"Welcome To Shirley"
a memoir from an atomic town
published 2008 by Public Affairs Books NY NY
Although I have been asked many times by more than several readers of this website, over the eight years I have been online, to weigh in on both current events and what has happened not for the better to the Mastic - Shirley area over the last few decades, I believe I have upheld a long tradition of not saying anything publicly. That's not to say I have no opinions or feelings about it. I just prefer a far more subtle approach by showing and writing about how it once was, both long before my father's parents The Josephs, first arrived in Mastic Beach in 1940 and during the periods I personally lived there from 1950 - 1964, then not far away in Patchogue just a few miles down the road from 1964 - 1972 and again briefly, back in Mastic from 1973-75. But then again my original intention if you will of the Buzz & Pee Wee Butchie & Me stories was only that of a childhood memoir. It became however the genesis in 2000 of everything else that was to follow. Then things changed when I started to look into one particular families history (The Knapps ) who were briefly mentioned in one of my stories. Like most everyone else, I knew almost nothing about them when I started out, other than that they once owned a large portion of what is now known as the town of Mastic Beach and that they had the biggest and fanciest house ( a mansion actually) in my backyard, that this then 4 year old had ever seen.
Well one could just scan the website and say I found out quite a bit more than I was looking for, and in the course of doing so, I also found out quite bit about the history of the Mastic Shirley area. Not that I was really looking for anything particular, other than how the area transformed in the 1920's - 1940's from being all private estates on hundreds of acres of property in the hands of basically 4 -5 families,and into the hands of everyday Jack & Jills living on postage stamp parcels if you will, but perhaps enjoying it ten times as much as the gentries and esquires before them did? I was amazed myself when some others who lived there long before I did, would exclaim about some of my new discoveries found in long forgotten microfilm or the dusty books at the Suffolk County register of deeds. "I NEVER KNEW THAT OR HEARD ABOUT THAT" Trust me it took some digging and in an area where you usually hit water after the second shovel full of dirt, I nearly drowned in my findings more than once.
I only tell you this because I am a bit troubled by the book "Welcome To Shirley ___memoir of an atomic town", by Kelly McMasters that I have just finished reading. Troubled not at what she says about what has happened to the area, but troubled for what she claims is the history of it and further troubled because this is something that is in print rather than on the internet where corrections can be easily made. Prior to reading the book, I had read some brief excerpts and an op - ed piece by Ms. McMasters and listened to a radio interview she did on her book. They caught my attention mainly because of some of the errors I read and heard. Also that the time lines of some the facts she did present, were way out of sequence and frankly I wondered why ? Ms. McMasters contacted me several years ago regarding my online history of Walter T. Shirley. She told me she was planning a memoir book about the town of Shirley and asked me if in addition to my online Shirley bio and town history (which I believe is the most extensive ever published in one place) if I had any history on the Brookhaven National Laboratory ? I told her I did not, but referred her to two friends of mine, Anita Cohen and Marty Van Lith. Marty is an local historian in his own right and both he and his wife Anita, a former school teacher, were both retired employees of BNL. I told Kelly they could most likely help her with BNL history. I also added that they were both former longtime residents of the town of Shirley, who I knew could probably help her research there too. I do know she contacted them, but after reading the book it seems they did not tell her what she wanted to hear.
Ms. McMasters is a talented creative writer and storyteller, who teaches the subject at Colombia University. But I feel she used much of her talent to support a preheld conclusion on the causes of everything that went wrong with her little town long before she arrived, during her stay and beyond . On a positive note, some of her personal childhood memoirs she includes of her family living in Shirley, resonated strongly with me, because even though they occurred three decades after mine did, it was obvious to me, she also experienced much of what I always found to be magically positive about the area. That positive side is often overlooked by most of what is written about the area today. The fact that Ms. McMasters possessed the wisdom and openness to experience it, and retell it, even during what I knew to be a radically different environmental and cultural era of the 1980's and 90's is somewhat reassuring. ( I decided as an adult to leave the area for good in the early 1970's, after seeing first hand the start of many radical changes, I felt were not good for my health and well being )
Now opinions and impressions both favorable and unfavorable are something else again and I doubt I would be writing my opinion here of her work, if she had not issued the following statement in her preface of the book,
" This is a work of non-fiction. There are no conflated events or composite characters in this book. House numbers and the names of those who may of violated the law have been changed. Along with my own memory, hours of written and taped recorded interviews were supplemented with other research, including newspaper articles, scientific studies, reports resulting from the Freedom of Information act requests, and hundreds of pages of documents culled from the (not so) public reading room at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. My imagined scenes of Walter T. Shirley were informed by history books and archives."
