Thursday, February 9, 2017

Lee Haven Beach Club, Recreational and Revolutionary Space

This month as we commemorate Black History Month, we turn our attention to an interview narrated by longtime Greenwich resident, Alver W. Napper, who was a member of the Board of Directors of the Lee Haven Beach Club. In operation from 1949 until 1952, the club was located on Shore Island, a small spit of land less than an acre large, off the coast of Byram, Connecticut. The Beach Club, a revolutionary space not without controversy, was established as a recreational club for professional Blacks from the area surrounding Greenwich.
“I like to think of this island, of this club, as being one of the milestones in the evolution of the recreational aspirations of the Black people of this area.” Alver W. Napper, June 6, 2010-February 7, 2002

The following, which details the club’s short duration, is from a 1975 Oral History Project interview conducted by volunteer R.W. Howell. Olivia Luntz, a Greenwich High School Senior and Oral History Project guest blogger, prepared this post.

Alver Napper was director of the Crispus Attucks Center and an active member of the NAACP in Greenwich. In the Lee Haven Beach Club interview, he notes that in the 1930s and 1940s Blacks could not belong to the YMCA, YWCA, or other clubs, so they had to create their own space. “Recreation for Blacks was confined principally to the church,” he says. There were clubs and groups that met in private homes, but there were no public spaces available to Blacks to rent.

In order to hold dances, for example, organizers had to look outside Greenwich. And the need for such space in town was lost on many people. Napper tells the story of a meeting held to discuss the topic. As he recalls, one woman present “spoke up in the meeting and said that she didn’t see why Blacks needed recreation; she thought that when they had their Thursday off from work, or their Sunday off, the proper thing for them to do was to go home and rest so that they would be more efficient for work the next day.”

This may leave us stunned today, but in the early days, the town’s Black organizers were undeterred.

Napper points out that 1939 and 1940 were the first years in which the need for recreational space for Black citizens became recognized. “They organized some singing and some open-air theatrical kind of things…entertainment.” Next, the basement of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Lake Avenue was turned into a Black community center. Finally, arrangements were made to acquire the old Boys’ Club building, which was then at 33 Railroad Avenue, after the Boys’ Club moved into a new building. The Boys’ Club had never before rented their facilities for Black functions because “they were always afraid that we would have people whom we could not depend upon to observe the rules and regulations and thereby would…ruin the reputation.”

The most important step toward having a space for Blacks in Greenwich to come together, however, was the creation of the Lee Haven Beach Club.

The Lee Haven Beach Club was founded after a Black real estate broker from New York, Mr. J. Opie Hagans, came across the island and purchased it. The island had previously been used during prohibition as a bootlegger club, called the Pieces of Eight. Hagans was known for buying run-down properties, repairing them, and then reselling them. However, the Lee Haven Beach Club faced problems before it even opened its doors. According to Napper, “as soon as news got out that Blacks had bought the island, then the real old racist Greenwich spirit began to bubble over.”

The club was first challenged by zoning laws that prohibited new clubs being organized unless they were approved by Greenwich zoning. However, since the Pieces of Eight club had existed on the island beforehand, the challenge was moot. Next, once the club got started, there was a challenge of the club’s right to have a rope ferry that would allow people to access the island. The Lee Haven club was once again able to dodge that setback as the Pieces of Eight club had been granted a permit for a rope ferry.

But the club’s connection to the Pieces of Eight club also created problems. “During the time of the Pieces of Eight club there were people getting drunk, creating disturbances on the island, and annoying everybody around the neighborhood….The neighbors claimed that that was their main reason for trying to prevent this new club from starting.” Therefore it was important that during its existence the Lee Haven Beach Club was very quietly operated.

The greatest challenge the club had to face, Napper says, was the fight to obtain a liquor license. “Some of the people who lived around that area, people of means, paid several very prominent attorneys to block our efforts to secure a liquor license. This went on for several years until as Napper comments, they “were able to hire someone who had political clout.” Only then did they obtain the license—and not until the club paid a high price, spent to convince that lawyer to represent them.

And the liquor license was not the only problem the Club faced. Napper adds that, “we had hearings—town hall packed hearings with the people who objected—and they had all of their lawyers there. They objected to the permittee, they objected on the basis that there were nuisances going to be created in the neighborhood, and so forth—all kinds of objections.”

In spite of the controversy, the club prevailed and was successful—for a time.
Shore Island, Photographer: Didier Ciambra,

The main clubhouse contained the bar and the restaurant, and four additional houses provided fifty to sixty rooms that could be rented out. The island also had “a very beautiful locker room, and we had a beach—a beautiful beach.” Finally, the island also had a dock where members would bring their boats. The club’s daytime activities included enjoying the beach, boating and playing games. Unlike the Pieces of Eight club, the Lee Haven Beach Club was more family-oriented. Napper notes that members from New York would “come down and rent several rooms and bring their families down for a week or two.” During the evenings there were dances and parties on the lawn and private parties in guests’ rooms. There was a jukebox “which we used to use every night,” says Napper.

