George Wallace

ON THE ROCKS: Christopher Morley's Harborside Retreat

On Long Island, the famed early to mid-20th century literary figure Christopher Morley's presence is keenly felt and celebrated in a small wooded glade in the Roslyn area, where his romantic writing cabin "The Knothole" is maintained by Nassau County. Less well known, and virtually unheralded, is Morley's time "On The Rocks" - the shores of Huntington Harbor, at the tip of Lloyd Neck, to be precise.

This piece of "Morley-ana" may be picked up, however, in an article written by the literary Mr. Morley's own daughter Helen Morley Woodruff, recollections which appeared in the Long Island Forum in 1988.

In the article, Woodruff recollects how Morley discovered his literary retreat on Lloyd Neck, and provides a number of revealing anecdotes not only about the famous man's personal side, but also glimpses into the North Shore environment Morley relaxed in, with its dirt roads and quiet vistas, prior to World War II and the subsequent population build-up in the region.

"One hot afternoon Mother and Daddy trundled me into the car and we drove eastward from Roslyn, along Route 25A, through East Norwich and on past the fish hatcheries, through Cold Spring Harbor, past Norman Thomas' house, then along West Neck Road to the causeway which linked Lloyd Harbor with Lloyds Neck," wrote Woodruff in her account, which appeared in the Nov 1, 1988 Long Island Forum.

Her tale has us follow the family up a dirt road past "a marvelous 400 year old oak tree" - presumably the Big Oak under which such other prominent figures as Teddy Roosevelt and Walt Whitman are thought to have decamped; up a steep hill to the edge of the Marshall Field estate and then to the east on a small lane to a rocky promontory. There, the Morley family established a home known as Nostromo, where they lived among rich woods replete with wildlife, spending idle days on the pebbly beach with its huge boulders.

Morley's sojourn there was clearly a beloved one, to hear his daughter Helen tell it.

Christopher Morley was born in Haverford, Pennsylvania in 1890. Valedictorian of his class and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, home of his English-born parents, Chris was soon writing an enormously popular and influential column in the New York Evening Post, entitled "The Bowling Green," and putting together an insert in the Post that would evolve into the Saturday Review of Books. It was out of this that the Book of the Month Club was born, and through his editorial control Morley helped shape the literary tastes of a generation of America - from the general public to the most discerning readers.

By the early decades of the 20th century the literary critic, author and popular journalist established a career in publishing through Doubleday, based up the road in Garden City. His first novel, Parnassus on Wheels, was written on a kitchen table at his Oak Street, Hempstead home in 1917 - a book which was an immediate success, glorifying the notion of hitching up a wagonload of fine books and going wandering through the world, and after a time Morley parked his personal literary wagon in the woods of Roslyn, from which he managed a career straight to the top of the urban American cultural world.

Through the 1920s and 1930s, in fact, Morley's name was synonymous with the nation's popular literary world. He helped to make Walt Whitman America's poet; edited and revised Bartlett's; founded literary clubs, like the Baker Street Irregulars and the Three Hour Lunch Club; and consorted with the nation's great writers and thinkers.

Morley remained a hugely prolific writer himself. While not widely read today, Morley's creative efforts in poetry, prose and playwriting reveal a man very much of his time and society, who was fluent and playful with the conventional forms of his day. His novels offer an easy familiar prose style, and while his poetry is frequently mannered, at times almost Edwardian, at his best Morley's work - like that of Nash or Lear, is playful enough to transcend the parlor values of his era.

Meanwhile, Morley and his family enjoyed a less mannered existence at their North Shore retreat.

"There were plentiful mushrooms growing on the trees, plus wild blueberries and strawberries all around," notes Helen. There were excursions at low tide for clams, swimming competitions at high tide when one had to swim so far as "Bill's Rock" to prove proficiency - a feat rewarded with a copy of Shakespeare's complete works. "The fishing off our point was the best on the North Shore, and every evening we watched schools of porpoise swim by." the Morley's befriended local police officers Fred Rausch and Joe Tillotson, whom they allowed to launch their fishing boats from their quiet retreat.

The Morley's hosted such visitors as Buckminster Fuller and Cleon Throckmorton, and scouted out the beach for personal promontories. "The beach had several large rocks each of which were assigned to members of the family and close friends," she recalls. "Daddy's rock was long and perfectly flat, ideal for sunbathing...mother's rock had many small indentures where she placed her rings while swimming."

Quite clearly too, there were times when Christopher Morley's sojourn on Long Island - and in particular at Nostromo - provided the stuff of memorable verse.

The Surf

We took the baby
(Three years old)
To the beach at Lloyd's Neck.
A cold northern day and the wind was crisping surf on the beach.
She looked at the white foam
And heard its rhyming prosody.
"Snow," she announced.
"Snow saying, Sorrow to come in,
Sorrow to come in."

It is evident from poems like these, and from the account of his daughter Helen, that in the midst of all that fame and influence had to offer, Morley continued to enjoy the exceptionally bucolic and yet culturally enriched lifestyle that Nostromo, on Lloyd Neck, had to offer.



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