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Raynham Hall Hosts Spygate Trifecta

As Governor Chris Christie fights the fallout from his G.W. Bridgegate, Oyster Bay continues to learn about its connection to George Washington. That means learning more about Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, including that AMC Network has a new 10-part miniseries called Turn, about the Culper Spy Ring. The air date has not yet been determined, but they think it will be in the spring.

Raynham Hall Museum was the home of Robert Townsend Culper, Jr., the reason for their new Spymaster Lecture Series.

“It’s a trifecta,” said Janet Goulding, “The Friends of Raynham Hall, Seawanhaka Yacht Club and Nelson DeMille for one event.”

It was a pairing of a great hosts, a great venue and a great speaker as the first of three lectures took place on Centre Island.

“Oyster Bay native, Robert Townsend, at 22, was a spy for the American Revolution. At great risk to himself he became a part of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, a forerunner of today’s C.I.A., and in that way, he changed history,” said Harriet Gerard Clark, Raynham Hall Museum executive director. Other people become known and popular but not the spy. “They work for us every day and if they play their cards right you never hear of them,” she added.

Alexandra Sutherland, the museum’s program director, turned the topic to Nelson DeMille, whose list of 28 books includes spy stories. Sutherland said after living in England and returning here to live in Locust Valley, reading The Gold Coast reminded her of her childhood “I couldn’t put it down. It was dead on.”

A Group of Friends

There was an intimacy between DeMille and the audience: he is well known at North Shore social events. DeMille came with his wife, Sandy, of Locust Valley, a knowledgeable partner in his writing business; and with their son James, 6, a delightful, well-dressed, well-mannered young man.

Forest Books had supplied copies of the hard cover books for signing. At home, among social friends, DeMille began by talking about his new book, The Quest.

He said he had been asking his publisher to re-publish the book, which originally came out in 1974 and which he believed in. His wife, he said, called it his best writing. The book came out long before Dan Brown brought out The Da Vinci Code in 2003 on the same subject, the search for the Holy Grail.

The Quest originally came out as a paperback and sold for $1.25; the new hard cover book is double the length and sells for $25. It was his first major novel at a time when he was considering writing just a hobby. The book is a search for the Holy Grail, set in the time after the Italians were forced out of a country that had been won during the Italio-Ethiopian War, 1935-36; and is set during the time when Haile Selassie, a descendant of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, was in exile in Rome, and didn’t know he was “the last emperor,” as his reign ended in 1974. Several of DeMille’s uncles fought in the war and so he had a connection to the country.

Ethiopia is where the Coptics, Orthodox Christians, are believed to have both the Holy Grail and The Ark of the Covenant, of which DeMille mentions but chose not to center the book on. In The Quest, DeMille is able to talk about what building the Italians did while in Ethiopia, including for the sake of the novel, a typical marble Roman bath with a mineral pool for the characters to frolic. Reading the book you will travel to Adis Abbaba, Rome, the Vatican, and into the air in a well-explained flight over the tree-tops of the Ethiopian jungle and through the jungle itself on a harrowing search for the black monastery, made of obsidian and overseen by monks. There is a love interest and more s-e-x as requested by his new editors. You will meet Vivian, a woman who uses s-e-x as a pacifier.

The Quest came out on Sept. 16, 2013 and was number two on The New York Times Best Seller list.

Re-Writing Challenges

DeMille said after 30 years he had become a better writer, but the world had changed, as had conventional spelling and so he had a bigger job to do than he first estimated. For example, now we say and spell: moslems, and then it was muslims. Words that had been hyphenated had evolved into one word. At one point in the original, the hero slaps his girlfriend because she is hysterical. “That would not fly today,” he said.

His job was to update the language without changing the feeling of the ‘70s. He said he was happy he that he did it but, “Never again!”

As the Q&A began, DeMille shared insights into his books. Of his current protagonist, John Corey, he said he has thought of “killing him, like Conan Doyle did of Sherlock Holmes.”

His book Charm School was the result of asking the question of what happened to the 2,000 men missing after WWII, that lead to a great Cold War story.

DeMille has just signed a contract with Lion’s Gate TV producer for a 12-part TV series on his book Plum Island to come out in the summer. “TV has the ability to move quickly,” he said.

A guest asked about the research for his books. “I do too much but you don’t publish your research. I want to be comfortable to know about what I write,” he said.

For his book Nightfall about the crash of TWA’s Flight 800 in July 1996, of which there were 230 eye-witnesses, DeMille said he FOIL-ed 30 transcripts of before unseen testimony and therefore he concluded that they should re-open up the investigation. He said he spoke to Congressman Peter King whose comment was, “Oh my god, it’s a headache. Every Long Islander has a theory.”

DeMille was gracious after the talk; as the guests were enjoying a buffet dinner, he was still chatting and signing books.

More Spying

The Friends of Raynham Hall are hosting the second of their Spymaster Series on Sunday, Jan. 19. “Spymasters: The Uses of Intelligence in a Dangerous World,” will host Brian Kilmeade, the author of George Washington’s Secret Six, one of which is Robert Townsend, Culper, Jr. of Raynham Hall. The book hit number three on the The New York Times Best Seller list recently.

John Collins, Raynham Hall Musuem board member, has read the book and is recommending it to friends. Director Clark has also read Kilmeade’s book and said, “It’s terrific. He connects some dots that haven’t been connected before and has come out with a more complete story [of Robert Townsend and the Culper Spy Ring] than we had realized.”

There will be books for signing at the Jan. 19 event, in case you haven’t bought your copy as yet. The event will be held at the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $100 each, or $75 for members, and includes a buffet supper.

 The third lecture in the series will be Evan Thomas speaking on March 9. A “local son,” Thomas has authored eight books. His most recent is Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World (2012). Eisenhower has earned a bolder place in history over the years and this should be a fascinating book to read about a man whose influence was slow in being appreciated. Space is limited, so please call 516-922-6808 to reserve.

“FYI: The food at Seawanhaka is really good, the view is spectacular and the drinks will be flowing! Do come and bring friends to celebrate 2014,” said Theresa Skvarla, public relations director for the museum.