1936 to 2023
He was nothing if not tenacious
James (Jim) Dougherty—a lawyer, politician, businessman, actor, and ardent Shelter Island environmentalist—passed away after a brief illness on Saturday, August 19, 2023, at Weill Cornell Hospital in New York City. He was 86.
Despite his distinguished career as a Wall Street lawyer, even as an exuberant actor late in life, Jim is likely to be remembered for his tenacity as an environmentalist regarding his beloved Shelter Island. Located near the eastern end of Long Island, surrounded on three sides by Shelter Island Sound and on the fourth side by Gardiners Bay, vast tracts of its 8,000 acreage are protected wetlands. Jim not only lived on the island, but he also served as town supervisor from 2008 through 2017 and championed the island’s preservation to the end.
The second of three sons, Jim was born December 29, 1936, in Baldwin, Long Island, New York. After graduating from Dartmouth College, he served as a naval attaché in the US Embassy in London and later graduated from the Columbia University School of Law in 1963.
A storied Wall Street law firm
Beginning his legal career with the storied Wall Street law firm of Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, Jim later joined Supermarkets General Corporation, a large supermarket chain, as VP, Secretary and General Counsel. After becoming President, he arranged for the sale of the NYSE-listed company to European interests. The completion of the sale freed him to pursue his myriad other interests.
With homes on East 19th Street by Gramercy Park and on Shelter Island, Jim served for many years as Chair of the Gramercy Park Improvement Association devoted to the betterment of the Gramercy Park district. He and his beloved wife Nancy, who passed away many years ago, were devoted supporters of the National Arts Club and its myriad cultural programs, constituting very much of an American Bloomsbury.
In 1976, the couple purchased a charming, 100-year-old second home on Shelter Island. It was nestled at the highest point of Tuttle Hill facing Gardiners Bay, and the Doughertys began living there year-round in the 1990s. Although Jim kept the home in Gramercy Park and even built a new house on the south side of Shelter Island, he never left the Tuttle Hill house. Surrounded by a lush garden, shaded by trees, the home was a place of refuge and rejuvenation for him.
Eight two-year terms as Shelter Island Supervisor
On Shelter Island, Jim felt privileged to be elected to eight two-year terms as Shelter Island Town Supervisor, very much a Happy Warrior in the political and environmental issues needing to be addressed on the Island. He served for many years as Chairman and Board Member of the Shelter Island Nature Conservancy, the major landowner on the Island, controlling about one-third of the Island by ownership and easements.
Jim spearheaded the effort to pass a 2% tax on real estate transfers and, in 1998, he created the Community Preservation Fund. He was then asked to head the committee to identify and preserve the land, and he did it for nine years before being elected supervisor.
It was Jim’s opinion that the work he did to preserve undeveloped land on Shelter Island when he was chairman of the Community Preservation Advisory Board and during his terms as supervisor helped preserve the essential character of the Island.
“I think you are in office to get something done,” he once said. “And if you don’t get something done, it’s all talk. The idea is to get from A to B. I found out early on when I was a lawyer on Wall Street, that perfection drives out the good. You have to go for the good.”
Jim also worked with the International Executive Service Corps, serving advisory tours in Riga, Latvia, Siberia, Russia, and Cairo, Egypt. He was also a major supporter of the New York City Ballet and Metropolitan Opera.
Jim relished music, including Rock ‘N’ Roll, and often visited the legendary NYC radio deejay Cousin Brucie (Bruce Morrow). A favorite haunt was Cousin Brucie’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Weekend at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY. An avid tennis player, he played almost to the end and enjoyed attending the US Open.
Jim also loved his cat Marline. His perfect day was eating his oatmeal in the morning and having his cat and his dog KJ by his side.
Nancy’s dream realized
Jim’s wife Nancy, a Radcliffe graduate, accomplished writer and recipient of the 1987 PEN Girard Award, died in 2013 from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which came on in her 50s. For years before she became ill, she was under contract with Knopf for a biography of Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi official, and was close to finishing when she became too ill to continue. After Nancy’s death, the publisher decided against going forward without an author to see it through the editorial process and promote it.
Refusing to give up on his late wife’s dream, Jim was able to interest the journalist and former New York Times Book Review Editor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in Nancy’s unpublished manuscript. Last year, “The Hangman and His Wife: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrich,” by Nancy Dougherty, was published by Knopf and received notices and reviews in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker.
“When it came out last February I was so happy,” Jim said. “I fought hard for that and I don’t regret a moment.”
And then the acting in musicals came into the picture. In 2021 he was cast as Elliott in Lisa Shaw’s community musical “Hill of Beans.” In 2022, he agreed to perform in “The Prospect of Summer.” Just recently he appeared in the “Lords of Menantic,” playing the mayor with a pomposity and exuberance that belied his years-long battle with illness that ended last week.
In the last eight years of his life, Jim was fortunate to find companionship and friendship With Milen, a soulmate, opera and ballet fan, and passenger on his “Sea Cloud” sailing cruises. All in all, Jim’s was a life well lived in so many areas.