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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Wet Work by Ben Greenman

OBJECT: Dead Bodies, Lightship Frying Pan

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River

 

Water is not simply a beverage, not simply a medium in which to swim or shower, and it is one of the egregious errors of our thinking to limit the role of this miraculous substance based on function, and in doing so to deny its ability to define, energize, and sanctify our daily lives.

Jason Santorini, having made this point in an interview, elaborated upon it in his journal.

“We are hell-bent on thinking of water at something at the end of a hose, or the leavings of a faucet, or what the sky deposits when it is displeased, or what fish are wont to soil,” he wrote, “but we do not admit the degree to which it is our parents, grandparents, and stern uncle all rolled into one miraculous molecule, an atom of oxygen sentinelled by two of hydrogen, in the fashion in which a certain cartoon mouse’s head was sentinelled by his two ears.”

In fairness, Santorini had been institutionalized since 1982, the year before this entry was written, and before that he was better known as a surrealist painter than a rigorous thinker in science or philosophy.

All the same, though, Santorini was especially conversant with the magical properties of water prior to his hospitalization.

“Water is in us all,” he wrote in 1978, “if we are fruit.”

This remark was taken as a joke in the spirit of one of his paintings or, at best, a glib comment on the rumors of Santorini’s bisexuality, but it was also a form of prophecy.

Scant months after writing that sentence, he met Sylvia Benton.

Benton was an apple heiress—her grandfather had hybridized several varieties and found his way to a large green specimen he called the “fantasmo.”

His name was Sylvio Antonelli, though he later Americanized it to Sam Benton and made millions from his fantasmos and their cousins: the brillantes, the ancoras, the saporitas.

His son, Jefferson Benton, was a responsible businessman who perished in a seaplane crash just off the West Twenties in his late forties, the result of which was that his granddaughter, Sylvia Benton, inherited the apple fortune when she was nineteen.

“That’s lots of high heels, cocaine, and rock-and-roll records,” she told a magazine columnist, who had the good manners to add that she “threw back her head (and the coppery red hair that was overgrown on top of it) and laughed.”

At the time, Benton was a fashion model, one of the most famous in the nation.

She had begun modeling at sixteen, and developed a reputation as a wild child: there were countless stories of affairs with captains of industry, actors, even a U.S. Senator.

She did not admit to these rendezvous but she did not deny them either.

At 21, while attending a private party aboard a docked lightship owned by one of the actors with whom she had been romantically linked, she met Santorini, who had just celebrated his fortieth birthday and was at the height of his fame as a painter.

“I heard you were a handsome man,” she reportedly told him, “and you do nothing to disappoint.”

“I heard that you like handsome men,” he reportedly replied, “and if that is so, then neither of us is disappointed.”

“Unless you, too, like handsome men,” she reportedly said, “and then I will experience a different sort of disappointment.”

“I prefer a beautiful woman,” he said.

“Let me make a note in your file,” she said.

This bit of banter evidently impressed several others, as it has surfaced in no fewer than three memoirs, the titles of which will not be reprinted here in the interest of space.

Santorini and Benton had an immediate and powerful attraction to one another.

For years, she denied what he insisted from the first, that they had consummated their relationship in the bathroom of the lightship as it went past the spot where her father had met his final reward.

Santorini saw the sadness in the situation.

“Life is death, and both are only feathers,” he said, possibly not surreally.

He also saw the carnal comedy in it.

“If the ship is a rockin’,” he liked to say, “use it for camouflage,”

That remark was reprinted in numerous newspapers.

Eventually she admitted that they had repaired to the bathroom for this reason.

Over the next two years, Santorini and Benton were inseparable.

They were both known as ardent travelers, but during their relationship, they spent most of their time at her home in Jersey City and his in Tribeca.

He called her the “apple of his eye,” always doing so in a hearty rounded tone that appeared to be thick with irony but was probably entirely without it.

