Never say never. So I’m reminded, in an acidly genial manner, by friends who’ve learned that for most of August I’ve rented an apartment in Sag Harbor, the village in which I’d lived from 1993 to 2000 and to which, on removing to Brooklyn, I’d vowed never to return. But here I am.
This was not part of my original intention for the summer of 2006. As I have for the past few years, I took the lease, for June and July, of a modest cottage on the northwestern fringe of Southampton, not far from my golf club and my dearest friend, and then came back to the city in August. This year, however, serendipity intervened.
When I got out here in June, one of my first acts was to have dinner with my pal Ned Parkhouse, Sag Harbor’s incomparable purveyor of the best in music and the very model of civility. It was to the upstairs apartment in Ned’s house that I removed in 1993, when Master Francis’ mother and I decided that the sanity of all would best be served by separation.
When I drove over to Sag to pick up Ned and bear him off to the American Hotel, I was in high spirits, notwithstanding that my destination was associated in Proustian fashion with a pretty miserable period in my life, largely self-induced, although definitely helped along by a couple of publishing houses and one or two women.
The reason for my elation? Well, this year Ned and I had more to celebrate than reunion. When I was his tenant, as I wrote in this paper at the time, my internal turbulence was frequently soothed by the sound of Ned noodling at the piano downstairs. Now that noodling has been refined into a series of 23 original piano miniatures, collectively entitled Remembering New Orleans and released on CD. It’s quite simply one of the most ravishing, soul-settling, wondrously played piano productions I’ve ever heard. If you like Chopin’s or Field’s Nocturnes, or the piano pieces of Debussy or Hahn or Glinka, or certain of Liszt’s “Swiss” Years of Pilgrimage pieces, you’ll not want to be without it. As a friend of mine to whom I gave Ned’s CD puts it: “A glass of whisky and Ned on the stereo, ’twere Paradise enow.” (The CD can be had for $18 ready money from Ned Parkhouse, P.O. Box 1651, Sag Harbor, N.Y. 11963; 631-725-9830. A wiser or more spirit-refreshing investment I cannot imagine.)
Back to the business at hand. When I pulled up in front of Ned’s house on a pleasant June weekday evening, I noticed a realtor’s sign out front stating that the upstairs apartment was available for August rental. Something sparked. What a nice circularity, I thought: to return to the place where I had agonized in parlous times, only now with the serenity that settles on one when life’s leaf turns sere and yellow. The notion stuck with me; in July, I called Ned, he made enquiries, and now here I am—and very content, too. The rooms have been all gussied up and lack no convenience; the location is admirable, a short walk from Canio’s bookshop (currently exhibiting small landscapes by Barbara Thomas—yes, Master F.’s mom—that would be just right to add a touch of taste and quality to a McMansion side table) and but a 10-minute stroll from the American Hotel, whereby hang most of the tales that summer in Sag has to tell.
The joint is still sui generissimo. Its owner, Ted Conklin, is a genius on the order of Soule and Sirio and the Algonquin’s Frank Case. Vinnie is still behind the stick, and his hand with a Negroni Sbagliato is as dab as ever.
In August, they come—and do they ever. Like chattering starlings in flocks. Apart from Citarella in Water Mill, I can think of no better laboratory than the American Hotel in which to observe how utterly the flood of global liquidity has failed to improve the manners or sense of style of those who’ve most deftly and profitably surfed it. And for those who wish to watch a better class of celebrity than, say, Star Jones, the hotel on an August Friday or Saturday night simply can’t be beat.
The other night, in the course of taking a brief light refreshment, I spotted a leading gossip columnist (or, to be more accurate, proprietor of a bulletin board for publicists), a man often described as an “economic czar” (in my opinion, the sort of chap who, if you see him in the room, you take your wallet into the shower with you—and would that the public purse could be so defended from his and his real-estate chums’ depredations!), and the world’s best-selling good-writing novelist (as opposed to Dan Brown and Danielle Steele, the world’s best-selling bad-writing novelists), who’s very pretty and very sexy.
The American Hotel may be the center of Sag life, but now and then one needs a respite from other people’s fame and fortune, and so on one recent afternoon, I strolled down to the docks to check out the yachts. As I ambled along, I spotted an unlikely figure clambering down from a floating pleasure palace and making his way toward me along the boardwalk. A figure clad cap-à-pie in western gear that made him look ludicrously out of place amid the starched whiteness of the boating environment: 10-gallon hat, jeans, Navajo jewelry, cowboy boots. As he drew nigh, I recognized him as an old acquaintance: none other than Artie Gimlet, whose Hamptons misadventures I used to chronicle sporadically. “Ho there, sodbuster!” I called out. “Whither bound?”
If he got the joke, he didn’t show it. “Polo,” he grunted. “We’re playing White Birch this afternoon.” He gestured for me to walk alongside.
I could see at once that something had changed about Artie. Big new money exudes a penumbra, a sort of variable-brightness halo, the golden intensity of which can be translated by an experienced eye into combinations of zeros. When I’d first known Artie, he was maybe a high-six-, low-seven-zeros guy. He’d moved up big time, I could see—definitely medium to high eight, possibly even nudging nine.
“You still at Bear?” I asked.
He looked at me like I was a piece of gum that had attached itself to his alligator-skin vamps.
“Where you been?” he replied. “I set up a hedge fund a few years ago, then sold it. Now I’m into private equity. We do a lot of stuff joint with Carlyle and Blackstone. And Henry, of course.” He smiled. “Hey, hey, whadda they say, two and 20 all the way! You get it?”
I got it. Private-equity guys work (sic) for 2 percent of the assets they manage and 20 percent of the gains. God should make such a living. Well, it figured: the yacht, polo—all the rest could be extrapolated. That sort of stuff—diesel fuel and crew, three high-goal Argentines and a string of ponies—takes real money. And that doesn’t even factor in the ex-wife, of which I was certain, having seen Artie operate at the bar of the Hotel, there had to be at least one. That kind of nut, even medium eight digits barely cuts it.
“So you’re not renting out here, I take it?” I asked, admittedly disingenuously.
The word “renting” hit him like a gut punch. As an insult by Gimlet standards, whatever Materazzi had observed about Zinédine Zidane’s momma was nothing compared to this; I crossed my arms on my chest, ready for the head butt.
But it didn’t come. Secure in his 20-carat carapace, Artie merely grinned. “Renting is for relationship bankers,” he said, and nudged me with an elbow. His comfort level was horrifying.
We had reached the pavement. Waiting for Artie, engine humming smoothly, was a chauffeur-driven silver pickup truck of a make I didn’t recognize, its burnished surface gleaming blindingly.
He saw my curiosity. “Aston Martin,” he said. “There’s only a couple in the world—800K on the hoof. The Sultan of Brunei has one. I bought this off a Russian who decided he wanted another color. You wanna go to the polo? You wanna come for drinks later on the boat, meet my new girlfriend, see my new Lucian Freud?”
Check out your net-worth statement? “No, thanks,” I demurred. I made a small production of looking at my watch and added, “I have to go to church and pray for the poor and afflicted.” The jest ran off his back like water off a Rolex.
He climbed into the truck, waved diffidently and rumbled off. Watching him go, I thought again, as one so often does out here during the dog days, when the sky melts and voices grow shrill, of Dorothy Parker’s priceless observation: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”