How to Hobnob in the Hamptons

“We had gambled that a mid-May wedding would just beat the crowds, that our parents would be spared the indignity of being trampled by the Cindy Crawfords of the world, that our guests could get into a good restaurant without needing Madonna in their party… perhaps we had miscalculated.”

First published in Destinations (Canada), 1993

The caterer had been in danger of hyperventilating for about half an hour, his sales pitch whistling past us and stirring up whorls of dust in the corners of the dining room. We sat opposite him, transfixed, like two kittens caught in a wind tunnel.

“The wedding has got to be organic. Any wedding I’ve done is organic. Arugula, romaine, frisée, radicchio – we grow it all organically, and if you want to throw something else in, I say go for duck. I get the very best duck in the country, from a Frenchwoman in the city, and she gets it from the Amish upstate, so it’s gotta be good, right? I did it last year for a party down the road in Amagansett, and Billy and Christie just loved it.”

He paused, while I picked up the dropped names. Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley.

Jill, my intended, saw a chance to speak. “But we already told you! We want tabbouleh, or couscous.”

“Couscous? That’s good, it’s daring. You must be a writer, I can tell. I did Spalding Gray’s wedding, great writer, you like him? It was on the beach, it was kind of out-there as an idea, but it worked. And last summer, at Shana Alexander’s in Bridgehampton, I just had couscous. Set it up in the driveway. And you know that type of crowd, Jennings, Chung, Paley, well, they went wild for it, I can’t tell you.”

But he could, and he did. I stole a glance at Jill. Her dark eyes had a lovely glaze to them by now. She looked over the shoulder of the caterer’s black linen jacket and out the window, where the first birds of spring were hungrily hopping about on our front lawn. On the road beyond them a lone mountain bike whirred past. Its rider, his long ponytail spilling out of a silk baseball cap, was speaking intently into a cellular phone. This was life in the country: Egypt Lane, East Hampton, Long Island, New York.

We were living in the Hamptons, a picturesque extremity of Long Island once solely renowned for its potato farms, fishermen, sand dunes and watercolour sunsets. The Hamptons still have all of that, but, come the warm weather, the region turns into a frenetic, Rolodex-spinning satellite of Manhattan, 160 kilometres to the west. Year-round residents, many of them otherwise reclusive artists and writers, sip drinks with their vacationing agents and publishers; celebrities munch muffins and mistreat waiters in gourmet coffee shops; Wall Street muscle boys stride the sidewalks with their supermodel trophy dates; four-wheel-drive Jeeps and stretch limousines congregate outside newly opened restaurants; and everyone rushes to parties – dinner parties, cocktail parties, book launch parties, charity benefits, gallery openings, designer picnics – where business and pleasure come together into one high-profile Hamptons whole.

Hence our small-town caterer’s relentless big-city salesmanship – he had, in essence, become his clients, as in-your-face as the archetypical Manhattan mogul, as self-absorbed as the city itself. The Hamptons are, in the summer, where those accustomed to a life that includes power breakfasts and personal trainers come to attempt the implausible: They try to look relaxed. At times the leafy stateliness of the region’s towns, many of which are colonial beauties founded in the mid-17th century, can conceal the breakneck social steeplechase being conducted in the seaside summer mansions. At other times, particularly during the holiday weekends of Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labour Day, the Hamptons look like New England on amphetamines.

And here we were, doing the Hamptons thing, organizing a party. How embarrassing. Admittedly, it was our wedding, but the droves of hyperactive New Yorkers sure to descend on the Hamptons as May approached would only complicate matters. Chance had brought us here for the winter: A proffered house-sit allowed us to leave a shoebox apartment in Manhattan’s East Village and outfox – or rather, outfax – the constraints of the writing life. Ready for a year of living demurely, we bought a 1970 Dodge Dart and then lumbered out of the city, only to find, when we finally pulled into a wintry East Hampton, that our new neighbourhood was a desert of opulence.

On Egypt Lane, our street, stood Rowdy House, the dignified 19th-century house in which Jacqueline Bouvier spent her debutante infancy, surrounded by immaculately groomed estates that had once echoed with the laughter of the Gatsby set. Across the street from our adopted house, itself a fine old home set on an acre of land, there stretched a pond-riddled nature preserve stocked with swans and ducks; a quarter-mile to the south lay a country club abutting a wetland, where hundreds of Canada geese exuberantly honked away the short, crisp days of January and February. And, down a winding lane bordered by sprawling mansions whose grey shingles showed their allegiance to Long Island tradition, the Atlantic Ocean awaited us, its angry breakers smashing against an endless succession of sand dunes. Jill and I were all alone, interlopers in Arcadia, night watchmen in Versailles. We took long walks on the beach and sang “la-da-da-dee-da,” the theme for Calvin Klein’s Eternity. We cooked, we danced, we watched an eclipse of the moon, we weathered winter storms, we decided to get married. New York seemed very far away.

