How St. Tropez Malaise Destroyed My Hamptons

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, there was a pleasant little town beside a sparkling sea. The landscape back from the beach was largely rural and agricultural. It was a place that was uncomplicated, accessible and inexpensive-a place of simple restaurants serving grilled fish and fresh produce, an easy lifestyle and uncrowded summer beaches that provided a fine place for children to romp. It was an environment that attracted artists and writers (a number from New York), along with a few old WASP families.

Then the word got out. Celebrities began to appear, high-visibility “big city” types and a sprinkling from show business and the movies. Curiosity inflamed by the boldface names the gossip columnists and lifestyle media dredged up, the hoi polloi became curious to see what was going on, and descended on the place hoping to catch a glimpse of-or to lick an ice cream next to-a fourth-tier movie personality. The yachts in the marina became larger and attracted their own ooh-and-aah constituency.

In a few years, the initial trickle of day-tripping sightseers became a torrent; what had been an easy drive from the big city back up the coast, or from one coastal hamlet to the next, became a nightmare. Old farmhouses were bought up. A place whose appeal had formerly been based on access now redefined itself in terms of exclusion as a toxic spill of money and publicity seeped into the earth and polluted the beaches. So much that had formerly been cheap and easy became difficult and expensive. The noisy, the forward, the striving and the vain took over.

Naturally, there were old-timers who deplored these changes, whose deplorations were tinged with sorrow for what had been. “It’s awful,” they’d hiss in your ear. “You should have been here after the war. Ah, then ’twas bliss to be here. But now: all these dreadful, vulgar people! They’ve absolutely ruined St. Tropez!”

Thought I was writing about “duh Hamptons,” didn’t you?

Ah, but there is nothing new under the sun, especially the summer sun. The lesson of St. Tropez at present will be the lesson of the Hamptons 40 years from now. What’s ruined in a certain way stays ruined. It’s my guess that the point of no return has been reached in the Hamptons; once the day trippers start coming in hordes, they don’t stop, and as the local economy adjusts to turn a fast buck off this transient, low-transaction-value customer, everything else changes, too. You are now talking about tourism, and tourism is death. There’s money there, but the profit’s to the undertakers, while everyone else pays. Ask any St. Tropezien, ask any Venetian.

This will be the first summer in close to 40 years I won’t be around the scene if not part of it, the first summer in four decades that my name won’t be on a Hamptons deed of title or on a lease. A dozen years ago, not long after Francis was born, I moved out to the East End full time, feeling that it was no longer possible to live a civilized life in 1980’s Manhattan. Now, finding that it is no longer possible to live a civilized life in millennial Sag Harbor, I’ve moved back to the city, to Brooklyn.

There are aspects of Sag Harbor and the East End I’ll miss, especially my friends like Ned Parkhouse, the best of music-appreciating chums, and Carol Phillips and Martha Sutphen and my neighbor Susan and the Cohens across the street, and Gary and Ed, the gang at East End Computer and the troops at the Post Office: Linda, Marilyn, Margaret and Rose. I’ll miss Don at Long Wharf Video, but I do have Marty Arno at North Heights Video, which The New York Times , in an unprecedented outburst of accurate political judgment, has hailed as one of the best video places in the city. I’ll miss the Paradise the way it was (although Hal Zwick’s transformation is intriguing), and Gary and Terry and their boys at the Ideal- and as much as anything, I’ll miss talking books with Rob Schumann at Book Hampton.

But I have to say that I love it where I am, and here’s the funny thing: In Brooklyn, I find I can live a far closer approximation of the kind of life I went to Sag Harbor to find than I could in Sag Harbor itself.

The search for civility, that’s the nub of the issue. It’s not the Jerry Della Feminas that bother me; they’re merely entertaining. The weekend before this was written, Mr. Della Femina’s daughter, the one with the guidebook, got married on the beach in a ceremony that, according to one gossip column, was to be televised live on the Internet on http://www.iHamptons.com. Being away, I couldn’t watch, but I have to say it was a cute idea: to claim as a social function an event that had about as much relation to “society” (as the word is used by those who know what it properly means) as one of those Japanese semi-porn Web sites that hides a camcorder in a ladies’ room does to the ballroom of the Colony Club.

A few weekends ago, for example, on a sunny Sunday, we ate outside under an umbrella at a perfectly nice restaurant five minutes’ walk from where we live, just the way I might a few years ago, in Sag Harbor, have walked down to the American Hotel or the nice restaurant at the VFW Hall. The elements were similar. The water was a few hundred yards away; the traffic on the East River was beguiling, the background-the panoply of lower Manhattan-matchless. There was no traffic, really, foot or automotive. It was quiet. Scenic, peaceful, decent food: just what a low-key weekend lunch should be. I remarked to my companions on the contrast between this scene and what it would have been like if we had been lunching on the porch of the American Hotel.

To live in “Brownstone Brooklyn,” as some people call it, is like living in Paris. The streets seem, on average, significantly wider than their Manhattan counterparts, so there’s plenty of sky, gardens in front of the houses and architecture that’s very elegant. I can walk to the shops on Montague Street in a little longer than it took me to walk down to the IGA in Sag Harbor, but when I get there, the result’s more satisfying. I can walk to the water’s edge in half the time. Over on Clinton Street there’s a great coffee place, Two For the Pot, with a whole lot less attitude than was sometimes the case at its Sag Harbor equivalent. There’s no beach, of course, but I’ve never been much of a beach person-and if you live in Sag Harbor you have to get up at 5 a.m. on a weekend to secure a parking spot at the ocean beaches. On the other hand, five minutes’ walk away is Bargemusic, where the other night we heard a killer program of chamber music by Haydn, Hubay and Brahms, marvelously played, and no one interrupted in the middle of a movement, as they do at Ned Parkhouse’s, to ask where there’s a place you can buy ice cream.

What’s most noticeably and happily and blessedly absent is the dissonance-cultural, social, economic, behavioral, visual-that has pervaded Hamptons life as the city people have taken over and remade those places in their own frenetic image. I can best illustrate it with an anecdote. I have a friend who owns big-time restaurants both in the city and the Hamptons. At the latter establishment, I asked the bartender, who I knew also served “behind the stick” in Manhattan, “You must have a certain overlap in clientele between here and the city. Do you notice any change in the way they behave here as opposed to there?”

“It’s unbelievable!” he told me. “The same people, and it’s like they check their manners at the Shinnecock Canal.”

This dissonance is not merely a destroyer of ancient and valuable harmonies of places and people, it’s poisonous to talent: I can think of no writer or artist-certainly not one who in the last ten years (since the Hamptons became “duh Hamptons”) has moved with any frequency in the circles we read about-who has produced anything like the work his or her talent is capable of. For whatever reason, the cocktail that’s been produced by this particular mixture of city and country has been lethal where art is concerned, and I suspect the hangover will be permanent.

So what do you do when man becomes so pervasively vile that no prospect pleases? I don’t want to live my life in a foxhole, which is the solution most of my friends out there have adopted. I want to be out and about. “Old men should be explorers.” So, to Brooklyn I came, and not for a single second have I regretted the move.