Southampton Weekend

Looking out at the Hudson River from the promenade. Sunday, August 3rd, 2003. 5:20 PM.

Rain had been the forecast. Cloudiness, humidity and occasional showers. Groan. Only the second weekend out there for me and no sun. Groan. Nevertheless, I had intended to go down there to visit a friend and, while I was at it, to hit the annual Southampton Hospital Summer Party Benefit.

My friend has a house on property that was once part of the Murray-McDonnell parcel, originally 300 acres, going back sixty, seventy years. In those days, the notion of “society” was still tightly wound around what are now referred to as the WASPs. By the 1920s, Southampton, which had been settled thirty years before (the 1890s), by the “old families” as a shooting resort, had become a mecca for the wealthy and prosperous Others (and soon thereafter, everybody) such as the Irish-Catholics and other “arrivistes.”

Mrs. McDonnell, wife of the prominent stockbroker (McDonnell & Co., now defunct) was born a Murray and there were two houses built side by side on the beach, with a swimming pool in the middle. The McDonnells had fifteen children and the Murrays had eleven. “They didn’t need anybody else, there were so many of them,” a family member once said. Although by the second generation, they’d spread out and even into the bright lights of society: one of the Murray girls married Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the McDonnell girls married Henry Ford II.

At one point, Mrs. McDonnell gave each of her children three acres. Some sold after prices started ascending in the 1960s; others stayed and remain to this day, so that to this day there Murray-McDonnell cousins still occupying the original family land. The main family parcel, however, was broken up long ago into quite a few “mini-estates,” now occupied by a number of wealthy and prominent individuals and families, including George Soros, Terry Allen Kramer and John McEnroe.

Old Mrs. McDonnell’s original house went into the sea in 1961 at the insistence of a nor’easter. Southampton’s been free of such violent storms in decades, but they do come from time to time and they take back to the sea with them whatever’s in their path. This particular storm in 1961 had been forecast. Mrs. McDonnell had “a weekend’s notice” and she had the foresight to remove her best furniture, important fixtures, china, silver, linens, and even mantelpieces. Sure enough, the storm hit with a roar and by the time it was over, the big brick mansion disintegrated, swept out to sea.

Mrs. McDonnell, now the undaunted matriarch of dozens of grandchildren, built herself another house, several hundred yards in from the beach, installing her furniture and rescued belongings (and fireplace mantles). When she died, her granddaughter Charlotte Ford bought the house and continues to occupy it to this day.

This past Saturday night was an important one in the Hamptons for the fundraisers. The Southampton Hospital held their 45th annual benefit ball, this year called “The Sapphire Ball,” and the Byrd Hoffman Watermill Center, the personal baby of “artist” Robert Wilson, held their annual fundraiser.

There are thousands and thousands of New Yorkers
who go to the Hamptons every weekend but getting a few hundred of them to go out to a big benefit is not an easy task. You can understand why. For one thing, who wants to get all dolled up on a hot summer night and go to some great big humongous outdoor party?

There are a few parties that make the exception. The aforementioned are two. The Southampton benefit was, once upon a time, the social event of the summer in the Hamptons, albeit smaller. For a certain group of people. The New York socialites. The money they raise goes to the only hospital in the Hamptons.

About fifteen or twenty years ago, when Charlotte Ford
was chairing it, she lured the summer residents into the fold by emphasizing the importance of an Emergency Room to everybody in the community. This year they raised more than a million (as they have consecutively for the last several years) for the Emergency Room of the hospital.

This year there were 1100 under the big white tent which is constructed on a large plot on Wickapogue Road, right across the street from acres of cornfields, and a half mile away (as the crow flies) from the multi-million dollar mansions on the beach.

Anniversary chairmen were Julia and David Koch. Julia, beautiful and statuesque, with a natural chic that once upon a time, before she met Mr. Koch, made her the perfect model for Adolfo, wore a long sensuous white satin dress, cut on the bias. The effect was astonishingly glamorous and, in this crowd, which is quite conservative, a reminder of those other times that gave Southampton the mystique it retains (in the public imagination) today.

Mr. Koch, even taller than the mother of his two children, and not inclined to want to outshine her, was dressed rather staidly like most of the men, in blue blazer, shirt and tie.

