For much of The Hamptons crowd, quaint is a weekend word. It goes nicely with ocean breezes, lawn sculpture and country club brights. This playground of the rich and richer is actually a string of villages and hamlets kept purposefully free of retail override. Only the privileged few gain access to this captive audience, mostly antique shops and cashmere boutiques, but a couple of very posh Starbucks have been able to sneak in as well. (Everyone needs their coffee.) Fashion, art, mansions, gardens and leisurely recreation have featured high on the Hamptons must-do list since its discovery as the perfect getaway for the well-heeled and well-born. Alongside the upper crust, the Hamptons have led a parallel life as artist-colony-cum-cool-bohemian-destination. Like pilot fish and shark, the heady mix between these parallel species has created a kind of Hamptons sing-along that has born great works, broken a few lives and resulted in a lot of sunburns.
Being a recent transplant to New York, and as yet not part of the jet set, I have to admit that I knew next to nothing about The Hamptons. I had heard of East Hampton and knew it stood for Beach and Money but that was about the extent of my familiarity. I hadn't grown up with the lure of the North Shore parties, nor did I know so-and-so's cousin who spent the summers there. I couldn't have really said where it was, and have never longed for that weekend invitation. It was simply a rich resort, and for me, "rich" was a vague concept, probably acquired from TV, that loomed so far off in the distance that its absence was not even felt. However, as the temperatures began to rise in Manhattan and spring moved towards summer, I started to hear about surfside escapes that friends were planning. Suddenly I found myself right in the middle of Hamptons mania.
So last weekend, in a wooded glen in the Springs neighborhood of East Hampton, actually within biking distance of the Pollock/Krasner House and Study Center, I got my first taste of Hamptons living with a lunch of grilled kale and flounder and an afternoon of poolside chit-chat interrupted only by the buzz of the cicada. Idyllic idyll - yes. Far from the maddening crowd - check. And to accompany this initial exposure, I read as much as I could about the ghosts of Hamptons past, a crash course fueled by dappled light and intermittent wifi.
At the Landing, Gardiner's Island. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.
First, the Distant Past: From its early beginnings Long Island attracted wealth in the form of Lion Gardiner, who purchased Gardiner's Island in 1639 from the Montaukett tribe for gun powder, blankets and such. Then came Puritan settlers down from Massachusettes looking for better land and more freedom, and due to the natural occurence of whales beaching themselves along the coast, a whaling industry was developed out of the ports of Sag Harbor and Sagaponack. Small villages grew, the waters were fished out, and not much happened until the extension of the Long Island Railroad in the late 1800's opened up the area to bucks and bustles. The North Shore of Long Island became "the ultimate gathering place for the wealthy and celebrated" during what's known as America's Gilded Age. Hundreds of landmark estates were designed and built and the Hamptons' reputation as the preferred resort for the Manhattanites of means was born.
Then the Artists Came: At the same time, the grassy knolls of this natural wonderland were made all the more charming by the presence of art students painting the light and water, the dunes and salt box houses of the Hamptons. These students flocked to William Merritt Chase's Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art (which ran from 1891-1902) in pursuit of plein-air painting. Situated on Studio Lane just north of Hill Street in Southampton, the Arts & Crafts style compound known as Stepping Stones became the academic center and boardinghouse for Chase's student body. The Shinnecock Hills Summer School was "one of the first American summer schools devoted to plein air painting and a touchstone in establishing the East End as a serious artistic enclave..." Chase, a renowned portrait and scenic painter, brought his European training and cosmopolitan manners to the wealthy summer crowds of the Hamptons and the magic was complete.
Tony Vaccaro, Jackson Pollock, center, with Lee Krasner and a neighbor, Sam Duboff, in Pollock’s studio in August 1953. This image is part of an exhibition of photos by Tony Vaccaro at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton. Courtesy of the New York Times.
The Next Wave: As the plein air painters faded into 19th century nostalgia and Modernism took hold in the US, the post-war renaissance brought a new wave of artists to the East End. This was a grittier, hard drinking, hard living variety of artist, not the taffeta gang of Mr. Chase. But the Hamptons light and beauty had the same inspiring effect and the muses did their work. Jackson Pollock (whose 100 year anniversary is being celebrated this year) led the way in 1945, supposedly looking for relief from his alcoholism and a peaceful place to work. He and Lee Krasner set up shop thanks to the $2000 loan from Peggy Guggenheim to purchase their rental property in the Springs. And there Pollock found his "action painting" and some of his greatest works were completed, in the barn, on the floor, pouring and dripping, including Autumn Rhythm, Convergence, Blue Poles. Of course, one of the landmark moments on the current Hampton tour is the re-discovered barn floor, drips and all (there's the blue from Blue Poles...).
Pollock and the Hamptons became forever linked and the allure of his brilliance drew many others. In 1961, Willem and Elaine de Kooning bought a property in the same area after having visited with Pollock and Krasner several times. There they stayed to work and live for the next forty years. Many other artists and writers flooded to the area during the 50's and 60's looking for inspiration, the scene, the parties: Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Marisol, Jim Dine, John Steinbeck, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Stella Adler and Edward Albee. This was the heyday of the Hamptons as artist enclave, a time when the property was still affordable and the living was easy with rustic charm. The 1970’s and 80's saw the likes of Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey and the glamourous crowd that Andy attracted. His estate, Eothen, served more as an entertaining house than an actual working studio, and so had very little to do with artistic pursuit and more to do with the rich and famous. The chairs had been swapped and the artist was now on the monied side of the line.
William Merritt Chase, At the Seaside, 1892, Oil on canvas. Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
And Back to the Present: Over the last 20 years, The Hamptons' shores have continued to draw the well-off to their pristine stretches. Locals and insiders bemoan the loss of the relaxed informality of the beachy towns. Conversations tend towards real estate prices, and fighting over tree cutting, and the rates for private charter helicopters. Organic produce markets and more luxury car dealers dot the horizon. the hydrangeas continue to please while the Montauk highway continues to be jammed. September is the new popular month and the same tony restaurants serve as a star-watcher's haven. This year the surge in art fairs spanning the month of July is a mountain-to-Mohammad move as galleries and their artists gear up to make summertime the time for collecting. After all, there are a lot of walls in those mega-hideaways.
The ghosts of Hamptons past still whisper through the pines and dunes interrupted only by the buzz of the cicada. There are many more books to read, and the art fairs await.
(top image: John Jonas Gruen, Group Shot (with driftwood) Flying Point Beach, Water Mill, NY, 1959, Photograph. Courtesy of Artspace and the artist. (Back row): Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roland Pease (Middle row): Grace Hartigan, Stephen Rivers, Larry Rivers, Herbert Machiz, Tibor de Nagy, John Myers (Front row): Mary Abbott, Sondra Lee, Maxine Groffsky, Jane Freilicher, Joe Hazan.)