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Jun 4, 2018 5:37 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Joe Pintauro, 1930-2018, A Sag Harbor Cultural Icon

Joe Pintauro in 2015 at Art Southampton with his work with
Jun 4, 2018 5:45 PM

Sag Harbor and the world lost a major literary and cultural figure last week with the death of playwright, poet and artist Joe Pintauro.

Mr. Pintauro died at his home in Sag Harbor on Tuesday, May 29, of complications from metastatic prostate cancer. His husband and partner of 40 years, Greg Therriault, was at his side.

Mr. Pintauro was 87 years old and for decades had been an important part of the creative life of the village. On Friday, May 25, just four days before his death, Mr. Pintauro had been at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill for the world premiere of “Salvation” by composer/director Kevin Jeffers. Commissioned last fall, the contemporary musical theater piece is based on three of Mr. Pintauro’s one-acts from his “Metropolitan Operas: a collection of 27 short one-acts.”

“It was something he really wanted to be there for,” said Mr. Therriault in an interview over the weekend at his home. “Joe was in a wheelchair and very ill. [Parrish Director] Terrie Sultan was praising Joe. It was very emotional.

“The entire evening was almost like a gigantic performance piece,” he added. “Joe’s writing is so rich in imagery and weighted with issues of life, death and continuity. It was a wonderful event … we stayed the whole time. It’s so indicative of this place, which is so loving.”

A prolific poet, playwright, and later in life, a photographer and painter, Mr. Pintauro moved between art forms with ease. He was also very spiritual and for a time in his 20s was a Catholic priest who traveled to South America to build churches and later, served as a parish priest in Brooklyn where Joy Behar was one of his parishioners. He had also worked as an ad man on Madison Avenue.

But the major focus of Mr. Pintauro’s life was Sag Harbor and the creative energy he tapped into there. Born November 22, 1930, Mr. Pintauro grew up in Queens and his love affair with Sag Harbor began when he visited the East End as a child with his family. In the early 1960s, he and his brother Anthony bought a tiny two-bedroom bungalow on Mauna Kea Street in North Haven.

“It blossomed and grew from there and they never left,” said Barbara Pintauro Lobosco, Mr. Pintauro’s niece, in a phone interview. “For them, Sag Harbor was the place to be.”

Eventually, Mr. Pintauro earned enough money from the publication of his poetry to purchase the house on John Street in Sag Harbor where he and Mr. Therriault lived for decades. Meanwhile, his social circle continued to expand to include all sorts of creative types who lived in the area.

“It was a tight-knit group of artistic people that grew over the years,” said Ms. Pintauro Lobosco, whose own father died seven years ago. “Joe was open and interested in people’s lives. He had a lot of wisdom as a young man and even more as he grew older. It’s hard for our family. We felt it would never end, he was a main part of our lives.

“I got into the arts because of Joe,” she added. “He definitely influenced us all. It’s sad but I feel Joe’s aura is still here with us. We loved him so much.”

Mr. Pintauro’s first novel “Cold Hands,” was published in 1979. Set on the East End, it conveys the sense of place through the descriptions of locations like the beach, Northwest Woods and Jessup’s Neck. The novel was what inspired Canio Pavone to drive east to explore the area in 1980, leading to the founding of a literary landmark, Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor.

But perhaps no story is more revealing of Mr. Pintauro’s special relationship with Sag Harbor than that of his stage adaptation of Peter Matthiessen’s book “Men’s Lives,” which was Bay Street Theatre’s inaugural production in 1992.

“‘Men’s Lives’ is such a seminal piece in Sag Harbor’s history,” Mr. Therriault said. “It’s our personal history collectively as an arts community. … It was a big thing.”

In an interview last week at their Sag Harbor home, Emma Walton Hamilton and Stephen Hamilton, co-founders of Bay Street Theatre along with the late Sybil Christopher, recalled how the play came to be.

“We had known Joe peripherally through the theater community in New York,” Ms. Hamilton said. “As we were negotiating the lease, making plans, renovating and fundraising for Bay Street, we thought, ‘What’s the play we open the theater with?’”

