Thursday, January 22, 2009
it sticks with me
My mother discovered, when I was a teenager, an all girls' summer camp called: "School of Creative Arts." The School of Creative Arts was owned and managed by Kathleen Hinni, who from September through June, was the modern dance teacher at the The Chapin School in Manhattan.
The "school" was located on Martha's Vineyard. It had opened in Oak Bluffs in 1949 with twenty girls from the ages of six to sixteen. Later, it moved to the former Whitney House, "Hedge Lee," in Vineyard Haven. The school remained for four additional years at that location. During those years Regina Woody wrote: "Ballet in the Barn," a children's story based on the school.
Eventually, the school moved further north on Main Street to West Chop, and was housed in a huge old barn style mansion with three floors, thirty rooms, and porches all around the outside of the house. On the grounds were about twelve small one room cabins where the older campers lived. The house was near a steep bluff and the cabins were surrounded by trees. Days were filled with classes in dance, drama, music and the arts.
So, off I went to spend four consecutive summers (1959-1962) with a load of girls my age, many of whom were from very different backgrounds. These girls were "socialites;" some from families listed in the "social register." They had "coming out" parties at the Waldorf Astoria, private planes, and parents who summered in the south of France. I learned the meaning of "old money" from Cynthia Wainright, my bunkmate, who later went on to become "Debutante of the Year," and was a guest speaking about the topic on the David Susskind Show. What did I know from this? My mother played canasta during the summer at Capri Beach Club in Atlantic Beach, Long Island.
We danced on the bluffs with Charles Weidman, had classes with Merce Cunningham, sang opera with Lotte Lenn and folk songs with Burl Ives, and we were treated to special performances by Pearl Primus. Ms. Hinni, who was called KT, made us dance to Bloch's "Concerto Grosso" so many times we literally collapsed in exhaustion (in the rain) outside the ballet barn.
Margaret Bourke-White spent several summers at the school during the time she was writing a book. I remember those hot days she would play jacks with me under the trees to increase her mobility because she was suffering from Parkinson's disease. Her photos decorated the living room of the great house where the many younger girls lived.
There was a boys' camp next to ours, and sometimes we would go to the fence to see if we could catch the eyes of some willing participants in some mischief. One night, we arrived back at our cabin to find scrawled in red lipstick on the dresser top: "Tonight we come to get you." Needless to say, we all ran screaming to the main house and the police were called and we hovered in the woods until it was safe to return.
The school was run in an old-fashioned strict way and KT's rules were unbearable. We called the school: "Pure Hell at St. Trinian's." KT starved us. We seemed to never have enough to eat. She provided a lettuce wedge for dinner one night. And it was served with no salad dressing! We were so hungry there were times we ate toothpaste. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we had baked chicken for lunch. The food was served family style and for some reason on that day there was one mouth-watering piece left on the tray. The counselor asked if anybody wanted the second piece of chicken and I, of course, said I did. She lifted, with silver tongs, that mouth-watering piece of chicken and placed it on my plate. I grasped my knife in my left hand and and my fork in my right hand and began to cut the first piece. Just as my fork touched the chicken, along came KT and she pulled the plate right out from under my nose. She said, "No seconds." And there I sat, holding a knife and fork not over a plate filled with baked chicken but over the empty table space in front of me.
My new friend Cindy (name changed) had a terrible time that summer of '61. She ached to go home to be with her boyfriend. He looked like Frankie Avalon, and when he drove up from Long Island one day she snuck out of camp to meet him on the main road at the time they had planned in one of their letters. She came back and later that day swallowed many pills. She was taken to the hospital, but when she recovered she was not sent home. Even though she was clearly troubled, she returned and stayed for the final few weeks left of the summer.
I promised to keep in touch with Cindy, and met her a few months later, during the Autumn, in her Long Island hometown. We had lunch at a local pizza place and then we went our own ways.
In the late 60s, I was looking through "Newsday" and I read about a married woman who lived in Mineola who had smothered her infant boy. I recognized Cindy immediately. I still have that newspaper clipping, now yellowed from the passing of time.
During the daily afternoon naps the wind rustled the leaves of huge oaks while down below the bluff the ocean waves crashed to the shore. These sounds seemed to increase our feelings of unhappiness. The common denominator was that we all hated the place and we were so homesick we sometimes made ourselves literally sick. Yet, for so many summers we returned. We always went back.
From time to time, after sleep I open my eyes and I am startled to be here... and not there.