Most people have something to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. Jean Lawless is certainly among them. She’s made it through a childhood filled with tragedy, loss and little in the way of love, to a life that’s rich in creativity, warmth and rewarding relationships.
She grew up in East Islip, Long Island. “It was all woods and fields, old barns, creeks and the Great South Bay,” she recalled, “so in terms of nature I had the most extraordinary childhood. We lived in a little old farmhouse and my grandmother lived on the other side of the stream, in the big brick house. All that was terrific.”
At the age of 5, she had a sister two years older, a Mom at home and a Dad who was an infantry captain in the Army, fighting his way across Italy during World War II. Within a few months of his safe return, what happiness there might have been was destroyed by a household accident — a falling marble mantelpiece — that killed her seven-year-old sister. “The tragedy permeated the whole family,” she remembered. “It affected me very deeply.”
Back then, in the late 1940s, emotions, loss, death and tragedy were not handled as they are today. Her family dealt, or really failed to deal, with her sister’s death, by “not talking about it. It was all just pushed down.” So life went on, or seemed to. Her father, who came from a family of stockbrokers, went to work in the city every morning at 6:30 and her mom was at home. “Despite his being a broker, we lived in a tiny farmhouse and lived fairly simply. We had dogs and my father hunted ducks and my mother cooked.”
As the years went by, “I was always torn between the comfort of my Grammy’s house where things were always in order and my own home, where I longed for the comfort of parents who you felt really loved you.” In retrospect she realized that her parents were deeply troubled by her sister’s death but, at the time, of course, that kind of insight was beyond the reach of a growing child. With each year, she became angrier and more rebellious. Doing badly in the East Islip public school, she was sent to a local private school and was expelled in short order.
“Then my mother, thinking she could shape me up, shipped me out to a proper girls’ school, Miss Chapin’s,” in New York City. “There I was, a little country girl, boarded with a doctor and his wife, who lived a few blocks away” from the school. “Talk about a fish out of water! You had to wear stockings, this little hat, a uniform, you had to learn your Bible verses. I lasted a year and a half.”
She remembers often sneaking out of the apartment where she boarded, in the middle of the night, and riding the city busses aimlessly. “I was scared to death, frightened, angry, looking for some place to feel, to be, and to be comfortable and to feel good and it just wasn’t happening for me.”
Then her luck began to turn as the first of several important women came into her life. “My aunt Charlotte came and rescued me, because my mother didn’t know what to do with me and didn’t want me around and my aunt took me to a tiny boarding school up in Amenia, New York, near where she lived. I spent the next two years there, repeated a grade, had a boyfriend up there and felt cared for from that moment on.”
Her boyfriend “came from a very successful artistic family” who lived in Greenwich Village, she said. “So that began to open my eyes to a world of bohemians, art, cafés. On weekends, holidays, summers, that became my home and his mother, an artist and painter, an extraordinary woman in the art world, took me under her wing. For the first time in my life, I thought, Wow! People dance, people paint, write poetry. You can hang out in Washington Square Park in your sandals and long skirts and grow your hair long. I felt free. But I also felt totally lost.”
She spent some months at New York University but that didn’t work out. Jean wandered: she was in some dance groups for a while and really liked modern dance. She was good at it but never felt she belonged. Then she went to art school but that didn’t seem to fit either. Whenever order entered her life, she rebelled against it, despite the fact that, in reality, she pined for meaningful boundaries.
“In art school,” she recalled, “I met a man, David Lawless, who was an extraordinary painter. He was absolutely wild and crazy and would talk about philosophy and hang out at the Ninth Circle, which was the craziest bar in the Village. That should have given me a little bit of a hint as to what was coming down the pike for me but here was this wild and crazy guy, just like Jackson Pollack in his ramblings and his drinking, and his insanity, and I thought, Well, this is up my alley. I’ll become an artist’s wife and he’ll become a famous artist and because he is one, it’s all right that he drinks and does drugs and is crazy.’”
They married in 1966. Two children, a daughter, Kate and a son, Jamie, followed over the next several years.
Artist Alan Shields was a Village friend who introduced her to Shelter Island. Living here in a tiny house, she eventually separated from her husband for good. Her house was “three tiny little rooms. But I was in the country and I felt a little bit at home, lost, but still my feet were in the earth. Shelter Island became very, very special to me. I was also drinking a great deal then.”
She met Willi and Robert Braunschweig. “I felt that my soul mates had arrived. I finally now had really wonderful people to go visit. Robert was always playing the piano, Willi was being Willi. I miss her to the point of tears today. I keep her photo here all the time. So I became really close with them and their family.” When they sold their house, Jean bought it for $19,000, using the $25,000 that her aunt had left her and lives there still.
“I don’t think I ever made a better decision than that. Now I could really begin to feel at home and I loved the community here. I loved being with people who scalloped, who fished, who hunted, and enough artists around that I felt that I was not totally isolated in that respect. I felt embraced.
But eventually I had to do something about my drinking and I went away for a couple of weeks to rehab. I got sober and, in August 1975, I had my last drink and I threw myself into AA.” With Island friends, she attended meetings, all over the Twin Forks.
Her mother and father and several of her grandparents had been alcoholics but she managed to free herself. She “joined the theatre group here on the Island, which was a small vibrant bunch of people,” she said. “I was in a play at St. Mary’s, and one day, Paul [Shepherd] came into rehearsal. So I met this man and we began to kind of check each other out a little bit. I was sober but here comes this cute bright guy, who’s a musician and has a band, but he’s leading a musician’s life which includes alcohol. He courted me. I got flowers, love letters. I was smitten.”
After a few years, Paul — a self-employed carpenter who was just elected a town councilman — moved in. And he’s been there, eventually as sober as Jean had become, for the past 33 years. Her children grew up, married, had their own children.
She worked as an alcohol counselor. She took up teaching yoga, specializing in working with the elderly. She is closely involved in many community programs, including The Retreat.
Meanwhile her relationship with Paul has grown in intensity and commitment. “Paul was brought up as a very strict Christian and I think that what he is left with are the really good things about being a moral person. He would never fudge something that he wanted, he comes from a pure place. I have learned so much from him.
He has really been a great teacher for me and through all of our troubles, and we’ve had our troubles, I have been able to learn from everything that we’ve gone through and have him to thank for that.”