To Catch a Thief
THE BURGLARIES BEGAN not long after Thanksgiving, when the Maidstone and Meadow Clubs went dark, the china services were back on the shelves, and the summer colony “cottages” shut down against the coming winter. Between December 1957 and January 1959 more than 30 unattended estates were broken into and burglarized, half a dozen of them during a single two-week Christmastime spree in 1958. Among them was the Main Street, East Hampton, mansion of Robert D.L. Gardiner, the self-styled “Lord of the Manor” of Gardiner’s Island, where a nimble burglar climbed up the iron grillwork on a first-floor window onto an overhanging second-story balcony and smashed a bedroom window to get in.
The tabloids dubbed the thief the Connoisseur Burglar of the Hamptons: He stole only valuable antiques, ignoring cash and jewelry. The loot included a Chippendale mirror, Ming Dynasty vase-lamps, paintings, figurines, silverware, and a great deal of centuries-old furniture that was often, for reasons of his own, in a state of disrepair.
After he was caught, it took the men from Home Sweet Home Moving and Storage two days, working 9 to 5, to collect it all. They were astounded by the man’s strength, they said, as they struggled to get a 13-by-14-foot Persian rug and a solid walnut four-poster bed into the truck.
Thirty-nine years later, this same burglar came into sole possession of the storied 60-acre, 40- room villa on Georgica Pond known as the Creeks.
Ted Dragon was his name; Edward Dragon Young at birth, but he was advised to change it in 1941 when he was a chorus boy in a Broadway musical. As a teenager, he’d taken up ballet, much to the disgust of his father, a tavern owner in Northampton, Mass. Wiry but strong, Ted could catch girls flying through the air, and male dancers were much in demand. He danced with the Paris Opera and the New York City Ballet until the fateful summer of 1948, when the artist Alfonso Ossorio, heir to a Philippine sugar fortune, spotted him at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts. Ossorio bought the Creeks three years later, urged on by his friend Jackson Pollock, and he and Ted lived there together until his death.
“Young has been employed by the sugar heir for the past nine years as a caretaker,” Newsday reported after his arrest. That was nonsense, of course, but Stonewall was 10 years in the future and the reporter had to invent some G-rated reason for Ted’s permanent presence at the estate.
In fact, Ted Dragon was indispensable to Ossorio in more ways than one. After they moved in, the Creeks became a hive of artistic activity. There were frequent piano concerts, attended by as many as 400. Pollock and Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, a pride of literary lions and luminaries of the stage — all came to dinner, with the whole house lighted by hundreds of candles and costumed opera singers wandering through the halls singing Mozart. The one who placed the paintings and arranged the furniture and oversaw the table settings for the dinner parties, with inventive themes and elaborate flower arrangements, was Ted Dragon. The Pollock biographer and art critic B.H. Friedman, who was often a dinner guest, once remarked that “Ted could take a weed and make it extraordinary.” He loved to cook, too.
Almost all the excitement, though, happened between spring and fall, when the great people were around. Although Ossorio and Dragon were year-round residents of East Hampton, the artist, a prominent art collector, was often in New York or abroad in the cold months, visiting friends and exhibitions, while Ted stayed home. Back in the ’50s, in an East Hampton winter, he might just as well have been on Mars, and his aloneness had to have been compounded by the isolation of the Creeks.
Whether boredom played a part in his criminal career can only be conjectured.
“I just like antiques,” he told The East Hampton Star, but it seems that what he really liked was finding museum- quality pieces in less-than-perfect condition. “I just loved beautiful things so much, and sometimes I was appalled at how badly the furniture was being kept,” he later told the author Steven Gaines. He squirreled everything away in unused wings of the enormous house where no cleaners ever came, and there, surrounded by books on antiques that he’d borrowed from the East Hampton Library, he worked to restore the wornout items to their original splendor.
Some he repaired, a few threadbare chairs he actually reupholstered. All of it was recovered, and it was rumored that several people thanked him after getting back their property.
They finally caught Ted on a stormy afternoon in January 1959, when the chief of the East Hampton Village Police Department spotted a car that had no business being on a deserted road; Ted was climbing out of a window at the home of Juan Trippe, president of Pan American Airways. He was interrogated for five hours or so, during which he told police that he only went thieving on rainy days — having read in a Mickey Spillane crime novel that rain washed away footprints and tire tracks — and only in broad daylight, because “the obvious isn’t usually seen.”
“When this is all over,” he said, “I’d like to visit those places again, if the people would let me in, and see how they’re taking care of that furniture.” Ossorio was away on one of his European trips, but he came rushing back to hire lawyers and post bail, $1,500. He must have been appalled to hear that he’d been living in a safe house; Ted had told him that the few unfamiliar objects that did occasionally turn up in the main rooms were gifts from a rich aunt, and the artist never questioned it.
Ted pleaded insanity and received a suspended sentence. The famous criminal psychoanalyst whom Ossorio hired to treat him recommended that he be sent to a Connecticut sanatorium, where he spent two years, teaching needlepoint and ballet to the other inmates, before being released and returning to the Creeks.
Ossorio died in 1990, leaving the property to Ted, with $100,000 in cash and “all my birds and animals.” A year and a half later Dragon sold the estate for $12 million to the billionaire Ronald Perelman, who owns it still. Ted moved to a modest house in East Hampton Village and lived there simply for the rest of his life, giving money to friends when they needed it and attending Mass every day at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, which he supported generously. He died in 2011; his will established the Ossorio Foundation, based in Southampton.
In 1961, in a private note found in The Star’s files, Everett Rattray, then its editor, wrote that “What Ted did is now part of the history of this area. It will not be forgotten . . . in years to come it will be told again.”