Colorful Truman Capote in Black & White

Posted on 21 October 2010

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By Annette Hinkle

It’s not the sort of place you would find unless you knew where to look. But it’s there, down an unassuming path off Widow Gavits Road south of Sag Harbor deep in the Long Pond Greenbelt — a clearing with an unobstructed view of Crooked Pond. In the clearing sits a bench for reflection and a granite marker bearing a plaque in tribute to the life of author Truman Capote and his partner, author and playwright Jack Dunphy.

It may seem an unlikely resting place for someone like the flamboyant Capote and his partner, but late in the summer of 1994, a group of friends, family and acquaintances joined staff from The Nature Conservancy in a ceremony that would permanently tie the pair to the spot. That day, the ashes of both Capote, who died in 1984, and Dunphy, who passed away in 1992, were spread on the waters of Crooked Pond.

This Saturday at 10 a.m., Canio’s Cultural Café and Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt lead a “Black & White Hike” to the site in honor of Capote’s fall birthday. Named in honor of Capote’s 1966 “Black & White Ball” in Manhattan which was said to have been the literary event of the century, the hike begins at the Long Pond Greenbelt Nature Center on the Bridgehampton Turnpike. After a visit to the memorial, it ends there as well with a reception that includes a recording of Capote reading his work, a display of Capote memorabilia owned by friends, and samplings of Cousin Sook’s fruitcake from his short story “A Christmas Memory.”

Stuart Lowrie, Conservation Finance and Policy Advisor at The Nature Conservancy in East Hampton, remembers that August day when Capote and Dunphy’s ashes were spread on Crooked Pond. Though their final resting place may be unassuming to the casual visitor, he notes that the importance of Capote and Dunphy’s gift to the preservation the Long Pond Greenbelt cannot be underestimated.

Though Capote and Dunphy lived in Sagaponack, upon his death, Dunphy stipulated through Gerald Clark, Capote’s biographer and executor of the estate, that the money from the sale of the property should go to a local charitable organization. That organization was The Nature Conservancy.

“The agreement was we would take the property, not hold it, but sell it and use the proceeds to buy land in the local area,” explains Lowrie.

At the time, preserving the undeveloped areas of the Long Pond Greenbelt, a series of rare and pristine coastal plan ponds, was a priority for groups like TNC, as well as Southampton Town and Suffolk County. Beginning in the 1980s, the three groups agreed to pursue land preservation together, with Southampton Town focusing on acquisitions in the northern part of the Greenbelt, the county focusing on the southern sections and TNC on the middle parcels with the goal of creating one contiguous preserve.

“It’s off the charts in importance for New York State,” explains Lowrie of the coastal plan ponds environment. “A lot of southern species find their northern limit on Long Island and are combined with northern species that you won’t find further south.”

“That’s what drew TNC to it,” he adds. “They looked at the biological diversity and felt this was a cultural treasure we should all be working to preserve for future generations and its own sake.”

The money realized by TNC from the sale of Capote and Dunphy’s Sagaponack estate was used to buy close to 20 crucial acres that linked preserved Greenbelt lands to the north and south. The Capote/Dunphy Preserve, as it is officially known, encompasses a peninsula that sticks out into Crooked Pond from the east and covers the pond front access that is a priority for TNC.

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“Coastal plain ponds are an expression of the ground water table and the level fluctuates over time, depending on the water table,” explains Lowrie. “What we were after were the shorelines. If you can control even the first hundred feet of shoreline you can protect the ponds as long as the groundwater remains pure and there’s no nutrient intrusion.”

Money from the Capote and Dunphy estate was also used in concert with Southampton Town funds to purchase the Milton Grobow parcel which lies directly across the way on the western shore of Crooked Pond.

“Grobow was important because it was this parcel that separated the completed Greenbelt. It was the real trail link,” explains Lowrie.

That property, just under 40 acres or so, was bought for $29,000 an acre, which Lowrie recalled seemed like an outrageous sum of money in the mid-90s, but now would be quite the bargain.

“The Nature Conservancy closed on the northern half, and Southampton on the southern half and we secured trail rights,” says Lowrie. “That’s what the Capote money allowed to happened. It’s a wonderful story and one that Truman and Jack would be pleased by. Their money really did make a huge difference.”

Back in 1994, Lowrie was among those at TNC who helped organize the memorial ceremony and stone dedication on their newly acquired property. He notes that it was important to Gerald Clark that there be a marker at the site and Bistrian’s sand mine in Wainscott had agreed to donate the stone, so Lowrie and his TNC associate, Peter Wahn, took on the task of picking it out.

