Post-McMansions: The Once And Future Hamptons

As we trundle off on this July Fourth weekend-either to escape from a certain kind of madness, or plunge headlong into it-let us muse, for a moment, about the history of summer resorts in America.

In particular, I’m thinking about a place that was, at one time, the very epicenter of American society.

It was a place where impossible mansions lined the water; where the newly minted oligarchs-the movers, the celebrities, the tycoons of the day-arrived in fantastic conveyances, to meet and mingle on manicured lawns, and dance and drink with abandon till dawn.

It was a place soothed by the soft sea breeze, and the lilt of domestic help imported from Ireland.

It was a place where-finally-the mansions became too expensive to maintain, where the locals were squeezed out of the market-and where, slowly but inexorably, the music stilled, the calliope slowed and the glow from the great houses dimmed and faded, like so many fireflies flickering out on a warm summer night.

The place I’m talking about, of course, was Newport, R.I.-the summer enclave that saw its heyday almost 100 years ago, before the wealth of the oligarchs dissipated and the resort slipped off the map as their sons and daughters could no longer afford to live in the style of their forebears.

In short, Newport was “over.” And the party moved on.

By the 1920’s, the horse set had taken up residence in Saratoga; the emerging celebritocracy-athletes, gangsters and movie stars-had settled into hotel suites in Atlantic City, which at its zenith boasted Walter Winchell, Al Capone, Duke Ellington, and Irving Berlin among its in crowd.

After the war, as the men in gray flannel suits built out suburbia and joined country clubs, American café society rediscovered Europe.

By the 1960’s, the party had moved on to Fire Island.

And in the early 1970’s, the great migration to the potato fields at the eastern end of Long Island had begun in earnest, drawn by a summer colony that had been established at nearly the same time as Newport, but had never basked in the same spotlight.

So the question to consider this weekend is not whether the Hamptons are “over” (for surely they are not) but, rather, what does the future out there hold?

Not five years from now. Or even 10. But 20, or 30.

There’s a theory I’ve had that what’s happened in the Hamptons is not so much about money or status (read: apartment-dwelling New Yorkers finding a way to display their wealth), but sex: In the era of group houses and massive dance clubs like the long-since-departed Le Mans, the baby boom generation went out to the Hamptons to mate; and having settled down into marriages (or committed gay relationships), they bought houses. And what was once a dating scene became more conventional. Or, as a friend who owns a house in Georgica put it, “I still see the same faces every Saturday night at Nick and Toni’s. But we’re older. Settled. It’s become sort of like going to the country club on Saturday night in Scarsdale.”

So the long-term question, then, isn’t whether the Hamptons will remain the gold standard of accomplishment for baby boomers, but whether the East End will have the same glimmering draw for their sons and daughters. Moreover, as the town considers future development plans, there’s the question of affordable housing: Who’s going to be around to fix and maintain those McMansions in the woods? Who’s going to work in the restaurants and the banks? Years ago, the farmers sold out to the summer people; now it’s the dry cleaner and the fireman. In 30 years, will the Hamptons be a full-time suburb-where the residents telecommute, and the working class travels in from mid-island? Or a faded resort, where the woods are filled with white elephants, oversized houses that became too expensive for the next generation to maintain?

My own experience on the East End may-or may not-be telling. I’ll let you be the judge.

My first house was a rental on Daniels Lane in Sagaponack that I shared with a friend in the music business in the 1980’s. We had dinner parties every Saturday night; my dating life was, well … interesting. I was smitten with life on the East End.

Two years later, I bought an ultra-modern “architectural statement” in the woods outside East Hampton. (The house was a machine for living the way a Ferrari is a car for driving: striking, but incredibly temperamental.) I held an annual July 5 party for 250 of my “nearest and dearest best close personal friends.” Several years on, my wife and I were married in the living room. My affection for the area remained undiminished-even through a full-time winter residence, when our apartment was being renovated in Manhattan.

Then, in 1994, something changed. Some still call it the year everything went wrong. It was the summer when it wasn’t just enough to buy a house in the Hamptons and enjoy the scenery-a certain kind of Manhattanite felt the need to come out and slap their name on restaurants and delicatessens. It was the summer when it wasn’t just enough to go to a movie on Saturday night; velvet ropes appeared, and there were film premieres. It was the first summer when every Saturday night was punctuated by another high-ticket charity event. (At the time, I considered filing a dispatch for these pages entitled “How to Buy a Social Life,” but decided against it.)

The following spring, one of my more recently arrived neighbors, a banker, decided to pull the rip cord. Saying goodbye in my driveway, the conversation took an odd turn.

“You go to all those parties I read about, don’t you?” he asked.

“Not really,” I replied. “We’re not all that social. Why do you ask?”

The man looked off, and sighed. “I don’t know what we expected when we bought the house,” he said, turning to me with a self-deprecating smile. “But what do I need to spend six hours on the Long Island Expressway every weekend, only to come out here and feel badly about myself?”

The next morning, I left for London-where, three years later, I too decided to sell. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the Hamptons anymore, or still think it was one of the most beautiful places on earth. But in the intervening years, I’d spent 13 days in the house. And one Sunday morning in Mayfair, I woke to realize that I’d gained an entire day back in my life every week by not making that trip on the Long Island Expressway.

On the day I turned over the house, I went out to show the new owners around. He was the C.E.O. of a small company; she was wide-eyed with anticipation, chattering about future dinner parties and spotting Martha Stewart at the local vegetable stand. And as I started to leave, the man-a life-long apartment dweller-stopped me.

“Who do I call if a light bulb burns out?” he asked. I gave him the name of a local electrician.

So now you tell me: Why was I not entirely shocked to learn that only few years later, they don’t live there anymore?