Beaches, Bashes And Billion-Dollar Boltholes: Why The Hamptons Has Never Lost Its Appeal
Ms Marilyn Monroe and Mr Arthur Miller in Amagansett, 1957. Photograph by Mr Sam Shaw/Shaw Family Archives via Getty Images
There are plenty of reasons people are drawn to the Hamptons. The beaches. The bashes. The billion-dollar houses. But nothing sums up the romance and allure of the place better than a collection of photographs taken of a newlywed couple who summered there in the 1950s. Mr Arthur Miller, the playwright, and Ms Marilyn Monroe, the actress, were married in June 1956 and rented a cottage on Stony Hill Farm in Amagansett for the 1957-58 summer seasons. The 1,500sq ft cottage, which had once been home to the caretaker, was standing on a hill covered with old white oak trees, with idyllic views over the horse pastures below.
Photographs from the time show the couple riding their bicycles down a country lane or racing about in Monroe’s black 1956 convertible, Miller smoking a cigarette at the wheel, his wife in sunglasses and a white headscarf. Other pictures show them at the beach, Monroe running giddily through the surf or clinging adoringly to her husband as he cast his fishing rod. Miller later wrote how Monroe learnt to cook those summers, starting with homemade noodles, which she flung over a chair-back and dried with a hairdryer. He also recalled how she’d trim his hair outside in the sun and how they’d stroll on the empty Amagansett beach in peace, chatting to the occasional fishermen hauling in their nets.
It’s a picture of domestic bliss that feels all the more golden for having been short-lived, as their marriage faltered, and Monroe’s health deteriorated. The actress reportedly said that her time spent with Miller in the Hamptons was the happiest of her life. Who would doubt it? The Hamptons cast their spell on even the most glamorous.
Mr Andy Warhol and Ms Lee Radziwill at a Montauk Village Association Benefit Cocktail Party, 28 July 1973. Photograph by Ron Galella via Getty Images
Of course, not everyone heads to the Hamptons – a group of villages and hamlets in Long Island that includes Southampton, East Hampton, Sagaponack, Sag Harbor, Amagansett and Montauk – for peace and quiet. The place is just as famous, or infamous, these days for its raging house parties and Wolf Of Wall Street levels of excess. Most visitors settle for a summer share or a long weekend. The mega-rich come and are consumed by an altogether more costly craving: “Hamptons land lust: that inexorable gnawing desire to own a piece of landscape,” according to Mr Steven Gaines, author of Philistines At The Hedgerow.
There are many estimable books about the Hamptons including Men’s Lives by Mr Peter Matthiessen about the fishermen and surfers of Long Island and Sag Harbor by Mr Colson Whitehead, a fictional paean to the town where his family used to summer. But few are as gossipy or name-droppy as Philistines At The Hedgerow, which chronicles the Hamptons’ social scene largely through the prism of real estate. There is, after all, no better marker of status or taste in the Hamptons than property. And no more enjoyable pastime among its residents than keeping tabs on who lives where, what renovations they’re having done and whether they have the necessary permits. Neighbourly disputes over zoning laws and boundary lines are routinely a source of scandal, litigation and Vanity Fair exposés in this part of the world.
Elysium, 650 Meadow Lane, Southampton, 17 April 2009. Photograph by Mr Doug Kuntz/New York Times/Redux/eyevine
Some houses have become notorious for the eccentricity and waywardness of their inhabitants. The blue-grey gothic mansion known as Grey Gardens is renowned as the once ramshackle residence of Mrs Edith Bouvier Beale, paternal aunt to Mrs Jacqueline Onassis, and her daughter Edie, who used to wear her cousin’s designer hand-me-downs upside down. (The mother and daughter are the subjects of the cult documentary Grey Gardens.) Refurbished at the expense of Jackie O and her sister Ms Lee Radziwill, the house was later bought by former Washington Post editor Mr Ben Bradlee and his wife, writer Ms Sally Quinn, and is now owned by fashion entrepreneur Ms Liz Lange.
