“My Guide to Journalism”

A Memoir by Geoff Gehman

    The Jan. 4, 1968, edition of The Star led off with the tale of a theft at the Sagaponack home of Truman Capote, author of “In Cold Blood,” the sensational nonfiction novel about a Kansas community held hostage by the senseless execution of a wealthy farm family. Blending reporting with yarning, Star writer Jack Graves cast the robbers as Stooge-like saps who stuffed their booty, including bottles of 50-year-old bonded bourbon, into pillowcases, including one stamped “Capote,” and left the loot in their cars for the cops to claim. He even took a swipe at the victim of the crime: “Though he wears sunglasses and is below average height, Mr. Capote cuts a striking figure.”  
    You didn’t need to read the headline — “In Hot Pursuit: Novel Non-Fiction” — to know Graves was subtly spoofing Capote’s boast that “In Cold Blood” was a novel marriage of fact and fiction. I didn’t need to know the article was a mild satire to be hooked, line and sinker. Slowly and slyly, Graves put me in the misguided minds of the thieves, one of whom stole an Instamatic camera and a hi-fi as Christmas gifts for his wife. He made me chuckle along with the arresting and booking police officers, whose Christmas gift was an enormously entertaining robbery.
    The Capote caper gave me two gifts. I learned that a fairly bloodless newspaper story can be a full-blooded adventure, a valuable lesson for a future feature writer. And I became a fan of The Star’s robust mix of local color, cheeky wit, and panoramic perspective. The weekly paper, I soon discovered, was a general store of essential information, an almanac of folksy wisdom, a correspondence course of colorful citizenship.
    The Star took its motto, “The Star Shines for All,” seriously. Most publications treat photographs as third-class citizens, the shabby cousins of stories. In The Star pictures were stand-alone stars. Used generously and exquisitely, they illustrated the South Fork’s mercurial geography and illuminated its sublime beauty. In any given week you could see a moonlit beach underlined by lines from Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” the noble door of a distressed cottage built by a carpenter who built whaling ships, lobster pots masquerading as Claes Oldenburg hard sculpture.
    It was editor Everett Rattray who decided The Star needed picturesque pictures. A native of East Hampton and a lover of South Fork wildlife, he knew that beautiful images of sand patterns and horses prancing in the snow could boost circulation — not only subscriptions but heartbeats, too. Indeed, The Star’s photos became my magnetic map to the East End. They made me explore places I otherwise wouldn’t have explored: Sag Harbor’s fishtailing side streets; Georgica Pond’s crooked creeks; the necklace of jeweled waterways — ponds, lakes, bays, harbors — from Montauk to Southampton.
    If The Star’s photos were a map, the paper’s letters to the editor were a town meeting. In this gatefold/gateway you could read about a ban on miniskirts and a mini-history of beached whales, a poem about a strawberry festival and a poem from a Vietnam soldier requesting respect. There was so much variety because The Star had an open-door policy on letters to the editor. The paper published everything except messages deemed obscene, libelous, invasive, or anonymous rants. Ev Rattray liked to call the pages of missives “freedom hall,” says his widow, Helen, then a Star reporter and now the paper’s publisher. “He always had a more than tolerant streak for eccentrics,” she adds, “and would sometimes say something to the effect of, ‘Who are we to decide who is crazy or not?’ ”
    Ev Rattray was certainly confused and amused by the paper’s most clever, incomprehensible correspondent. Montauk resident Charles Chauncey. “C.C.” Pool fancied himself the East End’s E.E. Cummings, the ringmaster of a flea circus of codes. One of his favorite acts was castigating the Ladies Village Improvement Society, which in 1895 became East Hampton’s aesthetic caretakers. Pool didn’t care that the ladies preserved the village’s award-winning beauty by launching a planning board and blocking billboards. To him, they were nothing more than fashionable fascists. In one letter he imagined his car — “my flying submarine” — leaving tire treads “upon the alabaster epidermises” of the L.V.I.S. queens — “our current Hamptons Dowage-Diumvirate.”
    Many of the tensions that Pool mocked were satirized in Marvin Kuhn’s canny, uncanny cartoons. A land surveyor by profession, the native of Garden City, Long Island, surveyed local conflicts through two East Hampton fishing buddies in bib overalls, hip boots and eye-hiding hats. These Bonackers, or “Bubs,” flouted authority by playing shuffleboard on freshly painted double yellow lines on the Montauk Highway. They silently criticized absurdly anal regulations, staring in bewilderment at a totem pole of beach signs prohibiting everything from sleeping to artists. Kuhn was a skilled translator who could make taciturn, marble-mouthed Bonackers talk like town trustees (“I don’t know which is worse . . . gypsy moths or groupers”) or hippies (“It’s simple, man-love is your bag — mine is fish).  His comic ventriloquism was a sly tribute to the Bubs, some of whom gave him free fish that kept his family afloat during his early lean years on the East End.
    The Star was fairly rare: a paper run by relatives who treated readers as relations. Jeannette Edwards Rattray became editor and publisher after the 1954 death of her husband, Arnold, who bought the weekly in 1935. A member of one of East Hampton’s oldest families, and the grandchild of one of the South Fork’s last deep-sea whaling captains, she was an unusual combination of civic impresario, tastemaker, and social sociologist. Her column “Looking Them Over” was a cornucopia of local history, genealogy, books, fashions, blue-blood parties, red-carpet premieres, and verbal slide shows of her vacation-research trips.