However, all the effort that went into creating the Lee Haven Beach Club couldn’t prevent its eventual demise. Napper recalls that the club lasted for four summers, those of 1949-1952. Dissension began to grow within the club because of the differing opinions among members about whom the club should be open to. Napper explains that the club was originally created as a space for professional Blacks from New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and other metropolitan areas to gather. “The general aim [was] to try and make the membership predominantly professional Black people.”

When the club first started there were several hundred members, who mostly lived in New York and Washington. It soon became apparent that a club strictly limited to professionals could not earn enough revenue to stay open. Some members wanted the club to admit anybody who could pay their membership dues.

“We had our Annual Meeting,” says Napper, “and the professional group had held an affair in New York City to raise money to make up the deficit for the club. When they came out, they wanted to change the constitution of the club so that you had to be professionals. There was a big floor debate about that, and they were out-voted by the people who wanted to keep it open to everybody. Then that group (the professionals) said that since you’re going to do that, you’re not going to get this money, which they raised in order to save the club. So that was the parting of ways then. Next season was an extremely lean season with most of these professionals staying away, and thereafter the club rapidly went down.”

After that summer there was a hurricane that severely damaged the buildings on the island, and the captain/caretaker who lived on the island during the winter passed away. The island was eventually sold and remained deserted. “It’s “gone back to nature now,” Napper sadly notes.

Despite the demise of the Lee Haven Beach Club, Alver W. Napper’s interview is a compelling reminder of the contributions Greenwich’s Black residents have made to our rich and fascinating history.

“The Lee Haven Beach Club,” 1975, is available through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the library or on the first floor in the library’s reference section.

A summary of the Greenwich Oral History Project interviews commemorating Black History Month can be found here:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Golf Anyone?

In honor of the library’s upcoming mini golf extravaganza and fund-raiser (, we at the Oral History Project thought it timely to pay our respects to one of our own town golfers, the prize-winning champion, Louise DeVivo Munro, who died September 26, 2015, after having been a Greenwich resident for more than 50 years.

In February, 2002, Janet Klion (Oral History Project volunteer) interviewed Ms. Munro, a lifetime member of the Innis Arden Golf Club and winner of numerous golf awards, including 27 championships at Innis Arden in Old Greenwich.

In this highlight from the interview Janet Klion asks Ms. Munro about being named “the preeminent athlete of their first hundred years” at Innis Arden. Ms. Munro goes on to describe the event and to discuss her many awards: (Ms. Munro is identified as LM and Ms. Klion is JK.)
Louise DiVivo Munro with trophy

LM:      November 6, 1999, at the Hyatt Regency was a momentous event. I think everyone, except me, was aware that I would receive an award. It was such a well-kept secret. The ballroom was beautifully decorated. The tables had floral arrangements and candles and lanterns in the middle of the dance floor, and a wonderful band played.
Our president, Jeff Harris, walked to the podium to make his remarks and welcomed members and guests alike. Then he recognized past presidents who contributed so much to the development of Innis Arden as we know it today. There must have been six hundred people. He also highlighted the celebratory activities which had taken place throughout the year.
Then the announcement came: “Tonight we will do something that has never been done before in the history of Innis Arden and might not be done again for another hundred years. Tonight we will recognize an honorary person who is the preeminent athlete of Innis Arden’s first one hundred years. We’ve enjoyed watching and competing against many outstanding golfers, tennis players, swimmers; but one golfer’s accomplishments stand head and shoulders above all the others. This person’s record is truly exceptional.”
                        I’m sitting there listening, trying to figure out who in the world he was referring to, since gender was never mentioned. I couldn’t think of anyone outstanding. Because I didn’t know the answer to the riddle, I let my mind wander and decided to concentrate on my date instead….
            I never suspected. Then he went on with the accolades: “This person has won fifty individual championships, and this person was runner-up in the 1998 championship at Innis Arden and has just won the Legends’ Tournament of Connecticut.” And all of a sudden it hit me: “Oh, my God, he’s talking about me.” And I wanted to crawl under the table.
            The amazing thing was, when he finished enumerating all my wins, he announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Innis Arden’s Preeminent Athlete of the Century, Mrs. America, Louise De Vivo Munro!!” And the applause was thunderous applause, so spontaneous and everybody jumped to their feet. I couldn’t believe it. It was just… It was just so amazing….
                        It seems unreal that I should be cited for playing a game I love, and the wins just happened to come along. I consider myself an ordinary gal. For the Board of Governors to award me this most highest honor of my life was, on their part, most generous and kind and thoughtful.
JK:      Now how many times had you won the championship there?
LM:      Well, let me tell you. My first championship, 1950. Then I won ’56, ’57, ’59, ’60; and through ’62 through ’76 I won fifteen straight.
JK:      Wow.
LM:      And then I won in ’78, ’82, ’83, ’84, ’85, ’94, ’95. For a total of twenty-seven championships.

