Two Lies: The LVIS and Others Go Overboard

The Ladies’ Village Improvement Society ladies in East Hampton are justifiably proud of their town. It was the location of the landing of the first English settler in New York State in 1639. It is home to five old English windmills, more than you will find in any town in America. Its broad main street, a grand boulevard, is overarched by giant elms that create a leafy tunnel for motorists in summertime.

Arguably, it is the most beautiful town in America, but in 1968, in a conversation with me that I then wrote in Dan’s Papers, and which has been subsequently repeated around the world, members of the LVIS told me that the village had been selected “the most beautiful town in America” by an important national magazine of that era, The Saturday Evening Post. So it WAS the most beautiful town in America.

Twenty years later, at a party, a longtime employee of that publication told me the designation from The Saturday Evening Post never happened. When I confronted one of the ladies, I was told that it must have been some other magazine. But I looked for that and didn’t find it anywhere else, either. It was a lie.

Earlier than that, in 1928, the president of the East Hampton Village Improvement Society defended the town’s loveable little historic museum “Home Sweet Home,” billed as the boyhood home of songwriter John Howard Payne, who wrote the words to that famous song while far away from home. Having been presented with facts that revealed Payne never had lived in the house and was only known to have visited East Hampton once, and not necessarily that specific house, Mrs. John W. Hand, a past president of the LVIS, said, “It doesn’t make any difference whether Mr. Payne lived in the house or not. We know he was thinking of a house like this when he wrote ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ and anyway, it represents our ideal of home sweet home, which is good enough for us.”

Nevertheless, as you enter “Home Sweet Home” today, you will still be face-to-face with a bust of John Howard Payne.

Lies, or to be kind, legend, all legend.

I remember exactly how I was told East Hampton was “The Most Beautiful Town in America.” I founded Dan’s Papers in Montauk when I was a teenager in 1960. By 1966, I had two editions, one in Montauk and one in East Hampton. I was so proud of that town, the boyhood home of John Howard Payne, with its town pond, windmills, bathing pavilion and village green. What I didn’t know was that the LVIS apparently viewed my appearance in this town, or the appearance of my free newspaper in this town, the first free newspaper anywhere, as a form of unpleasant littering.

During those first years, I received various subtle hints from them about it. This was the group that would go into a merchant’s store to chastise the owner if they saw a SALE sign in the window. That was a form of littering. This was the group that planted flowers on Main Street, took care of the elms and saw to it that on Sunday, the Lord’s day, stores did not open (they’d march in and tell merchants to close).

Early one afternoon, I stood in line outside the snow fence surrounding the Mulford Farm (next to “Home Sweet Home” and its big windmill), waiting to buy a ticket to the LVIS Fair from two of the blue-haired ladies sitting at a bridge table at the entrance.

Just before my turn came, I noticed that behind them, two boys had made a gap in the snow fence to get in without paying. They were gone now, off to enjoy the square dancing, the pony rides, the games of chance and the cotton candy booths, and so when my time came to buy tickets I told them about what I had seen, because I thought they should know.

“And who are you?” one of the blue-haired ladies asked. I told her who I was and the name of my newspaper.

“We can run our town quite well without you,” one of them replied. “East Hampton was named the Most Beautiful Town in America by The Saturday Evening Post last year. And we keep it that way.”

Preparing for the next issue, I added the slogan to the East Hampton edition. It was just below the masthead. “Selected as the Most Beautiful Town in America by The Saturday Evening Post,” it read. The next year, I wrote it in our guidebook. Soon thereafter it was appearing everywhere. I think it was on the town seal for a while.

About 15 years later, however, I was confronted at a party by a man who told me he had worked at The Saturday Evening Post for his entire adult life, including the years I was referring to, and there was never such a contest and it was all a lie.

You couldn’t just Google things back then. But I took this sobering thought very seriously. So I went off to the New York City Library Annex, just across from the big main building on 5th Avenue, where they had back issues of every major magazine published in the United States. I spent most of an afternoon looking for this designation. I found articles about East Hampton in Holiday Magazine written by a writer who had spent the summer with two roommates there. I found an article about East Hampton in Travel Magazine. But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, about any contest the town had won in The Saturday Evening Post or any place else. What had I done?

As far as “Home Sweet Home” is concerned, here is what is known. The house was built in the 1700s as a residence for one of the colonial settlers. John Howard Payne was born in Manhattan in 1791 and raised in Manhattan. He mentions visiting East Hampton in a letter he wrote. In 1813, at the age of 22, he moved to London, where he hoped to become a famous actor. He got rave reviews performing Hamlet at the Drury Lane Theatre, but was not otherwise very successful and, while in London, unable to pay debts, spent time in debtor’s prison.

He also lived in Paris. He befriended Washington Irving and Benjamin West. He courted author Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) but failed to win her hand. He wrote comedies and other plays, among them, with Henry Bishop in 1823, Clari, or The Maid of Milan, about a poor peasant girl from a small village wooed by a duke who proposes marriage and takes her away to his chateau, where he rescinds the wedding plans. She decides to leave him, and sings fondly of her memories of growing up in a small village. The song is “Home, Sweet Home.”

“Be it Ever So Humble,

There’s No Place Like Home.”

This song, sweetly sung, soon became one of the most popular in the English-speaking world, although it did not make Payne rich. It made the publishers of his song rich. C’est la vie.

In 1832, Payne returned to America. In midlife, he toured the American west with naturalist John J. Audubon, but he had no further success or fame. He died in hard circumstances in 1852 at the age of 61. The success of “Home, Sweet Home” continued on and on. It achieved its greatest popularity during the Civil War when, it is said, during lulls in the fighting, soldiers in trenches on both sides of the battlefield would sing it, sometimes together, as they considered their awful fates.

Then, in the late 1800s, when city people began arriving here for the summer, rumors abounded that the house Payne had supposedly visited in the town was his childhood home. No local groups, including the LVIS, founded in 1895, did anything to dispel that rumor. And so it proceeded. In the early 1900s, wealthy New York businessman Gustav Buek bought “Home Sweet Home,” which was in falling-down condition, and completely restored it. He introduced it to his friends as Payne’s childhood home. After Buek’s death in 1927, his family sold the cottage to a group of citizens who in turn sold it to the Village.

Today, in “the Most Beautiful Town in America,” you can visit “Home Sweet Home,” the childhood home of John Howard Payne. It is filled with colonial era antiques, furniture and firewood which would warm hearth and home. And in the summertime, it is surrounded by some of the most beautiful gardens imaginable.

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