Donald Freed
International Playwright
and Master Teacher

FIRE ISLAND REDUX

                                      FIRE ISLAND REDUX 2 ’63-68
                                                             “... In this bare island by your spell;
                                                                              ... release me from my bands
                                                                               With the help of your good hands...

"Prospero, in Shakespeare's The Tempest

Sipping Veuve Clicquot from a crystal flute, my mind floats away to summer on Fire Island, my beach haven. Its sense of utopia never goes away, as an eternal life all its own. Unlike Shakespeare, I am not obliged by the censors, or Hannah, to give up the romantic magic of my island. My island is something immortal. Having been drowned by hurricanes, it has always recovered with a spirit that will live on in me -- wherever I may be -- ‘to release me from my bands.'

30-year-old housewife and mother of three, I ferried onto this floating world. It didn't feel strange or unwelcoming, not for a single, solitary minute. A kind of miracle, so rare and delicious, I just let it rip. No rules. No restrictions. No judgment. Outrageous is good. Absurd is even better. And this was 1962, a year before Feminine Mystique had been published. So I was still tortured by not being happy in the very life I had envisioned and yearned for as my destiny, and filled with guilt for having failed to live up to the promise that had been delivered. The women I ran into on this enchanted, Puckish island were already where Betty had hoped to take the rest of us -- free- spirited, independent, accomplished. They were wives, mothers mostly, too, but so much more. They were artists, novelists, psychoanalysts, fashion illustrators, actors, composers -- achievers one and all -- and had done so seamlessly, not wearing any ism. My mind was blown, my appetites whetted. But the imbedded barriers against finding the somebody who might one day be me were still strong, still standing in my way. To become one of them, a tough broad with clout, meant passing beyond the bars that began in my crib, and Ma's mantra of "'No" lacked posthumous power against the seductive liberty that was pulling at me on that sandbar.

I mean, just take Edna, for example, a gal so funny and smart that any time spent with her, alone or in a crowd, at the beach or across a bridge table, would leave me with a smile in my heart and a bounce in my step. And Dorothy, she flooded my spirit with inspiration, and ambition to become her kind of somebody. Marlyn was a political trouble-maker like me, and on and on -- even some of the guys heightened my hopes in one way or another, from Joe Heller to Lee Strasberg and odd-ball husbands of the great women. Lively and clever, talented and original, feisty and entertaining, the women made up an astral world of poker, parties and push-back of the patriarchal society that from time immemorial, has always been the air we breathe. Mystique was about to arouse a new female fight for freedom and parity, but it had started many years before Betty's book, or even Fire Island's mavericks, and I think it's safe to say that for some reason the Island had become a magnet for women whose independent streaks were stronger than the forces against them. I thank my lucky stars every day for having been plunked down smack dab in the middle of an unexpected collection of female energy and courage, on a barrier reef that came to mean so much to me.

It started in the 18th Century, with pirates, then slave traders, then a lighthouse, followed by a hotel. Eventually it was spotted with communities scattered along the narrow strip of sand that is Fire Island. First, bungalows were ferried over the bay from Yaphank, New York. Then summer houses that were mostly shacks were built in various locations. At present, only a few hundred people live there all year round in all the communities combined. It is a summer place, hard to reach, subject to storms, rough waters and bitter cold winters, yet utterly delightful to many thousands for three or four months every year. And there are hurricanes. The great one of 1938 devastated the island and left it bereft of homes and people, except for the Duffy Hotel in Cherry Grove that miraculously survived. Gays began to come there and soon Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, dressed as Dionysus and Ganymede, were carried afloat by followers setting the stage for a safe haven for gays and lesbians. In the Grove, and The Pines whose population is more mixed, an ostracized cadre of people were to have a private world in which to enjoy surf, sand, sex, sea -- and wild parties.