But before Ms. Munro became a champion, she was a student of the game, taught by a teacher she adored. Here she describes meeting and then working with her coach and mentor, Terry Conners:

Louise Munro with coach, Terry Conners, 1953

LM:      I would ride my bike and often detour to the golf house to watch the pro give a golf lesson. His name was Terry Conners. The ice skating rink in Stamford is named after him. When I watched him I always kept a respectable distance. One day he motioned to me to come over and said, “You seem to be interested in what I am doing. Do you like to play golf?” I answered I didn’t know. Don’t forget I was just a kid. Then he gave me a golf club and told me to swing it. Don’t know what he learned from that but then he remarked, “If you want to learn this game I will teach you but you have to be serious, on time. And no girlfriends or boyfriends hanging around.” I showed up the next day and for the next month I did nothing but swing a club without hitting a golf ball until I had it right. And my poor hand blistered all the time. It was amazing.
JK:      But it didn’t discourage you that he was…that you didn’t get to hit anything.
LM:      No, it didn’t. And I guess because of the, you know, the father figure, senior citizen, what have you, I just obeyed. Whatever he told me to do, I did and I showed up on time. There must have been some interest there for me to continue. Either that or I was afraid to say no.
                        Often times at the end of the day Terry would ask me to gather the flagsticks from the farthest holes while he walked for the others. I would get on my bicycle and ride out lickety-split onto the green and pull the stick out of the cup and continue to the next stop. Not to worry, the greens were not as they are today.
                        The man was so talented. He was a self-taught golfer; a speed ice skating champion; a boxer. And he molded my swing to look like the great Sammy Snead. I must say he did a good job with me.
JK:      Is he alive now?
LM:      No. He died some thirty years ago.
JK:      He must have been very proud of your success then.
LM:      Yes, yes.
JK:      How long did you take lessons from Mr. Conners?
LM:      I took lessons with him until his health failed.
                        Terry Conners was unique in his teaching. He was very much a “hands-on” pro. Something I benefited from and still miss. For instance, in my formative years—and I was about twelve years old when I started – he would do things like pretend my hand was a golf shaft, wrap his hand over mine and tighten his fingers to communicate amount of pressure I should exert on the grip. Or have me take my stance as though I were addressing the ball, then get behind me and put his arms over mine, his hands over mine and then initiate the backswing. When his left knee kicked in, it would trigger mine; the shifting of the weight would nudge my hip and then he would take our arms to the top of the swing. Then reverse the action through the ball. Sometimes I would stand behind him with my hands on his hips to feel the amount of transfer. This physical contact definitely helped me understand the “feel.”

In addition to her life as a renowned golfer, Louise DeVivo Munro was a dedicated member of the Greenwich community, a volunteer of many years at Greenwich Hospital and an active member in her church where she served as Eucharistic minister. One of her most cherished memories, shared is her interview, is of her trip to the Vatican in 1997 where she encountered Pope John Paul II:

LM:      …the carabinieri escorted us from one room to the other, then into a tiny elevator; and they brought us to this wonderful hall where the Pope meets dignitaries. We went through the hall into the Pope’s chapel. Only about twenty-eight of us there, I would guess. And there was the Pope kneeling in front of me, you know, with his back toward me and I... It didn’t register with me who this figure was until he turned his head sideways, and I saw the little white sideburns and his skullcap; and I said, “Oh, my God, this is the Pope.” And it was the most thrilling experience. I had tears in my eyes. It was just… It was just overwhelming. You realize the number of people who don’t have an opportunity to see the Pope. Even the nuns, you know. Even the religious. And they’re more worthy of it than I. It was just fantastic. I have four pictures on the wall.

Louise DiVivo Munro, born in Venice, Italy in 1925, never lost her humility or her gratitude, in spite of her many talents and accomplishments. We in Greenwich are the richer for having had us among us.

The interview, Golf in Greenwich, February 14, 2002, conducted by Oral History Project volunteer, Janet Klion, and narrated by Louise DiVivo Munro, can be read in the reference area of the Greenwich Library, first floor, or through the Oral History Project Office, on the library’s lower level.