Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Nostalgia and back to reality

Bridgehampton scene. Photo: JH.
July 28, 2010. A warm summer day, yesterday in New York; sunny but not too humid followed by a warm but beautiful evening in the city.

Nostalgia and back to reality. Forty-five years ago, July 1965 to be exact. In Southampton, Angela Taylor writing for the New York Times, reported:

The summertime living is easy in the dune-bordered communities of eastern Long Island, but the colonists take their leisure in different ways. Southampton’s life purrs as quietly as a Rolls-Royce among the middle-aged and older generations but roars like a Jaguar at night when the young get away from their parents and gyrate at a night spot called Mitty’s General Store.

Less showy East Hampton has smaller houses and few decorators’ shops. It seems to be populated by young marrieds who wear neat shorts or white ducks and walk its streets unself-consciously, because society photographers rarely stalk them.

.... Life settled down to shopping on Job’s Lane and getting hair done at Elizabeth Arden’s pink salon on Main Street in Southampton where Mrs. John O’Hara was being combed out at the same time that Mrs. John Steinbeck was being put up in rollers.

“We’re living very quietly in a teeny-tiny house in Sag Harbor,” Mrs. Steinbeck said as she offered a hand to the manicurist. “We don’t go to parties, although we’ve been asked to one on a boat tonight ...”

Elaine Steinbeck
I remember Mrs. Steinbeck – Elaine – although I didn’t know her except to say hello. Mrs. O’Hara, I never met, although her husband was my favorite writer at that time in my life, and I knew they lived in Quogue on the beach.

The area was known by its individual towns, not so much the Hamptons. Each area had its own personality/demographic in terms of summer inhabitants. After the season the towns returned to their small town village-ness, run mainly by the small businessmen and big landowners, many of whom were farmers, especially potato farmers, some from families that had been working the land since the 17th century.

The summer residents opened up their houses around Memorial Day and closed them up after Labor Day until the following year. This was partly because of the access. The LIE got about as far as Patchogue by the early 60s, and then you were on two lane blacktop most of the rest of the way.

There was also another year round community in the towns east and north of Southampton of writers and artists and their exponents in life style. The area in the colder weather had a semi-rural feeling, far away from the city’s smells. The artists and writers lived comforably but modestly no matter their prominence. Truman Capote had a simple beach house in Bridgehampton for years, which after his death was purchased by artist Ross Bleckner.

Truman Capote's saltbox home in Sagaponack.
Truman Capote in his favorite chair at his Sagaponack home; photographed by Jaime Ardiles-Arce in 1976.
Real estate was cheap. That first summer I was out there in 1963 we rented a four-bedroom two-bath (and two-kitchen) house set south of the highway, just outside Southampton in the middle of a potato field. It was owned by famous men’s fashion editor named Robert D. L. Green. The place slept eight comfortably, and the rent for Memorial through Labor Day was $1200. Total.

A couple years later, I was a newlywed and we looked at a house near the beach in Southampton that was an old ark of a place with wrap-around porches and cupolas. It had been abandoned and was for sale for $35,000. Whoever had inherited it, wanted to dump it. That was a lot of money for a summer house then, but peanuts considering the property which today commands a price in the millions.

By the late 60s, as the LIE continued to move eastward, the summer populations grew and so did the real estate prices. Old time families east of Southampton were selling their acres of farmland for six figures. Newcomers tore down old houses and put up bigger ones.

The world was changing rapidly. We had a housemate who had come back from working in Japan. He used to tell us that one day Japan was going to take over the car industry. This seemed a really absurd projection/prediction. At that time, Japan was just emerging in the field of technology and manufacturing little handheld transistor radios and very small, very cheap compact-style cars.

Americans looked at compacts as an insult. Wassamattuh, you can’t afford a real car? Our housemate, we all kind of thought, was a dreamer. It turned out of course that he was; and the dream turned out to be reality. And the joke was on us. In some ways, it still is.

A fond memory is of the now long defunct Mitty’s General Store, a very cool discotheque to go to on Saturday nights on the road to Bridgehampton.

I’ve described it here before (recently). From the outside it was a simple clapboard house with a simple front porch. Inside it was transformed: a spacious barroom with tables, crowded with 20-somethings and 30-somethings, (although I don’t ever remember a line waiting to get in).

