Winter Of Our Discontent: Sag Harbor Committee Ponders Dropping Steinbeck Name From New Park

Steinbeck Park in Sag Harbor. DANA SHAW

Like any good novelist, John Steinbeck, the Nobel laureate who called Sag Harbor home the last 13 years of his life, knew that revision was a key part of the writer’s craft.

Now, the committee that is advising Sag Harbor Village on the design of the recently acquired John Steinbeck Waterfront Park is considering some revisions of its own.

After hearing informally from village residents questioning whether the new park should, in fact, be named after Steinbeck — whose last novel, “The Winter of Our Discontent,” is set in a village clearly modeled on Sag Harbor — the committee is having second thoughts.

At its meeting in January, the group discussed whether it should sponsor a survey, distributed through The Sag Harbor Express or some other outlet, to measure whether the public truly supports the Steinbeck name, or if another one should be considered.

“The point is there are people in the village who feel that Steinbeck is not worthy of a park, not because he was a great, Nobel Prize-winning author, but because he was not a long-term resident of the village,” Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy said. “I don’t know where it’s going to end up. I’m completely neutral on the name. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it.”

The mayor said there has been some discussion of picking a more generic name, such as Sag Harbor Cove Park or Sunset Park, for the slice of property at the foot of the Jordan Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge.

“I’m willing to entertain whatever comes up,” she added, “but I’ve not heard something so compelling as to make me say, ‘Let’s drop John Steinbeck and use this.’”

“I have heard a good deal of local chatter regarding the naming of the park,” wrote committee member Nancy Remkus in an email. “Although we all admire the genius and talent of John Steinbeck and the time he spent in our village, people wondered why the park was being named after him.”

She added that there were a number of other people for whom the park could be named. “Perhaps a more universal name that reflects the people of Sag Harbor would be more appropriate,” she said.

Another committee member, Bob Weinstein, said he too had been approached by “people with deep roots in the community questioning whether it’s the best choice for the name.”

He said if Steinbeck’s name is, in fact, stricken from the park, he would support having it named after Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, the early 20th century benefactress who gave the village the John Jermain Memorial Library, Pierson High School, Mashashimuet Park, and other gifts.

Although committee members said the matter was only in the discussion phase, there are others who think it would be a mistake to not name the park after Steinbeck, whose book, “Travels with Charley,” was also written when he lived in the village.

“Steinbeck is a national treasure, and Sag Harbor should embrace him,” said Kathryn Szoka, a co-owner of Canio’s Bookstore in the village. “His work will survive all of us.”
Besides, she added, it’s not every village that can claim a Nobel Prize-winning novelist among its residents.

Ms. Szoka said it was important to remember that Steinbeck, who moved to Sag Harbor in 1955 and died in 1968, “wasn’t only living in isolation, writing in his gazebo” at the cottage he shared on Bluff Point Road with his wife, Elaine, but “was well integrated into the community.”

Nada Barry, an owner of the Wharf Shop, said the author was a close friend of her husband, the late Robert Barry, and was a big supporter of the first Old Whalers Festival in 1964, which provided a much needed economic boost to the ailing village. “John certainly did a lot more for Sag Harbor than many people realize,” she said.

Ms. Barry has donated to the library’s archives letters Steinbeck sent her husband over the years, including one dated January 27, 1964, when he offers to serve on the festival’s committee — with one proviso.

“I think you know how fond I am of Sag Harbor and that I would do anything in my power for its good,” he wrote to Mr. Barry. “However, I think you also know that one of the reasons I like it — have liked it — has been because of the privacy it offered me.”

The bust of the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

He went on to complain that the previous summer after he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, his property had been overrun by tourists. “I would love to serve on the Whalers’ Committee, if I could somehow make a deal with all the Harborites who come in contact with the tourist people not to direct them to my house,” he wrote. “Otherwise, I’ll have no place to retreat to.”

Trustee James Larocca said he was taken aback by the committee’s decision to revisit the name. “The issue first arose in November,” he said. “That was the first time I heard any objections to the name.”

He said the name had been linked to the park proposal since the village passed the first resolution signaling its intention to pursue its purchase with Southampton Town Community Preservation Fund money in August 2015.

“That name is now reflected in the legal documents between the town and village,” including the inter-municipal agreement overseeing the park’s upkeep, which was just adopted last month, he said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be changed.”

“I have no objection to some process to measure public opinion,” he added. “The format is key. How would you do it? Would it be confined to voters, confined to The Express’s readers?”

There remains some question as to why the park was named after Steinbeck in the first place.

Former Mayor Sandra Schroeder said it was Mr. Larocca who suggested it, but added that she really didn’t care what name was ultimately chosen. “The important thing is our people have it,” she said.

“I believe I may have been the first person to use the name,” Mr. Larocca acknowledged, noting that it probably occurred when the two were discussing his finishing Ms. Schroeder’s term as a village trustee after she was elected mayor in 2015.

There is little denying Steinbeck has enjoyed something of a renaissance in Sag Harbor over the past two decades. Ms. Szoka recalled that it was shortly after the centenary of the writer’s birth in 2002 when the Sag Harbor Lions Club commissioned a bust of him that now is on display at the John Jermain Memorial Library.

More attention to the writer came in 2012, 50 years after the publication of “Travels with Charley,” a travelogue based on his 1960 road trip around the continental United States that contained a description early on of Steinbeck securing his boat and otherwise battening down the hatches at his home overlooking Morris Cove as Hurricane Donna bore down on Long Island.

One could say that renewed interest has lasted right up today — literally today, February 27. On what would have been Steinbeck’s 118th birthday, Baron’s Cove in Sag Harbor is holding a special party to commemorate the writer.