She called him “her brush with greatness” in much the same spirit.

His pet names for her included “ancora,” “brillante,” and “delicato.”

She had no known pet names for him.

The two of them were photographed extensively, largely as a result of her celebrity and beauty, though Santorini himself took a good picture—he was often told that he resembled a much shorter Robert Mitchum.

The paintings that Santorini made during the beginning of his relationship with Benton need not be remarked upon in great detail, as they have been shown in several retrospectives and reprinted in assorted modern art texts.

They were always of boats, or rather always of a single boat, the lightship on which the two of them met.

What varied was what was occurring on board the boat. Sometimes, Santorni painted love scenes.

Sometimes, he painted scenes of shipboard theatre.

Sometimes there were animals in attendance.

Sometimes there were trees growing up from the deck, though they were not for the most part apple trees.

Often, there was a line of text scrawled along the side of the boat, sometimes an aphorism, sometimes a question.

Santorini insisted that the boats were not the true subjects of his paintings.

“It is not the vessel but the water beneath it,” he wrote, “which contains all the power, hope, and mystery that the poor and insubstantial craft, the bandit boat, trades upon.”

Critics wrote admiringly of Santorini’s technical abilities, particularly the way in which he captured the complicated pattern of light and shadow along the boat’s waterline.

Always, there was a woman hidden somewhere in the corners of the frame, whether standing or crouching or leaning over the rail to the water, a young woman with a voluptuous figure and red hair: Benton.

Santorini never tired of talking about her.

He liked to say that the two of them had been fated to meet, that they shared an ancient bond as a result of their common ethnicity.

“She has a little Italian in her,” he liked to say, “and it’s often me.”

This remark, too, was reprinted in numerous newspapers.

Santorini also told the newspapers that he and Benton bathed together every evening, and that though the ritual began as a way of celebrating the fact that they met aboard a boat, it came to have much broader significance.

“Water is not simply a beverage, not simply a medium in which to swim or shower,” he said, “and it is one of the egregious errors of our thinking to limit the role of this miraculous substance based on function, and in doing so to deny its ability to define, energize, and sanctify our daily lives.”

This remark, being wordy, was printed only in one newspaper.

Santorini spoke of Benton so much so that the preoccupation further fueled the rumors of his bisexuality.

She continued to model.

He continued to paint.

Her stock rose.

In 1980, Benton was hailed as “the most beautiful face on the planet” by a national magazine.

Santorini clipped that article and saved it.

In 1981, it was said that “beauty was in her like water was in the ocean: on the surface but also at far more profound depths.”

He saved that as well.

He put the clippings in a file that he labeled “Mia donna saporita.”

In 1982, for reasons that have been discussed in detail elsewhere and will not be restated here in full—it is enough to say that they involved the arrest of a dealer, the death of a critic, and the rezoning of a downtown waterfront neighborhood—Santorini’s paintings began to fall out of favor.

He denied that these factors played a part in diminishing his reputation, and instead placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of a trio of young painters he dismissed as slavish imitators.

One painter in particular, a tall and strikingly pretty young man named James Fogue, executed a series of canvases which restaged Shakespearean scenes on cruise ships, and became the sensation of the season.

“A ripple,” Santorini wrote, “resulting from another idea dropped into a pond years ago.”

Fogue sought out Santorini and admitted that the elder man’s paintings were an influence on his work.

Santorini softened his attitude toward Fogue.

“An echo,” Santorini wrote, “can sometimes be louder and more distinct than the original noise, and though this is not the case here, it is not so preposterous to assume that it may one day be so.”

Santorini befriended Fogue and was frequently seen with him in public, further fueling the rumors of his bisexuality.

He confided to friends that he was spending time with Fogue out of fear that Benton’s interest in him was cooling as his star fell.

“What could she possibly want with a dried-up old thing?” he wrote in his journal.

He drank heavily and doodled images of himself crucified, with Benton turning away triumphantly.

