This article apppeard in Newsday when I did a reading at the Mastic Moriches Shirley library of early chapters of the still unfinished manuscript

Four years later almost to the day I will be back there reading from and signing the book on Nov 21, 2010


Quiet wealth, church secrets, a Hemingway tiff, and bootleg booze

unearthed in online history

by Joe Dionisio



Ken Spooner has never run for office, but "mayoral" duties keep him busier than most politicians. Thanks to his obsession with preserving his hometown's history via the Internet, he's earned the title of e-Mayor of Mastic Beach.

To say is a bit comprehensive is like saying Donald Trump has a bit of cash. The 550-page Web site offers thousands of rare photos and anecdotes, as well as video, music, T- shirts and more -- many of which Spooner will share Sunday at the community library in Shirley. So who inspired the historian to launch the site in 2001? Namely Mastic Beach's own version of Trump. Spooner titled his site "The Knapps Lived Here," to honor what he describes as "the lowest profile, highest society American family to ever come out of the Gilded Age." Never heard of the Knapps? They founded Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., published Collier's magazine and entertained presidents, including Benjamin Harrison. And, Spooner says, it was MetLife exec Joseph P. Knapp who OK'd the financing of Rockefeller Center in the 1920s.

Yet there's one Knapp legacy that Spooner, 59, is on a mission to solve. Why did the Diocese of Brooklyn buy Knapp's estate in 1950 at a bargain price, then soon vacate it with priceless furnishings inside? St. Jude's Church "literally left the key in the door and left," said Spooner, who moved to Mastic Beach in 1950 and has lived in Nashville since 1987. "Everybody helped themselves to everything. What happened while the diocese owned it is a crime. Fifty years later, they're still reluctant to discuss it." The mansion burned down in 1959, but the arsonist isn't a total mystery: "I know who did it," said Spooner, who declined to identify him. isn't just about Mastic Beach, Shirley and Mastic. Its tales traverse Stony Brook, Southampton, Garden City, Brooklyn and the nation. Mastic Beach's history dates to 1657, when Sachem Wyandance sold Mastic Meadows (as then known) to Brookhaven Town. A century later, it was a hotbed of Revolutionary activity, boasting five estates (Manor of St. George, Robert, Lawrence, Dana and Floyd). Eventually it transformed from a rural jazz-age outpost (replete with speakeasies), to World War II resort destination, to slumlord- ravaged trouble spot in the '80s. Its recent rebound prompted The New York Times to call the hamlet "Long Island's best kept secret."

One of's tales involves magazine magnate Joseph F. Knapp, who left a Mastic Beach dock in 1935 and landed in Bimini. After his boat moored near Ernest Hemingway's, a boozy tiff ensued. "You big fat slob," Knapp barked, "I'll shame you off this dock." "You don't know what you're getting into," Hemingway replied, before pummeling the stranger. A witness informed the author that he'd leveled the publisher of Collier's, which had hired Hemingway as a war correspondent. "No kidding," he said, wiping the blood off his hands. "That's what I call limiting your magazine markets."

More Spoonercentral tidbits: Before Bayview Hospital was established by the Calabro family in the '40s (it was torched by vandals in 1986), the estate's owner was Oscar nominee John Howard Lawson of the infamous Hollywood Ten. An avant-garde playwright who influenced Eugene O'Neill, Lawson wrote films such as 1943's "Sahara," starring Humphrey Bogart. A secret bootlegger-style tunnel runs a quarter-mile from the Knapp premises to Neighborhood Road. Which may explain why Spooner says the family heirs refuse any affiliation with his Web site. Many sources, Spooner says, back his bootlegging theory. (Descendants in the Carolinas and at the philanthropic Knapp Foundation were unavailable for comment.)

A wood bridge to Smith Point was built in conjunction with Tangier Manor House (off William Floyd Parkway), where Tony Bennett sang in 1950.

Developer Walter Shirley, the hamlet's namesake, was also a song plugger for Irving Berlin.

To help sell newspapers in the 1920s, the Brooklyn Citizen sold lots for $89, with a monthly mortgage fee of $3.50.
The homestead of Nicoll Floyd, built in Old Mastic in 1724, was nearly bought by John Lennon in the '70s, until neighbors voiced their displeasure.

Aside from a Mastic link, the late Beatle and Spooner have something else in common: They've both penned a No. 1 hit. In 1991, Joe Diffie topped the country charts with Spooner's "If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets, He'd Have a Ball in Mine." Spooner, who's also written for Lyle Lovett, has one regret about the tune. "Garth Brooks told me he wanted to record it. I would have made so much more money, an obscene amount, if he recorded it."

In the 1960s, Spooner briefly played keyboard in a band called the Hassles. His replacement? Billy Joel. Which makes Spooner the original Piano Man. But he'll have to settle for the less spectacular vernacular as "e-Mayor."

"He's not into the politics, so he didn't like the nickname too much," said Mastic Beach native Kenny Vitellaro, 59. "He's more of an archaeologist. He's dug up stuff I never knew, and I've lived here longer than him."

WHEN & WHERE: Ken Spooner will host a slide show, "Our Community: The Way It Was," from 1-4 p.m. Sunday at Mastic-Moriches- Shirley Community Library at 407 William Floyd Pkwy., Shirley. Admission is free, but limited to cardholders. For reservations call 631-399- 1511.