“They pulled out a bunch of stones for us to look at. There were a lot of big lumpy ones, and among them was a piece of pink granite vaguely triangular in shape,” says Lowrie. “The pink triangle has resonance with the gay and lesbian community, so we ended up with a pink triangular piece of granite. The executor picked quotes from Truman and Jack’s writings, and those were cast in bronze and mounted on the stone.”

Lowrie notes that in the summer of 1994, Crooked Pond was much drier than it is today, and he recalls the difficulties posed by the need to actually reach the water that day.

“There was not much pond and it was way out there,” says Lowrie. “The point was to throw the ashes into water, not on the mucky shore.”

So Lowrie and Wahn built a ramp with planks and cinderblocks long enough to reach the pond. On the day of the memorial while waiting for the guests to arrive, Lowrie got word that Jack Dunphy’s sister was on her way. Before long, a stretch white limo came into view from down Widow Gavits Road. Because Dunphy’s sister was frail, the decision was made to take down the fence by the road entrance so the limo driver could make his way the 1,000 or so feet down to the site.

“It was touch and go for a while,” grins Lowrie. “All of us were here in plain nature on this beautiful day, then there’s this giant stretch white limo in the middle of this beautiful site.”

But for Lowrie, the most poignant moment of the day came with the unexpected appearance of a bird overhead — a bird that seemed to punctuate Dunphy’s quote on the plaque, which reads: “I was grieving the way the earth seems to grieve for spring in the dead of winter, but I wasn’t afraid, because nothing, I told myself, can take our halcyon days away.”

“Halcyon is the Latin name for belted kingfishers,” notes Lowrie. “As Truman and Jack’s ashes are being scatted, this belted kingfisher comes flying around from the end of the pond.”

Halcyon days indeed.

“The Capote Black & White Hike” begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, October 23,2010 at the Long Pond Greenbelt Nature Center, 1061 Bridgehampton/Sag Harbor Turnpike. Black and white dress is encouraged. A reception follows at the nature center at 11 a.m. In addition to readings and refreshments, Truman Capote’s cherry-red Mustang, now owned by his Sag Harbor friends Myron Clement and Joe Petrocik, will be on display along with a 1947  photograph of Capote signed by LIFE photographer Jerry Cooke. The photograph will be for sale with a portion of the proceeds to benefit Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt and Canio’s Cultural Café. There is a suggested donation of $10 for the event. For more information, call 725-4926.

Top: The view of Crooked Pond where Truman Capote’s and Jack Dunphy’s ashes were spread in 1994.

Middle: The granite stone and plaque commemorating Capote and Dunphy.


About the Capote’s Black and White Ball

Truman Capote’s “Black and White Ball” was held on November 28, 1966 at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Held ostensibly in honor of Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, the party was rumored to be more an event to honor Capote himself. While few people are left alive today who remember the party first hand, the guest list, which was limited to 540, read like a who’s who of the literary, political and celebrity world. Frank Sinatra was there with his then wife, Mia Farrow, as were Sag Harbor’s John and Elaine Steinbeck as well as East Hampton’s George Plimpton and lots of Kennedys. Also receiving invitations were Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr., then publisher of The New York Times and the late Andy Warhol — the only guest who showed up without a mask, and got away with it.

But famously, one guest who received an invitation and turned it down was Sagaponack’s own Peter Matthiessen who, as noted on the Random House website, said of the event:

“Truman was kind of upset when I told him my book was going well and I didn’t want to break off to go to the black-and-white party. I explained that I would only get drunk and lose the drift of things for two or three days, but he was utterly unmollified. He was even more annoyed when Bill Styron stayed home, too, for the same reason. Bill had rung up to ask if I was going to Truman’s party, and when I said, “No,” he said, ‘Great! I’m not going, either!’”

“As it turned out, we missed something wonderful, and Bill upbraids me every few years — “You talked us out of the best party in history!’” continued Matthiessen. “Next time I saw Truman, he was still a little sulky. When I asked if I was forgiven, he burst out, “Cecil Beaton came all the way from London for my party, and you wouldn’t even come in from Sagaponack!”


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One Response to “Colorful Truman Capote in Black & White”

  1. Bob Wolfram says:

    What a well researched story! I often lead hikes in the Greenbelt for the Southampton Trails Preservation Society, and always stop at this very special place to take a group photo. Today I learned how we all became the beneficiaries of Capote’s and Dunphy’s lasting gift to preserving our natural environment for the benefit of all.


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