It wasn’t, of course. Although we were isolated, the city reached out to pigeonhole us. Our house was “south of the highway,” Hamptonese, our friends were quick to inform us over the phone, for the right side of the tracks. That road, Route 27, or, as it is known in the Hamptons, the Montauk highway, begins only two or three hours away in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. It heads east into Queens, past JFK International Airport, and then into Nassau County, where it slices through the suburban “Lawn Guyland” of the tabloids, the turf of gum-snapping Lolitas and Islanders fans with shag haircuts. Much farther east, Route 27, and its speedier sister, the Long Island Expressway, encounter rural Suffolk County, which, at its midpoint, assumes the shape of an open lobster pincer. The longer, and larger, of these two claws of land, called the South Fork, is home to the villages and towns of the Hamptons: Westhampton, Southampton, Hampton Bays, Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Amagansett, Sag Harbor, Sagaponack, Wainscott, Springs, Napeague and, although its residents resent inclusion in the Hamptons, the land’s end port of Montauk. The protests of the Montauk crowd, however, are usually dismissed, for any fishing village that houses Ralph Lauren, Robert De Niro and Paul Simon – who regularly recruits wife Edie Brickell and such neighbours as Paul and Linda McCartney to jam at charity benefits for the town lighthouse – might not be as entirely free of affectation as it pretends.

Pretending – and pretension – are, in fact the hallmark of Hamptons living. The goal is to affect rustic insouciance while engaging in naked networking or celebrity befriending. Or, as a publicist friend told me, “You go there because the city does.” Some towns, we learned as we “Darted” around that spring making wedding arrangements, represent different Manhattan tribes. Southampton, the largest town in the area and, as its signs helpfully insist, the oldest English settlement in New York State, plays host to the Establishment, whether it’s Wall Street, Madison Avenue, or Park Avenue and the Upper East Side. It is also the place that the Great Depression seems to have forgotten – some of its 1930s-era mansions are so Olympian that they now rent at $250,000 for the three-month summer season. Evan Rofheart, whose magazine stores in Southampton and East Hampton carry thousands of titles, explained it to me this way: “In East Hampton, my customers run the media. In Southampton, they own it.”

Bridgehampton, which lies between the two, defies such neat categorizing, principally because it is still somewhat of a developer’s free-for-all. Grand old farmhouses look out over potato fields dotted with post-modern showcases, seemingly designed for the pages of Architectural Digest and Elle Décor.Says Marion McEvoy, the editor of the latter, “We are talking serious money. Think Bel-Air or Beverly Hills. The very best architects and designers are doing their stuff out there.” And where there’s competition, inevitably there is conflict. The Candy Kitchen, Bridgehampton’s Mom-and-Pop ice cream parlour, becomes a social barometer in the summer as artists, architects, brokers and plutocrats crowd the place for power sundaes. “You should see the Candy Kitchen in August,” reporter Michael Thomas told New York magazine. “I’ve seen people screaming because they think a booth in the front is where you should be.” The “co-dependent swarm,” as food critic Gael Greene calls the summer people, is just as thick in Sag Harbor, a picturesque 19th-century whaling town a few miles north of Bridgehampton. Famous for a resident writing tradition that includes James Fenimore Cooper, John Steinbeck, E.L. Doctorow and Betty Friedan, Sag Harbor is now supposedly a place for shunning the showiness of the Hamptons. “Don’t be fooled,” a local wine merchant informed me. “This place is becoming like Aspen, only here people can read.” Perhaps solely in the neighbouring village of Springs, a collection of shack-like painters’ studios scattered in a scrubby woodland, does the ethos of artistic isolation retain its allure – that tradition was upheld by long-time denizens Willem de Koonig and the late Jackson Pollock.

Still, the surrounding Manhattan glamour has taken its toll. Some distinguished residents of Sag Harbor and Springs now eagerly join their more social counterparts from other towns for the annual Writers and Artists Softball Game. Held in East Hampton in mid-August, it is the quintessential Hamptons example of a simple event that now has layers of meanings about who’s hot and who’s not. Ephron pitches, Vonnegut connects and, in 1988 at least, home plate umpire Bill Clinton calls the ball foul. The local papers cover the event as if it were the Academy Awards. On game day the parking lot behind the diamond, Magazine Store owner Rofheart told me, “is a sea of BMWs and Jaguars.”

