $2 for leaving his trash cans out when he still lived in Ocean Beach near his pal, Carl Reiner. They were known for giving impromptu comedy routines.
In the 1930s General George C. Marshall, flew in on a yellow and blue amphibian plane to spend time with his wife, Katherine and step daughter Molly Brown in Ocean Beach. Locals would row out into the bay to get him.
Wolcott Gibbs, drama critic of the New Yorker from 1949 until his death in 1958, spent 20 summers on Fire Island. He lost his house on the beach and Ocean Road in the March 1962 storm. He is known here as the founder of the Fire Islander from 1954-1956, where the bylines read “like half the roster of the old Algonquin crowd.” James Thurber and John Crosby were only a few that came out. His book and play about Fire Island called Season in the Sun included locals such as the old timer Captain Jerry. Gibbs described him in the play: “Mr. Jermyn (the character which is based on Captain Jerry) was 62, a man with a face like Punch and a body like Santa Claus; his clothes were mostly antiques that had been scornfully discarded by guests on their departure from his wife’s boarding house…he looked as dissolute and unpromising as a vacant house, but that was misleading, for he was in reality a very deep and rewarding personality.”
Captain Jerry and his wife Blanche’s home, Crest O’Dune, became a full-time rooming house, filled with theatrical friends from their restaurant on E.53rd St. -- The Open Gate. In June, when they came out to Ocean Beach they’d close up and hang a sign that read, “Don’t Eat ‘Til We Come Back.”
Customers, or rather luminaries who soon followed them out to the the island included: Fanny Brice, Billy Rose, Lucille Ball, the Gershwins (George and Ira), among others. Several returned to rent or buy later. Fanny rented Windswept, bringing her two children and then husband Billy Rose. They filled it with vaudville and theatrical people, including: Jimmy Durante. Durante was often chased by young fans while he was here. It is said that the only way he could stop them was to duck into the ice cream parlor and buy them each a scoop!
Pianist Vladimir Horowits rented a home on Ocean Road and his family members visited all summer long!
Goldie’s, now the Island Mermaid, was the HOT hangout! Art Carney spent the weekends with his wife Barbara. They ate at Goldie’s because they slept at Goldie’s house! Ethel Merman was always at Goldie’s as well, and she even acted as cashier in the dining room.
Russel Patterson, artist and stage-designer, brought out many friends, including Humphrey Bogart. According to Virginia Edwards, reminiscing in the 1976 Bicentennial OB Handbook: “I wasn’t one of the invites but was told this story by my friends. Bogey engaged in a murderous, profane and obscene fight with his then-wife, actress Mayo Methot. They were both roaring drunk, and he staggered out of the living room in his underwear cursing everyone in sight. The teenage fans that went to meet him were permanently disillusioned.”
Milton Berle, with his wife Ruth Cosgrove, first came out as a friend of radio personality Kenneth Roberts. At first he refused the invitation, saying he was sure he wouldn’t get any sleep. He finally accepted their invitation, declaring afterwards: “I had the best night’s sleep I’ve had in years!” he immediately rented a house on Surf Walk and named it “Old Actor’s Home.” It seems the Roberts were destined to be a family of stars. Nancy Roberts is back in town living in one of the homes her family owns. She grew up here in Ocean Beach along with her brother, actor Tony Roberts.
At a recent Fire Island Golden Wagon Film Festival, actor and former Ocean Beach resident Tony Randall was honored, and the ceremonies were presided over by another actor and OB alum, Jordan Charney of Ghost Busters. Last year at the same festival, David Duchovny, who grew up here, was a featured speaker. He and his wife, Tea Leoni, returned a short time ago with the intention of purchasing a summer residence. It did not pan out.
Painter Willem De Kooning and poet Frank O’Hara were good friends and called Ocean Beach home, although they partied in the pines. When Frank O’Hara was run over by a dune buggy after sleeping on the beach, he was taken to a hospital in New York City. De Kooning showed up with a blank check, saying, “we just want the best for our friend.” Sadly, Frank O’Hara succumbed to his injuries.
In Oakleyville, New York art dealer, Sam Green built a house for his girlfriend, actress and recluse, Greta Garbo. John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Robert Mapplethorpe would follow suit, looking for the ultimate in island exclusion.
More recently, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke chose a bayfront home at Saltaire to settle in after the birth of their first child. They didn’t let a divorce stop their love of FI -- they have both been sighted separately, with friends at Tequila Jacks in Robbins Rest. It was widely agreed that Ethan was quite a good dancer! Ally Sheedy has also been spotted at Tequila Jacks, visiting her father Charlie, mostly in the spring. He is a long-time home-owner in Robbins Rest. Brooke Sheilds is known to roam the walks in Saltaire currently.
And we can’t forget our east end fashionistas; Halston, Donna Karan, Geoffrey Beene, and the legendary Calvin Klein, before he sold his house and moved out to the Hamptons -- can anyone say faux pas! The only exception to this east side rule is the pioneer Liz Claiborne, aka Elisabeth Claiborne Ortenberg, who had been spotted in Saltaire with her hubby, Art Ortenberg. Fashion is everything in this island paradise!
There is also the left wing celebrity set, who resided all over the island during the 60s and early 70s. Their numbers included writers Allen Ginsberg and Nat Hentoff.
There are famous people here whose celebrity you are unaware of until you see them. Michael Vale, better known as the Dunkin Donuts, “time to make the doughnuts” guy, summered here until he passed away due to complications from diabetes last year. Character actor Jesse White, of Gunsmoke and Bonanza fame also stayed on island. Actress and comedienne Imogene Coca (of the films Fools Rush In and National Lampoon’s Vacation) stayed for a number of seasons with her husband, character actor King Donovan (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). A pre breakdown Margot Kidder even spoke to a crowd somewhere nearby. We know ... we’ve got the photos.
Fire Island celebrity sightings go back into the earliest part of our history. Oscar Wilde could have been spotted near Cherry Grove in the 19th century, as well as Herman Melville in Kismet. Teddy Roosevelt even stayed at a hotel called White House at the current site of Water Island.
Celebrity run ins are so common, even our own editors here at the Fire Island News aren’t safe! Nicole Pressley, after walking into the Mermaid Market to get a simple breakfast, came head to head with Martha Stewart, just before her trip to the big house, bellowing about the freshness of the doughnuts she wanted to purchase.
It would seem that, much like we have a love-hate relationship with our celebrities, they have a love-hate relationship with Fire Island. In the words of television writer and long-time island resident Arnold Horwitt, in an interview from 1959: “I fell in love with the island the first time I was here (1945). I admit the place has changed somewhat since then, but I still think it’s wonderful during the week.” The list goes on and on. In the celluloid spirit, we’ll call this next group of rapid fire celebrity names our runners-up. They are rumored to have summered here, but this is unsubstantiated. The list goes like this -- in no particular order: Ava Gardner, Claudette Colbert, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Clifford Odets, Irving Berlin, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Barbara Streisand and Hedy Lamarr. That’s the rumor anyway. With that, I hope your inner paparazzi has been satiated ... and please ... don’t feed the celebrities.