It has been said: “The nature of youth is that you do not know much.”
I knew very little when I traveled alone to Easthampton for the first time in
the summer of 1974. I was a naïve twenty-four, had recently moved to Manhattan from a farm town upstate, and my political perspective was in painful adolescent formation. I had been invited to spend the weekend at a Springs saltbox cottage owned by a feminist lawyer for whom I worked and her best friend, a Judge. They were generous, progressive, published, well-connected, cool, and tireless advocates of the poor, tenants, people of color and those without a voice. They had alerted me to the Republican leanings of East Hampton and cautioned that I could be arrested for an infraction as slight as eating an ice cream cone while walking down Main Street. They explained that discrimination was commonplace at the Maidstone Club. But they believed Change would come, and I was eager to see their second home.
Fittingly, my first journey out east was exempt from any future replication. I took the subway to Penn Station and boarded an LIRR train without difficulty but, mistakenly, I disembarked far too soon at West Hampton. It astonished me that this error entailed a 31-mile shortfall, a distance that I decided to overcome by hitch-hiking. Picked up by a Bonacker fisherman in a two-tone green station wagon who described East Hampton very simply as “heaven,” I arrived safely in front of the A & P, where I shopped for my hosts and hired a cab that delivered me to their doorstep on Neck Path. Tall grasses and palette-splashed wildflowers surrounded the cottage.
The starkly beautiful black and white freeze-frame images captured through the Judge’s camera lens that weekend were emblematic of ephemeral experiences that are no longer even possible: Sammy’s Beach was empty when we went to listen to the waves, search for shells and dissect editorials in the Star. Donuts were just coming out of the oven when we stopped by Dreesen’s, and Round Swamp Farm was the food procurement destination for families going to the George Plimpton-narrated fireworks display at Boys Harbor. The Springs General Store was visited by bell-bottomed, bead-wearing patrons, who were discussing Lee Krasner’s poster for the Artists’ Exhibition at Ashawagh Hall and debating how long Jackson Pollock’s legacy would actually endure.
In 1974, East Hampton Village would be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and I would attend a benefit at a Lily Pond Lane oceanfront home that was among the first to have solar panels. The juxtaposition of unattainable wealth against the backdrop of hard-working residents was illuminated under glass on a table in the cottage on Neck Path, where political buttons representing every slogan and dream of the ‘seventies were meticulously displayed. None of us knew then where we, or the Hamptons, were heading.
In 1975 the Rolling Stones would rent Andy Warhol’s Montauk compound, be chased by surfers from White’s Drugstore, and immortalize the Memory Hotel. The classic “Grey Gardens” documentary would be released, highlighting the neglect and dysfunction of the two Edie Beales. Little Edie had ironically observed that “the hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility,” unwittingly elucidating her own family scandal that arrested the public’s attention for months.
These were preliminary indicators of future controversies and conflicts on the pastoral east end, and of cascading memories through the next four decades. These were foretokens of what would be exemplified in 2015 by Montauk as a symbol of what many believe has gone wrong: disturbance of the peace by outside interlopers and the forfeiture of civility in the face of profit and greed. Change was indeed on the way.
As I subsequently returned to the Hamptons — not only during the summer but now year-round — I witnessed the outcomes of time and transition. Seasonal rituals evolved, sustainability and environmental preservation emerged as activist themes, population patterns shifted, competition among job seekers escalated, artistic license was increasingly challenged, and yoga studios sprang up alongside new wineries. There would not be equal rights for all as Spanish was woven into the linguistic tapestry of a Town whose coffers were unthinkably declared empty and whose native-born individuals’ economic security was threatened. Water aquifers and piping plovers peppered cocktail party patter, small family-owned businesses became almost extinct, and Route 27 constituted every weekend driver’s nightmare. In the endless reportage of real estate acquisitions, there were unwritten stories, such as that of a northwest area that undoubtedly mirrors others: Home to designated nature preserves, deer, rabbits, foxes and wild turkeys, this community is an instructional cautionary tale on the drawbacks of development-saturation, as neighbors there promote feuds by planting invasive bamboo on property borderlines and honk bullhorns when pool parties next door become too loud.
Change in the Hamptons has been ongoing, but yet there is constancy: English windmill sails rotate, ducks circle the village pond, sanderlings wade near Georgica Beach, Town Crier/Historian Hugh King educates while parades celebrate, the LVIS Summer Fair never fails, and Sag Harbor Cinema’s signage was restored.
Of course, frequent and unpredictable celebrity sightings are inevitable: Alec Baldwin at Babette’s, Gwyneth Paltrow at Café Max, Betsey Johnson near the IGA, Barbara Walters at a film premiere, Jerry Seinfeld and his family at the Palm, Liza Minnelli at a yard sale, Joy Behar at the Milk Pail, Paul McCartney on a bench at Amagansett Square, Dan Rattiner reading, everywhere. Just a decade ago, it was still possible to show up at Sean (P Diddy) Combs’ house on a holiday and be allowed in to his “White Party” without written invitation. If you were not already totally dressed in the thematic color, you would be handed a fresh white beach towel from a wicker basket and directed to cross the dirt road so you could change behind the bushes.
Clubs came and went. Tea dances went out of style.
For several years, we would “Wake up, Wake up” to Wyclef Jean’s addictive “Everyday” lyrics on Plum TV, a boradcast television network targeted mostly to affluent viewers and arguably another symbol of all that had gone wrong. From 2004 until 2013, when it filed for bankruptcy, this cable channel provided an intimate view of the recurring events, glamorous star visitations and countless benefits that fill our calendars, later to be depicted in glossy publications of considerable weight.
“The nature of youth is that you do not know much.”
While there is still so much that I do not know, here is what I do:
Change will come. Solutions will be found, bred of self-preservation.
Seasons turn, storms and hurricanes damage; but the texture, form, lines and light of the east end will always attract artists and exert an immutable hold on us.
Oceanside sunsets are unparalleled in their power to center weary travelers, inspire creativity, and serve to magnify our earthly insignificance at the end of a day.
And, although I would not risk hitch-hiking now, the Bonacker fisherman who picked me up four decades ago was right: East Hampton can, very simply, be described as “heaven.