A twenty-five minute drive to Bayshore where the ferries are docked, and we were on our way to a weekend visit. The exodus we were witnessing, was a summer respite, not a permanent escape. I stood transfixed, watching an odd mix of people as they piled bikes, bags, bagels, books, beach chairs, salamis, wine, kids and small appliances onto the boat. Just as we were pulling from the pier, a woman screamed to the captain. "Stop, stop, my boy is not on board -- we left him on the dock!". The ferry shifted into reverse and rescued the screaming child, then headed across the bay to Seaview. It was a splendid day, so we sat on the top deck to enjoy the sun and the sea in our faces, with hair blowing in the wind -- well, other people's hair. My frizzy natural Afro didn't move, never moved, but it felt great anyway, even without my dad's rope belt tassel flying from the bobby pin attaching it to my head I had done in my eight-year-old Veronica Lake pretend episode. I knew not what to expect until the chatter, catching up with friends and neighbors on the half-hour ride, became a musical comedy to me -- Anything Goes, without the sailor suits and dated attitudes, even spotting a few known strangers who might have played the lead.

As the ferry slowed down to maneuver itself alongside the Seaview dock, what

we saw could not have been contained in any Broadway musical -- not even Chicago, Moulin Rouge and Hair all rolled into one. My head was turning in so many directions to catch this action, and that surprise, that it was making me dizzy -- I thought I might be inside a Kaleidoscope. Wives, husbands, boy and girlfriends, children and assorted other categories of people standing on their toes in wait for their loved ones and guests, -- some carrying martinis in a thermos under one arm and two fancy martini glasses in the other hand -- others dancing the Frug -- little kids with large red wagons offering a ride for belongings at a price. They gathered in front of a small parking lot of red wagons chained to a fence -- a still life -- freedom waiting in those wagons, ready to move from bay to ocean and so many of the spots in between. The asking fee from the young boy we chose was one dollar, but we upped the ante to two -- hang the expense, we were in Wonderland. He led us directly to the Bonomo house, pulling our bags and baby boy in the iconic red wagon as his older brother walked alongside, forming his first Fire Island friendship. Big kids and little kids had kicked off their shoes as the ferry slipped into its slot, like birds flying out of a just-opened cage door. I knew at once that it was not just being separated from the mainland, but from convention itself. I followed suit and didn't put shoes on again until we ferried back to the city three days later, not even flip-flops.

We strolled past a deeply tanned, barefoot bride and groom in khaki shorts taking their vows in the sand, the guests in a wild assortment of beachwear and bare skin. The scene was a live Matisse painting, with all the colors, mixed patterns and semi-nudity. As we drew closer to their house, I could hear the gentle roar of the sea, that sea that has always filled my heart with hope, and a yearning that I could never pin down-- maybe "building castles in the air" like Dracula -- but the rhythm of serenity and force never fails to ease my spirit, and this time I felt a stronger draw to the sea and couldn't wait to walk along the surf alone. But at her front door was my fairly new, wise-ass, acerbically witty friend, the platinum blonde, Vidal-Sasoon-coiffed Edna whom I had met at the Baldwin Bridge Club in the town adjacent to Merrick -- two city girls stifled in the suburbs, found each other through a card game. But she ran her husband's gift business and was a dynamo who dreamed of moving to the city, as I came to do. On Fire Island she became my Colette, my leader into a stream of women who would raise my aspirations to heights heretofore unimagined, starting with Dorothy Carr, a bridge partner who made me a better player. I loved that. This was a weekend in paradise, in a funky, quaint house that wrapped its shingles around me and never let go. My very sanity depended on spending an entire summer in this magical place, so I launched a campaign to plead, cajole and actually threaten Eddie into agreeing to rent a house for the next season -- the final bargaining chip, a pledge to keep the cost down to his fixed ceiling. I think it helped that the older boys were ecstatic to kick off their shoes along with nearly all the standard restrictions, and Paul was literally building castles -- in the sand, not the air.

