Bill Seay, Artist and FI Original, Remembered
Volume 49, Issue 3
By David Crohn

Bill Seay, a painter and illustrator whose whimsical lines and bold, beachy colors captured Fire Island’s unique spirit, died on January 7 at his home in Greenlawn, Long Island. He was 83.

Seay’s art was best known to some from the front page of this publication—his big-eyed and wily cats, dogs and deer prowled the covers week after week for more than a decade. He also hand-drew the distinctively tapered, buoyant lettering that graces the titles of many of the paper’s community columns.

The inspiration for the women in his art—his “muse,” he used to call her—was his wife of 60 years, Mimi, who died a day before him from a heart attack. Her face can be seen in those of many of the lithe, bikini-clad sunbathers who appear in his paintings, smiling and stretched out on towels or in the sand.

In addition to The Fire Island News, Seay contributed to Playboy in its early years, as well as Motor Trend. Earlier in his career he created stock art for Myer Both in Chicago, which sold his work to countless publications. “Every little newspaper in America was using Bill Seay illustrations,” said his son, Martin, who survives him. He is also survived by a grandson, Erik.

Seay was a local celebrity in the New York cartoonists’ community as both the head of the Long Island chapter of the National Cartoonists Society and a member of the Berndt Toast Society, an irreverent group of cartoonists and satirists that lunched monthly to talk shop and exchange one-liners. In a 2001 New York Times story about the group, Seay was quoted describing his technique: “I start with a great last line and build to it,” he said.

Those who knew him remember him as “talented,” “sweet,” a “freethinker,” “an artist all the way,” and someone who would “do his darndest to come through for you.”

Speaking of both Bill and Mimi Seay at a Cherry Grove memorial service last month, Reverend Charles Whipple said, “They captured the special spirit of Fire Island. We will miss his pen and brush.”

William Thomas Seay was born Oct. 13, 1921, in Havana, Ill., the first child of Lee, an engineer, and Loretta, a homemaker. His grandfather, James Thomas, was a Civil War veteran who fought under General Sherman during his March to the Sea.

Seay displayed a prodigious talent at an early age (“He was born loving to draw,” his son said), and was publishing political cartoons in his hometown paper while still in high school. After earning a BFA from the University of Illinois, Seay married Mimi, his high school sweetheart, and moved to Chicago.

In 1966 Seay accepted a position at the J.C. Penney Catalog as an art director. The family relocated to New York, where Bill and Mimi lived in Greenlawn and—after discovering a naked beachgoer with a monkey during a daytrip—started vacationing in Fire Island’s Cherry Grove. The community was then a bohemian hotspot, a haven for artists and iconoclasts of every stripe.

Bill fit right in, said Barbara Ann Levy, whose Cherry Grove gallery showed Seay’s work in the late 1990s. “[He had] an enormous love for Cherry Grove and the freedom the beach gave us. [He was] open to experimentation, freethinking, but also very much a family man. You can see his free thinking, bohemian sensibility in his artwork.”

Like many downtown artists of the time, Seay—an avowed Francophile who enjoyed trips to the Continent with his wife—looked to Paris for inspiration. According to Levy, a Parisian sensibility can be seen in his direct approach, with its crosshatching, striking use of black and white, and the clarity of his marks. “[It was] special to the time period, the 50s and 60s,” Levy said. “[It’s] not something you would see today.”

And while Seay had his influences, he always used them to make his work his own by focusing on what he saw around him—the people and inimitable spirit of Fire Island, and especially Cherry Grove. One painting (the cover of the June 1-7, 2001 issue) depicts a mustachioed Grovite preparing for the Invasion by dressing up his garden scarecrow in pearls, a long dress and a sash; the July 23-29, 1999 issue features a voluminous array of sea creatures, from grinning rainbow fish to a leering shark.

His relationship with the News began shortly after he retired in 1988, when Seay, always prolific and active, sought new channels for his work. He sent samples to the News in 1988. Several months later the paper called to ask him to do the cover for the very next edition.

“She wanted it by Sunday!” exclaimed Seay. “And this was Thursday. So I delivered it to her in Ocean Beach on Sunday.”

From 1988 until 2000, he contributed more than 150 cover portraits to the paper.

Nicole Pressly, the paper’s current editor in chief and publisher, said: “Bill’s love of his wife Mimi is a true love story. They were inseparable—always laughing together as if they were in on a secret about the world. When I first bought the paper, it was so difficult transitioning from writer to publisher. The Seays’ support made all the difference.

“They were always positive, loving and supportive. Nothing, even the craziness of Fire Island, could shake them. Actually, it may have been that off-beat hilarity that Fire Island often has that originally lured them here. It isn’t the same without them.”