“We didn’t want to do typical summer fare,” Mr. Hamilton said. “We wanted to make a statement about our being in the area.”

“… A new work about community for a theater rooted in this community,” Ms. Hamilton added.

At the time, Mr. Hamilton was rereading “Men’s Lives,” which tells the story of East End baymen who, for generations, supported their families from the bounty of the sea, but whose way of life was quickly vanishing.

“If only there was a theatrical adaptation of this book,” Mr. Hamilton remembers telling his Bay Street partners. “That’s when we thought, ‘Let’s commission one.’”

Ms. Hamilton explained that it was important to find a playwright who had the capacity to connect with local East End history as well as the very personal, yet universal, nature of the baymen’s story.

“It also needed to capture Peter’s poetry,” she said. “It was so lyrical and it couldn’t be just any playwright. It needed someone with a gift for language.”

That someone turned out to be Mr. Pintauro who, as fate would have it, had already written an adaptation of “Men’s Lives,” though he thought it was terrible.

“He took it out of the drawer. I remember saying, ‘We can we work with you on this dramaturgically,’” Ms. Hamilton said. “He and I worked through 11 revisions. The book touches on so many families; the original draft had all those families. We ended up making it one fictional family … and we tell the story through just one family.

“The moment he zoomed in on that, it took off.”

Throughout the process, Mr. Pintauro spent time with the baymen of the East End in order to capture the spirit and truth of their lives. Mr. Pintauro even knew about Pilot, the hull of an old boat washed up on the beach in Amagansett, which was transported to the theater and became the actual set for “Men’s Lives.”

The first preview performance of the play in May 1992 was a benefit for the Baymen’s Association. It came on the same day as a beach protest against new state fishing rules that favored sports fishing and several baymen, with Billy Joel by their side, were arrested.

“When they got out of jail, they came to the theater to see the play about their families,” Ms. Hamilton said. “We had no idea what the reaction would be. We were standing in the stage manager’s booth, watching the last scene, which is a final monologue about having a picnic at the beach. The lights go out and Billy Joel’s song ‘The Downeaster Alexa’ came on.

“Everyone knew that as the baymen’s anthem. The audience exploded to their feet. We were so startled, we hadn’t expected it,” she said. “Joe was so proud. He was very much part of our Bay Street family. In those early days, it was extraordinary how it came together.

“He was a huge, big walking heart. He poured it all out onto the page.”

In addition to “Men’s Lives,” Mr. Pintauro also wrote “Dawn,” one of three short plays in “By The Sea, By The Sea, By The Beautiful Sea” a trilogy commissioned by Bay Street Theater for the 1995 summer season that also included pieces by Lanford Wilson and Terrence McNally. Other plays by Mr. Pintauro included “Snow Orchid,” “Beside Herself,” “Raft of the Medusa,” and “The Dead Boy.”

In recent years, Mr. Pintauro’s creative energy had moved into photography. In 2008, his first photography exhibition, “Trees,” was held at Sylvester and Co. in Sag Harbor. In 2013, he worked with master printer Scott Sandell at Stony Brook Southampton to create “Nunc et Semper,” an edition of 15 artist’s books featuring his photos from Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Mr. Pintauro’s 2011 photograph “Lifeguard with Broken Umbrella” is in the permanent collection at the Parrish Art Museum, and his writings and artistic works are also in collections at Guild Hall Museum, John Jermain Memorial Library, Stony Brook University Library, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute.

Mr. Pintauro’s second novel, “State of Grace,” was published in 1983, and other books include “To Believe in God” with illustrations by Sister Mary Corita published in 1968, and “The Rainbow Box” with illustrations by Nelson LaLiberte published in 1970.

Funeral services for Joe Pintauro will be held on Wednesday, June 6, at 11 a.m. at St. Andrew’s Church in Sag Harbor with future interment of ashes at Oakland Cemetery. A memorial service will also be held in New York City at a later date.

Donations in lieu of flowers may be made to the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons or the Sag Harbor Partnership and its efforts to rebuild the Sag Harbor Cinema.

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