Dorothy was an old broad with a teenage appetite for adventure and an insatiable curiosity for the arcane and the exotic. Strange, how connecting with free-spirited women can be so liberating. In my wildest dreams and fantasies I had never imagined knowing such a real woman in real life -- the kind invented by Virginia Wolf and George Bernard Shaw, so ahead of their time -- facing an even more hostile, woman-hating world. Getting to know a genuine broad made me jealous to be one -- no, maybe jealous is not the right word -- how could it be jealousy if just being near her makes me feel so at home? Her worn, crusted Cape-Cod-Arts-and-Crafts-style beach house filled with books, records, memorabilia from her travels all over the world, and just dusty, musty, fabulous clutter was to become our first summer rental. She had lost a grown son horribly. Hard to imagine how anybody gets over such tragedy. She reminds me of Judy in her incredible capacity to mix pain and wit to arrive at an ironic, existential truth that keeps her life strong and fulfilling. How do I appropriate a piece of that kind of positive energy for my own self?

I walked barefoot to the ocean on our second night, sat in the damp sand staring at the new moon that squinted at me as my heartbeat synchronized with the rolling waves. I had left Ed asleep and unaware that I might be awake and elsewhere -- to be alone, where all I could see in the dim light from the slim crescent in the sky was the white foam. But my mind was filled with images of the female power and beauty I had witnessed, and I wondered, what will be the price for this gift of life? The stillness here is like the quiet before birth with colorless bubbles of direction floating in the amniotic fluid of the mind. I too shall be reborn, creating new beginnings, testing the bubbles for a sweet or acid taste. It's time to walk forth into a long warm shiver of outside air. No man's story about a woman is to be trusted. I need to tell my own.

On the first morning in our rented house, as sun-streaks were poking up from the horizon, I walked toward the ocean, looked way out to sea, feeling the soft but still chilly ocean breeze on my face. It's no secret by now that from an early age I have been fascinated by the ocean and its mysteries, its conflicting moods, its dreams capturing my heart. At the sea I belonged. And now my bare toes curl into the welcoming sand as I listen to the waves" sound and fury turn into calm and quiet, and back again, in a rhythm that ease my senses. That daily ritual, combined with having spent weeks transversing the island on naked feet, aroused a sense of freedom that I think may have spilled over to my children. On their own, David and Richard would ride their bikes to Ocean Beach where the day camp was situated -- or in the evening for an ice cream cone or a motion picture in the wreck of an old building that had been converted to some semblance of a movie house. They had been liberated from city traffic, fear of strangers, rigid schedules and limitations of place -- and my own growing sense of independence seemed to encourage their appetite for discovery and self-expression. There were downsides, of course. Paul had a habit of disappearing on the beach -- not to find the Afro-Cuban conga drums like his mom did at that age -- but to be found at the tiny shack called a police station, happily entertained by the cops, licking a popsicle and non-plussed at having scared his mother half to death.

Something about my naked soles feeling the sand, or the wooden planks, as I became bronzed from the sun, put me into a Utopian mood that I can still revisit in my mind in any season, even in fur-lined boots. Maybe that set me free to be me, before I even knew who I was -- coming alive in a female mix that turned me onto myself. I was amazed at the grace and artistry with which the island women entertained. But bare feet hadn't freed me from fearing that I couldn't possibly live up to their smashing style and finesse. You have no idea. These gals hosted parties, I mean right out of Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies or The Great Gatsby -- the decor, the food, the music, the scented potpourri of guests. With unceasing wonderment I soaked up their skills and graces, afraid I'd never measure up. I was a suburban bumpkin surrounded by creatively imagined, funky elegance. It wasn't until August that I summoned up the nerve to do it, have a party and invite everybody I had come to know. Eddie even helped me. Oh yes, that was a surprise. His usual posture toward me during my forays into the Fire Island social life had been tolerance, at best, while he ran around on his own with manic exuberance -- all night. Our party was a hit. The reward was a group hug of acceptance. Maybe, a bunch of mavericks who follow nobody's rules but their own, was home to me.

