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Island profile: Bliss Morehead, the woman in black who went green

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CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Bliss Morehead long ago stopped wearing a fur coat around the Island, but still wears black.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Bliss Morehead long ago stopped wearing a fur coat around the Island, but still wears black.

Bliss Morehead was an advertising executive, a city-loving, urban creature with a BA in English from Barnard when her fiancé Mike Zisser coaxed her onto a ferry bound for Shelter Island in 1981. She remembers asking, “Why would I want to go live on an Island?”

This is what English majors call a rhetorical question.

They bought the third house they saw, got married, started spending weekends and have been living here full-time for two decades. Bliss’s son, Nicholas Morehead, married Paige Clark and also settled here. Nick works for the South Ferry.

“He does two things I never thought he would do,” Bliss said. “He drives a big boat and he uses a chainsaw.”

Bliss’s grandchildren Larkin and Cayman attend the Shelter Island School.

Somewhere along the line Bliss’s rhetorical question was answered, but it took a while for her to go native.

She laughs (and cringes) recalling how far she has come from the urbanite who first came here. Like the time she went for a walk on Congdon Road wearing a fur coat and fitted leather gloves. The next weekend a neighbor came by the house with a glove found on the road and told Mike it had to be his wife’s because, “I don’t know anyone else who would wear a glove like this.”

She was born Bliss Rehm, in Deal, New Jersey, educated at Asbury Park High School and after graduating from college with that English degree, she knew it might not lead to high-paying work.

“Barnard did what a college should do for you,” she said. “Not make you grow up. But make you.” By the time she graduated and began working as a copywriter, she was a New York sophisticate, dressed in black and sharing an Upper West Side apartment with multiple roommates.

She landed a job writing internal ad copy at Mademoiselle where she was exposed to the world of fashion journalism and then moved into advertising, working for Young & Rubicam where she met her first husband, Gould Morehead. From there she went to Beaumont-Bennett, where she met Mike Zisser, who became her second husband years later.

Beaumont-Bennett was a small agency but the work was interesting and often challenging. Bliss had to cater to the needs of difficult clients who were used to getting what they wanted. The worst, she said, were the real estate developers. “They were the lowest of the low humanity.”

As creative director, one of her responsibilities was naming buildings for real estate developers, including “The Soundings” in Battery Park City, and “CitySpire” on the Upper East Side. “The clients were my worst nightmare and it really put a strain on my professional relationship with Mike,” she said.

The late 1970s was a complicated time for Bliss. Her children, Joanna and Nicholas were little, her marriage was rocky and she was living in New Jersey commuting three days a week to Beaumont-Bennett in the city at a time when most professional women quit working when they had children.

Then Mike’s wife died suddenly, leaving him with three children, one still at home with him in Great Neck.

“I began writing letters to Mike trying to console him,” Bliss said. “The power of words can be helpful sometimes and we became close.”

Bliss left her husband and moved into the city with her children. “It really changed my life because I saw that I could live as a single parent in New York,” she said. Later, Mike moved to the city with his son and she and Mike began to spend more time together, marrying in 1982.

Once she and Mike sold Beaumont-Bennett, Bliss decided to pursue her interest in poetry, entering the Masters of Fine Arts program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and writing and publishing work in literary journals.

Once again, Shelter Island had its influence on her. “I wrote a poem called “Too Much Green” inspired by a friend from Santa Fe who lived here for a while but couldn’t paint because she said “there’s too much green on this Island.”

Bliss and Mike made the transition from weekenders to full-time Shelter Islanders after the events of 9/11 left her fearful. “I never thought I’d feel this way,”she said. “But who wants to be looking over their shoulder?”

Bliss has been active in promoting literacy on Shelter Island, volunteering with the 2Rs4Fun program that pairs local writers with local students to improve and promote the student’s writing.

She founded the Shelter Island Poetry Project, which will celebrate April (aka Poetry Month) with readings from the work of Frank O’Hara and the poets of the New York School at the Shelter Island Library on Friday, April 13 at 7 p.m.

Her belief in the importance of poetry as a means of communication is strong. “Poetry cannot be paraphrased. It is its own living thing,” Bliss said. “When you read it, the writer’s imagination will resonate in your brain. We are imprisoned in ourselves, but you can touch someone else with a poem.”

Bliss is facing her seventh decade with gratitude for the changes Shelter Island made in her life. “I used to be one of those people who thought getting fat was your fault, getting old was your fault, but once I began coming here I took the time to really know people, to see how they live,” she said. “There is a tremendously rich life out here.”

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you? A pen.

Favorite place on Shelter Island? If the peepers ever start, out back by the pond is my favorite spot.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? The British Museum.

When was the last time you were elated?  When my granddaughter, Larkin Bliss Morehead, was born.

What exasperates you? The creeping incivility all around.

When was the last time you were afraid? When the World Trade Center came down. I was never without fear after that.

Favorite movie or book? I read all of Barbara Pym every summer.

Favorite food? Pasta.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? The Obamas.

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