“Snapshot II”

A Memoir by Lona Flam Rubenstein

Back in the day, living with my family in East Hampton, I had neither the right vehicle, despite the efforts of Mr. DiSunno, from whom I had purchased my Dodge in Amagansett, nor the expertise to drive back and forth to Queens College twice a week, where I was teaching in their Adult Education master’s program in philosophy, winging it as usual, just one page ahead of my students.

Winging it — like when I put on a house dress and old sneakers, with no makeup — never wore any, anyhow — and carried a broom, a mop, a box of Ivory snowflakes, and a couple of bath towels to clean the ash stains from an indoor fire that were all over the highest ceilings and walls of Hans Namuth’s house in Water Mill, telling him that “soapsuds” was the secret.

“But how are you going to reach the ceiling?” he asked.

I looked, and winging it again replied, “Leaning over the stairwell.”

As I remember, renowned artist Mr. Namuth may have given me 5 bucks and sent me home. (Oh yeah, I dragged my husband, Marty, along for this charade. He carried the bucket. Hey, look — we were broke and I was resourceful in a peculiar kind of way. It was Arthur Roth, who wrote the column “From the Scuttlehole” for this newspaper, who had recommended me for the job. He was a neighbor; his wife, Ruth, was a friend.

At Queens College I fooled some of the students some of the time . . . well, you know the rest.

At a local wedding where Montauk’s New York State Assembly Speaker Perry B. Duryea was a guest, as was East Hampton’s Henry Mund — a sitting town councilman and executive assistant to the speaker — I marched up to them both in my long dress borrowed from Bonnie Pizzorno and sneakers — my own, in deference to a bad back — and asked for the one job that only I could singularly fit: namely “a Jewish, female, from-the-city intellectual on their staff if he wanted to run for governor.”

As Assembly speaker, Perry had little direct contact with his constituency (though Lord knows no one ever did more for his or her Assembly District) as was witnessed in Hampton Bays before a Jewish group of low-income women, at an event I had arranged for him.

He greeted them warmly, saying, “I suppose you are all ready to go south and be a snowbird like my mother.” Perry’s mom had just left. These poor women looked at him as if he were crazy. He knew right away he had misjudged his audience, made a mistake, a gaffe, maybe a blunder.

What could I do but step in and say, “Well, here’s one poor Jewish lady that’s staying up here, braving the weather. And I bet these ladies are, too.”

You see Perry’s problem was, as speaker he had to travel statewide, securing the votes, helping the other Republican assemblymen, officeholders, and office seekers. He was about to repeat the “Carlino error,” which is where, for which I have to pat myself on the back, I stepped in.

Joe Carlino, out of Nassau, had also been speaker of the New York State Assembly, And would be re-elected by his peers as speaker. But he would not be re-elected assemblyman from his Nassau County Assembly District. He wasn’t there enough! And he paid for it.

So I set up the Duryea “Listen-Ins” in every First Assembly District hamlet. And we invited all local elected officials to sit on the dais with Perry regardless of party affiliation. We sent the invitations to the local press as well, so if they didn’t show, minimally, people would know they had been invited. And I — dropping my bull in the china shop approach — cleared it with every Republican town leader. In politics one’s demise can quickly happen by the powers in one’s own party. As they say, a civil war (an oxymoron if there ever was one) is the deadliest kind.

Perry had a business to run and was not happy with my taking all his time for these events. The first one was in Orient, at the Demarest Farm. He did not want to go. The business needed him that day. I told him he had to. He yelled at me, said he couldn’t. I said I was going and expected him there.

Lord. I was relieved when I saw the old blue Duryea station wagon. He showed up, after all, coming across in the nick of time, on different ferries.

And he had a ball. Pressing the flesh. Meeting, after a long time, his loyal constituents. Hearing their concerns. Promising (he never broke a promise, everyone knew — even the hotshot Democrats in the Assembly — that a Duryea handshake was as good as gold) where he could to follow up, do his best. And the media was there, as well. A win-win!

On the way back, he told me he was glad that he had come, had met good people, had learned a lot. (That was a Duryea apology!)

He faced a tough re-election campaign, Watergate in Washington, himself under a phony indictment — allegedly thanks to Governor Rockefeller, an adversary whose budget Perry, in an unprecedented move, had knocked down.

The scandal landed him a front-page photo in Newsday in handcuffs and a formidable opponent in Joyce Burland — who looked like a female version of Perry, with politics in her blood and background. And, were that not enough, her campaign strategist was the formidable Hal Ross. (The indictment, for alleged election law violations, was later dropped.)

So, a female opponent who looked like a Duryea patrician, out of Southampton, with a smart campaign guy and help from Washington, D.C.

Well, my husband, Marty, steps in again. Suggests I organize the women. I don’t think he knew how far his wife would go. Ta da! Women for Duryea was born! Radio spots with a honky-tonk piano player woman from Montauk (Jane something I think, I’ve forgotent her name, regrettably, but she was great). I wrote songs. We used the off-key voices of seven Montauk ladies, with me doing the intro: “Played by and sung by Women for Duryea.”

First we sang an invitation to a rally to “Ta Ra Ra Boom De Yay,” as in “Ta Ra Ra Duryea,” then, to “Cabaret,” calling them to the rally: “Why not come out on this Wednesday night, hear what the women say, Women for Duryea my friends, Women for Duryea.”

We had little rallies, first in each Women for Duryea hamlet, then the big one, where there were buses for participants (arranged by none other than the genius of Ed Ecker Sr.). That night, there was a terrible storm. It poured, and the women poured out of the Ed Ecker buses as well, happily poured out, provided with a little wine for the trip to Southampton at the place where the rally was held. The only hitch was that they forgot to pick up the ladies from Westhampton, who were standing in the rain waiting for their bus. Nevertheless it was a huge success, with opponent Joyce Burland standing in the lobby watching the women pour in.

We invited her to join us, of course. We won re-election, the only Republican in the Assembly in the wake of Watergate, as I remember, by just over 7,000 votes.

His run against Hugh Carey for governor was another story. In June of that year, Perry Duryea was 26 points ahead, according to the polls.

Lona Rubenstein, a champion poker player and the author of two novels and a memoir, has spent half a century in East Hampton. This is the second piece in which she reflects on her life and times here and her work in the local political realm.