Anecdotes run the gamut and are too plentiful to recount, but one that really matters to me is a kind of template of the unexpected. With rain pouring down, I splashed through the puddles to the fish store on the bay. A woman came in after me in a yellow slicker, dark glasses, and a kerchief-wrapped head. We left at the same time and chatted as we walked together. When near my rental, the downpour turned to torrent. I invited her to come in for a cup of tea until it would subside. She was very grateful and very nice. As we sipped and chatted ---- she barely whispered that she was staying with a friend, and I rambled on about my love affair with Fire Island. She seemed very shy, but she smiled cheerfully at my enthusiastic rant about the beauty of bare feet. Her body language had relaxed under her rain gear still on, and she leaned forward, looking intent to say something that mattered to her, when my friend Susan barged through the screen door, stopped in her tracks and yelled, "Oh my god, it's Marilyn Monroe!" Sadly, the lovely woman, who apparently had been enjoying friendly anonymity with a woman who had trouble recognizing her own son in a crowd, she rushed to the exit and left, turning her head toward me as she closed the door to say "thank you."

What a shame. And it became an even greater one as she grew to become my most adored female celebrity, apace with my feminist consciousness -- for her near-genius talent and ravishing beauty of course, her luminosity and her intelligence -- but more significantly, for having been a classic female victim whose life was distorted and abused by the studios who exploited their valuable sex symbol with sadistic cynicism, and the men whose love and respect she craved, but really never had. She was Medea, but only had herself to kill -- no children. When she died, it was as if a member of my family or a best friend had passed. I had been with her face to face only once, and hadn't even known it was her. Sadly, I can't remember what more she may have whispered to me in our brief encounter -- if only. If only Suzan hadn't undermined a moment that would have stayed with me forever -- what would that conversation have been? Would she have revealed her sadness? --- that her "will was weak"? --- That she had stopped feeling that she "existed in the human race?" Those were her words to Lee Strasberg, her mentor and friend, not long before she died some months later. How is it that I didn't pick up on the desperation of a woman named Norma whom I had just met? She simply seemed reserved. What was she about to say to me when she looked so purposeful? "Dear Charlotte, you are a kind person. Can you help me? I think I'm going crazy?" What would I have done if those had been her words? Was she about to give me, a total stranger, a death-bed gift like Ma's? Would she have shared with me the futility and pain of having spent an entire life trying to give men what they wanted, and get so little in return? If she had told me who she was, and opened up to the truth behind the symbol, what would she have said? "Charlotte, I love that you didn't recognize me. It's not that I don't like being known -- I mean, sometimes a bunch of kids or an old couple will tell me that I made their day -- and they can't wait to tell their friends that they saw Marilyn Monroe.... but you liked me not as some kind of symbol, just a lady in the rain." "I've always believed you totally, Ms Monroe. Your honesty is riveting. You're strong to the core and yet your relentless drive to learn and excel seems shrouded by a deep vulnerability -- a fretful need that makes me -- and I suspect everyone -- want to protect you, take care of you. But nobody ever really has, have they?"

I have another story, a very different story, about the person with whom I had been harboring a mad, imaginary love affair from age15. Love at first sight on The Ed Sullivan Show -- somehow even in black and white I could envision caramel colored skin, his shirt opened to the waist -- singing "Dayo, Dayo" in a sexy, raspy voice. That was it! I fell in love with Harry Belafonte. Each appearance on television, film or in the magazines just fed my fantasy. One day in our premier full sandbar summer, my new acquaintance, Dolores Autori, the first African- American homeowner in Seaview, informed me that her friends, the Belafontes, had rented a house on the bay. Soon after, she introduced me to his wife, Julie. They had been dancers under the aegis of the great Katherine Dunham, the woman I had met in Haiti some years earlier. Julie was very tan, like me. She wore a long braid down her back and I had a frizzy Afro. It turned out that a common occurrence for us was to confuse folks, to have them ask around, "What is she? Mulatta? Moroccan, "high yalla'?" Actually, we were both nice Jewish girls from Brooklyn, and I really liked her. We made plans to go into the city together for separate errands and some joint shopping. While sitting on the bench, waiting for the ferry, we talked about Ms. Dunham. I told her of our meetings in Haiti, and how much I loved Le Pension de le Clerke, the site of their riveting nightly performances. Julie smiled, and told me that she and Dolores had done that tour with her, were enamored of the woman's artistry, and not immune to her Mother Earthly command over their lives, or the magical voodoo obsession by which Dunham lived and ran the company. Julie was amazed when I told her that one of the male dancers had sneaked me into a hiding place behind a large rock in the hills from which to observe an authentic "voudun" ceremony -- a scary and positively thrilling ritual that she knew well, as it happens. Just telling her the story brought back the pounding of the drums --- louder and louder, faster and faster -- along with my heartbeat.