    Rattray considered herself a “sort of liaison between Main Street and the big world outside.” Her son, Ev, reinforced this bridge when he became The Star’s editor in 1958 after receiving a master’s degree in journalism. In addition to printing poetic photographs and wacky poem-letters, he significantly expanded coverage of the East End’s fragile ecosystems. In the late ’60s to early ’70s the paper covered the waterfront of hot-stove debates: Jetties vs. beach erosion. Tern nests vs. dune buggies. Gypsy moths vs. trees. Groupers vs. families. Natives vs. Johnny-come-latelys, also known as “Coney Islanders.”
    Written and edited in a former pharmacy on Main Street, The Star dispensed strong medicine. Rattray began editorializing against the Vietnam War in 1962, when editors of much bigger papers were paying lip service to the conflict. On his watch The Star leveled the playing field of class, narrowing the gap between farmers and power brokers. The paper banned the occupations of parents from wedding announcements (although Ev endorsed his mother’s wish to write what brides wore) and reduced celebrities to residents with flashy credits. In a caption for a photo of a benefit tennis tournament, Dustin Hoffman was described not as the star of “The Graduate” but as an actor who grew a summer beard to disguise his fame.
    Another reason The Star felt like a neighborhood paper was that one of its freelancers, Jake Murray, was my Wainscott neighbor, writing mentor, and sex-education coach. The Star’s roving rogue, Jake wrote about a Southampton judge who let businesses open on Sundays, and X-rated films at the Bridgehampton drive-in. He mocked Puritans who crusaded against sex on the beach, joking that skinnydipping at night is dangerous only because “you can’t see your date in the surf.” He shamelessly plugged his 1969 novel “The Devil Walks on Water,” disclosing that he sent copies to Lillian Hellman, Howard Hughes, and other bold-faced names.
    In 1970 Jake was profiled by Jack Graves, my favorite Star writer. A native of the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, Graves began working at the weekly in October 1967, replacing a reporter killed in a car crash. He soon discovered he was hired more for the quantity of his stories than their quality. Ev Rattray was apparently impressed by the seven daily articles he sometimes wrote for The Long Island Press while his mentor played golf.
    Rattray immediately gave Graves a column, a reward usually awarded to veterans. Graves rewarded Rattray’s faith by becoming The Star’s busiest, most versatile writer — the paper’s Swiss Army knife. Graves covered the town trustees, the yearly bulldozing of the channel between the Atlantic Ocean and Georgica Pond, the making of “Maidstone,” Norman Mailer’s ad-lib film featuring boxer Jose Torres. He reviewed books and plays, took photographs and analyzed an annual charity softball game between teams of well-known artists and writers. He was there when second baseman Saul Bellow and shortstop Neil Simon formed a literary Hall of Fame double-play tandem, and he was there when artist Herman Cherry tossed a softball-painted grapefruit that writer George Plimpton pulverized.
    Graves considered the community his clamshell. His “Point of View” column was a true journal of his life, with entries about his tennis-playing prowess in the Army, his hearing loss, and his new hammock. He interviewed everyone and anyone for his profiles. He had the knack of gently, jovially helping subjects find their way through thickets of ideas, whether the subjects were singer-songwriter Tom Paxton or a tree surgeon-sculptor.
    Graves helped me find my journalistic compass, leaving me with three key tips. One, everyone has a story worth sharing in public. Two, a good story is really a good conversation between a good talker and an equally good listener. And, three, never, ever underestimate the power of passionate rambling and creative lying.
    In October 1971 Graves began his splashiest assignment. That month he accompanied health inspectors on a raid of Grey Gardens, a ramshackle mansion and feral estate in one of East Hampton’s plushest neighborhoods. During “the unique house tour” he met Edith Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and her same-name daughter (“Little Edie”), who lived with no running water, mounds of trash, diseased cats, feline feces, and raccoons that crawled through a hole in the roof. Parked in the jungle-like front yard of their once-pristine property was a 1937 Cadillac, a shrine to the late Mr. Beale and his frequent driving companion, a Dalmation named, naturally, Spot.
    The Beales quickly became international icons, the Beatles of East Hampton. What made their story so juicy was that the Edies were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, widow of a president and wife of a billionaire. What made their story so memorable was Graves’s bittersweet Dickensian spin. He portrayed the Beales as Miss and Mrs. Havisham, relentlessly independent, ruthlessly articulate kin caught in the crosshairs of class warfare. “East Hampton is such a mean place,” Little Edie told him. “It’s perfectly gorgeous on the surface and underneath I don’t think anybody’s human.”
    Four decades later, Graves remains modest about breaking the South Fork saga of the decade. “The story found us,” he points out, “not the other way around.” He admits his zest for a zinging tale was diminished by his compassion for the Beales as victims of Gestapo-like inspectors. He declined to see the “Grey Gardens” documentary when it premiered in 1976 in East Hampton. He did, however, honor the Edies with a homegrown, overgrown installation. Tickled by their 1937 Cadillac garden sculpture, he let his 1967 “baby puke” Ford Falcon rot in his front yard “for quite a while before yielding to decorum.”
    It was this one-two punch of guts and graciousness that made Graves the first journalist who made me want to be one. More than anyone at The Star or my other news schools —The New York Times, Life magazine, “60 Minutes” — he convinced me that journalism should be serious and fun — serious fun. That a feature writer should be somewhere between a king and a servant. And that the middle of nowhere — be it Sagaponack, N.Y., or Holcomb, Kan., or Old Zionsville, Pa. — is often the center of everything.

    Geoff Gehman (Geoffgehman@verizon.net) is a former resident of Wainscott and a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. This piece is an excerpt from “The Kingdom of the Kid,” a memoir of growing up on the South Fork in 1967-1972.