The Hell of the Hamptons: Why the Exclusive Hotspot Is a Mind-Numbing Drag
It’s nearly midnight on a Friday in July at the Surf Lodge in Montauk, a hotel-restaurant-bar famed for being among the hottest spots in the Hamptons. Perhaps it’s because I have been queuing for over an hour to get in, only upon entering to encounter paradise half-empty, but drinking a margarita in a plastic cup that cost me $15 has left me underwhelmed.
While my wife’s best friend is discussing what to do about her out-of-control therapist father, I scan the room for celebrities. Two days later the Surf Lodge will play host to Adrian Grenier, Will Arnett and Harvey Weinstein, but the closest I get to a celebrity is a middle-aged brunette who is a dead ringer for Princess Stephanie of Monaco.
However, she turns out to have a thick New England accent, so my dreams of getting dynamite intel on the House of Grimaldi subside like the waves of the Atlantic Ocean breaking ashore outside.
I hate the Hamptons more than ever. Everyone’s meant to be on vacation and yet it feels the opposite of that. Whether it’s swapping lifestyle comparisons indoors or going out for dinner or drinks, invariably you end up working damned hard to keep up with the Joneses or in this case the Blankfeins or the Dimons.
Such is the overpowering tendency of the moneyed classes to convey to you the benefits that accrue from an inflated wallet that if you don’t declare you work in private equity, you acquire misfit status. Easthampton now feels like the backdrop to a lush TV pilot, though one too thin on entertainment and too rich in cliché to ever be developed into a successful series.
The Hamptons was once described on Gossip Girl as “Park Avenue but with tennis whites and Bain de Soleil.” At the Surf Lodge it feels more like a dead stretch of First Avenue in the pouring rain as babyfaced prepsters wave credit cards around like magic wands as though that will transform their personalities into the players of their mind’s eye.
We’re soon joined by friends of my wife’s family. One guy who works in private equity is paying $10,000 for his summer rental in Montauk and he’s wondering whether it’s a good investment. It takes just as long to fly to Miami, he ponders, as it does to navigate the horrendous traffic on the Long Island Expressway. He then concludes, hey, he’s in the Hamptons and it doesn’t get better than this.
It most certainly does. I’ve been visiting the Hamptons for eight years for family reasons. My wife’s relatives have historical ties to Westhampton and many of her friends live in East Hampton and Sag Harbor. This year I was determined to enjoy my time there and not adopt my default facial expression in the Hamptons, which must resemble Mel Gibson at a bar mitzvah.
The day after the Surf Lodge debacle, I dine at one of the Hamptons’ most sophisticated restaurants, The Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton. It has a lovely rustic feel with plank wooden floors and uncovered fireplaces. The seafood is good.
One of our party verbally assaults us with the fact that her partner is involved with an archive project commemorating the glory of Ralph Lauren, but all I can think about is that my sea bass cost $40 and I hope to God I can get out of paying the bill. (Thankfully, that night my wish came true.) When we leave we’re asked if we would like to attend a pig roast barbecue with wine costing $100 a head. I mutter I’m otherwise engaged.
Hasn’t summer in the Hamptons always been full of cynics like me singing from the “it-ain’t-what-it-was” songbook? Maybe, but surely a vacation should be spent relaxing on the beach and recharging the batteries. Instead it’s just one boring and vacuous conversation after another, usually about material competitiveness or the extreme behavior of someone I wish I didn’t know.
Often unsatisfactory compromise is the order of the day. Some parents from my daughter’s Upper East Side preschool arranged for a play date only for infighting to then break out over which parent would host the gathering. A truce was eventually brokered and it took place at the East Hampton playground in the area’s Village Park.
“The Hamptons are usually filled with what I had hoped to leave behind in New York City,” Mario Batali once said. He’s onto something, yet the area lacks the imagination and the distinctiveness that makes the Big Apple great. Reading material by a beach or a pool this summer seemed to consist of either Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
“Diversification” is a hedge fund wife eschewing a Lily Pulitzer tote bag in favor of one made by Sloane Ranger or Jonathan Adler.
True, there’s a wide (white) demographic reach in the Hamptons as the young and old continue to flock there. Gilded offspring worry about things that don’t matter and elderly retirees worry about the noise and the traffic and why the Hamptons they love has been invaded by barbarians.
“In many ways the Hamptons are more glamorous than ever,” writes Michael Shnayerson in The Big Book of the Hamptons, a flabby $75 tome which has adorned many a Bridgehampton coffee table this season. Up to a point he is right: Sure, you read about Scarlett Johansson and Rachel Zoe at Martha Stewart’s Victorian pad but most of the parties, benefits, trunk shows and lunches attract no boldface names.
The product is the star. Summer vacations should offer a hiatus from the hustle but at the Hamptons everyone is selling or pushing someone or something. When Jessica Seinfeld posts an Instagram photo eating sushi at an East Hampton eaterie with Gwyneth Paltrow, do you think the words “Shuko Beach” make it in there by accident?
The celebrities who are there are usually 1989’s stars of tomorrow (Matt Dillon, Alec Baldwin and Matthew Broderick) or plastic and anodyne wannabes of today (usually called Kyle or Helen). It speaks volumes that by common consensus the showbiz family of the moment in the Hamptons is the Watts clan—actress Naomi, her partner Liev Schreiber, and her photographer brother Ben. Naomi Watts deserves to have won an Oscar by now and Ben’s annual Montauk Shark Attack party is supposedly awesome, but the most interesting thing about the Watts’ family is that Naomi is considered an Aussie and Ben viewed as a Brit.
