If you are looking for a place where you can, in your day dreams, ride out the recession, might I suggest one of the Hamptons? These are the celebrity-drenched villages that stretch for thirty miles across the sand dunes and potato fields of Long Island’s South Fork, which ends at Montauk Point and its lighthouse.
Why the Hamptons for a depression-era exile? For starters, if you’re a seller, the Hamptons remain Paradise. Fishermen’s cottages start at $1 million, oceanfront property goes for about $7 million an acre, and the street value of guacamole rivals that of cocaine.
When I was growing up on Long Island (although closer to New York City than the East End), the Hamptons were popular, but not in the league of Newport, Malibu, or Key Biscayne. Southampton was notable for the childhood home of Carl Yastrzemski, the Boston Red Sox star. Montauk had a few old inns associated with railroad developments, and party fishing boats with names like the “The Codfather.”
Then as now, the beaches and the surf were invigorating. To spend time in the Hamptons, however, it wasn’t necessary to have the wealth of Stephen Spielberg, Jerry Seinfeld, or Martha Stewart (whose Hampton Style mansions I have passed when out biking).
Now, however, the Hamptons have become as mythical as Camelot, a place where for $26.7 million you can buy an oceanfront “cottage” that looks like a departure lounge at Raleigh-Durham Airport.
Part of the reason for this North Atlantic bubble is that the Hamptons allow tourists and residents to imagine themselves as extras in a romantic comedy.
If you have never been, it’s best to imagine the towns, once fishing and potato farming villages, as Hollywood backlots, although to play a leading role it helps to cultivate eccentricity. For example:
When Jerry Seinfeld bought his estate off Further Lane in East Hampton, he put in a baseball diamond, prompting his neighbors to insist that he screen the backstop, less someone think it was a public park.
In one of her piques of anger or carelessness, Martha Stewart apparently ran over her neighbor’s gardener.
The writer George Plimpton was arrested for shooting off fireworks.
As told in the documentary film Grey Gardens, in the 1970s East Hampton authorities and the ASPCA raided the house belonging to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s aunt, who lived in a 28-room beachfront mansion with stray cats, broken windows, and unpaid electricity bills.
The house now belongs to the former Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, and his wife, Sally Quinn. I have puzzled over the connection between an East Hampton estate and Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, which Bradlee broke. Was one a reward for the other?
Even in World War II, the Hamptons had a make-believe aura. The local newspaper ran ads for “War Damage Insurance...resulting from enemy attack,” just in case your infinity pool got taken in some crossfire.
According to the popular legend (well packaged by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI), on a foggy night in June 1942, a German U-boat landed four spies on Amagansett beach, plus enough money, weapons and explosives to make a dent in Pennsylvania’s Horseshoe Curve and New York’s Hell Gate Bridge.
A Coast Guardsman patrolling the beach came across the bumbling Germans, who claimed (in slightly accented English) to be local “Fischermenn” but then offered a $300 bribe to the officer to forget about the encounter.
The spies-like-us buried their stash in the sand, including a hat with a Nazi insignia (now that’s covering your tracks), and walked to the train station, where they bantered with the ticket agent, presumably about the weather in Berlin. Some days later in New York, Hoover’s G-men busted the ring. It's impossible not to wonder whether the FBI scripted such turgid summer theater from the beginning.
Technically, Montauk is not part of the Hamptons. Traditionally a fishing village, it is responsible for many East End legends, including the rumor that Howard Hughes was secluded here in one of his darkened rooms.
In 1792 President George Washington authorized the construction of the Montauk Lighthouse. Now it’s part of a state park, which charges $8 for parking and $9 per person for admission, and where bicycles and picnickers are treated as public nuisances.
In the Spanish-American war, Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders were stationed at Montauk, although with so few rations that they had to live off food baskets from local housewives. Later, Montauk harbor became the preserve of bootleggers, who would land hooch and drive it to the Hamptons .
Through much of the early twentieth century, speculators traded land around Montauk, on the theory that it would become the “Miami of the North” or a commercial port for transatlantic shipping. Neither ever happened, although the Pennsylvania and Long Island railroads ran sleeping car service to the end of the island. Clearest proof of the Great Depression was the news in 1932 that the Pennsylvania had suspended its parlor cars from Pittsburgh to Montauk.
What do people “do” in the Hamptons? The beach and the surf are the main attractions, and near them are tennis courts and golf courses, not to mention all sorts of boutiques, including those selling skimpy $3,000 cocktail dresses.
What many visitors like to do is drive up and down Route 27, the only east-west corridor through the Hamptons. At all hours it is clogged with black SUVs, with tinted windows, that give the Hamptons the air of a parking lot at a Russian night club.
Full-time residents have an additional burden: their vacations are spent at various “benefits” to support libraries, whales, wetlands, and rain forests, all of which can be saved for about $1,000 a table.
The East Hampton Star, the local newspaper, and a great one at that, chronicles the summer charitable works with celebrity pictures and half-page invitations, all of which, as best as I can determine, promise to deliver the presence of Alec Baldwin.
Leaving aside the $100 guacamole and the multi-million dollar cottages, there is still a lot to love about the real-world in the Hamptons. The beach is glorious, and the sea breezes deal with most New York City heat waves. The view of the ocean and the dunes at sunset is timeless. I still like biking to the Montauk lighthouse, despite the Route 27 traffic and gruff staff.
One reason I return to the Hamptons is that it reminds me of childhood summers, which involved trips to the same beaches, sometimes by train. On still nights, lying in bed, I can hear the engine whistles of the Long Island Railroad, echoing at grade crossings in distant cornfields. They remind me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s boats, those that “beat on, against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Photo By Jeff Pearce, Montauk Lighthouse
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, winner of Foreword’s bronze award for best travel essays at this year's BEA. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine. He lives in Switzerland.