Every year around this time, there’s an article about the Hamptons losing its allure, its “understated magic,” as the nouveau riche and hoi polloi have crowded out the entitled who’ve summered there for generations. I’d guess this complaint has persisted since I was a kid on Long Island and had never heard of Dune Road and wasn’t acquainted with any bluebloods who swam in the Atlantic. I’d been to Riverhead in 9th grade, on a field trip to see Maury Nadjari (father of my longtime friend Howie) prosecute a case; knew that my brothers went to Boy Scout camp in Montauk; saw a Long Island Ducks hockey game in Commack; and tagged along in early-1974 with high school buddies Tom Demske and Mike Bifulco—quart bottles of Rheingold for the eight a.m. drive—for two of their classes at Suffolk County Community College, and then later we went to see Bob Dylan and The Band at Nassau Coliseum.
I’m familiar with that rarefied part of the Island now, as my first trip to Southampton was in 1987, a weekend visit to the house one of my brothers and his family rented, before they bought a place a few years later. It was eye-opening to me, a city rat since I was 18, but not for the celebrity sightings or the expected grousing from old-timers about how damned crowded the roadside produce stands had become or the lines at Bridgehampton’s Candy Kitchen; it was the freedom I loved, riding a bicycle for miles at seven a.m., the first time I’d done that since I was 15; dinners that started with clams either steamed or on the half shell and whatever fish the cook had picked out earlier in the day. It was such a new experience that when I returned to Baltimore and wrote about the trip in my City Paper column, I misspelled Southampton—the proofreader didn’t catch it either—and was good-naturedly ribbed by our restaurant critic, an old-money artist, who with his high-powered wife, a bank executive, also gave me fashion advice, such as never, ever, wear British-made shoes with a linen suit. I’d visit my family several times each summer in the late-1980s, gab with my late sister-in-law for hours on the lawn, hang out with my nephew and his friends at night, and attempt to destroy my brother at ping-pong and bocce. At least in ping-pong, I usually drew the short stick.
No doubt I was considered an interloper back in ‘87—as well as the several times my own family rented small houses in Bridgehampton, and every other time I’ve visited relatives even since—but that flew over my head. I used to love taking the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to Southampton, back when you could stand on the open-window platform, smoke a cigarette, and get lost, once past Huntington, at the view of still-untouched potato farms and miles of open land. The traffic was awful 35 years ago, but could be beat by judicious planning. We rarely ventured into town, except to pick up a pizza, a copy of the fat-with-ads Dan’s Paper, a couple of books, a lunch in Amagansett (pictured above) and maybe some water toys for the kids. Friends from New York Press would come out for the weekend, and I’d steam fish and corn on the grill for six or seven people, drink wine, look at stars, go swimming and play croquet in the backyard.
In any case, I bring this up because I read a recent column by my old friend Taki—at 86, still tapping out 700 words every week and riotously lampooning whatever annoys him—who lamented “Long-Ago Long Island” and said he sold his well-appointed Southampton house and now ventures there for just two nights a summer to reminisce with those left from his private club and then “hightails” it back to “The Big Bagel.” I didn’t know “the poor little Greek Boy” in the 1960s or 70s, but I’d bet he was making the same observations back then, when celebrities like Bob Dylan (who was reclusive), along with other pop stars and artists of the moment took advantage of well-earned wealth to take a breather. George Plimpton undoubtedly passed the test for Taki, but Truman Capote and Andy Warhol? Not likely, and certainly the same for Paul Simon, Diana Ross and Marlo Thomas.
He writes: “The recent dot-com crowd [I think Taki’s acting the rube with that outdated reference, but one can never be sure], alas, believed only in themselves, and ended up constructing monster houses that would scare away Frankenstein. Their imprimatur will one day seem as proof of why AI decided to do away with humanity.” I disagree with Taki here: I’ve always enjoyed riding around and seeing the billion-dollar houses, some gorgeous, some “monstrosities,” because unlike uptight Massachusetts destinations like Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, the zoning restrictions are loose in the Hamptons, and the result is a laboratory of architecture. (I like Nantucket, by the way, and have spent a lot of time there, but the local rule that all houses must look the same is too precious.)
Taki continues: “The coup de grace of the Hamptons took place some time ago, when Paris Hilton, Puff Daddy, Busta Rhymes, Gwyneth Paltrow, and other such rich undesirables (to me anyway) discovered the place.” I wouldn’t recognize Paris Hilton or any other “rich undesirables” if they passed on the street, so I’ll part company with Taki in this rare instance, and wish him the best in whatever more anonymous destination he now favors.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023