By Diane Strecker
Amidst a sea of famous faces, it was the structure itself that mesmerized me most. I can still smell the ocean seeping through the planks of the old place on that mystic night. Must and salt and pine embedded in its bones. The dark outside the windows; black. Below on a craggy shoreline, raging waves crash over the rocks and explode into a spray. Animal eyes watch curiously from the thicket as the house begins to bounce and reel and take on a life of its own. Cars clustered about the cliff-side seem alien in this very desolate place.
I remember bumping our way up the mile-long dirt drive, using the thundering of the Atlantic out in the distance as our only navigation. Deer were caught in our headlamps at every turn. I can see lights begin to twinkle through the heavy autumn fog as the secluded haven finally came into view. The dense October air was wet, cold and still the way only Montauk air can sometimes be. Air so quiet that one becomes aware of their own breath, can hear a twig snap in the brush, and gravel grind beneath their feet.
As I stepped from the car I inhaled a deep breadth of Montauk.
Inside, it was magic. Amber lighting filtered through the rooms already thick with glittering guests from all walks, chatting and laughing. Drinks and seafood flowed and the punch was rumored to be spiked with hallucinogens. The infamous witch from the Amagansett Farmers Market hung high in the rafters. My new boyfriend (the evening’s entertainment), set up as my friends and I wandered through the kinetic commotion that buzzed through the house. The Halloween celebration in a windmill newly perched high on the Montauk Moorlands was already well underway.
The atmosphere was euphoric and it was fun to be a fly on the wall among a guest list that would’ve impressed anyone, even today. I would exchange a few words with a princess inside a doorway as a famous actress bumped by me. Gathered around the fireplace were the host and new owner (a famous photographer), a literary giant, a pop art icon, and popular talk show host turned local. In the mix were models, actors, authors and artists. A horde of prestigious party goers were already thronging on the circular dancefloor.
By the early 1970s, homes tucked inside these isolated bluffs had become a respite to the bohemian elite and before long the quirky town known mostly to surfers and fisherman was transformed into a celebrity hide-a-way. It was a place where anonymity was respected by an unspoken code and the reason I guess, so many took refuge there. I had gotten used to seeing prominent people out east, working all the local haunts all summer, every summer, I got to see them all. So, when one of folk music’s heroes stood on line at Herbs Market, you’d know not to tell him how much I loved” The Boxer”, but let him buy his sandwich and go his way. And that night, I followed suit and simply reveled in the in pure fun of it all.
We danced all night long as the party ate and drank itself into the wee hours. I wish remembered more of that night but my memory is clouded after a certain hour and I can’t say that I even remember leaving. A testament I guess, to a spirit only that era could have evoked. It is the nuances that have remained, in sentiments so sweet, I can taste them.
But this was not my first encounter with the windmill. We had a history that stretched back to my childhood and in many ways, I felt akin to it. In my mind’s eye, I see it still sitting high up on Sandpiper Hill, its origin, and remember peering up that long, winding, mysterious drive as I passed each time. From that elevation, one can see all of Montauk and beyond. I would often imagine what the world looked like from those windows.
The windmill house” Rienstiens” (as we knew it), fascinated all who passed it by. It was a Montauk marker and as much a part of the landscape as the cliff it sat on. I wondered that night at that party, how many around me knew that. I imagined it socked in early morning fog and saw the burning orange sun, setting behind it. A Native American statue stood watch high on its bluff guarding it, weathering the scorching days of summer, the biting, blowing cold of winter and many a treacherous storm. In my innocence, I believed its shield to be eternal. I would later learn, that there is nothing that rivals nature’s fury.
Each year, the house grew dangerously closer to the edge of the eroding cliff till one day the statue was gone and the windmill itself sat only feet from the cliffs edge. Sadly, it went up for sale. A friend of mine was caretaking the property and showing it for a prominent realtor. He invited me up to see it. I would finally see the inside.
It was a simple, rustic structure really, not much altered since the day it was built; more campy than luxurious. It had a sauna and thick beamed great room in the lower level, exuding a distinct air of East End charm from the shingles to the stone fireplace. But the library up top, that was the true money spot. We talked of lost loves and shared a bottle of wine, listening to music as the ocean crashed below. I fell asleep in the center that enchanted room. The thought of that now makes me smile. Two of us sitting on that worn Persian rug, drinking cheap wine and listening to Dylan.
I awoke alone at dawn to silence. The wide-open windows brought the ocean inside. The breakers pounded below. I felt its thunder reverberating in my chest. The sopping salt air smelled of musty carpet and leather bindings. I looked out from the windows I once stared up at as a girl. High above the shore, miles of vast coastline stretched out below. I watched the sunrise far out to the east, burn through the morning mist and create a glistening that appeared to come alive as it spread over the surface of the sea. To this day, I’ve not seen or felt something as profoundly beautiful. I could feel my being humble and shift away from my silly sorrow. I tip-toed quietly out of the house and made my way down the narrow cliff path to walk the wide shoreline home. I was filled with a sense of transformation I would never quite feel again.
That summer of 1973 would be the first summer I would not spend in Montauk and while I was away traveling, the windmill would travel too. It would be bought and moved up onto cliffs miles away. And, ironically, I would somehow find myself in it once more, at this high-profile party, dancing, laughing and full of mischief. I would see my brother and his girlfriend through the crowd having the time of their life, sharing secrets on the dance floor. I am in love for the second time in just a few short months. I feel the smile on my face radiating from the inside out. I am still filled with the wonder of foreign places. I am brave, young and unstoppable.
It is only now that enough time has passed that I can see it was all so wonderful. That youth, is wonderful. Sometimes, when I think of these moments, I wish I had savored them a bit longer or valued them a bit more. But then I realize that happiness, when you’re in it, simply just is. So instead, I’ll remember the windmill that once inspired the wonder of a child, spawned enlightenment at dawn on Sandpiper Hill and made magic one night on the Moorlands. And of course, just simply-Montauk.
Today, the windmill itself is no more than a memory. Destined once more for ruin, it finally fell victim to the forces of nature and was lost to fire in 1977. Its parties much like the one I attended decades ago, will forever hold a place in East End folklore. The windmill on Sandpiper has been painted, photographed and written about and is one of the most scenic spots on the East End. The original property is now a part of a 96-acre parkland called Shadmoor, forever preserved. Somedays, I find myself walking up there, looking out over the ocean. I let my eyes travel the shoreline that leads up to the Moorlands.
Traces of what once was rush over the cliffs in whispers. Memories beg and call. If I listen closely I hear a swan song play out over the ocean. A feel a tear come, but not with sadness or regret but because it was all so beautiful.