The dress was preppier than it is today in that the preppies always looked like preppies no matter what they were wearing even if it were a tee-shirt and jeans. That look, was archived by the then budding Ralph Lauren and revised into a billion-dollar business selling life-style known as Polo.

Dancing the Chicken.
Beyond the bar at Mitty’s was a dining room of banquettes and tables, and beyond that was a big dance floor with a DJ spinning. Those were the years of the Frug which had progressed from the Bop, the Chicken and then the Twist. It was pre-drug era. If anyone were smoking anything (other than cigarettes), or snorting/sniffing, nobody knew. Cocaine was ancient lore, associated with the Prohibition and the 1930s. LSD was just about to come into the national psyche, and Cary Grant of all people admitted to experimenting with it. The prescription meds that morphed into “recreational” drugs didn’t really get started until the early to mid-1970s.

By the late 60s, the prices out East had jumped, just as they had for everything else around New York. We stayed in the city and eventually got the bright idea of going north to Westchester and Fairfield County for a getaway. The prices were better and the country life was year-round and appealing to 30-somethings settling down.

A few years later, in the late 70s, I moved West to Los Angeles and didn’t return East until 1992. Twenty years past and twenty years older, the Hamptons was bigger and everywhere. Southampton still had its gilted “aura” although by that had been mottled by Big and More. It had gone from a summer beach town of woody buggies and barefoot kids in the sand to Money talks and Nobody walks.

That became our main theme. The Old Guard ignored it as long as they could; and the Newcomers, if they didn’t meld, didn’t care because they made their own groups. And then, eventually, ten years on, it turned out, the Old Guard were dead or practically, and the Newcomers were no longer new, but now the center.

There went the neighborhood. Out in East Hampton
-- now a hike on the perpetual parking lot called Route 27 -- is a community bustling with commerce, and big SUVs and Mercedes and Bentleys and Broncos and Range Rovers lining the roads bumper to bumper. Movie stars live there. Movie directors. hedge fund owners, entrepreneurs, rich divorcees, tycoons and real estate moguls. It’s a microcosm of the American very rich at the beginning of the new millennium. Their Old Guard has mostly died off although the Newcomers are fast becoming third generation. And Big and More remains a player.
Route 27. Photo: Gordon M. Grant for The New York Times.
The other day I was talking with a friend of mine who has had a house in East Hampton for the past couple of decades. I was telling her how the aforementioned Angela Taylor piece in the Times was evidence of how the stage had changed.

My friend is, like me, a big animal person. She had thanked me for reminding readers that dogs cannot take the heat, let alone exercising in it, and that it can kill them. We were lamenting that many people don’t bother to learn about the health and safety of their Best Friend.

She told me a story about how one day out in East Hampton walking her dogs she found a beautiful Golden Retriever wandering around. She’d seen the dog a number of times in the middle of the village and was concerned about his safety because of all the cars.

One day she was able to get him by the collar which had a phone number on it. She took him home and called the number. Answering machine. She left a message. No return. The next day she called again. Answering machine. No return. The third time she left a message: “I have your dog. I found him wandering around the town. If you don’t want him unfortunately I can’t keep him so I’ll have to take him to the Animal Rescue Fund(ARF).”
Hampton Hedgerows.
She got a call shortly thereafter. A man’s voice. Angry. “How dare you leave a message like this,” he ranted. “I don’t give a sh*t about the dog,” he raged, “I just don’t want my wife upset about the dog going to ARF.” He told her he was so angry for doing this to him and his wife that he’d see that my friend would “never have another happy day in your life,” warning, “You’ll never have another reason to smile.”

That was a couple of years ago. This man, incidentally, is known professionally as an “entrepreneur” but is mainly in the banking business and is admired for the size of his fortune which fits neatly on the Forbes 400 list. He and the wife have since divorced. No one seems to know what happened to the dog.

Although, my friend told me, it still goes on. The other day she saw a woman driving a gray SUV, running her dog alongside her car as she drove down the road. Was it her plan to kill the dog, you might wonder? If you see her, report her. If you know her name, I’ll print it.
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