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Islander Lily Brett | Nothing is valuable, except for love

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | ‘Shelter Island,’ Lily Brett said, ‘has given me another life.’
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | ‘Shelter Island,’ Lily Brett said, ‘has given me another life.’

Lily Brett is a rock journalist, essayist, author of seven novels with an international reputation and nothing in her background to prepare for life outside a city, let alone on a rural island.

Born in a German displaced persons camp in 1946, her parents were survivors of the Holocaust. When Lily was 2 years old, her family of three  — all that remained of a once large and wealthy Polish family — emigrated to Australia.

Her parents found factory work. They didn’t have the means for a vacation, with one exception, Lily recalled. Her father paid a truck driver to transport them to a Jewish guesthouse an hour outside of Melbourne. Lily’s father was tied to the back of the truck while she and her mother rode in the cab with the driver, Lily’s mother yelling out the window to her father to confirm that he was still strapped in.

At the guesthouse, everyone stayed indoors throughout the day with the windows closed and played cards. “I thought this is what you do in the country,” Lily said.

Although she has learned to enjoy going outdoors, on Shelter Island with her husband, artist David Rankin, she’s often working.

Her last three novels were written entirely on Shelter Island, including “Lola Bensky,” based on her own experiences, which won France’s prestigious Prix Médicis Etranger in 2014.

She grew up with her parents and seven other Jewish families in a “terrace house:” eight rooms with one family in each room, one bathroom and one kitchen. She was the first person in the building to learn English and became a valued member of the community even as a young child.

“I thought it was fabulous,” she said. “I felt loved. There is something great about being 4 or 5 and being useful.”

Lily’s parents, particularly her mother, continued to mourn their family — all murdered in the Holocaust. Lily said they taught her that “we were so lucky to live in a country that was free of persecution, that gave us a chance, not at regaining any of the old life, but a chance of living in freedom.”

At 18, she was hired as a writer by Philip Frazer, one of the founders of the first Australian pop-music newspapers, “Go-Set.” It was 1965, rock and roll was taking the world by storm and Lily found herself interviewing superstars such as Jim Morrison, who she described as “cruel and indifferent,” and Jimi Hendrix, “a thoughtful, sensitive human being.” She added, “His hips stayed firmly in place throughout the interview.”

She covered the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, traveled extensively and developed an international reputation as a rock journalist.
“I wanted my work to have a serious aspect to it,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be just frothy.”

Still it wasn’t exactly what her parents had in mind. “I was meant to be a doctor or a lawyer,” she said. “My dad said ‘better than Perry Mason.’ He dreamed of me doing good in the world.”

Lily met David Rankin when she was sent to interview David’s wife, Jennifer Rankin, a noted Australian poet who was terminally ill. Lily had been married for 10 years and had two children, Paris and Gypsy, who became friends with David’s daughter Jessica.

Soon Lily realized she had fallen in love. “I had a real gratitude that I found that sort of love,” she said, “And the most interesting person I had ever met.” They married in 1981.

In 1989, Lily and David and their children left Australia for New York. Their first experience of Shelter Island was in 1991, at the invitation of Philip Frazer, who, like them, had moved to New York, and Frazer’s wife, Cydney Pullman who had a home on the Island.

David immediately fell for the landscape, which reminded him of rural Australia. Unlike David, Lily had no experience of life outside the center of a city and wasn’t sure she wanted any. “Trees overwhelm me — too many trees,” she said. “I didn’t grow up with it. I never saw a vegetable growing.”

The first cottage they rented was infested with crickets, but they didn’t stand in the way of her work. “The owners saw me on the day we arrived. And then not until I emerged several months later … I think they thought David had murdered me.” She wrote her acclaimed novel, “Too Many Men,” that summer.

In 1995 when Lily learned she was shortlisted for a literary prize with a large cash award, David proposed a deal. “He said if you win this, let’s buy something on Shelter Island.” Assuming she wouldn’t win, Lily agreed, and forgot about it.

When she got a call from Australia saying she’d won, Lily prepared to renegotiate the deal with David. Too late. “As soon as he finished weeping with happiness,” she said, “I heard him on the phone with Shelter Island real estate broker, Cathie Perrin.”

As described by Lily, their search for Shelter Island property was the stuff of a real estate professional’s nightmares. After Cathie Perrin had driven them all over the Island, David told Lily, “You are not looking properly at things. You are not taking it seriously.”

They pulled up to a vine-choked acre of land on Midway Road near Wades Beach and Lily announced, “This is it.”

“You haven’t even stepped out of the car,” said David.

“I rolled the window down.”

“What’s so special about this place?”

“I feel it’s going to be sheltered from weather. And it’s a place we should be.”

The Island became essential to Lily’s creative productivity. “I don’t know that I could write anywhere else,” she said. “Everyone who knows my work knows Shelter Island. It’s given me another life.”

Her friendship with the late Cheryl Hannabury helped her understand what makes the Island community special, and different from urban life. One day, Lily and Cheryl were talking when they heard an emergency siren. “I said, ‘Oh, another ambulance,’” said Lily, “since it was a familiar sound in the city. But Cheryl said, ‘No, when you hear an ambulance on the Island, it means that one of us is in trouble.’”

Lily’s mother died at 64 of cancer and for years Lily grieved openly. “I think she would have been surprised and quite pleased,” said Lily. “Like most of us, she probably didn’t know how much I cared about her.”

Today, Lily’s father is 99 and living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “Your age follows you around,” she said. “I hate it when they give the year of your birth and a dash. This is just asking for trouble.”

Her parents’ legacy is to be as good a human being as you can. “It’s all about love,” she said “My parents told me that nothing is valuable except for love.”


What do you always have with you?  A beautiful silver Star of David a reader gave me at a book event in Germany. I use it for my house keys.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  My study.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  Café Dante on Macdougal Street in New York.

Last time you were afraid?  I was born afraid. You cannot grow up with parents who were in a refugee camp and lost all their family and not be afraid.

Best day of the year on Shelter Island?  Every day, especially if the electricity hasn’t gone out.

Favorite books?  ‘Voices from Chernobyl,’ by Svetlana Alexievich.

Favorite Food?  Cabbage.

Who do you most admire?  Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva, a Russian poet.

Favorite elected official?  Bill Clinton.