Fire Island: The Bohemians and the Meatballs
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s Fire Island was a place unlike any other place in the world. There was a special kind of magic and mystery there. It was created by the mixture of white beach sand, bottles of champagne, cocktails, art, avante-garde people, and wild imagination. These were some of my craziest, most cherished, and most memorable adventures of my life.
The Times were–a–Changing
Beatnik – Another Renaissance
The conservative ideas of the 1950’s were being thrown to the wind all over America, and the blossoming youth culture was like a revolution – nowhere more so than in Cherry Grove, and the Pines on Fire Island, which is now Long Island, NY.
During the 1950’s, the mindset of most Americans – the way they thought about all kinds of things – was still influenced by the post-war recession years. Most people still believed in good, honest hard work with straight and conservative values, and they believed in nothing more strongly than prosperity of America. In other words, most of them were stuffy and boring.
But the 1960’s saw the young girls trading their wide, pleated skirts and pencil skirts for miniskirts. Tight sweaters and cardigans were thrown out, or burned, and young people now wore the psychedelic colors of the ‘Summer of Love.’ There I was, in the strangest place in the country –maybe the whole world– during the grandest Cultural Revolution in modern times.
America was changing, and the changes were spreading in colorful waves across the entire world. I remember that Martin Luther King Bobby Kennedy were on the news all the time – until they were both killed– and so were all the riots that came with the race clashes. The times were a-changing, and the young people had new ideas about freedom, music, psychedelic drugs, relationships, gender, and about what was best in life. The old rules were nonsense to us. It was time for an all-night party, for beat poetry, and acoustic guitars under the moonlight on the beach. That suited me much better than an old-fashioned, dreary life of conformity to someone else’s ideas. The old-school fought against the changes, but there was no stopping the tide – especially on Fire Island.
Ever since the 1920’s the little island has been an eclectic sort of place – a small getaway from Long Island, only 36 miles long and less than half a mile wide. It attracted a lot of artists from the Broadway scene over the years. Up until 1962 there was no electricity, and no cars allowed on the island except for emergency vehicles. It was primitive living – but some people seemed to find that kind of lifestyle attractive. It didn’t matter to them that it was a hassle to light the house at night, or that you risked burning the place down with gas lamps on rickety old fittings.
Luckily, not too long after I was there things started to change. There was a secret community of bohemians and artists that slowly grew into something much bigger as the parties became wilder, the music got louder, and the way people dressed became more ‘outrageous.’ Fire Island became a kind of mecca for those souls who didn’t fit into mainstream America. For me it was a haven, and a playground, full of all the best things, and some of the best people I’ve ever met.
All-Night Parties and Crazy Times
sounCherry Grove was the wildest spot on the island. Every summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the rich and famous bohemians rubbed shoulders with dancers, the wildlings and the party-goers from dawn till dusk. Nudity wasn’t a problem in the Grove. It didn’t matter if you were into boys or girls either –except, of course, for the police force on the island –not to mention the Italian mafia who wanted all the cash that flowed into the restaurants, hotels and dance halls! – but there was no stopping it. Today, of course, nobody bats and eyelid about that kind of thing, but back then it was 1965 after all!
The champagne corks started popping early in the morning, and by the afternoon it was time for cocktails. When evening arrived, the fires were lit for barbecues, and then even later the party really got into full swing – and it kept on going and going until… Very late!
There were always all kinds of theme parties and costume parties going on, mostly in people’s private homes. I also remember that there was a favorite tradition on the Island called the “Sixish.” Groups of people of all types went wandering around looking for liquor, love and loud music. Every day the party moved to a different house, and party-goers would move around from one place to the next – wherever the breeze blew them. They used to set up huge, elaborate tents on the beach, like something out of the time of the gladiators. Weekends on the island were madness – but the best kind of fun you can imagine.
An invitation to Fire Island was an invitation I could never refuse. I would simply grab my sandals, my bathing suit and my pullover, and one way or another I would make my way there. As many as 45,000 people flocked to the tiny island over a weekend. Most caught the train out of Penn station, and hopped on the Ferry boat. For the fortunate few –like us– there was another way: A private seaplane.
The plane would land on the island, and then a four-wheel-drive jeep would take us to Kenneth’s 5-bedroom beach home. It was a thrill to travel that way, and it was an incredible place to stay. The house was tucked away, far from the maddening crowds, right on the dunes in the Pines. Spectacular!
Fire Island was a paradise for forward-thinking people, for bohemians, artists and hippies, and it was a non-stop party every weekend.
People like Tennessee Williams and Rock Hudson were there, as well as Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Midler and Andy Warhol – to name just a few. There were fashion designers like Giorgio St. Angelo and Calvin Klein. All kinds of people – the oddballs and the creatives, the musicians and the dancers – what a collection!
Everywhere there would be posters advertising music and theatre, like this one:
HAPPENING HAPPENING TONIGHT–
Tom Potocki and Gary Winters, artists about Fire Island, blow their artistic minds and invite other islanders to do the same when they stage their Fire Island happening, ‘Plastic Grass,’ at the Seaview recreation area on the bay tonight, starting at 6 p.m. Potocki and Winters have gone through their entire life savings to stage tonight’s thing and urge everyone to show their sympathy by arriving at least ten minutes late. Lighting, courtesy The Moon. Howls, courtesy Sunken Forest.”