Event chairman was Ann Grimm; even co-chairs were Kathryn Cowles and Barbara and Alan Glatt; Development Chairman was Jean Little FitzSimmons, Perri Peltz was the mistress of ceremonies, unruffled by her daunting task of getting the attention of more than a thousand people in a big tent on a hot summer night. And, the dinner chairmen were Tory and Christopher Burch, Pamela Gross and Jimmy Finkelstein, Lisa and Donald Jackson, Laura and Harry Slatkin, Ophelia and Billy Rudin, Vera Wang and Arthur Becker and Lally Weymouth.

The dinner chairmen list is the key to a party’s great success and this one is a reflection of the “new” Southampton, as there was a “new” Southampton seven and eight decades ago. Younger, prosperous, movers, social and enterprising; some old money, and lots of new, they are just as active and effective in the city during the rest of the year.

Sapphire benefactors included: the Slatkins, Richard and Karen LeFrak, Kathy and Rick Hilton, Marty and Patty Raynes, Jonathan and Somers Farkas, Charlotte Ford, Dan and Cynthia Lufkin, Keith and Rose Reinhard and George and Daisy Soros.

Fabulous raffle prizes: Seaman Schepps earrings, Canyon Ranch Vacation for two, Dennis Basso fashion fur and a one year lease of a Mercedes Benz C240. Alex Donner and his orchestra played and the Special Guest Performer who got everybody on the dance floor boogying was Thelma Houston who rocked the joint.

In a crowd this big it’s hard to remember everyone you see. I saw Marge and Peter Sullivan, Henry and Leila Heller, with Geoffrey Bradfield who was houseguesting with them for the weekend, Vera Wang and Arthur Becker, Bettina Zilkha, Tory and Chris Burch, Mark Gilbertson, Julie Dannenberg, Pamela (Gross) and Jimmy Finkelstein, Alex Papachristidis who along with Lisa Jackson did the décor, a South Seas motif of blues against the white; Elizabeth Fekkai, Bill and Ophelia Rudin, Judy and Fred Sullivan, Dr. Dan Baker, Jamee and Peter Gregory, Kay Gilman and Herb Shmertz, Dr. Howard Sobel, Chappy Morris and Melissa Stanley, Arnold and Ann Jurdem, Betty and Virgil Sherrill, Sidney and Pat Wood, Muriel Siebert, Harry Platt, Thorunn Wathne, Cathy di Montezemolo (both members of the Murray clan), Brunie McKnight and Christopher Phillips, for starters.

We’ll have lots of pictures tomorrow.

Under the tent at last summer's Watermill Center benefit
Meanwhile, over in Watermill, a couple of miles, as the crow flies, up in the woods behind Route 27, on the grounds of an old factory building, the Byrd Hoffman Watermill Center was holding their annual benefit. This event is now the hippy-dippy-glamoroso benefit of the season in the Hamptons. Because: Robert Wilson, artist, librettist, culture guru. The Watermill Center is his creation, intended to be the center of his worldwide creativity activity.

They run to Mr. Wilson with their checkbooks
wide open and they support him. Bigtime. His roster reads like an international who’s who of the rich, the chic and the shameless, not to mention bankers, industrialists, celebrity chasers, tastemakers and assorted hoo-hahs who light up the summer night. Mr. Wilson is a phenomenon and also a muse for his myriad followers.

The party’s like that. Always.
This is the first year I’ve missed it in many. Their theme this year was Havana, or Cuba, I can vouch that it was a wonderland of the imaginative, the colorful and the affecting, including, as I said, the guests. I’m sure some of the get-ups and the costumes were a wonder. And glamorous. And colorful. In fact, I thought to myself when I saw Julia Koch over at the Hospital Ball that she would have fit in perfectly at the Watermill Center -- a completely decorated environment (woods, paths, open field, building, tent, attended by some of the most prominent art mavens and collectors in America. Checkbooks in hand. I don’t know what Mr. Wilson raised this year toward the completion of his center, but I’d bet it’s in the millions.

Lots of pictures from the Watermill Center on Wednesday.

Sunday along the Hudson River Promenade from Pier 59 to Clarkson Street
Looking east towards 22nd street
Looking east towards the Empire State Building
From pier 59 looking north along the bike path
Looking south on West street and Leroy Street
Looking east towards West Street
Looking east towards West Street
Looking north along the promenade
Looking east from the pier
Looking west across the Hudson River
Heading back crosstown. On the corner of 10th Avenue at 22nd Street.

Photographs by Jeff Hirsch/


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