1818 was a big year for James Fenimore Cooper. He had just resigned from the Navy and married Susan Augusta Delancy, who brought her newly-wed husband to her family’s estate on Shelter Island.
It wasn’t long before he became acquainted with Charles Dering, his entry into the then-booming whaling industry in Sag Harbor — the primary port on the East End, even surpassing New York at various points throughout history.
With whaling came great wealth, explained local history expert Tony Garro. And with Fenimore Cooper came more writers.
As part of this weekend’s Cultural Heritage Festival, Garro will lead a historic literary walking tour on Saturday, May 4, stepping off at 10 a.m. from the John Jermain Memorial Library — a fitting choice, given the subject.
The Sag Harbor Express: You’ve led historic walking tours for a number of years now.
Tony Garro: I have — about 20 years!
How did you get started?
Garro: I was a teacher for 32 years up island is Massapequa, and when my wife and I moved out here, all of a sudden I was retired and Joan had retired, and we really had to create our lives out here. I naturally turned to something historic because I was a history teacher, and history’s always been my passion. But being a teacher in a high school and being a tour guide are two vastly different things, even though the commonality between them is history.
What was your initial impression of Sag Harbor?
Garro: I got a feel that Sag Harbor was not your usual sleepy little seashore village. It had quite a different history than that. The first tour I made up was generic, I did a little research and gave the tour, and I was hooked. As I studied the history of Sag Harbor more and more, I found out just how incredible the town is — historically important. I started expanding my knowledge and I got to the point where I couldn’t do just the generic tour anymore, so I started to get specific.
What makes a literary tour possible in Sag Harbor? Why did so many writers flock here?
Garro: Writing tends to flourish in cities. Authors tend to congregate in cities. So Sag Harbor was on its way to becoming a city — and a wealthy city at that. Writers were attracted to Sag Harbor because of the fact that it was open and free and intellectually stimulating. As more writers started to come out here, it became better known as a place where writers could find refuge. So you started to have writers coming out.
James Fenimore Cooper, for instance, he was probably the first of the major writers — well, more than that. Most literary critics, they consider him the first American novelist. He was from a seafaring background, so he naturally gravitated toward writing books about the sea, as well. He actually, then, bought an interest in a whaling ship that sailed out of Sag Harbor, and he spent a lot of time out here.
He started to write a book at the urging of his wife. His wife was a pretty high-strung woman, so he used to read to her to calm her down. His wife told him, ‘If you’re such a big shot and you think you can write, write a book.’ So he did and it was a terrible book and it didn’t go anywhere, but he was then bitten by the writing bug and he became an author. And the rest is literary history.
Just like the literary legacy of Sag Harbor.
Garro: Sag Harbor was never more than 2,500 people. Even though when it first began, when it first started to get on the map, it rivaled New York City as a port. There aren’t too many towns or cities even the size of Sag Harbor that boast a noble laureate author who made Sag Harbor his home, and John Steinbeck did.
When I give the tour, I stop at Betty Friedan’s house — she’s no longer with us, but the family still owns the house — and I always ask the question, ‘How many here know who Betty Friedan was?’ And usually the dividing line is about 40 years old. About half the women raise their hands and say they knew her, and about half have no idea who she was.
Time for them to brush up!
Garro: Yes! Betty Friedan, in my opinion now, she was one of the most influential writers ever. What did she create? She created modern feminism. “The Feminine Mystique” was a revelation. Housewives started saying, “Why am I stuck? I have a college degree. Why do I have to be a mother and a wife? Why should my husband’s career and life be more important than what I want to be?” That gave women the freedom to begin to say, “Hey, I’m entitled to a life other than my family and my husband.”
I’ll tell you how I found this out. On one of my tours, and at this time Betty Friedan was still alive, so I tried not to stop in front of her house — number one, I was a little afraid of her, I would stay down the block on Glover Street a little bit. And a woman who was on the tour with me yelled out, almost explosively, “That woman ruined my life!”
I mean, I look for things like that on my tours. So I say, “Would you mind sharing this with us?” She said, “No, I’ll tell you. I was in the hospital with my first child and a friend of mine brought me a book to read, and the book was, ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ I read that book and I divorced my husband.” Then it occurred to me how much influence that book and that woman had on American culture. She made it okay to be an independent person.
How many more stops do you typically make on the tour?
Garro: There are so many authors. I’m looking right now at a paper that lists about 100 authors who have lived and worked in Sag Harbor. I try to do the more important authors: Lanford Wilson and E.L. Doctorow on Suffolk Street, not too far from where John Steinbeck lived.
Tom Harris, the first book he wrote where Hannibal Lecter was mentioned, it was in Sag Harbor. Because he couldn’t write at home, his family kept disturbing his writing, he took a little office — remember where Marty’s Barber Shop was on Main Street? There’s a beauty parlor now, it’s right above that. He took a little office there and that’s where he wrote “Silence of the Lambs.”
I’m guessing I’ll do six or eight authors. I’m not going to try to cram as many as I can in, just to impress people with my encyclopedic knowledge. I’ll do a few less authors, and do them more in depth, than I would if I tried to get 15 or 20 authors in. I’m going to do the biggies.
What I may do later on, if this is successful enough, I may go back and do the lesser-known authors. They may have lesser known, but some of them were even more fascinating than the people I’ve just mentioned.
Tony Garro will lead a historic literary walking tour on Saturday, May 4, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Meet at the John Jermain Memorial Library, located at 201 Main Street in Sag Harbor. Admission is free, but reservations are required. For more information, call (631) 725-0049 or visit johnjermain.org.