Before I Forget

Written By: Francis Sweeney

“Before I Forget…” Dickens began: “I am born…”; Camus: “Mamam est morte…”; at my age, “Before I Forget..” makes more sense.

I drive down Dunemere Lane onto “Behind the Pond”, that passes the Maidstone Club and leads to Wiborg Beach. And there it is: Woodner meets Wiborg, which is a story in itself, but it is also my story; real estate finance, my working-life occupation and books, my life- avocation.

James Joyce hangs his vine of a book, “Finnegan’s Wake”, on the trellis of a theory of cyclical history. The life cycles are three plus one: birth, marriage, death, reconstitution (or “ricorso”- the theory is that of an Italian philosopher named Vico) – start over. These cycles fit each of us individually and collectively. Each and every one of us had a past, have a present, and will have a future. And, as I grow older, I see people in the wings waiting to take my place. Life cycles, -these are much more than the trivial changes taking place in this eastern shore satellite of the most cyclical place on the planet, New York City. Is there a restaurant, who’s current occupant’s name is not followed by the word, “formerly,” as with the singer “Formerly Known as Prince”. I once worked with a guy in the 1970’s, who caught a tuna now and then, out of Montauk. He FedExed it to Japan for sushi. Now there is a “sushi bar” in the “West Lake Clam and Chowder House,” and in the “Inlet” on East Lake Drive. But, I digress.

I know of the Wiborgs, second hand: from a lecture by Calvin Tompkins at a book-signing for his “Living Well is the Best Revenge;” then it was “Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy- A Lost Generation Love Story” by Amanda Vail; “Sara & Gerald- Villa America and After, “ by their daughter, Honoria Murphy Donnelly. And last, a week in Williamstown, Mass. for “Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara & Gerald Murphy,” an exhibition organized by the Williams College Museum of Art. The Williamstown Summer Theater presented a three act play: Sara Murphy’s Relationship With Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It all started in 1895, when Frank Wiborg, a Cincinnati ink Manufacturer, started to buy parcels of land that would eventually become a six hundred-acre tract of land that lay between the ocean and the large salt water pond inlet called Hook Pond. There was a small farmhouse on the property which Mr. Wiborg deemed was not sufficiently grand for him and his family, so he converted it into a thirty room mansion called the Dunes. In 1915 his daughter, Sara, married Gerald Murphy. In 1921, Sara, Gerald and their three children would leave New York to go abroad. They wound up, as did many other American expatriates in the city of Paris. The couple is renowned for their artistic and social life in Paris during the 1920’s, as well as at their home in the south of France, Antibes, where they hosted the “Who’s Who” of the “Lost Generation.” In the book “East Hampton: A History and Guide, “ Jason Epstein writes of how Gerald and Sara Murphy, during the second World War brought a number of European artists to East Hampton: Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Salvadore Dali, Andre Breton, and Marcel Duchamp. Many of them stayed. Gerald Murphy, now known as “Dow-Dow” to his three children, died in 1964. Sara continued going to East Hampton in the summer, living in the little cottage “LaPetit Hutte”, which was no longer very small. She died in 1975.

Honoria Murphy Donnelly pictures her parents in later life. “At sunset in summer, they are sitting on a dove-gray wooden bench outside the front door of their East Hampton cottage. Their view is of the village and though they have gazed at it on countless evenings, they still enjoy it so- a flag pole, a church steeple bright white against the pink sky, clusters of full green trees. A bit of English countryside my father would say. The look of contentment on my parents’ faces, tells me they had found what Scott Fitzgerald called ‘an eventual peace somewhere, and occasional port of call as we sail deathward.’”

The small shake shingled cape-cod house on “Behind the Pond,” smack in the middle of the Maidstone Club, was the summer home of Ian Woodner. A small wooden address sign stood in front of this house, which said “WOODNER.” I did not know Mr. Woodner from any books. He emigrated from Europe, after studying architecture in Paris. It is said that as his first job, he was hired by his future wife for a W.P.A. Works Project in Central Park. The Woodner Organization owned a substantial number of properties, both residential and commercial, in and around New York City, and Washington, D.C. Our firm assisted his company in financing, especially, when, near the end of his life he sought to raise money to enhance his art collection by refinancing his New York City apartment buildings. Mr. Woodner owned a renowned collection of ink drawings, which encompassed the illustrations of the French, Symbolist artist, Odilon Redon. “Woody” had an open ticket on the Concorde. His collection was exhibited all over Europe, in Paris, at the Prado and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I first met Mr. Woodner at one of his properties in Westchester County. He arrived in his “chauffeured limousine”- a Volkswagen Beetle, driven by a guy in jeans and a plaid shirt: that was Ian Woodner. I last saw him at his wake on the West side of Manhattan.

In front of Ian Woodner’s home there is no longer the little sign with “WOODNER” on it, or the gardener tending the rose bushes. Maybe, his two surviving daughters have sold the property. On leaving East Hampton, I stop at the little graveyard by the pond. I tread carefully, and respectfully, through all the Halsey gravestones. And there, under a dogwood tree are the graves of Sara and Gerald Murphy. Gerald Murphy’s gravestone is inscribed with the words: “Ripeness is all.” These three words from “King Lear,” were chosen by one of the Murphy’s closest friends, the poet Archibald MacLeish. MacLeish gave his reason for the choice of these words: “It is so like Gerald, who achieved the most complete maturity I have ever seen.” Of the words on Sara’s stone, her daughter writes: “Dow- Dow had arranged for mother’s gravestone before he died, and had it inscribed with a line by the Elizabethan poet Thomas Campion: “And she made all of light.”