Hamptons Guest Essay: The Way We Were

The year was 1965 when I made my maiden voyage to the Far East End of Long Island, before it became lovingly known as “The Hamptons.”

I was scouting for houses I could photograph and feature in Town & Country Magazine, where I worked as an editor. Given the publication’s wealthy readership, I was looking for “Old Money,” more concentrated in Southampton at the time than in any of the other Hampton towns.

Celebrity then was discreet and usually meant Society—I photographed Gloria Vanderbilt’s estate with its original windmill, sheltered by Southampton’s characteristic high privet hedges, while she was married to Wyatt Cooper—a brilliant writer and improbably good-looking man with arresting blue eyes. Their sons, Anderson, now CNBC’s star anchor, reached just up to my waist while his younger brother, Carter, made it just up to my hip.

Others I tapped for publication were Charlotte Ford, C.Z. Guest, Lilly Pulitzer, Chessy Rayner and Lee Radziwill among many others that followed. Often they were patrons of another group of high profilers, artists and writers who had chosen the area as their second or even only home. They included Truman Capote whom I interviewed for The New York Times after the release of his blockbuster non-fiction work In Cold Blood, which had left him emotionally shattered and drained.

De Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock were honing their reputations as they found peace and concentration for their work in this beautiful and evolving region. Cultural activities centered largely on Southampton’s Parish Art Museum and Guild Hall in East Hampton. For the aspirational young, the Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton became their first showcase and their main support system.

Jack Lenor Larsen was breaking ground for his first residence, “Round House” on his sprawling property on Stephen Hands’ Path. Patterned after African kraals, native architecture he observed on his many visits to the subcontinent, were the inspiration, along with exotic native textiles which informed his own. “Long House,” his second, and the astonishing gardens he created on site, later became the annual showcase we know today where artists from many genres are celebrated each summer.

Like so many before me, and many more after me, I yielded to the siren call of the area. Wanting to be a part of it, I soon started looking for a rental property. I found just what I wanted: a very large artist’s studio on Jericho Lane in the Georgica estate section of East Hampton.

It was the perfect solution for both me and my husband. Trained as a fine painter, he had suffered the limitations of light and space of our Manhattan co-op. I watched him take out his frustration on our four walls which, on average, he repainted about every 3-4 months. While definitely the least disruptive “house painter” I have experienced in a long life of renovations, I nevertheless felt displaced by the process and I was also missing summers outdoors.

The studio I found was a simple two-story structure with huge windows facing north and a cavernous 60 ft. long open space offering no amenities beyond a shower, a dressing area and a hot plate. It was perfect. The rent was $1,200 for the season.

However, it must be said that “the season” in those days pretty much meant just two months. No restaurant, seasonal store or farm stand would open before July 4 and abruptly closed up came Labor Day.

When our joint summers as a couple came to an end, I set out to find a house of my own. Although I had an opportunity to buy a handsome Tudor on an acre of land just behind the dunes on Lilly Pond Lane—the price was $325,000—I opted for a smaller, less demanding property in East Hampton.

The house I settled on was an unpretentious farmhouse, a traditional Hampton Shingle built around the turn of the century. It had sat on the beach of Amagansett when it was owned by the local Fire Department, which sold it for $5 to anyone who would move it. Unfortunately, that was not me, but two or three owners before me.

The current owners were Benjamin Bradley and his wife Sally Quinn who were planning to restore Grey Gardens, the property made notorious by the Beale sisters and their many stray cats. The Bradleys were acquiring it from the Kennedy family. Lest anyone forget, Ben Bradley, of course, was at the helm of The Washington Post when he authorized the publication of the Watergate diaries based on interviews of “Deep Throat,” conducted in secret by Woodward and Bernstein, which precipitated the resignation of Richard Nixon.

The couple had used the house only once a year—during the month of August. The interiors were functional but spare and landscaping was non-existent. I almost didn’t buy the house because its front had little curb appeal, but it was the interior that convinced me.

It had been opened up to combine what had been three tiny rooms into a large living space with fireplace, and a dining alcove. There were two bedrooms upstairs but a large 35×35 ft. double height and beamed master suite had been added downstairs on one side of the original structure, and a spacious and attractive kitchen on the other. Best of all, the downstairs spaces were open to each other—perfect for entertaining. The entire house was painted white including the lacquered floors, a rather revolutionary concept at the time.

It had been the vision of one previous occupant, the owner of a Manhattan art gallery who understood the magic of the white box as the canvas for your own personal choices and style.

While I lived and enjoyed my house for more than 30 years, the changes to the area came fast and furiously. A magnet for the creative worlds, wave after wave of artists, writers, performers, designers of fashion and interiors, architects and musicians arrived in fast moving succession.

Halston, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan were among early arrivals but hardly the only ones from the fashion industry.

Harry Bates and Gwathmey & Siegel preceded both Richard Meier and Robert Stern in transforming the area’s architecture, with each leaving his distinct design imprimatur.

Billy Joel (with former wife Christie Brinkley) and Paul McCartney whose first wife Linda was my secretary at Town & Country Magazine before they met and married, became regulars.

Chuck Scarboro, Alec Baldwin, Allen Alda and Roy Scheider became familiar faces around town especially at Nick & Tony’s where soon Gwyneth Paltrow and Stephen Spielberg held regular sway. Even occasional sightings of Madonna and Streisand were reported when each rented a beachfront house for a summer.

Captains of industry and Wall Street brought their own cachet and wealth to the area, which had once been little more than a string of seaside villages surrounded by potato fields.

With this much money in sudden circulation, small stores gave way to luxury establishments such as London Jewelers, and the need for fine food was first answered by Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa before she was followed by the Red Horse Market and later Citarella. Catering suddenly made entertaining a breeze, even for Manhattan weekenders.

When, after more than 30 years of enjoyment, I decided to let go of my house, it was one of the hardest decisions I ever made—but one I don’t regret. I have come full circle. I am back to renting and unburdened by maintenance demands and responsibilities, I can continue to enjoy the area, its beauty, its excitement and the friends I have made over the years.

Whether you consider the astounding changes the Hamptons have witnessed for the better or worse, I think we can all agree on one thing: when the “100 days of hell,” as the locals refer to the summer season, come to an end: This is and will remain a unique slice of paradise.

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