There are two main "villians" that emerge in Ms. McMasters work. The larger and far scarier of the two, that would appeal to a far wider readership, is the Brookhaven Lab or BNL. "The Lab" which was how it was known to the locals, is located in Yaphank just a few miles north of Shirley. It was built by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 on an abandoned army base. It bccame the closest major employer of the area and eventually housed three nuclear reactors (now all inactive) It's an interesting coincidence that PFC Walter T. Shirley was stationed there as a 21 year old army bugler, almost three decades before the word Atomic was used by the masses. Walter T. would return to the area in the 1940's and grow to be a real estate giant in his namesake town. Walter T. who also ironacilly was quite short, is Ms. McMasters smaller villian. However in her way of presenting him to her readers, he takes on a sort of larger than life dark presence or root of all the evil, both real and imaginary.
As I told Ms. McMasters, my knowledge and interest in the goings on both historically and currently at the BNL are basically of what it was, when it was Camp Upton. I have no dog in her fight with them. I have known people who have worked there in the past and some that still do. Speaking as a history buff and someone who experienced firsthand the lies and deception perpetuated by our federal government on its own people during the Vietnam War era, and the seemingly incredulous daily misconduct of the current adminstration of the last 8 years, I should be first in line to sing the praises of her book and believe everything she writes about the health and enviormental dangers she points to BNL as the culprit of . I should also be joining her to refute the spin the labs PR spokespeople must put forth in equally denying almost all of it. But after reading the book I cannot and I will just let the lab speak for itself . It's website at BNL.Gov, now has it's own disclaimer about the validity of this book. Yes I might be marching alongside of Ms. McMasters, if not for all the errors I read about her portrayal of Walter T. Shirley which even when she has the facts in hand about him, cleverly arranges or omits just enough of, like a professional spinmeister to make her case. Now let me cite but a few errors in Ms. McMasters book to make mine.
First a personal disclaimer : My grandfather Jack Spooner and Walter T. Shirley were friends since the 1920's long before Shirley became the acerage king. They shared that friendship in the NY cafe society world, surrounded by celebrities of Broadway stage , Hollywood screen, national sports, political figures and all the journalists eg Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan that reported daily on the goings on of same for decades. That is well documented pictorially and in text on my webpages about both Mr. Shirley.
Jack Spooner, unidentified, Walter Shirley At Stork Club 1940s
That said I have no personal feelings about Walter T. Shirley, one way or the other, but I do have quite a bit of knowledge about him, and even more about the history of his town long before it was his town and of the era that I went to the William Floyd school there, built on the land Shirley donated for it, from the day it opened it's doors in 1952 - 1964, which was also the areas Boom Years. And as I said, I returned to the area living there briefly and saw firsthand the problems developing that have led many of those who remained or have moved there since, to feel that just by changing the name of the place, it could help solve them.
NOW IN THE WORDS OF JOE FRIDAY AS UTTERED BY JACK WEBB "JUST THE FACTS MA'AM"
In Chapter 3 pgs 46-48 Ms. McMasters visits Walter T.'s early vaudeville years in Brooklyn as a song plugger for Irving Berlin and paints him as a starstruck and failed wannabe singer. Having made my living for over 40 years inside the music business as a performer, writer and as an historian somewhat of popular music. ( I received a writing award in 1963 at William Floyd High btw for a term paper on Cole Porter) I can say I never heard Walter warble___ but do know as a successful songwriter and proud member of ASCAP, the performing rights organazation founded by Irving Berlin and also as a member of the ASCAP #1 Club ( membership restricted to exclusively composers of songs that reach #1 on the charts) just what it takes to sell a song or plug it. Whether in the age that Mr. Shirley was engaged to do it, by singing it out live or the current digital age where some marginal talents have been enhanced by both technology and hype into singing sensations. However it still takes basically two things to get a hit. A GOOD SONG and because of the amazing amount of money to be recouped from the success of same, A GREAT SALESMAN, to convince others whether they be sheet music buying public or recording artists that the song is a hit. Mr. Shirley may not of been a great singer, but he was a GREAT salesman, and also wise enough to know when a song wasn't so hot. It was just that wisdom he held about one of Mr. Berlin's songs "Smile & Show Us Your Dimples" that Mr. Shirley used to say " I couldn't sell for smoke" that got him fired. He never tired however of telling that story, because when Irving Berlin finally did rewrite "Smile and Show Us Your Dimples" it re emerged as Easter Parade an "evergreen" in the Berlin song catalog just like White Christmas is. Ms. McMasters fails to mention that fact only stating that Berlin fired Shirley because he critcised Berlin's song. Enuff song and dancing lets get down to brass tacks.
