Orient’s Anne MacKay was ‘a force of nature’

05/03/2012 3:00 PM |

Saturday night’s song swap at Poquatuck Hall in Orient brought more than a hundred residents together, but one person’s absence was felt throughout the event.

Anne MacKay, a pillar of the North Fork’s gay community, an active member of the Orient community and a cofounder of the song swap, which raises funds to preserve the hall, died two days before the event, which was dedicated in her name. She was 84.

The event’s emcee, Gideon D’Arcangelo, said he’d gone to Ms. MacKay to ask what she thought of having the event dedicated to her. “And in her modest way she just brushed it off, like ‘OK, all right,’ ” Mr. D’Arcangelo said Saturday from behind the microphone.

When formulating the idea for the Poquatuck song swap, he said, he’d been directed to Ms. MacKay, with whom he became fast friends.

The two of them began playing music together.

“I was always inspired by Anne’s passion for knowing songs and amazed by how many songs she knew and then shared,” Mr. D’Arcangelo said. “It’s one thing to know songs, but she shared them, too. She was really brilliant at those things.”

Ms.  MacKay was born in New York city, the eldest of three children, attended the Dalton School and spent her summers at a family home in Orient.

She was a theater major at Vassar College and taught theater arts at Dalton from 1952 to 1990.

Ms. MacKay was known by many as a woman of action, someone who wrote books of poetry, sailed, gardened, directed theater, served as president of Oysterponds Community Activities and was a fierce proponent of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community long before such was embraced by the mainstream.

Although her article, “Being Gay at Vassar,” was rejected by the college’s alumnae magazine in 1970, she continued to write, edit and publish documentation of the lesbian and gay experience, at Vassar in particular, in the ’90s, including a book-length treatment entitled “Wolf Girls at Vassar, Lesbian and Gar Experiences 1930-1990.”

In 2011, she was invited to help the college celebrate its 150th birthday and received a plaque honoring her dedication and achievement in recovering lesbian and gay history.

Mary Dorman, her second cousin, said Ms. MacKay was the first self-identified lesbian she knew, which helped Ms. Dorman as a lesbian herself.

In fact, Ms. MacKay was often an encouraging force in Ms. Dorman’s life, she said.

“She was always there to shove me out on stage and say, ‘You can do this’ and celebrate with me when I got off stage. She believed anyone could do whatever they wanted to do.”

A contemporary of Ms. MacKay’s, close friend and Shelter Island resident Frederica Leser, said Ms. MacKay was one of the people she respected most and as such, she said Ms.  MacKay stood for what she believed was justice.

“She would never compromise when it was a question of what was right to do; she was a fighter,” Ms. Leser said, “She was absolutely out and open in being gay and she did marvelous things when she was in the drama department of both of the schools she taught at.”

Ms. Leser added that people in Hollywood would sometimes ask Ms.  MacKay for input on projects because of her prowess in the field and the quality of the dramas she directed.

Ms. MacKay retired in 1990 to an 1840 house in Orient that she moved to Brown’s Hills and refurbished. She also sailed a 19-foot Mariner and tended to what friend Barbara Walker describes as an “impressive garden.”

Although Ms. MacKay had retired, her age of achievement was far from over.

Ms. Dorman said Ms. MacKay helped shape the women’s community in Orient and East Marion and became deeply involved in the Orient community, which she loved above all.

“First and foremost, she loved music, singing and Orient,” Ms. Dorman said. “She knew how to love Orient by sailing and clamming, fishing, swimming, writing poetry and being lyrical about it. She really could celebrate life and she spread joy and her love of nature.”

Ms. MacKay was also a keeper of cats, according to friend Lucy Steele, who described her as very loyal, “very educated, feisty, charming and to the point.”

Said Ms. Steele, “She was full of history and songs. She loved songs and music and she was extremely interested in the history of women and lesbians out on the North Fork.”

Ms. MacKay’s love of singing was never more evident than it was during a trip to Ireland, Ms. Leser said. During their drive through a mountainous area, Ms.  MacKay taught her several folk songs, she said.

“She was very knowledgeable about American and English folk songs and she would sing and they would go on forever,” Ms. Leser added. “She was wonderful about singing them, it would be 40 or 50 minutes in and she would still be singing the song.”

During Saturday’s song swap, Mr. D’Arcangelo told the audience that he was deeply moved by Ms. MacKay and her love for music and told a story about how she’d built her own instrument after expressing interest in one.

“She wanted a dulcimer, the Appalachian stringed instrument that goes back to the British Isles, so she went to the Greenport library, took out a book on how to build one and then did it,” Mr. D’Arcangelo said.

When the first one didn’t work because of misplaced frets, he said Ms. MacKay went on to create two more dulcimers, playing the second one herself at one of the song swaps.

The third, her best yet, Ms. MacKay gave away, as true to the nature she’d come to be known by within the Orient community.

“She was a force of nature,” said close friend Manuela Soares of New York. “She was a revelation for a lot of younger women, extraordinarily accomplished and very, very much loved. It’s a huge loss to the community and we are all poorer for it, but we’re richer for having had her presence in our lives.”

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