Our Trip To Gardiner’s Island

Written By: Lorna  Salzman


By Lorna Salzman


We showed up at Robert David Lion Gardiner’s historic home in East Hampton village one summer morning sometime in the late 1970s.

Gardiner opened the door and professed consternation at having two extra guests on the trip, but the large wicker lunch basket wielded by his Chinese butler indicated there would be abundant food.

We were a bit early so Gardiner, in a cream-colored semi-transparent jumpsuit unzipped to his waist, with outlines suggesting no underwear, warmed up his welcome and gave us a house tour complete with the price of each piece of furniture. There was a serious pause at the Salvador Dali portrait of his striking red-haired wife who was otherwise nowhere to be seen.

Gardiner then excused himself and we were led to the rear garden where we were joined by the Channel 21 film crew and the film producer, journalist Karl Grossman. It was Karl who had foisted us on Gardiner, saying that Eric was the composer and I was the script girl.

Gardiner eventually reappeared and, after explaining that he had slept late reading Jacqueline Susann’s “Once Is Not Enough” late into the night, he breathily announced that we were awaiting Gloria Swanson and her boyfriend William Dufty (author of “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Sugar Blues”), who were “motoring out from the city”. The film crew was getting antsy but there was no choice but to wait for Gardiner’s eminent house guests.

They eventually showed up and we all motored to Gardiner’s Marina, embarked on Gardiner’s motor boat and, with Gardiner at the helm (and flying the Captain Kidd skull and crossbones), we motored across Gardiner’s Bay to Gardiners Island. The caretakers met us and motored us to the Gardiner Great House, where the picnic basket was unpacked, showing food sufficient for at least twenty. Gloria, however, had brought her own lunch supplies, which were vegan before anyone ever heard of that food group.

After lunch we piled into two pickup trucks, with Gardiner, Gloria, Dufty and Eric in the front in truck #1 and everyone else – including Lorna, Karl and the film crew – bringing up the rear in truck #2. Eric made it onto the first truck because Gardiner had decided that, since Eric had no other obvious function, he must be the producer and subsequently directed most of his remarks to him. The rest of us grew increasingly happy in the second truck, not only to be out of Gardiner’s direct supervision, but also because the crew had generously provided some grass (not beach grass) for the trip.

We bumped our way across the island’s rough tracks as Karl and his team filmed the scenery and audiotaped Gardiner’s voiceover of the history of the island. This turned out to be mostly family gossip. Occasionally Wild Turkeys – in those days a great rarity on Long Island – crossed the truck’s path and Gardiner would shout loudly “Turkeys! Turkeys!”, waving his hands wildly and thus insuring that they would quickly disappear and never be filmed.

Capt. Kidd’s buried treasure is somewhere around here. We’re still looking for it. And this is where he was hanged. That’s the hanging tree. In addition to all the pirate fables, Gardiner spared no detail about his family even though this was not supposed to be the subject of the day. The filming was intended for the first in a series produced by Grossman showing the history of Long Island, from its primitive natural beauty, as exemplified by Gardiners Island, to suburban sprawl. Gardiner’s amplified narration of family gossip and fable was not what was needed, so when it got too long winded, the crew simply switched off the tape recorder. When Gardiner eventually realized that his last extensive narrative had not been recorded, he simply commanded the crew to turn the recorder back on and ordered the trucks to go in reverse, backing up to the previous spot; he then rewound his own mental tape, and repeated word for word, inflection for inflection, what he had just said a few minutes earlier.

We reached a slight rise and started descending when Gardiner spotted three strangers walking across an open meadow ahead. Illegal trespassing! Gardiner became visibly upset. At his word, the driver, one of the island’s caretakers, nervously lit a cigarette and reached for the rifle that was stashed in the gun rack behind the seat. Trespassers on Gardiners Island were not welcome. It turned out that the unexpected guests were Gardiner’s niece and island co-owner Alexandra Goelet and her guests, the Duke and Duchess of Bedford!