GUESTWORDS: A Bridge to Somewhere

By Steve Rideout

   The architect’s plan was impressive. A three-span suspension bridge connecting island to mainland. A big dream, a multimillion-dollar project when first envisioned, but never to be. At least so far.
    New York State Route 114 connects Greenport and East Hampton on Long Island’s East End, but with the route crossing Shelter Island, the drive requires two ferry rides. Connecting that island with the North and South Forks by bridge was a dream of many influential politicians during the first four decades of the 20th century. But not everyone supported the grand scheme.
    While doing research on Jud Banister, who was East Hampton Village mayor from 1936 to 1954 and the great-uncle of my wife, Carol, I inevitably came across many news stories of various celebrities and prominent members of the so-called summer colony. Jud interacted with many of them over the course of his mayorship, and frequently one would be an elected member of the village board during his tenure. Though not the focus of my research, a few had obvious connections to Jud. Phelan Beale was one.
    Anyone with a fascination for any and all things Hamptons has heard of Grey Gardens and knows the basic story of Big and Little Edie Beale, aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Less has been written about Phelan Beale, Big Edie’s husband, who bought Grey Gardens for her.
    He and his father-in-law, John Bouvier II, were strong supporters of the East Hampton Fire Department. Their storytelling was much sought at the annual department dinner that Jud always attended during his many years as captain of Hook and Ladder Company 1. The Star colorfully described the skits performed and stories told by Phelan and the Major, as his father-in-law was known.
    Phelan cemented his political involvement by joining two prominent Suffolk County gentlemen in a taxpayer petition against the county board of supervisors in the spring of 1931. Among several issues, the petition sought a countywide referendum on a proposal to buy $5,000,000 in bonds, largely to finance construction of two bridges connecting Shelter Island to the North and South Forks. The supervisors, while agreeing that the bridges could not be built without federal permission, nevertheless rejected the request to hold a taxpayer referendum.
    By that summer, The Riverhead News accused Phelan of being a small-time East Hampton taxpayer of questionable residency, an out-of-county Democrat with impure motives trying to join the taxpayer action. Ten days later he responded to the editor, his letter reprinted in full in The Star’s Aug. 21 edition. After summarizing The Riverhead News’ profile of his character, he offered the following clarification:
    “May I say that I regard East Hampton as my bona fide residence and that I keep my wife’s house there (which I gave to her as is the custom of husbands) open the year round and that I pay taxes on two parcels at other places in Suffolk County. I plead guilty to a Southern Democracy rearing and admit that I have been a staunch Democrat in New York for the past 30 years and am now a consistent Suffolk County Democrat.”
    Having cleared away “the chaff,” as he called it, he described his opposition to the county bond issue and specifically its support for the Shelter Island bridges. He believed any dispassionate analysis would show no crying need for them. The supervisors were accused of being cowards for not submitting the bond issue to the voters, and he asserted that their summary action to deny that opportunity was an attempt to “put a fast one over” the voters and, in his opinion, illegal. There is no evidence a vote was ever taken, but another county newspaper reported that two out of three respondents opposed the bridge bond issue in a straw poll of more than 3,000 readers.
    By the end of 1931, the issue was so well known that it became the centerpiece of a satirical debate at the East Hampton Fire Department. “Debate Jury Throws Bridge Case Out Court,” said The Star’s Dec. 11, 1931, edition. Jud Banister, now department chief, was one of the jurymen. Other members served as witnesses for and against the bridges, but as the front-page subtitle declared, “Counselors Forgot to Swear in Witnesses; Refreshments Pacify Everyone.”
    On Friday, Nov. 4, 1932, Phelan placed a prominent ad in The Star addressed “To whom it may concern” and proceeded to suggest that while many politicians and political newspapers were supporting the re-election of President Hoover, he presented a case supporting change. In closing, he took a final shot at the county supervisors, writing, “let us change all down the line, including the political party in Suffolk County that appropriated $5,000,000 of the taxpayers’ money for the needless bridges to Shelter Island, and in so doing refused to allow the taxpayers to vote on the question.”
    The Depression was setting in hard by early 1933, and taxes were a major issue for many on the East End. In early March, The Star covered a meeting of taxpayers attended by more than 600 in the Masonic Hall. “Phelan Beale Holds Interest of Gathering for Over an Hour,” said the subtitle. He was still taking on the entrenched political establishment. The Shelter Island bridges were not mentioned in the article, but they had not gone away.
    Their potential construction loomed again throughout much of 1937. First District Assemblyman Edmund Lupton successfully introduced legislation in the New York State Assembly to support bridge construction. But within a week, a Star headline said, “Lupton Blames Democrats for Bridge Bill Defeat in Senate.” Lupton declared that “the possibility of building the Shelter Island bridges in time for the World’s Fair is practically gone.”
    A month later, however, The Star ran the picture of the architect’s plan for the bridges, and a county engineer said they could be completed in time for the 1939 World’s Fair contingent on receipt of federal money. Hermon Bishop, the county engineer, had filed an application for funding from the Works Progress Administration and explained the complex financing and toll-recovery process. A portion of the funding would be borne by the county through a general obligation bond issue.
    As for Phelan, a small article in The Star announced his death in June of 1956 in Mississippi and described his marriage in 1917 to Edith Bouvier Beale. The short note said she and their three children, Edith, Phelan Jr., and Bouvier, survived him.
    “One way? That’ll be $14, please” is repeated on Shelter Island’s South Ferry when I roll down my window and explain our intentions twice a year to visit East Hampton as we continue our research. The bridge, really bridges, to somewhere, in our case the South Fork, were never built, but as Phelan believed, there has never been a crying need for them. And we really like taking the ferries anyway.

    Steve Rideout regularly contributes “Guestwords” to The Star. He lives in Shutesbury, Mass.