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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | To the plaintive sound of Brian Conway’s fiddle, a film of the 1893 fishing schooner, Lettie G. Howard, flickered on the screen of the New York Academy of Medicine’s auditorium at 1216 Fifth Ave. The images showed the Lettie, agile and graceful, swooping along the Manhattan shoreline like a powerful gull. She is among the last and the oldest of the “Gloucesterman” schooners that once plied the North Atlantic.
Rebuilt between 1992 and 1994, she was certified as a sailing school vessel by the U.S. Coast Guard. But for several years, she has been laid up, requiring a $275,000 repair to put her out to sea again. She needs a new keelson — the structural element that runs the length of the boat — and to install that spine, she would have to be taken apart and reassembled.
Lettie G. Howard, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the historic vessels belonging to the South Street Seaport Museum. As she awaits rehabilitation, she occupies a berth on Pier 16 in the Seaport, next to the museum’s lightship Ambrose. On April 8, the South Street Seaport Museum in collaboration with the Museum of the City of New York staged a fundraiser to add to the money already in the kitty for Lettie’s repair.
Johnny Cash’s oldest daughter, Rosanne Cash, herself a singer, songwriter and author, was the star of the evening, accompanied by Conway and by John Leventhal, Cash’s husband. As they sang and played, illustrations from Frank Stella’s “Moby-Dick” series were projected on the screen above them.
Cash said that she was attracted to this project because she comes from a long line of mariners. In a film that preceded her performance, she eloquently described her family history, beginning with the original American Cash, a mariner named William from County Fife, Scotland, who arrived in Salem, Mass. In 1643.
“His sons and daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren spread south into Virginia and Georgia and Arkansas,” she said in the film. “They never went farther west than the Mississippi delta. They were sailors who became southern farmers but no musicians appeared until my dad, J. R. Cash, was born in 1932. Now, in the 21st century, the sailors and farmers have disappeared but musicians and singers and songwriters are spilling down through the modern generations.”
The concert raised around $75,000 for Lettie G. Howard — however, the evening was poignant because the Seaport Museum had been forced to close its Fulton St. galleries just the day before. It lacked the $22 million it needed to repair the damage to its mechanical systems inflicted by Superstorm Sandy.
Part of Rosanne Cash’s own story supplied perspective. In 1839, one of her seafaring ancestors, Capt. William Cash of Nantucket, on his first voyage and not yet a captain, shipwrecked off the coast of Long Island, between Amagansett and Montauk. He was one of four men to survive.
“I go to that spot on Long Island sometimes,” she said. “I look out to where William’s ship lies on the sandy bottom. I am the ghost of his future. I am the American he will become. I help him as he crawls up on the sand. I stand next to him and I say, ‘This isn’t the end. We believe in survival. Our ship wrecked on this reef a thousand times. The tragedies are not permanent and the redemption comes in waves. The shore belongs to everyone and you’ll be a captain one day.’”
As the audience left the auditorium for a champagne reception at the neighboring Museum of the City of New York, that thought might have stayed with them — that there was hope for the Lettie and for the beleaguered South Street Seaport Museum itself.
The museum’s schooner Pioneer will start offering public sails in early May. The Ambrose will soon be open, and there should be a new exhibition beneath the deck before Memorial Day.
Although the Museum of the City of New York’s management contract with the South Street Seaport Museum is now set to expire on July 5, “Our idea here is to plow ahead with our mission [for the South Street Seaport Museum], which is a demonstration of the value of the institution,” said the Museum of the City of New York’s director, Susan Henshaw Jones, who is also president of the Seaport Museum — at least for the present time.