The sky was a vibrant baby blue over Shinnecock Hills. A tall scrub pine tree reached skyward as if to snag the one billowy white cloud passing by. The air said ‘summer is here!’
Backspace, backspace, delete.
Sitting inside my cottage at my computer while summer was passing by outside wasn’t helping my brainstorming a new high concept for my next spec screenplay. I’m not alone in this ritual of writing in the Hamptons. But I’m also not the only one who hides on the weekends while the crowds swell, restaurants fill and traffic comes to a standstill right around Watermill. Weekdays are more my speed.
There are at least 100,000 scripts registered every year with the Writer’s Guild. So the odds are many burgeoning screenwriters create on the East End. But they’re hopefully at the beach while I’m at my computer. But why, you ask?
‘Showing up’ daily at my computer is a habit inspired by watching one of my favorite TED Talks. It’s by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love. Her topic: Your Elusive Creative Genius. In this talk she wrestles with the idea that her greatest success may be behind her. A paralyzing thought. Not wanting to travel down the dark and destructive road of drinking gin for breakfast, she muses about creating some safe distance between herself and her anxiety about the reaction to her next writing project. The curse of all creative types. Her conclusion is to give ‘the blame’ or ‘the credit’ to a disembodied entity. A muse. A genius. So I put mine on notice to meet me at my computer, daily.
But summer is calling me to the beach. I feel compelled to cheat on my muse. Wait! I twist that thought into a concept: A frustrated writer discovers her muse cheats on her and supplies a brilliant idea to the guy on the next beach blanket … Backspace, backspace, delete. Not enough tension. No murder, no blackmail, no dystopian angst.
My phone vibrates. Ahhh, a welcome interruption.
Cousin Bonnie calls from Center Moriches. Calling is easier than driving all-the-way-out to the Hamptons to visit. I haven’t seen her in a year. She asks if I’ve received a letter from an heir search company who notified her that someone has died and left us some assets. Oh really? After I stopped laughing, I lament that at least the Nigerian Prince email scam has evolved. One can appreciate a fresh approach to an old concept. At least screenwriters do.
Bonnie assures me that the company is real. She received the package via snail mail and found the company is a member of the BBB. As timing would have it, my heir package comes in the mail several days later.
Having no experience with this, I turn my research skills toward the process. Here’s the skinny. An heir search company is hired when someone dies without a will leaving a substantial amount of money to be disbursed. According to the company, it’s usually more than $100,000 but they won’t divulge who, where or what it is until you sign an agreement to pay them 33% as a finders’ fee. Still smells like a scam, right? To me too.
But I was in the mindset to be diverted. I surmised that this mystery inheritance is from someone connected to my long departed grandfather. Why? Because he was the chauffeur to the Granddaughter of J.P. Morgan and I think he died without a will. I hoped there was a stipulation in the Granddaughter’s will bequeathing him something for his years of loyal service. A long shot, I admit, but at least my creative side was now in control. If I could find the mystery person, it would save us 33% of the inheritance.
My cousin, maintaining a more practical mind, searched unclaimed funds and court records reasoning it was someone we knew. But I clung to my theory and googled J.P. Morgan’s life. Research keeps a writer’s brain busy. Backspace, backspace, delete. Research is a great way to procrastinate no matter what type of brain you’re cursed with.
After wasting several weeks and coming upon dead ends, literally, Bonnie and I agreed it was time to sign the company’s paperwork and get on with our fleeting summer. Signed, notarized, mailed.
Finally! We’re given a clue. The inheritance has something to do with a Swiss bank account. Wow! What are the odds of that? Even Bonnie abandoned her logical self and we allowed our collective imagination to run wild. How much could the account be worth? This kind of plot twist could work in a screenplay. So commence more research.
I found that in the late-1990s, lawsuits over Holocaust-era Jewish assets were filed against Swiss banks forcing them to payout $1.25 billion in settlements. Ancestry.com became my new best friend but it wouldn’t cough up any links to a Jewish family heritage. So I researched further.
The Swiss banks, not wanting any more trouble, subsequently published an additional list of names of other dormant accounts. There it was. On that list was a name I recognized. I returned to Ancestry.com where I found that the distant cousin’s father was from Switzerland. Now we’re getting somewhere.
I remembered that in the basement of this old house which my parents built in Shinnecock Hills before there was barely a pine to reach skyward were two old steamer trucks full of the past. I choose to write here because the Hills have always felt magical to me. They’re alive with the sound of– backspace, backspace, delete all that. My Grand Aunt bequeathed those trunkful of memorabilia to my parents. My parents subsequently left them for me to deal with and I’ve dutifully ignored them for 25 years. It was time to confront the past and clean out all the ghosts in the basement. But I refused to do it alone.
Bonnie actually drove all-the-way-out to Shinnecock, to help me explore the contents of the two musty steamer trunks. What we retrieved from the dark dank basement was ancient family history. History of lives that migrated from NYC to Long Island to the East End. Lives we sadly knew little about. Diplomas, citizenship papers from 1880, photos, old postcards and even more unnamed photos. An old diary of my Grand Aunt, a World War I uniform of my Grand Uncle and finally a leather booklet in which Airmail letters were sandwiched. All of this splayed across the floor.
You got a real mess on your hands!
What do ya mean – YOU? These are
your relatives too!
Upon closer inspection of the mess, and between coughing fits from the dust and mold, one Airmail onion skin typed letter gave us clues about the Swiss account. I realize that sounds unbelievable and if I wrote this in a script, I would need to dissuade the audience’s disbelief by having a character say “that’s unbelievable.” But there it was. The missing information. Not a king’s ransom. About 8000 Francs and the letter was dated 1948. What ensued was our immediate calculations of interest over nearly 70 years minus 33%. We concluded it wasn’t sizeable enough for the company to retrieve but we would wait for their findings. Bonnie helped me pack all the memories and left.
Back at my computer, I realized that in my basement archive I found a story that wanted to be told.
Rolled up diplomas of a woman who earned a PhD in Education in 1944. Photos and portraits of a loving family who encouraged her to excel. A plastic covered wedding album that showed her traditional marriage to a younger man. News articles about her divorce three years later. An old yellow telegram informing the family she died in Brentwood’s Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital. She was committed at age 40 after her longshoreman father was murdered on the docks in New Jersey and her mother’s death shortly thereafter. The records don’t tell nearly enough detail but I remember being told she was ‘put away’ because she began to drink. Oh the horror. A woman who drank wine because she couldn’t deal with reality. I wondered, was it because she felt her best days were behind her?
There it was. A story inspired by true events. A dystopian past when women were hidden in hospitals for spurious reasons. Or a reflection on what went wrong in one woman’s life when she couldn’t cope with events or from the anxiety of society’s reaction. A person caught between discipline and self-indulgence. A woman ahead of her time, like all women who venture off the well-worn path.
Whether or not I turn it into a screenplay, a book or leave it as part of my secret history, the odds are that Gilbert’s disembodied genius theory worked for her and can work for everyone, whether we live on the East End or just visit, since we all have a ‘genius’ in us. That’s why we’re here.