Capote Dunphy Preserve
Colorful Truman Capote in Black and White
Courtesy of the Sag Harbor Express October 21, 2010
Story by Annette Hinkle
It’s not the sort of place you would find unless you knew where to look. But it’s there, down an unassuming path off Widow Gavits Road south of Sag Harbor deep in the Long Pond Greenbelt — a clearing with an unobstructed view of Crooked Pond. In the clearing sits a bench for reflection and a granite marker bearing a plaque in tribute to the life of author Truman Capote and his partner, author, and playwright Jack Dunphy.
It may seem an unlikely resting place for someone like the flamboyant Capote and his partner, but late in the summer of 1994, a group of friends, family, and acquaintances joined staff from The Nature Conservancy in a ceremony that would permanently tie the pair to the spot. That day, the ashes of both Capote, who died in 1984, and Dunphy, who passed away in 1992, were spread on the waters of Crooked Pond.
This Saturday at 10 a.m., Canio’s Cultural Café and Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt lead a “Black & White Hike” to the site in honor of Capote’s fall birthday. Named in honor of Capote’s 1966 “Black & White Ball” in Manhattan which was said to have been the literary event of the century, the hike begins at the Long Pond Greenbelt Nature Center on the Bridgehampton Turnpike. After a visit to the memorial, it ends there as well with a reception that includes a recording of Capote reading his work, a display of Capote memorabilia owned by friends, and samplings of Cousin Sook’s fruitcake from his short story “A Christmas Memory.”
Stuart Lowrie, Conservation Finance and Policy Advisor at The Nature Conservancy in East Hampton remembers that August day when Capote and Dunphy’s ashes were spread on Crooked Pond. Though their final resting place may be unassuming to the casual visitor, he notes that the importance of Capote and Dunphy’s gift to the preservation of the Long Pond Greenbelt cannot be underestimated.
Though Capote and Dunphy lived in Sagaponack, upon his death, Dunphy stipulated through Gerald Clark, Capote’s biographer and executor of the estate, that the money from the sale of the property should go to a local charitable organization. That organization was The Nature Conservancy.
“The agreement was we would take the property, not hold it, but sell it and use the proceeds to buy land in the local area,” explains Lowrie.
At the time, preserving the undeveloped areas of the Long Pond Greenbelt, a series of rare and pristine coastal plan ponds, was a priority for groups like TNC, as well as Southampton Town and Suffolk County. Beginning in the 1980s, the three groups agreed to pursue land preservation together, with Southampton Town focusing on acquisitions in the northern part of the Greenbelt, the county focusing on the southern sections, and TNC on the middle parcels with the goal of creating one contiguous preserve.
“It’s off the charts in importance for New York State,” explains Lowrie of the coastal plain ponds environment. “A lot of southern species find their northern limit on Long Island and are combined with northern species that you won’t find further south.”
“That’s what drew TNC to it,” he adds. “They looked at the biological diversity and felt this was a cultural treasure we should all be working to preserve for future generations and its own sake.”
The money realized by TNC from the sale of Capote and Dunphy’s Sagaponack estate was used to buy close to 20 crucial acres that linked preserved Greenbelt lands to the north and south. The Capote/Dunphy Preserve, as it is officially known, encompasses a peninsula that sticks out into Crooked Pond from the east and covers the pond front access that is a priority for TNC.
“Coastal plain ponds are an expression of the groundwater table and the level fluctuates over time, depending on the water table,” explains Lowrie. “What we were after were the shorelines. If you can control even the first hundred feet of shoreline you can protect the ponds as long as the groundwater remains pure and there’s no nutrient intrusion.”
Money from the Capote and Dunphy estate was also used in concert with Southampton Town funds to purchase the Milton Grobow parcel which lies directly across the way on the western shore of Crooked Pond.
“Grabow was important because it was this parcel that separated the completed Greenbelt. It was the real trail link,” explains Lowrie.
That property, just under 40 acres or so, was bought for $29,000 an acre, which Lowrie recalled seemed like an outrageous sum of money in the mid-90s, but now would be quite the bargain.
“The Nature Conservancy closed on the northern half, and Southampton on the southern half and we secured trail rights,” says Lowrie. “That’s what the Capote money allowed to happen. It’s a wonderful story and one that Truman and Jack would be pleased by. Their money really did make a huge difference.”
Back in 1994, Lowrie was among those at TNC who helped organize the memorial ceremony and stone dedication on their newly acquired property. He notes that it was important to Gerald Clark that there be a marker at the site and Bistrian’s sand mine in Wainscott had agreed to donate the stone, so Lowrie and his TNC associate, Peter Wahn, took on the task of picking it out.
“They pulled out a bunch of stones for us to look at. There were a lot of big lumpy ones, and among them was a piece of pink granite vaguely triangular in shape,” says Lowrie. “The pink triangle has resonance with the gay and lesbian community, so we ended up with a pink triangular piece of granite. The executor picked quotes from Truman and Jack’s writings, and those were cast in bronze and mounted on the stone.”
Lowrie notes that in the summer of 1994, Crooked Pond was much drier than it is today, and he recalls the difficulties posed by the need to actually reach the water that day.
“There was not much pond and it was way out there,” says Lowrie. “The point was to throw the ashes into the water, not on the mucky shore.”
So Lowrie and Wahn built a ramp with planks and cinderblocks long enough to reach the pond. On the day of the memorial, while waiting for the guests to arrive, Lowrie got word that Jack Dunphy’s sister was on her way. Before long, a stretch white limo came into view from down Widow Gavits Road. Because Dunphy’s sister was frail, the decision was made to take down the fence by the road entrance so the limo driver could make his way the 1,000 or so feet down to the site.
“It was touch and go for a while,” grins Lowrie. “All of us were here in plain nature on this beautiful day, then there’s this giant stretch white limo in the middle of this beautiful site.”
But for Lowrie, the most poignant moment of the day came with the unexpected appearance of a bird overhead — a bird that seemed to punctuate Dunphy’s quote on the plaque, which reads: “I was grieving the way the earth seems to grieve for spring in the dead of winter, but I wasn’t afraid, because nothing, I told myself, can take our halcyon days away.”
“Halcyon is the Latin name for belted kingfishers,” notes Lowrie. “As Truman and Jack’s ashes are being scatted, this belted kingfisher comes flying around from the end of the pond.”
Halcyon days indeed.
Truman Capote’s and Jack Dunphy’s ashes were spread here in 1994
Did You Know: Truman Capote – who died in Joanna Carson’s home (the ex Mrs. Johnny Carson), was cremated and his ashes split between Joanna and his lover on the East Coast, fulfilling his wish to one Halloween, during a costume party, they were stolen, along with some of his mementos and $200,000 worth of jewelry. Six nights later, a mysterious car dropped off the ashes, leaving them in a coiled-up garden hose on her back steps. Carson, fearful that the remaining ashes could be stolen again, bought Capote a crypt at Westwood Memorial Park, near his friends Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood.