Greetings from The Once and Future Nirvana (Great Neck, New York)

Last week,I wrote a tribute to the community I was then leaving; today an introduction to the one I have moved to. I mentioned that my new home inspired me romantically almost or about as much as Brooklyn. This is because it has a fabulous history. But first, the complicated details of where I am:

Great Neck is the name of both a geographic region (a peninsula in the town of North Hempstead) and a village in that region. I happen to live in both. Its history is very much tied up with the New York City borough of Queens, which is right next door. Prior to the incorporation of New York City in 1898, the three towns that make up what is now Nassau County (Hempstead, North Hempstead, Oyster Bay) were also part of Queens County. These three outlying towns opted not to become part of the city, so they seceded from the county and formed the new one, Nassau (named, like the one in the Bahamas, after a Dutch aristocrat, as this territory was part of New Netherland before it became New York). The towns are full of villages and hamlets that people identify with much more closely than the overall towns. BTW, Brooklyn and Queens were both originally constituted of the same kind of villages and hamlets; they simply grew and became urbanized so that now the former villages and hamlets are thought of as neighborhoods within the borough. Places like Flatbush and Greenpoint and Jamaica etc were all originally villages; they just got swallowed up by New York City.

In the previous piece, I said I had some historic family connections in this area and here are a couple. Great Neck was originally called “Mad Nan’s Neck”. Mad Nan was maverick religious leader Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), who’d been exiled from Massachusetts, had co-founded the community of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and then, sensing additional troubles, moved still farther away to New Netherland. She originally had her eye on the Great Neck peninsula, but ended up settling in what is now the Bronx, where she was killed by local Indians shortly thereafter. Anne Hutchinson was my (13th) great aunt; I am descended from her sister Katherine. 

Even closer to home: my direct ancestor. Dr. John Stewart (1667-1704) moved from Massachusetts to Hempstead with his wife Elizabeth in 1691. If you were a Scottish Presbyterian (as he was), Long Island would be a much more hospitable place to live than Puritan New England; there was actually a Presbyterian church in Hempstead, one of the first in America. John set up a farm of 18-20 acres in Hempstead, earning additional income as a cooper and a surgeon. From Hempstead, the Stewarts moved to a new farm in what is now Jamaica, Queens in 1694. Then they moved on to New Jersey a few years later. The family continued moving South over the generations: from New Jersey to Delaware to Virginia to North Carolina to Tennessee to Alabama; my grandfather was stationed in Rhode Island in World War II, which leads to me…who returned to Long Island three centuries after my (8th) great grandfather.

Proceeding on with history:

North Hempstead split with Hempstead during the Revolutionary War. North Hempstead was full of Patriots sympathetic to the Revolution; Hemspstead was full of Loyalists sympathetic to the British.

Chrysler’s shack, in the Great Neck neighborhood of King’s Point

In the 19th century the region, which was all mostly farmland, became more accessible via railway, steamboats, and better roads. In the Gilded Age, the super-wealthy began to build seaside mansions in what became known as the “Gold Coast”, which embraced Great Neck and towns farther east. Tycoons like Walter Chrysler and William Kissam Vanderbilt II built estates here. In this it is not unlike Newport, Rhode Island, where I used to live. 

By the 1920s there were scores of mansions in Great Neck. F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalized it as “West Egg” in his 1925 novel The Great Gatbsy. 

By the Jazz Age, the region had become fashionable with celebrities as well. It is an interesting period — it’s when many of these people were big Broadway stars, but just before they moved to Hollywood to become movie stars. It is another reason I am excited to be living here, for the folks who briefly had houses here included people I’ve written a lot about including the Marx Bros (in separate houses), Ed Wynn, Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, Eddie CantorRaymond Hitchock, Marilyn Miller, Olive ThomasLillian Russell, Olga PetrovaLew Fields, Paul and Grace Hartman, George M. Cohan, as well as his business partner Sam Harris (separate houses), Gene Buck, Oscar Hammerstein II, Eugene O’Neill, Ring Lardner, Herbert Bayard Swope, P.G. Wodehouse, Guy BoltonLeslie Howard, Basil Rathbone, producer Sam Warner, Maurice Chevalier, Paulette Goddard, Frederic March, Charles King, Richard Barthelmess, Norma Talmadge and Joe Schenck, Chic Young (he created Blondie here in 1930), Sid Caesar, Alan King, Max Weber, Will Durant, Morton Gould, Herman Wouk, and many others.

The Depression ended the the building of super-mansions, and the theatre crowd moved out to Hollywood with the advent of talkies. Great Neck became more suburban. Many of the big estates were taken down and carved up into smaller parcels for middle class homes. (As an example, my wife and I live in her family’s house, a Mock Tudor home that was built in the 1920s in a development that went up on the former estate of millionaire William Gould Brokaw called — wait for it — “Nirvana”.)

The postwar period saw a population boom as tons of people from the city, many of them the children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants (and other immigrant groups) who’d prospered and moved to the suburbs. This gives the town an extremely unique feel, a lot like a small town, but one that is culturally connected to New York City, right next door. Famous people who grew up here in later years include Francis Ford Coppola and his sister Talia Shire, George Segal, Andy Kaufman, illustrator Drew Friedman, Broadway producer Stewart Lane, and, on the more notorious side, the family depicted in the 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans. Also, Gwyneth Paltrow’s father and Lena Dunham’s mother! Bruno, the psychotic from Strangers on a Train is from Great Neck! And Charles Ludlam was also from Nassau County, from nearby Floral Park.

You see why I’m inspired then! The surroundings and history reverberate with vibrations that are apt to keep me on my game. In our modest way, we’ll be looking to uphold the tradition. After all, this is the former Nirvana. And, God Willing, it will be the future one as well!

 

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