Lorraine Hansberry Lived in Croton!

Lorraine Hansberry Lived in Croton!

Do you know who she is? Lorraine Hansberry? She was an African-American playwright whose most famous play, “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway in 1959.

IMG_1112Copy of Playbill from the original Broadway production on display at the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

If you weren’t forced to read the play in high school or college, you’ve probably run across it somehow — the play was revived in 2014 with Denzel Washington.

IMG_1113Copy of Playbill  from the 2014 revival on display at the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

There’s also a movie of it out there, starring Sidney Poitier.   It was pretty groundbreaking for its time.

Here’s the cover of the play, with a photo of Lorraine Hansberry taken in Croton-on-Hudson:

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Anyway, today I had one of those moments where the universe creates perfect synchronicity, and it all had to do with Lorraine and Croton and running.

At the first waterstop this morning (the Taconic Road Runners thoughtfully put out water and Gatorade every Saturday morning for the group run ), I asked my friend Fran if she would be up for changing up our route a little to run past what I thought was Lorraine Hansberry’s house. “It’s on Bridge Road,” I said, “Just down the hill from the Danish Home.”

“Bridge Lane,” corrected another woman at the waterstop. “It’s Bridge Lane — I know, because I live there!”

“Oh wow, what a coincidence!”  I said, while guzzling icy-cold orange Gatorade.  “Do you happen to know where Lorraine Hansberry’s house is, then? I think I’ve found the address but I’m not sure.”

“Well, funny you should ask – I live in her house.”

I was floored. What? WHAT? No way! I’ve never seen this runner lady before and yet there she was, overhearing my conversation with Fran and living in Lorraine Hansberry’s house!

We chatted for a bit, and then ran off in opposite directions, but we had her blessing to go and take a gander at her house. (To be honest, I’d done a drive by on Friday and snapped this picture with my phone.)

Hansberry House

Now, according to a recent PBS American Masters documentary titled “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” Hansberry supposedly called her home in Croton “Chitterling Heights.” All sorts of literati came up from New York City to visit.  (Croton has long been a haven for artists and activists – Lillian Nordica, Isadora Duncan, Gloria Swanson, John Reed, Max Eastman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Lorraine Hansberry are just a few who settled here.  Don’t worry, I’ll be running by their houses and blogging about them too!)

Hansberry and her husband Robert Nemiroff moved to Croton in about 1961. Not only were they both artists (he wrote “Cindy, oh Cindy,” a Top 40 song, among other things.  Here’s his obituary for more), but both were activists, especially dedicated to causes that promoted racial and sexual equality.   Fun fact – in 1964, Hansberry was integral in organizing and participating in one of the first fundraisers in the New York City area for the civil rights movement, held at Croton’s Temple Israel.   (The 1963 Birmingham church bombings catalyzed many on the East Coast.)   She was the MC of the event, and brought in other like-minded celebrities, including Ossie Davis, James Baldwin, and Judy Collins. They raised over $11,000 for organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality – Freedom Summer voter registration project (CORE), the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the NAACP.

Some of the money raised went towards the purchase of a Ford station wagon for the Freedom Riders Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, men who were subsequently murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. (More info here and here.)

If you’re so inclined, here’s a link to the PBS documentary.  Fast forward to about 1:19 in if you want to learn more about Hansberry’s Croton years and the fate of that Ford station wagon . . .)

Tragically, Hansberry died in 1965 at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer.  She is buried in Croton-on-Hudson in the Bethel Cemetery.

Hansberry grave

 

 

 

 

 

 

116 Hawkes Avenue – The Corliss Lamont Estate

116 Hawkes Avenue – The Corliss Lamont Estate

BLOG POST:  116 Hawkes Avenue — The Corliss Lamont Estate

Screen Shot 2018-01-11 at 7.03.47 PM116 Hawkes Avenue is for sale. 13 bedrooms, 8 baths for $1,999,222.  Check out the link here.

This is also informally known as the “Lamont Estate,” once owned by the progressive activist and intellectual Corliss Lamont. It’s funny – I’ve had a draft of this post simmering for about a year now, ever since I joined the American Civil Liberties Union, but it wasn’t until this “For Sale” sign went up that I was inspired to post.

The realtor is pitching this as a “Wonderful opportunity to develop over 19 acres of rolling property. . .” – GRRR! Like Hawkes Avenue needs any more development right now! (See my blog 87HawkesAvenue.com for more on the topic.)

But the story of Corliss Lamont is one that deserves telling. Something about the idea of sub-dividing this estate makes me feel (irrationally, I admit) like his legacy is somehow being diminished. I mean, he was a deep thinking activist who fought long and hard to protect those liberties enshrined in our Constitution, as well as an intellectual who was forever striving to improve humanity.  His reach was long and his connections were extensive.

I’ll let his website start us off:

Corliss

Corliss Lamont (1902-1995) was a 20th century American hero whose independent thinking challenged prevailing ideas in philosophy, economics, religion, patriotism, world peace and the exercise of our cherished civil liberties.

 Corliss Lamont was born to Wall Street wealth, yet he championed the cause of the working class, and was derided as a “Socialist” and a “traitor to his class.”