He began to add these doodles to his “Mia Donna Saporita” file.

For some reason, the magazine statement likening Benton’s beauty to the water in the ocean obsessed him.

He made copies of it and then, beneath the text, added doodles of her in which her hair, streaming behind her head, was drawn as waves.

Santorini did not show Benton the contents of his file.

He told her that he was writing poems about her.

He spent many nights drinking with Fogue.

He told friends he was drowning in despair.

“I know that she loves me, and know that as a result I cannot look at her directly without seeing the disappointment in her eyes,” he wrote in his journal.

In that same entry, Santorini declared that he was planning on rededicating himself to his relationship with Benton, and even expressed an interest in having a child with her.

“If we manage to combine her looks and her brains,” he wrote, “that child would have a chance to be something in this world.”

A few days after writing that entry, Santorini had a public falling-out with Fogue.

One man threw a glass of water at the other man, who returned fire with a glass of scotch.

Santorini stormed out of the bar and returned home.

“Upon reflection,” he wrote, “he was no more than a ripple resulting from another idea dropped into a pond years ago.”

Just before the holidays, Santorini and Benton were invited to another event on the lightship on which they had met.

The boat took the same course as it had previously.

Fogue was in attendance but kept his distance.

Santorini and Benton squabbled.

Santorini told Benton that he did not trust that she would stay with him and Benton admitted that she had thought of leaving.

Santorini was drinking heavily.

He noticed that Benton was not drinking and accused her of being pregnant.

She did not deny the accusation but did not confirm it.

“If you are, it’s not mine,” he said.

He waved his hands around.

“Affection has been alienated since before the summer,” he said.

She tried to walk away.

“I have to use the restroom,” she said.

“I know how you use it,” he said.

She did not answer and began to walk away.

“You are rotten to the core,” he said, and followed her.

The specifics of this argument are not in dispute as it has been entered into the record.

On the way to the restroom, Benton went off the side of the boat.

The boat was very near the spot where Benton’s father’s plane had gone down.

No one witnessed the events other than Santorini.

He did not report her as missing.

He slumped down in a chair.

Fogue came to talk to him but Santorini would not respond.

Another passenger, not Fogue, said that Santorini looked sick.

When the boat docked, Benton’s assistant, who had come to meet her, noticed her absence.

The ship’s staff established that she was not on board.

Police searched the river for Benton.

They found her body the next morning.

She had a bump on her head that was inconclusive.

Santorini surrendered to authorities.

“I did not push her, but I wanted to,” he said, “and that is crime enough.”

An autopsy confirmed that Benton was pregnant, and that the child was Santorini’s.

Santorini was never charged in connection with Benton’s death.

Over the course of the next year, Santorini had a series of nervous breakdowns that left him unable to care for himself.

On the anniversary of Benton’s appearance, Santorini was placed in a psychiatric facility.

The hospital building overlooked the Hudson.

Santorini frequently reported seeing seaplanes flying too close to the hospital.

He imagined that he had visitors, including Benton and Fogue.

Nurses bathed Santorini twice a week.

He could not bear to bathe alone and said so.

Every day at lunchtime, he set a fantasmo apple in front of him and took a single bite.

He saved the remainder of the apple and asked his nurses to cast them into the bay.

For the most part, they threw them away in a garbage can behind the nurses’ station.

Every once in a while, a nurse would experience a pang of pity and let Santorini watch as she walked out to the water’s edge and threw the apple into the river.

He asked the nurses who walked to the bay for him if they had seen the seaplanes.

Some of them patted his hand and told him that they had.

His daily lunch ritual included, along with the apple, a single glass of salt water.

He made it himself by shaking salt into the glass of water that the hospital provided for him.

He told the doctors that he was priming the pump of his tears.

They made a note in his file.


Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction, including SuperbadA Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both, and the recent novel The Slippage. He lives in Brooklyn.