On Page 45 she states that Shirley built the bordering towns of Mastic and Mastic Beach in the 1950s. Mastic which was the colonial name for the entire area, was developed by the Smadbeck Brothers, Home Guardian Co. into a vacation town for the average Jack & Jill in 1922. They would follow that in 1926 with Mastic Beach. Both are widely known facts, easily accessed in both books and files in the Mastic Shirley Library where Ms. McMasters once worked. Both Mastic and Mastic Beach had their own commercial and residential districts long established by 1950. Shirley did not get his foot in the door out there until 1943 when he bought 1250 acres of the former August Floyd estate that sat directly in between the north and south borders of Mastic Beach and Mastic. He would call his new purchase Mastic Acres ( he filed a master plan to develop it as a town complete with a shopping district along Market Street aka Mastic Rd and recreational beach area near the mouth of the Forge River) It was probably because of the building restrictions brought about by rationing during WW2 that Shirley could never do more there than build a beach pavillion and open his first real estate office during that time. He would sell most of his land there after WW2. But it proved to be a lucky break and turned into a much larger oppourtunity for Walter T. Shirley a few years later, when two much larger adjoining tracts of land became available just to the west. They would be the huge 10,000 acre Tangier property, that bordered the Carmans river and the 2000 plus acres of the Tolfree Estate that included a huge bayside manor home and oceanfront property just across the very narrow bay on Fire Island.
On pages 56 and 57 Ms. McMasters states "Walter T. had never drawn up any formal plans for the shape of town-he just started in one place and kept building out, and while in some sections streets were built like grids in Manhattan, other parts rambled and curled inward like sea shells." Fact is he didn't have to plan, for the master plan for the entire area including the names for the streets, was all laid out and surveyed in 1910 for Frederick J. Quinby's "Development of the Century" called "Tangier" These extremely grandiose plans drawn up by Robert Anderson Pope, a master landscape architect who laid out several major cities in Europe, were filed and approved with the Brookhaven Town government by 1911. They included an oceanfront hotel and casino ala Atlantic City on Fire Island connected by a ornate Parisian styled bridge to an ultra wide north south boulevard on the mainland ( now Wm Floyd Parkway) lined with stately manor homes, passing through a Village Green area (where Home Depot now sits) that proceeded through the development up to a huge and old world style train station and Tangier sales office (where the tiny Mastic -Shirley Station sits today) The rambling street area Ms. McMasters later refers to as haphazard planning, was in reality, designed to accompany exclusive canal homesites leading into the Carmans River. Like most of what was planned and promoted at Tangier, it all fizzled. The canals were never dug, the bridge was just a temporary wooden one that deterioated over the years and was finally removed entirely as a hazard to navigation. The train only stopped a few miles to the east, at the tiny victorian station in Mastic and of course there was no need to build a commercial area on the village green because almost no one ever purchased any residential land. These original plans of Tangier and much more info about it I might add has been posted on my website since 2002 and I am reasonably sure if she didn't see it on her own, that I made Ms. McMasters aware of it when she first e mailed me around 2005.
By 1915 Tangier turned into a multi million dollar bankruptcy and a securities fraud court trial coupled with the disappearence of one Frederick J. Quinby, who history proved to be a true huckster and charlatan both before and after. (His last public appearance while not being pursued by the courts that I know of, was offering temporary shares of stock in the Quinby Oil Co. in 1927) Ms. McMasters often hangs both appellations of huckster and charlatan unfairly on Walter Shirley. I would not hesitate to call Shirley a showman and super promoter of both himself and his projects. He realistically scaled back the Tangier plans (there was still no electricity in the area until 1949) intially also calling it Mastic Acres to some minor confusion and marketed it as an affordable vacation area similar to that of Mastic and Mastic Beach. By 1950 markets changed somewhat as more and more vacationers who bought land and built bungalows decided to move out there permantly. Shirley ever the sharp and on top of it businessman saw new oppourtunity and started offering larger and more livable all year round homes. Most were built on site with basements where the water table made it feasable, by fine local carpenters like Erwin Dressel's Hillside Builders of Yaphank, later known as Mastic Builders . Shirley subcontracted his actual construction work out.