 Corliss Lamont’s Humanist belief that earthlings have evolved without supernatural intervention and are responsible for their own survival on this planet caused traditionalists to label him a “godless atheist.”

Okay, first, how ironic is it that that Dr. Andrija Puharich lived right across the street at 87 Hawkes Avenue – a man whose life work involved proving that extraterrestrials have intervened over the centuries to help human beings evolve and survive. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Check out my blog post on Puharich here.) You have to wonder if Corliss and Andrija ever hung out in the 1960s and ’70s and just rapped until the wee hours  . . .   Can you imagine it?  Boy, would I ever have liked to have been a fly on that wall!

Anyway, let’s unpack the information from Lamont’s website: “Born to Wall Street wealth,” it asserts. Well, yes sir, that is no less than the truth. His father was none other than Thomas Lamont, a partner and later Chairman at J.P. Morgan. In fact, he was the acting head of J.P. Morgan the day the stock market began crashing in 1929, and famously rallied other Wall Street firms to join forces with him and purchase massive amounts of stocks in an attempt to stabilize the market.  Alas, the market was too far gone. (Earlier, in 1910, Thomas Lamont took part in a secret meeting on Jekyll Island to help create the Federal Reserve System. I know, financial history is a snooze, but Frank Vanderlip was there and he lived nearby in Scarborough! Blog post on him to come soon.) Let’s just say money was in the blood.

Son Corliss followed in his father’s footsteps to Phillips Exeter Academy and thence to Harvard, but that’s where the similarities end. No doubt Thomas would have welcomed his son to Wall Street, but Corliss had other interests. After Harvard, he studied at Oxford University (where he roomed with Aldous Huxley’s brother Julian), earned a Ph.D from Columbia University, and went on to teach philosophy at various Ivy League universities. Philosophy was also in his blood — his mother, Florence Corliss Lamont, earned an M.A. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1898. She later donated the estate that today houses the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory in Palisades, N.Y.

Now’s as good a time as any to talk about Corliss’ avowed Socialist/Communist/Marxist leanings. It is true that in Corliss wrote an admiring book about the USSR describing how they had turned their feudal society into a modern one in a remarkably short time. It is also true that in 1937 he helped found a short-lived magazine called the Marxist Quarterly that delved into the theory and practice of socialism and communism. It is further true that he was the Chairman of the group “Friends of the Soviet Union.” But here’s some context on all this: the seeming failure of capitalism in the West, as evidenced by the enduring hardships of the Depression, caused many intellectuals to look positively at the Soviet Union and communism in general in the 1930s and ‘40s.  Worker’s rights and the ideal of a more equitable society was very appealing at the time.  However, Corliss and others gradually became disenchanted with the Soviet Union as stories of Josef Stalin’s brutality and events like the Moscow Trials came to light.

(Another Fun Fact: Corliss was a prolific pamphlet writer and one of them, “Basic Pamphlet 14, The Crime Against Cuba,” was distributed by none other than Lee Harvey Oswald on the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana, during the summer of 1963! According to the Corliss Lamont website, the CIA purchased 45 copies of the pamphlet and it was ended up as Exhibit No. 3120 in the Warren Commission Report on JFK’s assassination. Want to know more?   Click on this link.)

Okay, back to the chronology:  In the 1930s, Corliss became director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.) You must have heard of it — it’s a non-profit organization founded in 1920 to, as their website says, “Defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” They’ve defended the rights of anti-war protesters, striking workers, teachers who teach about evolution (the Scopes Monkey trial anyone?) the Ku Klux Klan, refugees – basically anyone anywhere in the United States whose civil liberties are threatened.

In the 1950s, Corliss (and many others) were hauled in front of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s infamous committee and asked the notorious question “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?” Refusing to answer, Lamont creatively invoked not the usual Fifth Amendment that protects a citizen from incriminating himself, but the First Amendment that guarantees free speech. He was cited for contempt of Congress and faced prison time. He sued the government and remarkably, after several years, won.   In fact, he successfully sued the government several more times, taking at least two of these cases to the Supreme Court. (Yet another Fun Fact: according to a neighbor, in the 1960s unmarked cars were often seen parked near the driveway entrance to 116 – keeping Corliss under surveillance for his anti-Vietnam war stance, and pro-Cuba leanings, I guess.)

In later years, 116 Hawkes Avenue was the location for anti-war concerts and gatherings – I’m told Pete Seeger played here, along with other like-minded folk artists. His foundation, the Half-Moon, hosted Humanist weddings and events there up until the 1990s.

Corliss Lamont passed away at 116 Hawkes in 1995.

 

 

 

 

John Cheever lived at 197 Cedar Lane (and it’s for sale!)

 

In addition to being a runner, I’m also a stage manager. I got my Equity card in 1994 on a production of A. R. Gurney’s “A Cheever Evening”, a play that adapted several short stories by John Cheever.

