East Hampton: That’s the Way It Was

Written By: Elaine P.  Lifton

I was born in Southampton Hospital in l943 and went to live in East Hampton with my grandparents, George and Helen Stavropoulos.  My father, George Pespas, was in the army fighting in Europe, so my mother, Angela, thought it best for us to live with her parents, sister and brother.  My grandfather owned the East Hampton Candy Kitchen and the East Hampton Tea Room and was busy working long hours. My grandmother, a great cook, ran the household as was customary in those days.

The house was conveniently situated between the town and the beach.  It was a four bedroom colonial “in the village” with a small cottage on the property. There was a garden in the back filled with beautiful flowers and hydrangea bushes that my grandmother tended so lovingly. She was always bringing out ice cream or a large bowl of fruit for us to enjoy. My mother would either be reading The East Hampton Star or telling me about her love of East Hampton.  As we sat outside between the garden and the huge pear tree, the scent of lilac bushes floated through the air. Even now, whenever I smell a lilac bush, it takes me back to my grandparents’ home.

I don’t exactly know when I fell in love with East Hampton, but I know I was very lucky to have grown up there.  To me it was a magical place where children could go anywhere without fear of any harm coming to them. No one locked their doors. Most of the local townspeople knew one another and were always ready to lend a helping hand. “Day-trippers” didn’t even exist!

To this day, so many memories come rushing back every time I return to my grandmother’s house or walk “down Main Street”, as the townspeople  used to say.  As a child, I walked or rode my bike to town or to beautiful, Main Beach. On rainy days, I would go to the East Hampton Library and curl up on a huge, leather chair and read all day. It was such a wonderful, cozy place to be on a gloomy day. I loved sitting on the red, velvet, seats at the Edwards Theater, where the movies would transport my friends and me to other times and other worlds for a few hours. Guild Hall was the place to go for wonderful performances and art shows. And what child didn’t look forward to the annual L.V.I.S. fair and local carnivals that arrived in the summer?

On my stroll down Main Street, I would stop in at White’s Drugstore where I often bought a Schrafft’s vanilla ice cream cone at the counter. The vanilla had those “little black dots” in it that you hardly see any more.

A few doors down, I would stop in to see Mrs. Epstein, the owner of the little clothing and shoe store.   She wore her hair in a bun, and there were always little strands of hair sticking out all over the place. I remember her wearing an old, brown sweater over her dress no matter what the weather, and in my child’s eyes, sturdy, black, old- lady tie shoes. The merchandise was always in a state of chaos, but if you needed an article of clothing or a pair of shoes, Mrs. Epstein would amazingly pull out the right size from the disheveled looking bins that ran down the middle of the store. If she wasn’t busy, she would ask me to sit on one of the old, scratched, wooden chairs to talk and ask about the family.

Further down the street I would stop in at Marley’s Stationary store where I would be greeted by name by Mr. Marley and his staff.  There was a tremendous amount of merchandise stuffed into that little store.  Cards, gift items, magazines and toys were all displayed in an organized fashion. It was difficult to walk out without buying some little thing.

Stopping in to see Ben Barnes was a “must”. I remember loving the scent of the store’s old, wood floors. He was always so friendly and loved telling silly, little jokes. I would spend about an hour reading the comic books and end up buying one or two out of guilt. If I wanted to buy something but didn’t have enough money, he would tell me to take it and pay next time. That’s the way it was in East Hampton back then.

When I got to the corner of Main Street and Newtown Lane, I crossed over to where my grandfather’s store, The East Hampton Tea Room, had been.  He had opened it in the late 1920’s, and I was told it became a meeting place for the town regulars and high school students who loved the delicious, homemade ice cream and chocolate candy. During WWII, the soldiers who patrolled the area often stopped in for a cup of coffee that was always “on the house” for any member of the Armed Forces. In 1946, my grandfather sold it to the McGinnis family and retired. After that, my beloved grandpa had plenty of time to take me to Maidstone Park, his favorite place to relax.

Years later, Tessie Marasca opened a fabulous store on Main Street called Potpourri. It was one of the few places to buy really nice clothes in the area. You could smell the beautiful scent of the potpourri she used from outside the store. I still remember my first purchase. It was a red, cable knit sweater. No matter how many times I washed it, it still had the faint scent of that wonderful potpourri.

One of my most exciting experiences was seeing Marilyn Monroe shopping in Bohack’s. She had her hair in large rollers with a bandana covering them.  I waved as I saw her go by, too shy to approach her. To my surprise she waved back and threw me a kiss! That really made my day!  Famous people were much easier to approach in the 40’s and 50’s than they are today. The rich and famous were out there but most of the time kept a low profile. If someone approached them politely, however, to ask for an autograph or to say a few words, they were friendly and accommodating. One day, when my parents and I went to Main Beach, my mother recognized Kathryn Murray sitting on a blanket nearby.  We went over just to say hello but she invited us to sit down. She asked for my name and address and said she would send me a book about dancing. She was so very kind and charming. I thought she would probably forget about it, but three weeks later an autographed book was in my mailbox!  I still have it on my bookshelf today.

My best friend, Myra Kelly, lived across the street. We played together almost every day, looking to keep out of trouble. One day we put our newborn kittens in our doll carriages and fed them milk out of a doll’s bottle.  We took the kittens for a walk downtown but ran out of milk halfway there. We stopped at a complete stranger’s house to ask for milk for our kittens.  Not only did the lady of the house bring milk for the kittens, but also brought a plate of cookies and milk for us as well. This was East Hampton in the 40’s and 50’s.

Talk about trouble!  Myra and I picked flowers, without permission, from her mother’s and my grandmother’s  gardens to sell for charity . We went house to house asking  people to buy flowers,  putting the money in some old, empty cigar boxes.  No one questioned our honesty and even total strangers gave us money!  At the end of the day, we put it in the charity containers at the local supermarket.  By the time we got home, our families had discovered our handiwork. Although it had been for a good cause, we were still grounded for the rest of the week. Lucky for us it was Friday so the punishment didn’t last too long.

I eventually moved “up the island”, but always came back to see family and friends. Looking back, it was my mother who passed on her love of East Hampton to me through her own childhood stories.  When I later married and had children, my husband and I brought them out to East Hampton, pointing out all the beautiful places and retelling my childhood stories.  And though many things have changed, they, too, saw the natural beauty and felt the magic.  Sadly, my parents and grandparents are long gone, but I am happy that my Uncle Anthony still lives in that same house.  Last year, I passed the torch on to my grandchildren.  I brought them to their great, great, grandparents’ home in the hopes that they, too, would come to love East Hampton as I still do today.