Walter always worked the term Shirley, LI into his Mastic Acres advertising and by the early1950's when he had enough residents living there to support a post office, he was awarded the designation as Shirley, NY. He might of been the only living American at that time to have a town named for himself. It should also be noted ever the promoter,that he applied to the telephone company then for the new planned exchange to be named Shirley-1. The phone company went with Atlantic-1 (now 281) instead using it for Mastic and Mastic Beach as well.
On page 57 she states : "The town kept growing, by 1952 Mastic Acres had it's own drive-in movie theatre, supermarket, and Howard Johnsons, all at opposite ends of the town, like three points of a triangle" Now this might seem like a small point, but it is representative of what I feel is far too much lazy and sloppy reporting that passes for journalism today. By July of 1952 Mastic Acres was officially named Shirley, NY , however the southern portion near Smith Point remained in the postal and fire district of Mastic Beach. The Shirley Drive In would not open until July of 1953, The Howard Johnsons in May of 1957 and last but not least, the first super market in the area, Bohack's, opened just behind Howard Johnson's and the post office in the summer of 1959. Thats a seven year difference! All three were on the north side of Montauk Highway ( THE ONLY EAST WEST ARTERY THAT PASSED THROUGH THE AREA AT THAT TIME ) Bohack's and Howard Johnson's were on the Shirley Shopping Center property adjacent to the Shirley Post Office which was directly across Montauk highway from the Shirley Real Estate Office and Model Homes Site. The Drive In (not a walk in) was probably about 3/4 of a mile to the east near the Shirley - Mastic border line. Between it and the main Shirley commercial area, were several other restuarants, gas stations, free standing delis, pizza places, mom and pop stores etc. The only commercial triangles that existed, with some distance between them were the three laid out by the roads that 1; existed by the original Tangier proposed village green on William Floyd Parkway (now a Huge Commercial Area) 2: Down in the town of Mastic Beach where the Triangle Shell station sat on the intersection of Neighborhood & Commack Roads and 3: "The Fork" of Mastic & Mastic Beach Roads just south of the original area of Mastic Acres that kept its name.
These next statements may seem like small points, but McMasters keeps piling them on to make her case and again all of them are wrong.
"Shirley never lived in the area" He actually did try it out part time in the summer of 1945, when he bought the Tolfree Estate. Although the huge manor house had its own generator system to supply electricity, there just wasn't much for a "first nighter" like Shirley who was used to the excitement of Broadway, Madison Square Garden, The Stork Club etc all his life to do out there. I don't think going over to Schultes or The Beach Tavern in Mastic Beach could compete, besides that he was tea totaler. He already had a country estate in Westchester that was far closer to the big apple. When he did get some of his NY celebrity friends to come out to the sticks, he had to fly them into Mastic Airstip in a charted DC -3. So he put the Island View Manor house (Built in 1911 by F . J. Quinby's Tangier Development Corp to use as a Country Club ) on the market in 1946 and it has been in the possession of the Cutro family ever since. He was far from an absentee town owner though and ran many civic activities, sponsored sports teams, home and garden and beauty contests etc. Not to mention made constant unannounced visits cruising in his '48 Lincoln Continental to check up on things. His beach pavillions that he sold he insisted on being kept up to snuff and when they showed any signs of sloppyness as they did in the early 50's he took fast action to correct. He also had his own token police patrol to help the Brookhaven Town Police keep an eye on things in his community. He was always a law and order type of guy.
"The majority of deals were struck in Walter T.s midtown Manhattan sales office rather than on site in Shirley" Here McMasters implies the city buyer never saw their land before signing on the dotted line, but rather bought from lavish brochures and toy models in Shirley's office at 5th Ave and 42nd Street. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I know this for a fact that Shirley insisted every buyer be shown their land in person first. This point is very prominent in my Shirley story. It is also in the minutes from his business meetings that are housed in the Mastic Shirley Library where Ms. McMasters worked. For those who had transportation problems, he employed people like Bill Deitrich to drive customers out from the city.
"He never considered that his town would one day need amenities and municpal basics." He donated the 45 acres to build our first school there in 1950. Granted although that property was only worth about $45,000.00 then and this was a win win situation for him as he would wind up selling more of his property quicker as more people moved out to the country. As for her implication that his slogan "Shirley, where the country meets the sea" fails to mention his waterfront property was not technically on the sea, but rather a bay and the sea was seperated from it by a "sand bar" is frankly absurd. What she constantly calls a sand bar is FIRE ISLAND! Fire Island has been on every map of Long Island since the Dutch were in control of New Amsterdam. His prospective customers had to know there was a barrier beach there. Shirley built a beach pavillion on Fire Island and operated a regular scheduled passenger ferry boat leased from the Patchogue Ferries fleet (she calls it a small motor boat) during the summer season. McMasters also implies ulterior motives for his involvement in getting the permanent Smith Point bridge built. True it was a win - win situation for both him and the entire county although they prevented him from implementing the Quinby plan for major commercial development on the beach. He was still was a mover and shaker in finally getting a bridge built (something that had been in county and states plans since the 1920's and never seemed to get off the drawing board) When the bridge opened in 1959, he replaced the old pavillion with a much larger one. The entire history of the Smith Point Bridge has been on my website too since 2002.