Which is exactly whey we started to worry as March gave way to April and traces of the summer madness began to appear. Thus far, the only harbinger of things to come had been a party for Kelly Klein, of the “la-da-da-dee-da” Kleins, thrown by a merchant enthralled by her picture book on swimming pools. Now, on warm weekends, there were people exchanging air kisses in the A&P, chauffeurs cooling their heels at newly opened espresso joints, and corporate jets descending on the local airport. People looked up at the sound of a helicopter and said, “Think it’s Spielberg?” It was still a trickle, but the dam was about to burst. We had gambled that a mid-May wedding would just beat the crowds, that our parents would be spared the indignity of being trampled by the Cindy Crawfords of the world, that our guests could get into a good restaurant on the Friday and Saturday preceding the ceremony without needing Madonna in their party. We began having anxiety attacks – perhaps we had miscalculated. Amagansett, the town next door, was filling up. Its Honest Diner, empty in the winter, had become a Sunday New York Timesreading room, jammed with same scary herd of yuppies who would line up in a blizzard to buy the fad food of the moment from Zabar’s, the gourmet emporium on the Upper West Side. Our local bookstore, Book Hampton, even called itself “The Zabar’s of the Book People.” Other ominous signs appeared: A woman arrived to re-cover our sofa – and then left because “Lorne Michaels’s people” had called her beeper. The Hampton Jitney, a bus service from the city with drink-dispensing stewardesses and passengers who wear sunglasses at night, disgorged greater numbers of Manhattanites as April turned to May. Clearly, it was going to be close.

Fortunately, everything else was under control The organic motor-mouth caterer was a nightmare of the past. After much searching, we had found superb cooks at a place called Wainscott Produce, who understood we weren’t organizing the coronation of a new shah or interested in reading the page proofs of their latest recipe book. Someone had even been found to supply us with dozens of fresh shellfish: After seeing its ad in the Yellow Pages – a bikini-clad woman astride a lobster – and thus sensing the presence of a kindred spirit, we immediatelly rushed out to visit Multi-Aquaculture, a rusting fish farm in a blessedly unfashionable spot near the dunes between Amagansett and Montauk. Overlooking a photographer’s dream of discarded refrigerators, ancient golf carts and mysterious machines oxidizing in the sea air, the main building stood alone and unimpressive, guarded by a few stray chickens. The fishy smell was overpowering – squid, eels bluefish and sea bass were splayed out on blocks of ice. A woman, the fishmonger, approached us, sniffed the air and said to Jill, “Is that Tiffany you’re wearing?” Despite appearances, we were still in the Hamptons.

The big day finally came. Relatives had arrived without incident from Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ontario and British Columbia. Friends from New York had overcome their inverse snobbery and assented to attend an event in the tony Hamptons. The dam had held, as had the good weather. It was a glorious, sunny Sunday and the city, thank God, had stayed at home, perhaps in the knowledge that Memorial Day and its hundreds of parties were just a week away. We arose early, parked the trusty Dart in the street and went about the normal pre-wedding rituals. I carved a gash in my face while shaving, Jill turned up the stereo up full blast and played “What’s New, Pussycat?” It promised to be a small, elegant affair in the country – just the sort of non-Manhattan event we wanted. Jill had once attended a back-and-forth, back-and-forth wedding on the Staten Island ferry, and some friends had been married by their chiropractor on a barge in the East River. We were rebelling.

Even the local judge co-operated. He was a mixture of Green Acres wit and judicial gravitas, not the hip Hamptonite we had feared. The big moment eventually came:

“Do you, Stephen O’Shea, take Jill Pearlman for your lawfully wedded wife?”

“I do.”

“Right answer! Do you, Jill…”

The rest, as they say, was gravy. Dancing, eating, drinking, hugging and kissing. The only instance of networking occurred when one of the guests reminded the judge that he had thrown him in jail a few years previously for sleeping on the beach. And, in the end, everyone had the good sense to leave. Parents boarded the Jitney, cars pulled away, and we were left alone on our wedding night. Almost.

The answering machine light flashed beside the bed. We flicked it on: “This is the East Hampton Police. There is a suspicious-looking vehicle parked in front of your house. A green Dodge Dart. If it is not removed, it will be towed away by morning.”

The season had begun.