Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Fire Island Was Paradise,Truly Paradise"

           (This article ran in the Fire Island News last week.)

           “Fire Island was paradise, truly paradise,” Phyllis Italiano was saying. “The life we had there for that period of years—for 35 years—was idyllic. “

            Phyllis was blissfully reminiscing the other day about the decades she spent on Fire Island with a couple whose celebrated marriage was charmed and happy—her older sister, actress Anne Bancroft and comic genius Mel Brooks. Often, her second sister, Joanne, joined them. “For us, it’s always been about family,” she noted. The three daughters’ parents were Millie (nee DiNapoli) and Michael Italiano, born in New York City of Italian immigrants. The three girls and their folks lived in The Bronx.

            Phyllis said the link between her family and Fire Island was sparked by Anne in 1960 staying for a weekend at the Fair Harbor home of fellow actress Enid Markey. “Anne absolutely fell in love with Fire Island,” recalled Phyllis.

           “She said, ‘Look, I would like to rent there next year. If I rent it would you and Joanne run it while I’m working on Broadway?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’” said Phyllis. “My kid [the first of her four children] was one year old. I loved the beach.”

            So, in 1961, she and Anne rented actor Martin Balsam’s house in Fair Harbor—“he had headed out to Hollywood to make movies.” She was immediately impressed finding that first Memorial Day weekend that “this is a family place.”

           The next year, 1962, Anne and Mel had gotten together and all were back at Fair Harbor. In 1963 Anne bought a house in Lonelyville. “It was a big rectangle, way up on stilts, overlooking the ocean. Anne bought that house for $28,000.” Designed by Richard Meier, it was on No Name Walk.

            In 1964, Anne and Mel were married. And the following year they purchased a house behind that rectangular one—“we called it the second house”—and that’s where Phyllis and Joanne and kids (Joanne, too, is a mother of four) lived.   

            “The ocean was the king of our lives,” said Phyllis. “We had breakfast together and we started every day the same way. Anne and I would go for long swims.” They would swim in the bay and the ocean, although sometimes ocean-swimming was tricky. She spoke of one day Anne swimming in a sea that was roiling, and how Anne glanced at her with a “look on her face: ‘Give my love to Mamma.’ I had to get the lifeguard to get her out.”

            “We had just unbelievable times. We would walk to Ocean Beach to go out to dinner. We loved reading,” she said. “We played games at night.”

            Mel’s comedy-writing for Sid Ceasar’s Show of Shows “had ended,” he had started his The 2000 Year Old Man routine with Carl Reiner which skyrocketed in popularity on records and TV. He was working on other projects. “I remember on Fire Island,” said Phyllis, “reading the script of Blazing Saddles and thought, ‘My God, this is going to be terrific!’ I read the script there of The Producers, the first film in his film career.”
            Anne had, meanwhile, become a star in films and on stage. She won an Oscar for her acting in The Miracle Worker and became a world-renowned sex symbol as the seductive Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. She wrote, directed and acted in the hilarious movie Fatso. She won Tonys for her performance in Two for the Seesaw and also the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker. She might have to travel—but she made sure she got back to Fire Island. .
            “It was so safe for children, so secure,” noted Phyllis, her former married name Wetzel. Phyllis is now retired after 27 years as a teacher and also was an assistant principal in the Yonkers public school system.

             The absence of cars on Fire Island, Phyllis said, and the warm community life made Fire Island “a safe, wonderful place” for youngsters. “The kids bonded together. They’d go out in the morning and you’d see them at dinner.” As the years went by, son Michael Wetzel worked at Kismet Inn and daughter Paula Wetzel at Maguire’s restaurant.

           “All the girls in the family did baby-sitting during their early teens. Once my daughter, Joanne, my oldest, had a job at about age 13 raking the bay beach in Fair Harbor of seaweed. She would be out at 8 in the morning cleaning the beach before breakfast. That was how Fire Island was—a real community—everyone helped everyone else.”
            Meanwhile, “every day Mel would wash the front windows of the house,” she said. “And he would go down to the ocean and surf-cast and catch fish.” Mel also thoroughly enjoyed “sitting on the back deck in a great chair Anne had bought. And he’d fall asleep.”

            They liked going for shellfish. Then there was the time, Phyllis recalled, when “we went out with flashlights at 1 a.m. in the morning crabbing and caught a load of crabs. I said to Mel, ‘We don’t want to kill them by putting them in the refrigerator,’” Better, she thought, would be putting the crabs in the kitchen sink until it was time to cook them. “But they crawled out of the sink—16 or 17 crabs—and they were all over the place and we had to scurry around at 3 a.m. to catch them. And, you know, crabs bite.”

           A son, Max, was born to Anne and Mel in 1972. He would go on to be a writer for Saturday Night Live and author. His initial book: The Zombie Survival Guide.

            In 1996, Phyllis, Anne and Mel left Fire Island for the Hamptons. Anne thought they could “buy a very big house for all the family.”
Anne and Mel initially rented in Westhampton and then settled in Water Mill. Phyllis purchased a house in The Springs, a hamlet north of East Hampton.
            “The Hamptons are lovely. I’m not going to say I don’t love the Hamptons,” said Phyllis, who is deeply involved in East Hampton Town Democratic affairs, has a program on the Wainscott-based TV operation LTV, and is active in civic and educational affairs. “But being on Fire Island, it was the happiest time of our lives.”