As we talked about the West Side neighborhood we both enjoyed, just a few blocks apart, I saw an image approaching from a distance that I thought must be a mirage -- an utterly magnificent male body in that caramel color for real, striding toward us in khaki shorts and a khaki shirt that was, of course, unbuttoned to the waist. As he came closer, my right leg began to shake so violently that when Julie introduced us and he presented his outstretched hand, I reached up with my right one to clasp his, and brought my left arm over my body to press it hard on my knee to stop the vibrations. Suddenly, I was 15 again. The man of my dreams was shaking my hand. Somehow I managed to contain my teenage hysteria -- at least I think I did -- stammering an indecisive greeting and a few superficial niceties, when mercifully, the ferry arrived.

I can't honestly say that the vibrations ever passed. One afternoon we gathered on their deck to enjoy Susan's speedboat as it pulled a stream of water skiers behind it. Skiing of any kind was not in my athletic repertoire, so I satisfied myself with the fun of watching others look like feature players in an Orlando water spectacle -- well tanned bodies in their sexy bikinis keeping the "reins" taught, kicking up high waves in their wake, the really good ones slaloming on one ski in graceful curves and turns. I must admit, I was quite jealous of that display, and wished that I were able to be one of them, a chance to show off my own bronzed body balancing in the breeze. My need to imply casual indifference to hide my vanity was working overtime -- an attempt to give a jaded impression that might cover my uneasiness. And then Harry beckoned me to try. I declined. Fifteen minutes later he tried again, this time teasing me not to be afraid as he would set me up in the proper form to soar away, firmly on the skis. Everyone else began to join in the pressure to not be a scaredy-cat, and since I'm a strong swimmer I thought, "How bad could it be?" I lifted myself off the comfy chaise and eased into the water.

Waddaya know? There I was, on the skis, several feet behind the boat with Harry's arms around my shoulders and waist to put me in the correct starting position, when it suddenly became a hand grab under water, in inappropriate places. In full view of Julie, Dolores, Joe, Susan and assorted friends and family members, I hauled off and smacked him in the mouth with an almost closed fist. Everyone on deck, including Julie -- and Eddie -- applauded and cheered loudly and long. It occurred to me that this might have been some kind of test, a test known by everyone but me. It pleased me that I had passed. My Walter Mitty mindset made a caustic remark, but unspoken, just between me and me: "Harry, I have been fantasizing and dreaming about your shoes under my bed for at least fifteen years. It might have taken no more than, well, maybe a three minute seduction process -- for you to hit a home run -- and you blew it!" An inner voice answers with, "Who do you think you're kidding? Even if he had wined, dined and covered you with orchids, you know damn well you'd have run to the hills."

Somehow my punch in the jaw did not hinder an easy friendship, with private talks that contained provocative references to the Struggle. His commitment to Dr. King, whom he revered, was very deep. One day on a walk to the beach from the Bay -- a pretty short walk -- I made a well-intentioned but clumsy remark, "You must be so proud and happy about the magnitude of the love felt for you by so many people." In an angry voice I heard, "Love? You call that love? Where the hell was that love when I needed it? Why did all those people slam the door in my face and now hold it open for me? It makes me sick." A truth that really hit home. Was I just another Jewish, middle-class, New York liberal with "best intentions," in spite of what had been my life-long interest in the black experience, its music, culture and fight for respect and fairness? I thought I was hipper on the subject than most white people, but somehow it came to seem like not all that much. I did appreciate his outburst. This glorious, god-like man spat out that to white folks he would always be " a good lookin" nigger with a voice" -- like Ralph Bunche's acerbic, sarcastsic answer to the question, "How does it feel to win the Nobel prize?" in a televised interview from his terrace overlooking the Hudson River -- "I'm just a nigga with a PHD lookin" at da ribba'. My adolescent infatuation had been confronted by a truth that had at least scratched the surface of what I needed to know and understand. The signposts had been there all along, and now it was time to get closer to the real deal.

