Pines People- John Russo.
Every time I traveled to Fire Island I had butterflies in my stomach. Never knowing what to expect but knowing it would be great no matter what. The thrill of that beach community is beyond compare. In 1983 I was invited to work at the FI location of the LOFT clothing store for Terry McNulty. I took the last boat that mid-season Friday night. Some kids were screaming from the other side of the canal after we launched “YOU’RE ALL GOING TO GET AIDS.” The ride was beautiful in spite of the hate. When Bret met me at the harbor his sunshine demeanor filled my heart with relief. At the beautiful house I was given dinner and we all had homemade peach ice cream for dessert. I was given a bunk high up in the rafters. I was glad it wasn’t hot.
Working as manager of the store was a cranky man named Bob Kohler, who underneath that was a sweet man. The clothes we sold were hot and trendy, and many bottles of poppers were sold as well. I started school at F.I.T. that September and worked at the Amsterdam Ave location of the LOFT. A fellow employee Manny asked me if I wanted a job at the SAINT. I said sure. I had been once before when a friend and I found someone on line to get us in. That is another story but it is connected. I became good friends with Joe Hernandez together working at the Pines. He invited me to my first house party and a muscle man asked me to dance and I about melted until he went back to his lover. Then we went to the Pavilion and the first song I heard was “Hot Leather”. There was sawdust and peanut shells on the floor, but not on the dance floor where baby powder was sometimes used. Everyone wore Levi’s and no shirt, just like the SAINT. I had been working out, but this was a new incentive.
A friend joined me on a day trip to the island early the next spring. I wanted to see if the Boatel was hiring. I met with Mark Gillespie, and he hired me on the spot and said to be there Friday evening. I was hired at The Pines and Dunes Yacht Club featuring the Boatel and the Blue Whale bar. WOW, my friend Aris and I then went to the beach and had lunch of salad that had the most delicious mushrooms in it. His fiancé made it for us. We laughed a lot and took the last workman’s ferry back to Sayville.
Keith Watson a waiter at the Blue Whale met me at the harbor and we went straight to the restaurant. I was introduced to my manager Michael Jenkins and owner John Whyte and concierge Patsy Evans, they were there for dinner. Every night John ate at his own restaurant with Patsy. The nickname given to Keith was Debbie, Michael was Marie. They were very serious about calling each other those names. They were roommates at the staff housing known as steerage because it was. But a warm roof over your head and a hot shower and was all you needed. Put on a tight sweater and walk down to the Yacht Club. That place had the most stunning cliental. Zoli Models, Ford Models and others who looked like they should be. Clones, beautiful handsome men. The tea dance was packed with gorgeous men. The Chef’s names were Desmond Morgan and Ronnie White. They served Breakfast Lunch then we broke down the chairs for Tea dance, and then we set up again for Dinner. A few years before they showed a movie after dinner and that was another breakdown set up. BLTD. It was very camp working with Debbie and Marie and soon I was named Princess Joanna della Baldwin. There was Mona on the register, Lana and Daisy behind the bar and other waiters like Jane and Art the bearded lady and Krispy. We laughed A LOT!! I met really nice people all the time there, sometimes romantically…
John Whyte & Patsy. Michael Jenkins/ Marie John & Keith/ Debbie.
Those stories are quite juicy. One man I met at the Crews Quarters bar during the showing of “The Terminator” name is David McFarlane. He was going thru a break up. But Jane always said “Joanna is not a slut she’s a home wreaker!” It wasn’t true. David said he saw me on the train and admired my blond highlights and my smile.
When it was chilly we would run back to steerage for a sweatshirt or sweater. One break in particular, Marie said jokingly “that one break to steerage and LA was really long.” You see I met a man names James West thru the bartender Charlton Fuller. We got hot and heavy quickly and communicated all summer until I went out to see him. I was allowed to leave work for this. MID-SEASON!! I had a friend of Sox’s (James) (so named for the look in his jeans) do my hair. He was singer Vanessa William’s hair stylist too. When in Hollywood go blond!!
I met David McFarlane when I came back. We became romantically involved (hey I was a kid) He was my friend for many years later. His nickname was Candy, he was a Christmas display artist so his house mates called him Christmas Candy. He was 6’4” and his X was even taller they called him Taffy. His name was David too. There was a party for just David’s in the city I was told. Together they were also known as the twin towers. His Christmas business was quite large and I was hired in the fall to go on the road with him. We set up Christmas shops in malls and patio furniture stores. Then the day after thanksgiving we did corporate NY. One day David’s brother Roger McFarlane visited David’s house with his lover Larry Kramer. They all came down to the boatel and I was finishing up my lunch shift. David was so proud of me he introduced me to Larry Kramer, Larry said “Oh David Marry up”. The whole table fell silent; I turned around and got their drink order. I never liked him after that, but I did admire his activism and the start of Gay Men’s health crisis along with Joe Hernandez and Jim Pepper. GMHC. We were all just learning about AIDS.
John Whyte always liked me and called me Mr. Russo. One day on my day off he made a rare appearance with his Cushman to steerage. I was standing out in front of my room naked with a leaf in my hand. I ran inside and put on shorts. He was always very cheeky with me after that. I started a cleaning service besides the Boatel and he paid me to clean his house which looked like a giant air conditioner on the ocean. After 5 seasons coming back from a hard week he said “You’ve aged”. My father had just died.
I became friends with Bob D’Antonio from New York Man clothing store across from the Blue Whale Bar. He asked me if I would be interested in cooking for a VIP group from France renting his house that August of 89. Dorothy Levy was the rental agent. She told me where and when to report to work, 150 Ocean walk. I was the chef for the curator of Versailles and his older lover who was a Habsburg descendant. They were joined by four younger French men. They were so nice and really enjoyed my cooking. I did that for 2 seasons. The third season they wanted me to have my friend work with me, and I was not in favor of that. The house is one of the most beautiful architectural homes on the beach.
Next year I answered an ad in the village voice for a chef job in the Pines. I met with Alan Mazur ESQ. at his NY apt. My interview went well and then he asked me to make lunch, an omelet and a salad. He was impressed by my French omelet and liked my homemade salad dressing. His only critique was “the salad was a little wet” He was a dear man and years later looked to me to rent his house at 232 bay which was also the time they ate lunch. I also rented 150 Ocean to Jim French of COLT. After Alan there were a succession of Brokers, Doctors and Broadway producers who I cooked for. I had become a real estate agent my last year but had to stop due to health reasons. Carol Weismann and Cheri Lyons were the owners of Island property at the time and understood.
Alan Mazur. Jim Pepper.
Before all this I was cooking for Jim Pepper. My friend Steve Herbits introduced us. I met Jim at his NY apartment. I got all dressed up and he said I didn’t have to but I could tell he was impressed. We met later that winter at his house in Miami and sealed the deal with the help of his assistant David Glick. Jim is a philanthropist and stock broker. He had some influential guests. We had a very nice arrangement for 6yrs. He hosted huge parties and the first year I was all in, but as the years progressed I set up food for his guests and left until the party week was over. Toward the end of the engagement I only opened and closed the house for him and then he retired. I had gone to Key West one winter and met a wonderful man. His name is David Robb. So here I am 17 years later writing this account for the Pines Historical society. I love Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove. I never dreamed I would be living in KW but it was kismet…