            She has just returned to Fire Island once since 1996 only “because I’ve been so busy.” But she intends to “go back to Fire Island this year. I’d love to see it again.”

            Anne, married to Mel for four decades, died 10 years ago this month, Phyllis noted sadly.

Monday, June 1, 2015

My First Big Story

           (This column ran in the Fire Island News last week.)

           A year-long 50th anniversary celebration—extending through this summer—is underway to commemorate a great event: the creation of the Fire Island National Seashore. In a David-versus-Goliath saga, a most extraordinary place—Fire Island—was saved.
It was my first big story as a reporter on Long Island. It was 1962 and I had just started at the Babylon Town Leader, a newspaper which for decades had criticized projects of New York State public works czar Robert Moses, a Babylon resident. Moses had just announced his plan to build a four-lane highway on Fire Island. It would, claimed Moses, “anchor” Fire Island and  project it from storms.
I was assigned to go to Fire Island to do an article about the impacts of the highway on the island’s nature and communities. I was a 20-year-old from New York City but I knew something about nature having been an Eagle Scout and coming from a family that went camping every summer.  
A walk in exquisite Sunken Forest made the environmental significance of Fire Island clear to me immediately on the visit, arranged with the help of George Biderman of the Fire Island Association. I lucked out in learning about its magical communities by connecting with articulate Fire Islanders such as TV journalist Charles Collingwood and writer Reginald Rose who, with others, explained how these communities — and the island’s nature — would be largely paved over by the Moses road.
I wrote a story, the first of many. Two other weekly newspapers joined with us in the journalistic crusade including running our articles: the Suffolk County News and the Long Island Commercial Review.
What an uphill battle. Hardly any elected officials would say or do anything in opposition to Moses. He also seemed to have some big daily newspapers in his pocket. The New York Times and Newsday pushed hard for the road.
But we kept pushing, too. We found, for example, how the four-lane highway Moses built to the west, along Jones Beach, rather than being an “anchor” needed to be regularly bolstered with sand pushed along its edges by bulldozers working at night.
The first call I received the morning my first story ran was from Murray Barbash, an environmentally attuned builder from Brightwaters. Murray (who passed away in 2013) and his brother-in-law, Babylon attorney Irving Like (thankfully, very much with us and still a Long Island environmental champion) organized a Citizens Committee for a Fire Island National Seashore. The view was that Moses could not be stopped on the state level because of the enormous power he wielded in New York.  If Fire Island were to be saved, it would have to be through the federal government. Also, the Seashore initiative offered a positive goal.
A national seashore was then a relatively new idea. The first, Cape Hatteras, was created nine years earlier, in 1953.  But U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall paid a visit and embraced the Fire Island National Seashore vision. Also, conservation-oriented Laurance Rockefeller, the brother of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, became chairman of the state Council of Parks in 1963 and liked the Fire Island National Seashore concept, too.
Moses was furious at what was happening. He confronted Nelson Rockefeller. Moses had run for governor himself, in 1934, and suffered a then record two-to-one defeat, so he amassed power by running state commissions and authorities instead.
According to the Leader’s source—a person at Moses’ Long Island State Park Commission—at the climactic meeting with Rockefeller, Moses insisted the highway would happen and that the governor put a lid on his brother. If Rockefeller wouldn’t, Moses threatened he would resign from his many commission and authority posts. He seemingly thought the state would fall apart without him. In the collision, Nelson wouldn’t be steamrolled.
Moses quit his government posts. And the bill establishing a Fire Island National Seashore was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson on September 11, 1964, the date now the kickoff for the all-year 50th anniversary celebration.
Murray and Irv, it should be noted, went on to flip the Fire Island strategy a few years later when Long Island was faced with the Long Island Lighting Company’s plan to build seven to 11 nuclear power plants—the first at Shoreham. They understood that there would be no way at the federal level to stop this. The U.S. nuclear agencies—the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—never denied a construction or operating license for any nuclear power plant anywhere, anytime (to this date).
So here the strategy was to utilize state power. Citizens to Replace LILCO, created by Murray and Irv, pressed for passage of the Long Island Power Act and use of the state’s power of eminent domain to eliminate LILCO if it persisted with its nuclear scheme. This was the key that caused the closure of a completed Shoreham plant and no other nuclear plants being built on Long Island.
            The Babylon Town Leader was sold in 1964. At the newspaper I also covered the early civil rights struggle on Long Island. And I went to the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair opening day to report on activists from Long Island protesting racism in hiring by the World’s Fair. Moses had held on to being in charge of the World’s Fair.
The chain that bought the Leader ran my article as a front-page story with the headline: “Jail Pavilion for Suffolk CORE.” But no longer was I protected by Moses-critical management.
I was called in to see the associate publisher, Wilson Stringer, who declared: “Mr. Moses called and is very upset with you. You’re fired.”
I would end up at the daily Long Island Press and after its closure in 1977, writing books—I’ve authored six—and anchoring the nightly news on Long Island TV station WSNL. For the past nearly 25 years, I’ve hosted the nationally-aired TV program Enviro Close-Up.  I’m chief investigative reporter at Long Island TV station WVVH.
And I’m a full professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury. I teach Investigative Reporting and Environmental Journalism—and continue to practice both.  
So I’ve done fine, despite Moses. As has Fire Island.
Whenever I head out to Fire Island and see it come into view, a good feeling comes over me about my part in helping save this national treasure.