As Celebrities Flock to Hudson Valley, Locals Pretend Not to Care

Isn't that Alicia Keys walking across my lawn?

Otto's Germantown: Chloé Sevigny shops here.

Otto’s Germantown: Chloé Sevigny shops here.

Unbagging groceries by her kitchen window, a well-heeled Columbia County woman spots a striking trespasser on the lawn of her very private 243-acre farm compound.

That looks just like Alicia Keys, she thinks to herself, unpacking the week’s supply of chutneys and cheeses. As the trespasser nears the window, she realizes it is Alicia Keys.
The apparition of a Grammy-winner on this particular patch of grass wasn’t entirely surprising: The woman and her husband are lending a cottage on their farm to a young music industry couple who are building their own country retreat. Keys was their houseguest’s houseguest.
This happens all the time, right?

Not quite all the time. But lately, the number of boldface-ables can seem to rival Monaco—at least per capita, here in a county whose 60,000-person population has only grown about 25 percent since the time of the Civil War.

Every few years, some sector of the Hudson Valley gets pegged as the New Hamptons, or Un-Hamptons, or New Williamsburg, or Breukelen North. The area seems to teeter perpetually on the crest of the precipice of an acme of a tipping point, always threatening to tumble over the falls.

So much so lately that it’s not unusual to spot Malcolm Gladwell’s hairdo bobbing along the main street of Hudson, the region’s once-and-future, up-and-coming hot spot. (Mr. Gladwell recently bought a 300-acre spread nearby, donating the development rights to the local land conservancy.) On his way upstreet, the writer might pass Parker Posey and her poodle, positioned where everyone is sure to pretend not to notice, at her usual sidewalk table at Le Gamin Country or bump into the raven-haired Marina Abramovic, clutching a bag of toiletries as she exits the CVS Pharmacy near the pile of bricks she intends to convert, with the help of Rem Koolhaas, into a museum of “long-durational” performance art.

Famous and semi-famous new faces in the country.  (Illo: Mark Stinson)

Famous and semi-famous new faces in the country. (Illo: Lauren Draper and Mark Stinson)

Lynn Fisher, a popular bartender at the nearby Iron Horse tavern, notes that Lady Gaga “was in town a month ago because she’s tight with the famous ballerina that is renovating the old tennis center” (said “ballerina” being Ms. Abramovic).

“We used to get excited if we saw the weather man from an Albany TV station on the street,” half-jokes Peter Jung, a Hudson art dealer whose bio also includes Vietnam veteran, bluegrass musician, tree-trimmer and environmental activist. Now, one can hardly turn around at the local farmer’s market without bumping gourds with some boldfacer. Such sightings administer a charge to the once-sleepy life of this largely agricultural region, but they’re also the source of some ambivalence, only some of it studied.

Thus over at Earth Foods, a family-operated crunchy-granola café, no one goes over to comfort Claire Danes as she cries, unaccountably, into her so-called lunch. (“My partner and I are so out of it. We had Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy in the shop; we didn’t even recognize them until the next customer told us,” said Mark McDonald, proprietor of a Hudson mid-century modern furniture store.)

A couple doors up from Earth Foods, Ric Ocasek and Paulina Porizkova plead in vain with an antiquer to stay open just another few minutes. Young street urchins break the unwritten rule by madly chasing after Usher’s SUV. But the recent Bard grads and graying hipsters who lounge full-time in front of Swallow, a Stumptown-serving coffeehouse, are too busy grousing about that article in Architectural Digest to notice Sam Shepherd sitting next to them. (AD wrote that Hudson has “been gentrified in the best sense of the word.”)

The sightings aren’t confined to Hudson. At a towering bonfire party in a field in Ghent, hardly anyone was talking to Ashley Judd—half of the guests failing to recognize her out of context, and the other half not wanting to seem like they’re fawning. In nearby Germantown, Chloe Sevigny dons couture short shorts for a kombucha run to Otto’s, a once-floundering market successfully made over by a former Whole Foods executive.

