(This ran as my column in the Fire Island News on June 21, 2015)
“Fire Island was paradise, truly paradise,” Phyllis Italiano was saying. “The life we had there for that period of years—for 35 years—was idyllic. “
Phyllis was blissfully reminiscing the other day about the decades she spent on Fire Island with a couple whose celebrated marriage was charmed and happy—her older sister, actress Anne Bancroft and comic genius Mel Brooks. Often, her second sister, Joanne, joined them. “For us, it’s always been about family,” she noted. The three daughters’ parents were Millie (nee DiNapoli) and Michael Italiano, born in New York City of Italian immigrants. The three girls and their folks lived in The Bronx.
Phyllis said the link between her family and Fire Island was sparked by Anne in 1960 staying for a weekend at the Fair Harbor home of fellow actress Enid Markey. “Anne absolutely fell in love with Fire Island,” recalled Phyllis.
“She said, ‘Look, I would like to rent there next year. If I rent it would you and Joanne run it while I’m working on Broadway?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’” said Phyllis. “My kid [the first of her four children] was one year old. I loved the beach.”
So, in 1961, she and Anne rented actor Martin Balsam’s house in Fair Harbor—“he had headed out to Hollywood to make movies.” She was immediately impressed finding that first Memorial Day weekend that “this is a family place.”
The next year, 1962, Anne and Mel had gotten together and all were back at Fair Harbor. In 1963 Anne bought a house in Lonelyville. “It was a big rectangle, way up on stilts, overlooking the ocean. Anne bought that house for $28,000.” Designed by Richard Meier, it was on No Name Walk.
In 1964, Anne and Mel were married. And the following year they purchased a house behind that rectangular one—“we called it the second house”—and that’s where Phyllis and Joanne and kids (Joanne, too, is a mother of four) lived.
“The ocean was the king of our lives,” said Phyllis. “We had breakfast together and we started every day the same way. Anne and I would go for long swims.” They would swim in the bay and the ocean, although sometimes ocean-swimming was tricky. She spoke of one day Anne swimming in a sea that was roiling, and how Anne glanced at her with a “look on her face: ‘Give my love to Mamma.’ I had to get the lifeguard to get her out.”
“We had just unbelievable times. We would walk to Ocean Beach to go out to dinner. We loved reading,” she said. “We played games at night.”
Mel’s comedy-writing for Sid Ceasar’s Show of Shows “had ended,” he had started his The 2000 Year Old Man routine with Carl Reiner which skyrocketed in popularity on records and TV. He was working on other projects. “I remember on Fire Island,” said Phyllis, “reading the script of Blazing Saddles and thought, ‘My God, this is going to be terrific!’ I read the script there of The Producers, the first film in his film career.”
Anne had, meanwhile, become a star in films and on stage. She won an Oscar for her acting in The Miracle Worker and became a world-renowned sex symbol as the seductive Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. She wrote, directed and acted in the hilarious movie Fatso. She won Tonys for her performance in Two for the Seesaw and also the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker. She might have to travel—but she made sure she got back to Fire Island. .
“It was so safe for children, so secure,” noted Phyllis, her former married name Wetzel. Phyllis is now retired after 27 years as a teacher and also was an assistant principal in the Yonkers public school system.
The absence of cars on Fire Island, Phyllis said, and the warm community life made Fire Island “a safe, wonderful place” for youngsters. “The kids bonded together. They’d go out in the morning and you’d see them at dinner.” As the years went by, son Michael Wetzel worked at Kismet Inn and daughter Paula Wetzel at Maguire’s restaurant.
“All the girls in the family did baby-sitting during their early teens. Once my daughter, Joanne, my oldest, had a job at about age 13 raking the bay beach in Fair Harbor of seaweed. She would be out at 8 in the morning cleaning the beach before breakfast. That was how Fire Island was—a real community—everyone helped everyone else.”
Meanwhile, “every day Mel would wash the front windows of the house,” she said. “And he would go down to the ocean and surf-cast and catch fish.” Mel also thoroughly enjoyed “sitting on the back deck in a great chair Anne had bought. And he’d fall asleep.”
They liked going for shellfish. Then there was the time, Phyllis recalled, when “we went out with flashlights at 1 a.m. in the morning crabbing and caught a load of crabs. I said to Mel, ‘We don’t want to kill them by putting them in the refrigerator,’” Better, she thought, would be putting the crabs in the kitchen sink until it was time to cook them. “But they crawled out of the sink—16 or 17 crabs—and they were all over the place and we had to scurry around at 3 a.m. to catch them. And, you know, crabs bite.”
A son, Max, was born to Anne and Mel in 1972. He would go on to be a writer for Saturday Night Live and author. His initial book: The Zombie Survival Guide.
In 1996, Phyllis, Anne and Mel left Fire Island for the Hamptons. Anne thought they could “buy a very big house for all the family.”
Anne and Mel initially rented in Westhampton and then settled in Water Mill. Phyllis purchased a house in The Springs, a hamlet north of East Hampton.
“The Hamptons are lovely. I’m not going to say I don’t love the Hamptons,” said Phyllis, who is deeply involved in East Hampton Town Democratic affairs, has a program on the Wainscott-based TV operation LTV, and is active in civic and educational affairs. “But being on Fire Island, it was the happiest time of our lives.”
She has just returned to Fire Island once since 1996 only “because I’ve been so busy.” But she intends to “go back to Fire Island this year. I’d love to see it again.”
Anne, married to Mel for four decades, died 10 years ago this month, Phyllis noted sadly.