Catch & Release
There’s a big hole now where Susanne Schad-Somers’s old farmhouse in Amagansett used to be. The house, with its red door, red window shutters, red doormat, red rugs and chairs and roses and screaming-red rhododendrons, was torn down just last month, but its long-deceased owner, a psychotherapist with a medical degree from Columbia University and an adoring international clientele, remains nearby — in spirit, anyway.
Credit Stuart Vorpahl, left — bayman and dyed-in-the-wool-Bonacker, onetime East Hampton Town historian, and tireless defender of commercial fishermen’s rights — for that. He, too, is dead now, but he made sure, not long before Dr. Schad-Somers, right, succumbed to cancer in 1999, that she would be buried where she longed to be, a short walk from her house on Atlantic Avenue, in the East End Cemetery at the north end of the street, where local names are many and empty plots almost entirely spoken for.
Cars hurrying to the popular ocean beach at the other end of Atlantic pass the small graveyard without a backward glance, but bicyclists and pedestrians sometimes stop to study the inscriptions on the centuries-old tombstones of Schellingers, Hands, Edwardses, and other Amagansett families grouped together beneath tall cedar trees. Dr. Schad-Somers’s stone is easily found, not only because it stands apart from the others, shaded by a compact Japanese maple — her signature red, of course — but also for its singular inscription, no faded carving, but a bronze plaque that even after almost 20 years still looks new.
“Every year, Stuart made sure we got a wreath for it at Christmas,” Vorpahl’s wife, Mary, recalled recently. “And Stuart said, ‘It has to have a red bow.’ ”
The bayman from Bonac and the shrink from Manhattan, who first crossed paths at a mutual friend’s house, were the unlikeliest of fishing buddies. Dr. Schad- Somers, a native of Germany who grew up spending summers on an island in the Baltic Sea, always took July and August off from her busy practice.
“Sometimes I’d go in through the back door at 5 a.m. ‘Come on, Susanne, let’s go!’ “ Vorpahl said in an interview not long after her death. “She was a perfect crew person.”
Their first time out, he said, they went hand-lining for porgies off Northwest Harbor and caught “about 150 pounds on the ebb tide. She was in seventh heaven.”
On the water, they talked about anything and everything — national and local politics, the weather, where the fish were or weren’t biting, East Hampton history, mushrooms. The psychiatrist seemed to know a lot about mushrooms, though for more than a year the bayman didn’t know why and never asked. He did almost all of the talking; she listened. In fact, he had no idea what she even did for a living, and it didn’t occur to him to wonder until their second fishing season.
“I asked her one day, ‘How do you get your lunch money?’ ”
Once Dr. Schad-Somers began talking, it seemed she couldn’t stop. As a child during World War II, she told him, she fled the bombs over Berlin with her family to the relative safety of their vacation island, where they foraged in the woods for whatever food they could find.
They ate a lot of mushrooms. “She never talked much to him for a long time,” Mary Vorpahl said. “But then she opened up, about Germany, how they ate rotten carrots and potatoes, cramped in this hideaway place.”
The analyst, who came to America in the late ’60s, specialized for much of her career in aspects of sadomasochism and wrote several books on the subject. She talked to the bayman about that, too, knowing that what she told him would go no further.
“She used to say Stuart was her therapist,” Mary Vorpahl said. “She could get rid of all her anxieties, like if she’d had a bad week with her patients.”
In December 1992, Stuart Vorpahl was hauling his boat for the winter when he felt pain on his left side. “Susanne got word of it through my bride,” he said. “She went on a scout from here to Chicago to find a heart surgeon.”
She got him in, fast, to N.Y.U.-Bellevue, where, he said, a doctor told him, “You are about ready to drop dead.” Emergency open-heart surgery saved his life.
There was no more trap-fishing after that, but the excursions continued. At Gin Beach once, at the Montauk breakwater, the two wandered into the middle of a bluefish broadside and caught 1,200 pounds in a single morning.
“All she had to do was put a diamond jig in the water,” Stuart recalled. “We’d just yank them aboard. I said, ‘Susanne, don’t even unhook them.’ Blood and guts and glory all over! She was some happy that day.”
Seven years later, in the spring of 1999, Dr. Schad-Somers called the Vorpahls from her house on Perry Street in Greenwich Village. “She says, ‘Stuart, can you get me a handicapped parking sticker?’ ”
“ ‘ Who for?’ ‘Me.’ ‘What?’ ‘I have cancer in both lungs. I have 4 to 10 months left.’ “
The Vorpahls visited her in the hospital soon after. Her time was running out, she told her friend the bayman, and she wanted to be buried in the cemetery near her house that she walked past so often.
“I said, ‘Susanne, that cemetery’s been closed for years.’ ”
“ ‘I don’t care. You do it.’ ”
Most of the larger cemeteries in East Hampton, other than the town-owned Fort Hill in Montauk, are run by boards of trustees, but Vorpahl hit a stone wall when he went looking for the trustees of the East End Cemetery. No one — not the town clerk’s office, not old maps, not records at the East Hampton Library — could help, until one day, a Town Hall secretary remembered an elderly man lugging in a box of bank statements five or six years before. Something to do with the cemetery in Amagansett, she thought.
The box was found in the basement. Going through the papers, Vorpahl discovered that the old man, the cemetery’s only surviving trustee, had deeded it over to the town.
Three weeks before she died, Dr. Schad-Somers received a letter offering to sell her one of the very few available plots in the East End Cemetery for $750, the going rate at the time at Fort Hill.
The red Japanese maple came from her backyard. Vorpahl and four other men dug it up and pushed it down the street in a wheelbarrow. He wrote what she’d told him to on her tombstone:
Dr. Susanne P. Schad-Somers
January 17, 1939–July 29, 1999
A native of Berlin, Germany, who came to
love Amagansett with its ocean, the beaches,
the wild mushrooms, and commercial fishing
with Stuart B. Vorpahl Jr.
“She wanted it known she fished with me,” he said.
“Stuart loved to tell people, ‘Go down Atlantic Avenue and read Susanne’s marker,’ ” Mary Vorpahl said. “He was so happy he could do that for her. And she was so happy to know she was coming back here.’ ”