Cheever Playbill

As is so often the case when I do a show, I get obsessed with everything to do with its subject. For this one, I devoured all of Cheever’s work, starting with his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Stories of John Cheever”:

Cheever Stories

Now, you may be asking what the connection is between John Cheever and this blog? Well, his old house is a perfect 1.8 miles from mine, and the “John Cheever” is my go-to short run. I run there, peer at the house through the trees at the top of the driveway and run home. I also like to tap this battered mailbox to mark the official halfway point of my run.

IMG_3885

Now, I won’t pretend I moved to Ossining because of John Cheever, but it is a nice little bit of synergy in my life.

Located at 197 Cedar Lane, the house was originally built in 1795. Renovated in the 1920s by architect Eric Gugler (who apparently redesigned the Oval Office for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s), Cheever purchased it in 1961. At the time, he wrote:

The closing; and so I have at last bought a house. Coming home on the train, Mary speaks of the complexity of our lives … and it does seem rich and vast, like the history of China. We move books. To Holy Communion, where I first express my gratitude for safe travels, luck with money, love, and children. I pray that our life in the new house will be peaceful and full. I pray to be absolved of my foolishness and to be returned to the liveliness, the acuteness of feeling, that seems to be my best approach to things.

Cheever wrote some of his most famous works in that house – the short story “The Swimmer” (which became a film starring Burt Lancaster in 1968) and “The Wapshot Scandal,” a novel, just to name a very few.

By the mid-1960s, he was arguably one of the most famous living American writers. In 1964, he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as “The Ovid of Ossining”, and later that year was also dubbed “The Chekhov of the Suburbs” by the New York Times Book Review.

Born in Massachusetts in 1912, Cheever spent much of his adult life in New York, moving to Westchester in the early 1950s. He rented his first house here, a small cottage in Beechwood, the old Frank Vanderlip estate in Scarborough, moving to the Ossining house from there.

He was an active member of the community – Wikipedia says that he was even a volunteer fireman for the Briarcliff Manor Fire Department. A neighbor of mine remembers seeing him walking along Cedar Lane to eat lunch at the old Highland Diner (now DD’s Diner) on North Highland Avenue where he was a regular.  Several other friends of mine were given autographed books by Cheever himself just because they crossed his path in different ways.

In the 1970s, Cheever taught writing to inmates at Sing Sing, using that experience as a springboard to write “Falconer,” a novel that came out in 1977 to great fanfare.  (Rumor has it that some inmates were annoyed by that, though, feeling he only volunteered to teach them in order to use their life stories in his own work.)

In 1979 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Cheever was a complicated man — a depressive and an alcoholic who struggled with his bisexuality. Yet he still managed to write regularly and productively. His daughter Susan wrote about this in-depth in her memoir “Home Before Dark,” which is definitely worth reading if you have any interest at all in Cheever.

Fittingly, the Reading Room at the Ossining Public Library is named after him. Read Library Trustee Bob Minzesheimer’s thumbnail bio of Cheever here.

John Cheever passed away in 1982, and his widow Mary remained in the Cedar Lane house until her death in 2014. A poet, essayist, and historian in her own right, she is perhaps best known for her excellent local history of our area called “The Changing Landscape: A History of Briarcliff Manor – Scarborough.”  (You can find it in the Ossining library or buy it here.) 

Last summer, just after Mary Cheever passed away at the age of 95, the house came on the market.

I couldn’t help myself, I HAD to go see it.

It was an amazing time capsule both of Mary Cheever’s widowhood and, just a little bit, of John Cheever’s life. At the time, the house was still completely furnished — everything comfortably worn, looking like it had been purchased new in 1961 and never replaced. Magazines were stacked on side tables, books filled the built-in bookcases, and I could imagine John Cheever padding into the room in his slippers to take one off the shelf, a glass of scotch tinkling in the other hand. An old manual typewriter sat uncovered on a small wooden table near a window, as if Cheever was just taking a short break before sitting down to write some more.

A double height porch covers the front of the house, the second story of which is screened in and would be a lovely place to sleep on a hot summer night. But the general layout is strange and old, with very low ceilings, small windows with shutters, and fireplaces throughout. But the house and grounds lend themselves to entertaining, and the Cheevers were said to give great parties.  Susan Cheever describes them as “the kind of party that Jay Gatsby should have had. Every writer imaginable was at the house, including Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow and John Updike. I still remember Ralph Ellison playing Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on the alto recorder.”

Oh yeah, I can see all that and then some!

At some point, the Cheevers built an attached writing studio – sadly, it is not at all in keeping with the rustic Dutch Colonial feel, looking more like a mindless 1980s liberal arts college building plunked up against an elegant, historical structure.

The house sits on several acres of land that was once so very carefully landscaped, it is said, that the shrubs bloomed red, white and blue by July 4.

I think the property will require a great deal of love and money to bring it back to its former glory. Now owned by the bank, the asking price has dropped to a bargain basement one of $340K. Check out the listing and slideshow here.   (Thanks Valerie Cascione!)

As far as I know, the house is not listed on the National Historical Register, which means there’s a very real chance this building will be bulldozed by the next owner. But shouldn’t it be saved so that the legacy of one America’s great writers can be preserved for future generations? Imagine the John Cheever Artist’s Retreat right here in Ossining!