Shnayerson goes on to write in the introduction to The Big Book of The Hamptons: “For all the frustrations, [there’s] a lot more fun: a dizzying mix of old money and new, with all that implies.”
To paraphrase a New Yorker cartoon of yesteryear, I’m “No Money” rather than “Old Money” or “New Money,” but the mix is not fun and about as dizzying as a steel ruler. Few bankers properly know the art of being on vacation. Most of them remain chained to their smartphones, scrutinizing the market to alleviate deal-making withdrawal symptoms.
Post-2008 crash, many adopt a nauseating faux-apologetic act away from their desks that’s less Master of the Universe and more stressed servant sacrificing too many of their precious non-working waking hours to the master that is the market.
Take my wife’s friend Gary. “Please don’t hate me but I’m an investment banker,” he said to my wife’s cousin when they met for the first time. “No, Gary, it’s you that is the problem, not your profession,” I wanted to reply. “There will always be a need for financial institutions to look after our money. Far less urgent is the need for you to wander in and out of the cabana of the beach club when I’m trying to watch the World Cup and look up from your tablet to say something unoriginal about a game you haven’t been watching.”
Fed up of being surrounded by a revolving cast of affluent crashing bores, I vowed to get out more. After all, the Hamptons has the reputation of being an artistic jewel in the East Coast crown. Sag Harbor was home to John Steinbeck and legendary literary salons featuring Truman Capote, George Plimpton, and Kurt Vonnegut, and many a film premiere occurs during the summer months.
My first stop on this doomed cultural quest was a trip to the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor to see a revival of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. The production was tolerable and the theater intimate, but if Stoppard’s time-bending account of an old man’s recalling his encounters with various revolutionaries possesses intellectual ideas above its station, the same could not seemingly be said of the audience.
The girl next to me, an attractive brunette in her 20s, spent much of the first act and most of the second half asleep. She woke up at the curtain call and proceeded to clap her hands enthusiastically at what she had slept through, like an undernourished penguin expressing its appreciation at the sight of a bowl of squid.
Thanks to my social fixer Henry (a lovely guy who needs to get out less), I attended a premiere of And So It Goes, Rob Reiner’s recently-released film starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton at East Hampton’s Guild Hall.
This event conformed to what seems to be the leading commandment of any Hamptons’ cultural occasion: Thou Shall Diminish the Work Being Presented. And So It Went. The premiere crowd enthusiastically reminisced about Douglas and Reiner’s previous film, The American President, at the expense of debating the merits or otherwise of the movie we had ventured out to see.
I also attended a private view of an exhibition of Bob Dylan’s drawings and sketches at the Mark Borghi Fine Art gallery in Bridgehampton. The art itself offered a vivid showcase of Dylan’s art between 1989 and 1992 but the private viewing, held on July 3, proved another social damp squib.
More than once people mentioned how appropriate this was happening on the eve of the Fourth of July since Dylan was such an American icon, reducing the voice of his generation to the status of a hot dog or a firework. Dylan definitely made the right move by staying away from his exhibition party.
But here we come to another cardinal rule of the Hamptons: Do not for one moment dare to question the glory of your surroundings and let daylight in on the magic.
The stultifying ennui was captured by Kristin Huggins’ recent piece for The Cut recounting her life as a hired gun in the Hamptons to rich men. She’s onto something when she quotes a colleague saying: “The Hamptons are over anyway…anyone who is anyone is in the South of France.”
Not only that but the South of France, the Italian Riveria, and the Greek islands also boast farm-style villages, beachfront homes, and marinas. They too lay claim to nice restaurants and I bet they’re not full of women calling out their companions for not having reminded them of a missed abs, back and chest class appointment at Barry’s Boot Camp gym earlier in the day as I heard when I ate at Sag Harbor’s Doppio East.
Western Europe is hardly immune to bureaucratic hassles, yet you would almost certainly not find a municipality spending $18,000 taking a local shop owner to court for placing an ice-cream cone sculpture outside their storefront, as recently happened to the owner of Westhampton Beach’s Shock Ice Cream.
As for the interior design in the Hamptons, one landscape architect told me demand for 1920s shingle-style houses or the modern driftwood look now dominates to a maddening degree. Master builder Al Giaquinto refreshingly admitted to Hamptons Magazine recently: “There are a lot of spec houses being built, so homes are not made for the individual. If they were, you wouldn’t have the repetitive nature; there would be a lot more individuality with the architecture. What I’m starting to see is that it’s all the same and, as an architect, it does bother me.”
The Kardashians have been causing plenty of bother in the Hamptons recently with the opening of their Dash boutique store in Southampton and residents in East Hampton objecting to filming of E!’s upcoming reality show Kourtney & Khloe Take the Hamptons. The Kardashians do stand out in the Hamptons—they’re far more creative than most people in the area, for one thing.
My guess is that when Kourtney & Khloe Take the Hamptons airs in the fall, they’ll be plenty of dynastic squabbling and minimal footage of the Hamptons party circuit. Because as Tom Cruise nearly said in Mission Impossible, “The scene! The scene is dead!”
I’m hearing that Nantucket and Shelter Island are gaining ground as alternative summer destinations to the Hamptons, but next year I’ll doubtless be back, obligation defeating inclination as it so often does. And I’m fearing that one of these days, as I continue to suffer in the excruciating and extortionate hellhole that is The Hamptons, I’ll be the one that gets handed the check.
Robert Gold is a pseudonym. Some other names have been changed.