by Jim Marquardt
As a scribbler myself, I have the feeling that people all over Sag Harbor are sitting at home in their little nooks scribbling away on a novel, a memoir, an article, an irate letter, whatever has unleashed their creative juices. My undocumented impression is probably well-founded because everyone I meet seems to be writing something, and Sag Harbor has welcomed writers, and artists too, since at least 1807. On Feb. 9th that year the Literary Society of Sag Harbor was organized to “consist of Disputation, composition, Declamation, and examination upon Geography, Astronomy and such other exercises as a majority shall appoint.” According to The History of the Town of Southampton by James Truslow Adams, the duties of the Treasurer of the society included furnishing “stationary, fuel, candles, &c” and was also to be a “Critic” whose duty was “to criticize upon all compositions and declamations.” (Ah, a rare opportunity to put down other writers.) A system of fines was established for “gambling or intoxication outside of meetings, and no meeting should ever be held in a tavern” (an unexpected rule since writers forever have had high regard for drinking and taverns).
Helen Harrison and Constance Demme depict literary and artistic life on the East End in their joyful book Hamptons Bohemia: Two Centuries of Artists and Writers on the Beach. They acknowledge the Sag Harbor Literary Society and say that fame really arrived later with the success of James Fenimore Cooper and Walt Whitman. Cooper came in 1819 and invested in a whaling venture. Whaling didn’t work out well for him but while staying at Duke Fordham’s tavern on Main Street (society members must have been shocked) he wrote his first novel, Precaution, followed by The Spy and The Pioneers which launched his famous series of Leatherstocking Tales. Around the same time, Hubbard Latham Fordham began painting portraits of the local gentry. A distant cousin, Orlando Hand Bears, became even more successful as a portraitist and landscape artist. Before them, Anna Frances Sleight turned out water colors of the Sag scene as far back as 1803.
In the late 1800s William Merritt Chase established the Shinnecock School where he painted his renowned landscape and figure studies and attracted young artists including Annie Burnham Cooper, another member of the prominent Sag Harbor family. In the early 1900s Childe Hassam of East Hampton and James Britton of Sag Harbor were inspired by beautiful East End scenes. Writers too found the Hamptons a source of pleasure and inspiration. In the 1920s leading New York City newspapermen, Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice and Irwin S. Cobb, lived near each other in rented beach cottages.
According to Hamptons Bohemia, Sag Harbor’s “most unorthodox art colonist” of the 1950s was Val Telberg, a photomontagist and filmmaker. He bought a house on Bay Street in 1956 and created haunting images of Trout Pond in Noyac. After World War II a number of literary figures ventured out to the South Fork, at least part time, and bought or rented homes in Sag Harbor and nearby communities. Over the years there were such luminaries as Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, James Salter, E.L. Doctorow, James Jones, John Knowles, Peter Matthiesen, Truman Capote, John Irving, Wilfred Sheed and Edward Albee. A photo of a smiling Doctorow swimming with his dog appears in the book. In an earlier column, we wrote about Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck and his love of Sag Harbor.
The Eastville Artists, a colony of painters from Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah began exhibiting in the 1970s. Mostly African-American, the group included Nanette Carter, Alvin Loving, Frank Wimberley and Robert Freeman. Guild Hall and the Parrish Art Museum supported local artists with exhibitions and competitions.
The roster of East End artists and writers is endless. We haven’t even mentioned Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers and Jackson Pollock whose paintings command millions of dollars years after their deaths. A New York Times article in 1998 recounted the names of famous East End writers and artists, then went on to talk about a new wave coming to the Hamptons, “They are young and old, eccentric and straight-laced. They paint canvases in oil, sculptured stone and metal, mix watercolors and take photographs. They write novels, novellas, poetry, travelogues, science fiction, non-fiction and articles for major newspapers and literary reviews.”
So my first impression is surely correct. If you listen closely you can probably hear writers and artists all over Sag Harbor and neighboring villages endlessly tapping out immortal words and daubing genius paint on canvass. And we are all the richer for it.