Pg 56 "He mimicked Levittowns low cost stratergy of designing his homes atop of concrete slabs rather than digging out basements." Not true___ In 1955 Shirley along with many others became a franchisee for National Homes. These were pre fabricated in a factory in Lafayette, Indiana and sold all over the country. Ultra modern looking, they did not appeal to everyone and were assembled in a day or two on concrete slabs. Although he promoted them heavily,and they were very affordable, they probably only accounted for a 1/3 of his sales from 1955-59. I am reasonably certain in order to insure structural integrity, they required a slab foundation rather than a conventional one. They proved to be more suited for a warmer climate and complaints of draftiness and high heating bills further dampned sales. I think by 1960 he discontinued the line. The majority of slab built homes Ms. McMasters cites in her book as filling up the area, were built by Shelter Technology a decade after Shirley was dead. Some were turned sideways to fit on 50 foot wide plots.
When Walter died of a heart attack in 1963, he probably hoped his wife and son would carry on his legacy. Instead they sold everything by 1965 for 5 million dollars. Both then moved to Virginia and Maryland with the son never doing much of anything again. Walter Jr. died young, living the good life at the age of 60. Perhaps he would of made it to 65 had he moved to Shirley instead of selling it?
The town of Shirley was probably at one its lowest points when Kelly McMasters lived there in the 80's and 90's. I recall going back to visit in 1981 and not being able to view my own childhood home in Mastic Beach without feeling sick. The area has since taken one step forward and two steps back almost constantly and still suffers from a myriad of problems brought on by many causes. The overbuilding I witnessed in the '70's, was a major one. Brought on by advent of the federal Farmers Home mortgage program, it allowed people to own homes for as little a $60.00 a month. This led to massive overbuilding and then abandonment of homes in droves when interest rates went through the roof in the late 70's and early 80's. Many of these foreclosures were bought up by absentee landlords, who in turn rented them out to Suffolk county for guarenteed rents creating what they call welfare dumping. This was further complicated by the area allowing more than it's share of halfway houses for drug, alcohol and sex offenders.
I found it odd that Ms.Mcmasters never addresses the role that the Brookhaven Town Government played in much of this mess. This township, the largest in New York State , was under one party rule for so many decades, it earned the name of Crookhaven, The township not developers like Shirley, hold the power for zoning and building code enforcement that helped set up the many problems that befell the area and still plague it today. The last Brookhaven Town Master Plan for addressing developmental and enviormental issues in the Mastic area before this current decade, that I ever saw in print was from 1939!... That said I strongly hold the opinion had Shirley lived longer and his son of carried on with his policies, the areas slide would of never been tolerated at least in the area designated as Shirley.
I am reasonably certain it was witnessing as a young girl, the slow and painful death from cancer of her neighborhood girlfriend Tina's father Jerry, that inspired Kelly to write this book or set her main topic up of environmental stewardship. The true neighborhood good guy with a huge heart, it is her storytelling about Jerry that resonated the strongest with me. He even loaned Kelly's Dad a $10,000.00 down payment to enable the McMasters to go from a renters to home owners. Jerry worked at Brookhaven Lab handling the disposal of highly toxic materials. The second half of the book is almost entirely devoted to writing about the bio and environmental hazards Ms Mcmasters insists the lab brought to the area. That story and many medical studies sets most of the dark tone for the rest of the book. She often implies that the lab was not just involved in the peace time use of nuclear technology but also heavily involved with department of defense. I doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that very dangerous material was handled there and I know for a fact that some of it was transported by a small plane they kept at Mastic Airstrip in the 1950's in a lead lined compartment across the Long Island Sound to an awaiting military transport in Connecticut, Probably for use at the nuclear submarine base?
Although I found myself agreeing with Kelly, that Jerry's cancer was probably directly connected to his occupation at the lab,and that he more than likely wasn't the first or last employee, or area resident to have become ill from many of the area's envoirmental hazards, her way of presenting them does not help make her case, I also think if Jerry was still around to have read her manuscript, it might of contained far less insinuations and glowing errors.