Some Jimmy Baldwin wisdom that had turned me on a few months before seemed worth revisiting. Fortunately, I had saved copies of the New Yorker that had published excerpts from Fire Next Time in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation. Baldwin's words to his nephew, "show naïve and ignorant white folks how to live right and see the truth." In a New York Times article by Sheldon Blinn at about the same time, Baldwin was described as "… A man who believed that it was his mission to save white Americans from their mythical false ideas and beliefs and to open blacks to forgiving whites their ignorance." Fine by me. He seemed convinced that if blacks and whites didn't come to terms with the past and find a way to build a future together, we would face destruction. It was time for me to get off my white, liberal horse, time to acknowledge that bringing a basket of goodies to a ghetto family whose kids ate the lead paint peeled off the walls, or were bitten by rats, may have done more for making me feel better than any real benefit to them. A drumstick and sweet potato with a little cranberry sauce once or twice a year was not what this was about. And it wasn't about holier-than-thou attacks on bigoted behavior and language either. Like my Dad had said so many years before about why he read Westbrook Pegler, it's about knowing who the enemy is and how to open minds to new and sometimes unwelcome ideas, bit by bit.

Fire Island--- this must be the place to get the ball rolling, I thought -- progressive minds and life-styles ripe for consciousness-raising. But then again, there was the Point O" Woods anathema, a fenced-off community filled with Charles Adams-like, ghoulish houses, restricted against anyone who wasn't a white, Anglo Saxon Protestant, and at least third- generation American. Xenophobia was out of line for a sandbar populated largely by maverick eccentrics. The cloistered folks would be more likely to burn a book about slavery than read it. And since my passion for validation and respect on a project that mattered could drive me to behaving like one super pain-in-the-ass when blocked by belligerent bullheads, sober strategy was called for. Blowing off steam might satisfy a moment, but then evaporate into nothingness. After too many rants that reverberated badly, it came to me that I needed to focus on what I could touch with graceful persuasion to make a dent in stubborn psyches, to open a door if by only a crack. So the colony of haunted houses out of the Victorian era, filled with staunchly conservative and reactionary minds, might not be the best starting point to practice how to be cool and convincing. Just as I arrived at this constructive turning point in my thinking, the Woodsian bastards confiscated my son David's and his friends" bikes for having entered the Sunken Forest through their gated community.

Stretched out in my beach chaise on the sand, with my other two children and friends on a very hot day, someone came over to tell me of this assault on my son's property and person. I jumped up and started the long walk on a 95 degree day, the sun blazing down on my head and burning the sand, the walkways, and hence, my bare feet. I leaped from blanket to beach towel, from patch of grass to patch of grass, wherever I could find one, to relieve sheer agony, even if just for a moment. I was no Buddhist monk walking barefoot over hot coals to purify my soul, so for me it just hurt like hell. No hat, no parasol, not even sun block -- who ever heard of sun block in 1963?

When I finally brought my painfully blistered feet to the very tall, iron gate with its menacing padlock, I shouted for someone to let me in. Eventually, one of the younger residents, standing by with a slightly embarrassed expression on his face, broke the rules. He also persuaded the sheriff to meet with me, and after unsuccessfully cajoling, pleading and exercising every diplomatic strategy I could summon, I resorted to threats. None of any of it moved him one iota. I left Point O'Woods without the bikes. My feet were rescued by slightly cooled ground surfaces on which to plod back to my house, where Edna had promised to bring my boys. I remembered that David's houseguest friend from school, a black boy named Freddie Johnson, had been among the bikers. Where was my head? How could I have forgotten that? A bunch of "Jew boys" and a "nigger kid" was more than those arrogant, entitled bigots would tolerate in their privileged sanctuary.

