The Help

The Guggenheim Estate, Sands Point, NY, c. 1920


In the 1910s and 1920s, 325 country houses of over 25 rooms were built on Long Island.  Lured by the spectacular views and beautiful landscpes – and the close proximity to New York City – Long Island became home to some of the wealthiest families in America.  Among them were the Guggenheims, Belmonts, Astors, Mackays, Vanderbilts, Goulds, Hearsts, Pratts, Coes, Phipps, Morgans, and Whitneys.

Evan Williams

Behind the gates of these estates, the needs and desires of the owners were attended to by cadres of household maids, cooks, domestics, groundskeepers, superintendents, stablehands, chauffeurs, dairymen, and gardeners.  Some stayed on their jobs for a few years, others for a lifetime.  “Small” estates had 10-15 servants, while the largest had up to 400.  Estate workers shared a unique way of life, working within the opulent lifestyle of the very, very rich – a way of life that has long since disappeared.

Evan Williams, Guggenheim chaffeur

Megan Rumbelow grew up around the Gold Coast Estates.   Her uncle, Evan Williams, worked as a chaffeur at the Guggenheim estate in Sands Point.  Her mother and aunt were also employed as servants.  In the following interview excerpt, she tells historian Elly Shodell about the realistic depiction of servant life in the popular British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs:

“Don’t talk… stand straight…”  Click the arrow to listen.  (2:06)  Click here for a transcript.

Megan Rumbelow (as a child) with aunts and uncle Evan Williams


To hear more of this interview, read transcripts, and view more photos, please visit the Port Washington Public Library Local History Center.

Megan Rumbelow interview (excerpt) conducted by Elly Shodell.  © Port Washington Public Library, 1983.
Some text adapted from the PWPL publication “In the Service,” ed. Elly Shodell.  © Port Washington Public Library, 1991.

The Booze Cruise

East Egg, in the Roaring ’20s:  lavish parties abound at the town’s elaborate estates.  An endless supply of liquor fuels the good times.  Liquor?  Wasn’t that illegal in the 1920s?  Indeed it was, and it fell on men like Jay Gatsby to make sure that this was not a problem.

In The Great Gatsby, East Egg was Fitzgerald’s literary stand-in for Port Washington, and the bootlegging Gatsby his stand-in for the real-life folks with shady connections who got liquor onto Long Island.   Rum running, the smuggling of liquor over water, was a common activity along the Sound.  According to Port resident Clarence “Chappie” Miller, even the kids had an idea of what was going on…

“Get out of here you kids!!”  Click the arrow to listen. (0:42)

On January 16th, 1920, the 18th Amendment had made drinking alcohol illegal.  “It was an era,” wrote Port Washington News editor Ernie Simon, “when the most popular guy in town was the one who knew where the best ‘speakeasy’ was.”  Police raids on transports and barrooms were frequent, such as this one at the Cove Inn:

It's a bust! The Cove Inn on Main Street.

Sometimes, perhaps, the men in uniform were not there to confiscate the booze… at least according to Roswell Valentine.  He worked as a gardener at the Matheson estate in Lloyd’s Neck, a Gold Coast mansion similar to those in Port Washington and other towns along the North Shore.  Here he describes what may have been a common Prohibition-era scenario:

“They would hide their cases of liquor all through the woods…”  Click the arrow to listen. (1:13)

Quick, small boats were used for rum running.

To hear more of these interviews, read transcripts, and view more photos, please visit the Port Washington Public Library Local History Center.

Clarence Miller interview (excerpt) conducted by John Poland.  © Port Washington Public Library, 1983.
Roswell Valentine interview (excerpt) conducted by Prof.Richard Harmond and Tom Vincittorio, 1987.

Life On the Line

Fontaine Fox (1884-1964), the celebrated “Toonerville Trolley” cartoonist, lived in Port Washington from 1914 to the 1930’s.  His “Terrible Tempered” Mr. Bangs, the “Powerful Katrinka,” Banker Grey, and Old Man Flint were small-town characters who earned Fox a syndication in over 200 newspapers.

In the interview excerpt below, long-time Port resident Bill Bohnel tells historian Elly Shodell about the local inspirations for these memorable characters, and about Port Washington’s history as a home for artists and writers.

“The whole town was a cartoon!”  Click the arrow to listen.  (3:49)

Fontaine Fox's Carlton Avenue Home

“Toonerville Trolley” (officially known as “Toonerville Folks”) ran from 1908 until 1955.  It was adapted into cartoons, used in numerous advertisments, and inspired a number of short films starring Mickey Rooney.

To hear more of this interview, read transcripts, and view more photos, please visit the Port Washington Public Library Local History Center.

“Toonerville” cut-outs are from the collection of the PWPL Local History Center.