(From the Fire Island News, July 23, 1966)
The Difference between Italian and Jewish Balls
It was during one memorable weekend in this magical place that I met two of the most enchanting people I’ve ever met: Bernie and Evelyn. Bernie was an eminent and successful attorney in Washington, and Evelyn was a true artist and a bohemian at heart; she was a trend-setting designer, and much of her work was on display in the Decoration and Design Building in New York –which is like the Louvre or the Tate Gallery for interior designers. They both lived in a penthouse in New York City on East 64th and Park avenue. They also owned a villa in Italy, and they summered in Europe –either in their villa, or on their island in Switzerland. They were refined human beings saturated in culture, socialites of the highest caliber, jet-setters, and lovers of life. What a privilege to have met them on that crazy island!
From the moment we met, we hit it off. I used to call them ‘Bernardo and Evelina,’ my Italian names for my Jewish-adopted family. Yes, I adopted them, and this is how it happened: one night we were on the island, drinking heavily, and I was telling them all about my parents, and how I felt that they had failed to educate me on the finer things in life, even on Italian culture; how they never understood the kind of person I was, and how narrow their horizons had always been. After I finished sharing my family’s story, I told them in a jokingly way, “I wish I could adopt you as my parents!”. After saying this, I couldn’t believe how lightheartedly they took it; they immediately agreed that it was a wonderful idea and, as soon as we got back to the city, they invited me to their penthouse. That marked the beginning of endless parties and luxury extravaganza.
Bernie and Evelyn had two sons, Jed and Mathew, who had left the nest to go to college. So, they had left behind two empty bedrooms in the penthouse that Bernie and Evelyn didn’t know what to do with. Luckily, we had already bonded deeply, just like family, so I became the perfect candidate to fill the empty space in their life. Deep inside I felt like these were my people, and they felt the same way about me.
The socialite couple used to throw lavish soirees every Sunday. It was a regular event that took up the entire day, and it was always so dazzling, and so mind-expanding that it made my head spin. The entire day would be filled with entertaining conversations with personalities from the bustling New York art scene. Those Sundays changed my life in so many ways: they opened my eyes to things I had never heard about; things that expanded my knowledge of culture, art, literature, and my view of the world and all its secrets.
Each Sunday at the penthouse Bernie would have their staff ready to cook, clean, cater and welcome Broadway stars, the theatre people, the journalists, the authors, the gorgeous models, and even the attorneys and businessmen would arrive. From eleven in the morning until two in the afternoon was the brunch party. After the brunch group left, then from three-o-clock to 6 pm another group would arrive for cocktails and hors-d’oeuvres. Around seven-thirty the next group would come in – always 12 people for a formal dinner –and since I was part of the family, I was always invited and welcomed at Bernie and Evelyn’s home. After the party was over I’d head back home and try to sleep for a bit, so I could go back to work at Kenneth’s on Monday.
During these parties, Bernie and Evelyn introduced to many incredible people. Their circle of friends and acquaintances included everyone who was part of the most intimate underground culture in NYC. The guests always knew which books one should read, which Broadway or off-Broadway productions were worthwhile, and which weren’t. They knew everything about the arts, music and movies, literature and poetry – and I soaked it all up, learning everything I could.
How did an Italian boy from Connecticut end up there? you may ask. Well, I still don’t know, but I’m forever grateful to those two graceful and generous people – my Jewish mommy and daddy, who took me into their lives, showered me with blessings and cared for me as one of their own sons. I remember that every now and then, whenever I looked confused or just spaced out, Evelyn would say, “Bernie, you want to talk to Antonio about this or that” and Bernie would take me into his study, sit down with me to a cognac and cigar, and we would have a father/son talk. He would give me the kind of guidance and support that my Italian father, Carmino, never gave me. This truly is the blessing that every young man desires from his father, and few ever receive. It would not be until decades later, after meeting Robert Bly and the Men’s Movement, that I would be involved with thousands of healthy men who would mentor young and elders … But that’s another chapter yet to be written.
Oh, I almost forgot! So, what is the difference between Italian and Jewish balls?… The soup! It’s all in the chicken soup! Italians have meatballs, and Jewish people have matzah balls, but the chicken soup is identical. Well, perhaps that’s not the most philosophical of questions, but it’s the one I remember most clearly from all those thousands of conversations around that dinner table.
My life was filled with beauty and adventure in the years between 1965 and 1974, when I sailed to Europe. Between Fire Island, my adopted Jewish family Sundays, and the workshop with those amazing European Craftsmen – every single day was filled to the brim with experiences I would not trade for gold, or anything else in life.
After I returned from Europe, I first moved to Boston, and then later to California, and even if I didn’t spend as much time with ‘Bernardo and Evelina’ as I would have liked, we never lost touch. Those two were and still are a part of my life ever since that fateful day on Fire Island.