Weeks before, I had talked the Fire Island News into putting me on its staff. It was my first stab at being a professional anything, since in those days secretaries were not called executive assistants. I was placed on the masthead next to the great Nat Hentoff. I had arrived! He happened to be the next door neighbor to our rented house, whose great discourse on jazz in the Village Voice had long been one of my addictions. Knowing him even slightly was a distinct pleasure, but who expected a surprise bonus of proximity in print? And the sheriff had given me my first scoop. It was my article about their "official attack on a few innocent kids whose crime had been to dare cross their turf to visit an official "national treasure." In my article, I added that "... the confiscation and refusal to return their bicycles was an insult to our precious island, our oasis for freedom from convention, let alone a terrifying insult to a few really decent kids." Suggestions for recompense were added, including one for them to provide a bike stand for the neighboring public seeking to observe a natural wonder that just happened to be situated alongside their community. All hell broke loose -- an uproar. But it worked. Soon there was a bike stand for eight cycles and a new rule that the gate would be locked only after dark. The story hinted at the bigotry strongly enough to leave no doubt, and slyly enough to reserve the larger issue for another time.

If only all the bias had been limited to Point O" Woods. But Seaview's first black home owner, and her strikingly handsome Italian husband, were welcomed with constraint --- passively polite, at best. What was wrong with these people? Houses ran the gamut from shacks to architectural delights, daring the stormy Atlantic Ocean to threaten the solidity of their stubborn stance, sometimes on stilts, staring at the waves saying "Don't you dare!" Walkways were largely slats of wood, and passing a deer was as common as tripping over a red wagon. If a stunning and charming black woman, married to a great white guy who worked hard to support her and their lovely daughters, were given the cold shoulder, what kind of a place was this after all? Well, maybe better than Biloxi, but they needed a nudge.

Marlyn and Sidney, having taken plenty of grief for having sold the property to the Autoris, built their new house right next door, on the other half of the land they had sold. So it didn't need an extensive psycho-personal analysis to figure out that we were on the same page -- needed to talk. When we did, I Mannah from Heaven rained on me. Their civic life focused on American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Constitutional Rights, Southern Poverty Law Center and fighting to end the Vietnam War. They were there before me. Together we waged a discreet campaign to gain full acceptance for the Autoris. We really loved Dolores, Joe, their daughters, Gina and Julie, but it would be a lie to suggest that they were in the Jackie Robinson category, hand-picked to win white acceptance and support. Dolores wore a giant chip on both shoulders and Joe was her champion no matter what, so it would not be so easy to win support for a woman not inclined to trust, or even believe a friendly gesture. She was glamorous, gorgeous, garrulous and grandiose to a fault … and a bit gaudy, too … so there was much to be entertained by and enjoy. And when barriers crumbled and belief in the intentions and friendship ensued, it had been well worth the trouble. She kicked ass, and we all learned to love it -- and to kick some ourselves.

Their house was a bit weird, the bedrooms all downstairs and kind of dark and dank. The wining, dining, dancing and other forms of partying were upstairs in the very large living space and surrounding deck from which one could see and hear the nearby goings-on. One week their guest would be Carmen McRae -- my personal favorite, uncompromising, purist jazz singer, divined by whatever gods created the one true American music. On another occasion it might be Dianne Carroll and Monte Kaye, Ben Gazzara and Janice Rule or Miles Davis. Belle Kaufman who wrote Up the Down Staircase (dancing in her husband's adoring gaze into their 90s), needed no persuasion, and the same was true for several others who gloried in this modest and overdue "breakthrough'. Over time the color line was smudged, if not erased. And of course Harry and Julie upended the equation altogether. The Autoris" parties became a hot ticket. They were great fun, but disheartening at the same time --i.e, descent ends falsely reached. So Marlyn, Sidney and I started planning and producing mind-bending events, like fund raisers for Dr. Martin Luther King, guest lectures by William Kunstler, and readings by Blanche Cook (author of two magnificent Eleanor Roosevelt biographical volumes, currently writing the third), and on and on. And vignettes, like Dick Gregory using his great comedy to shock and move his white audience like no other, were endless. At Herschel Bernardi's house, dressed in cotton Bermuda shorts and shirt (buttoned), he was making a serious point, paused, looked at his leg on which there was a band-aid, shook his head and pondered, "damn, the package said flesh colored bandaids', and tore the house down as we stared at the pinkish rectangle on the dark, brown calf.