Other houses are haunted by the disparate tastes (or lack of taste) of their successive owners. The beachside property at 650 Meadow Lane, a 10-acre plot now owned by hedge fund manager Mr Ken Griffin, was formerly the residence of financer Mr Barry Trupin, who installed a 20ft waterfall, an indoor shark tank, a private zoo and hideous turrets on the roof that led some to label it “a Disney castle on LSD”. When Mr Calvin Klein purchased the estate in 2003, he did a gut renovation (to the relief of many local residents) and constructed a gleaming minimalist temple in its place that was the envy of many (power publicist Ms Peggy Siegal called it “drop dead gorgeous” in The New York Times).
From left: Mr Jackson Pollock, Mr Federico von Berzeviczy-Pallavicini, Ms Charlotte Willard and Ms Lee Krasner in the Pollock’s house, The Springs, East Hampton, 23 August 1953. Photograph by Mr Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images
One house in the Hamptons boasts a pedigree as dazzling as its acreage. The Creeks, one of the largest estates in East Hampton at 57 acres, has played host to a stellar line-up of houseguests. When art patrons Mr Albert and Mrs Adele Herter were the owners, Ms Isadora Duncan danced in its theatre. After art collector Mr Alfonso Ossorio took possession, the house welcomed artists such as Messrs Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell, Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. Two frequent visitors were Mr Jackson Pollock and Ms Lee Krasner, who lived in a rundown farmhouse in nearby Springs, which is now a museum where visitors have to remove their shoes and don padded slippers to walk about the paint-splattered floor.
After the Creeks was purchased by Revlon boss Mr Ronald Perelman in 1992 and wholly remodelled by starchitect Mr Peter Marino, it became the site for one of the biggest parties of the summer season. The annual Apollo in the Hamptons fundraiser, which ran from 2009 to 2019, attracted an enviable tally of A-listers, including Messrs Jack Nicholson, Jon Bon Jovi, Mark Ronson, Pharrell Williams and Ms Jennifer Lopez. When it comes to celebrity bashes, though, let’s not forget Diddy’s 1,000-guest list White Party, first held at his East Hampton enclave on Labor Day in 1998. The white dress code was apparently so strict that people were turned away for wearing beige or black shoes.
Messrs Sean “Diddy” Combs and Leonardo DiCaprio with friends at Combs’s Labor Day party, East Hampton, 29 August 1998. Photograph by Globe Photos/Zuma Press
The Hamptons are inherently a social place, where residents enjoy throwing dinner parties and having people around for sundowners on the lawn. Of all the local couples you might invite over, few were as riveting or refined as director Mr Herb Ross and his wife Ms Lee Radziwill. Radziwill’s ancestors were among the founders of East Hampton. And over the years, she moved between Lasata, her father’s family manse at 121 Further Lane (later rented by Mr Roman Abramovich and currently owned by Mr Reed Krakoff), and her own oceanside property at 43 East Dune Lane, overlooking the exclusive Maidstone Club golf course. If anyone could claim the title of East Hampton queen bee, it was her.
But if I had my pick of Hamptons guests from over the years, I would plump for the various bohemian visitors who pitched up at Dunes, the 80-acre estate on Hook Pond that was home in the 1930s and 1940s to Ms Sara and Mr Gerald Murphy, the real-life models for the couple in Mr F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night. During their tenure, the estate played host to the likes of Messrs Fernand Léger, Marc Chagall, Salvador and Ms Gala Dalí, who spent most of their days lounging on the beach behind the estate. The women made bathing suits out of twisted scarves or just went topless, while the party played chess or charades or a savage version of truth or dare called La Verité, which inevitably erupted into fierce arguments.
Dunes is now gone. It was sold to a developer in 1941 and subdivided into smaller houses. But the spirit of the place, its sense of fun and ethos of living well endures in houses and estates across the Hamptons. Isn’t that why we love it?