Ah, the Hamptons. Warm, desultory days by the pristine beaches, surrounded by the rich and famous. A summer playground for affluent New Yorkers that attracts the cream of Hollywood and the peripatetic aristocracy of Europe.
There's Southampton, nouveau riche, with its multimillion-dollar homes on Gin Lane. (Not to mention scandals, at least one each summer. This year it's publicist Lizzie Grubman, who "inadvertently" drove her car in reverse at 2 in the morning at the Conscience Point Inn in early July and ran into more than a dozen people.) And Sagaponack, with its mansions of 20,000, 30,000 and even 100,000 square feet. East Hampton, with its boutiques, $1,200 Ralph Lauren sweaters, the Maidstone Club, Nick & Toni's restaurant and Steven Spielberg. Sag Harbor, a sleepy town no more, filled to the brim with African-American bourgeoisie and a bevy of authors and publishers. The Hamptons, with Gwyneth Paltrow, billionaire Ron Perlman and inamorata Ellen Barkin, equestrian events and fund-raisers galore.
And, well, I've seen none of it. That isn't my Hamptons. I've been coming here on and off (more off than on) for 20 years. I don't drive a Mercedes, a Jaguar, a Porsche or a BMW, the preferred vehicle in the public parking lots. I drive a rented Chevy Malibu. I don't live in a Charles Gwathmy house, or a cute little "cottage" with flora from Bora Bora and fauna from Belize. I'm just a guest in a sprawling place in East Hampton that hasn't been altered since the 1950s, with a tennis court and pool. The beach is half a mile away, a gorgeous stretch of white that goes on for miles.
The beaches made the Hamptons, natural expanses with moderate surf and endless silica. All along the South Fork of Long Island, there are hundreds of miles of it, next to sheltered bays or the open sea. Even on a crowded day, when the traffic is so jammed on the two-lane Route 27 that it can take a hour to go the 12 miles that separate East Hampton and Southampton, with the Land Rovers honking angrily at each other through titanium sunglasses and ultrathin Nokia mobile phones, even then it's possible to find quiet stretches of beach and stare out to the ocean.
This isn't the American version of the Riviera or the Costa del Sol. For all the celebrity and the buzz, the Hamptons have remained relatively undeveloped. There are no multistory buildings and no large hotels by the beach, only mansions, many of which are set back behind the dunes, invisible to passersby. And on days when the tanned and toned crowds line up for brunch at Babette's, looking for some barbecued tempeh burgers or an egg-white omelet after a hard night dodging Lizzie or looking for Mr. Right (or Mr. Rich--whichever comes first) at Savanna's, you can drive out to Montauk and watch the Atlantic with no one in sight. You can head north and be surrounded by farmland, by the acres of potatoes and corn that have been planted here since the 17th century. You can leave all that hullaballoo, the people who make the gossip columns and fill the paparazzi pages. As I say, that's not my Hamptons. Not at all.
Sure, Alec Baldwin was seated at the table next to me at Babette's the other day. (Hey, where else can you find turkey sausage and smoked poblano omelets at 3 on a Sunday afternoon?) But I was doing my own thing. The people I know here bought houses in 1975 for $55,000 that now sell for $5 million. Most of them, anyway. But it's hard not to run into people with oodles of money. The Hamptons are a series of small towns trying to act like a big city. No wonder there were 58 accidents in the two-street village of East Hampton during one seven-day stretch in early August.
If you want to keep to your less-than-monied self, you have to really try. I don't play at exclusive tennis clubs. (Except for that doubles game I got invited to in Sag Harbor, and another one on those grass courts in East Hampton, but those were exceptions.) I don't host fabulous dinner parties, or go to them, though that fresh-caught tuna grilled by an art dealer was pretty nice. I don't go to Nick & Toni's or to Della Famina, at least not on weekends. And I don't fly out here on my private jet, though a lot of them do pass overhead with annoying frequency. My Hamptons is a small place of humid air and dreamy days, spent reading or, very occasionally, writing. It's a place of family and friends, social and restful. The buzz is there, you can feel it, and if you venture out, you will see it, right next to you. But unless you want to, or need to, it can recede to the background. You're left with the sound of the waves and the breeze and the quiet that descends each evening at dusk, broken only by crickets and the faint echo of cars being parked by valets.