Going Public: Reading From STILL IN THE HAMPTONS on a Lawn in Georgica

My memoir STILL IN THE HAMPTONS was released on July 15. This is the third of three hard cover books I have written, all of them memoirs and all behind the scenes stories about running Dan’s Papers for half a century. The chapters each feature an interesting person or encounter with people I met along the way.

For each of the first two, IN THE HAMPTONS (2008) and IN THE HAMPTONS TOO (2010), I went out into the “field,” to read stories that are in these chapters. Often where I went really was the “field.” I took my microphone, sign and book out into potato fields, baseball fields, woods, lakeside wetlands, even to the beach where the Nazi saboteurs came ashore in Amagansett in 1942. I’d advertise where I was going to be, made it easy—each reading would be on a Saturday morning at 11 a.m.—and hoped for the best.

My biggest turn out, during these first two years was when I spoke to about 25 people at a boatbuilding factory called Coecles Harbor Marina on Shelter Island. My smallest turn out was one Saturday morning in front of the “Home Sweet Home” saltbox house on James Lane in East Hampton. Nobody was there when I arrived. So I set up my sign, put my microphone on its stand, plugged it into the speaker, and stood around waiting. Nobody ever came, other than a small bird who landed on a fence nearby. I briefly considered reading the chapter to the bird—it was about Robert David Lion Gardiner, the 16th Lord of the Manor on Gardiner’s Island—but the bird was staring at me with such disapproval I just decided the hell with it.

This past Saturday morning was the first reading of STILL IN THE HAMPTONS (2012). Hearing thunder as I got out of bed, I opened a curtain to see what was going on. Dark rainclouds hovered above. The day was breezy and heavy with humidity.

The chapter I intended to read was “Grey Gardens,” the great saga of the mansion built on West End Avenue in East Hampton and owned by the Bouvier family beginning in the 1920s. It became the subject of scandal, filth, poverty and a stubborn determination by an 84 year old woman—the aunt of Jackie Bouvier Onassis—to live her life in this falling down mansion as a defiant statement of shame against her husband, Mr. Bouvier, who had left her in the 1930’s. She felt her daughter, who she wanted to protect, needed to be with her. (Daughter was 50). And daughter—Jackie’s cousin—felt she could not disobey her mother. And after all, if she did, who would take care of her mother?

After looking out the window at the weather, it suddenly occurred to me that the location of the reading—directly in front of this house on West End Avenue in East Hampton—was in a no parking zone. In these circumstances, who the heck was going to come to this anyway? It would be “Home Sweet Home” redux. Might as well go there, set up and wait, and when the police came and it was still just me there, bow politely, offer apologies, and leave.

Well, as it turned out, 18 people and a dog showed up for this reading. All had walked to the spot, parking their cars somewhere else. The only person in danger of getting ticketed was me. And so, I set up, invited them to stand or sit in a small semi-circle on the shoulder of the road under the “no parking” sign. They did, and thus I began to read the chapter to them.

It was really kind of wonderful. “Grey Gardens,” now completely restored as the private home of retired Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, reporter Sally Quinn, stands behind so much magnificent landscaping, it is as invisible as it had been behind the tangle of brambles and vines 40 years ago. For this reason, because you could barely see it in its triumphant restored magnificence, it was so possible to imagine it back there all run down with broken windows, cobwebs, cats and worn out doors. Indeed, with the gloomy, darkening sky, it was almost perfect.

Midway through the reading, a raindrop fell on the open page of the chapter I was reading. Then there was another drop. “Grey Gardens,” the chapter, is 14 pages long. It takes about 15 minutes to read. I began reading faster. There were more drops and more. But I did not budge. And neither did anybody else, although one coward did snap open an umbrella.

At the end of the reading, it was raining pretty good. I thanked everybody, took a few questions—what happened to Little Edie? She moved to Palm Beach. Hadn’t she become a nightclub singer? Yes she did, but it was not a success.

Isn’t it ironic, one man said—it was really coming down now and still nobody had moved—that Little Edie, during the early 1940s as a young woman had dated Jack Kennedy’s older brother Joe? And that the year after she dated him, he joined the Air Force, went off to war and died over France? If he hadn’t been killed, it could have been Little Edie who was first lady, not Jackie Kennedy.

That’s very, very true, I said. I was looking around. The cops hadn’t come. Now it was really raining.

And I was still holding the microphone. The amplifier and speaker were still on. Isn’t playing with electricity in the rain how you get electrocuted?

“Thank you all for coming,” I said. I continued to hold it. “Next week, I will be in front of the three story Montauk Coast Guard Station on Star Island to read a chapter about the time Carl Darenberg tried to tow it sitting on a barge through the bay from Amagansett to Montauk. A wind came up and threatened to send it all disastrously out to sea. Come and you’ll see how it turned out. 11 a.m., Saturday August 11.”

There was another clap of thunder. “Bye!” And we all ran for it.

I learned something. If you put sheets of paper towels between the pages of a newspaper, it blots up the rainwater and allows them to dry, although the book does look pretty ratty afterwards.

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