Sevigny paces up and down the aisles, glancing around as if to see if anyone has admired her legs yet. (O.K., fine. They are quite nice.) The Brown Bunny costar takes off in a fashionably ugly ’90s American sedan, leaving too soon to cross paths with Nat Baldwin of the Dirty Projectors.

Fifteen minutes south in Rhinebeck, Paul Rudd squires his bored kids around Spruce, a home furnishings shop, while the Phantom Gardener’s harried shrub salesmen patiently walk Uma Thurman through the many varieties of yew.

Back in Hudson for the evening, Björk’s horned husband, Matthew Barney, is expected to slip into a former glue factory near the river to deejay the second annual Pitchfork music festival held at Basilica Hudson.

One may fall into an impromptu conversation at the bar of Zak Pelaccio’s Fish & Game with Me’Shell Ndegeocello or a game of pool with Tommy Stimson of Guns N’ Roses at the Half Moon, a cinderblock dive bar lightly renovated by an escaped Brooklyn bartender. Julia Stiles was there at a birthday party for a couple of hours before anyone “made” her identity.

Gesticulating in the window of a local plumbing business, Byron Parker, Martha Stewart tries for the third consecutive visit to convince the owner to sell her a fabulously overgrown oxtail plant that has adorned its premises for decades. No dice, even for you, Martha. Your celebrity is no good here.

That's not Sam Shepard at Swallow coffee, but he might be sitting at the next table.

That’s not Sam Shepard at Swallow coffee, but he might be sitting at the next table.

Few will admit to being impressed by people they recognize from TV and movies, but the relative absence of starstruck-ness may be less a rural virtue than an urban virus that has migrated northward on the fur of city mice. As New Yorker writer Joan Acocella theorized in a 2008 Smithsonian article, urbanites have an “unspoken ban on staring at celebrities.” If you encounter a rock star in an elevator, “You can peek for a second, but then you must avert your eyes. The idea is that Paul McCartney has to be given his space like anyone else. [People like] to think that Paul McCartney needs us to do him a favor.”

Of course, for all the blasé poses, the Hudson Community Board on Facebook is immediately filled with both gushing reports and snarky dismissals whenever the likes of Daniel Craig or Naomi Watts are spotted shopping on Warren Street.

Overall, rural residents aim to play it cool. And the interlopers seem, with exceptions, to be looking for a more anonymous getaway spot than, say, Water Mill. (Ms. Watts, one shopkeeper tattled, seemed anxious to blend in, though her posse kept loudly calling out her nickname, Nay, to ensure others knew they were hanging with the Mulholland Drive star. Or maybe they, too, were striving to blend into the agricultural setting by imitating horses.)

“We don’t have red carpets and limos and searchlights,” says Spencertown resident and Vanity Fair film critic Peter Biskind, who has used just enough of his clout to land some new movies for the Columbia County film festival, which celebrates its 14th year in Chatham this month.
“The festival was pretty pathetic at first,” says the wiry-haired, mustachioed Mr. Biskind. “We would show films on a Friday afternoon and get 50 people if we were lucky. Finally it is becoming hot; the demand this year is overwhelming. It’s turning into a Frankenstein, though mostly in a good way. I do hate to contribute to the Hampton-ification of Columbia County.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr., the Urban Gardener columnist for The Wall Street Journal, echoes some of Mr. Biskind’s sentiments. “I enjoy going out to the Hamptons once a summer just to see what I’m not missing,” he sniffs. “But it would be disingenuous to think that Columbia County weekenders are any less socially attuned than Hamptonites. The thing is here you can still get what would be a $100 million Hamptons estate for $1.5 million.”

Mr. Gardner’s grandparents did not pay anything like that in 1948 for the family’s 164-acre country escape at the end of a quarter-mile private driveway near Kinderhook. (O.K., the English language term for “assent” is believed—by partisans of Martin Van Buren at least—to stand for his nickname, Old Kinderhook.)

While he acknowledges growing opportunities to hobnob upstate, “My wife criticizes me, because there’s nothing I like more than just sitting here in isolation. You socialize on your own terms, not the neighborhood’s. There still is no dress code,” avers Mr. Gardner, who featured the landscape architecture of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church’s Olana estate in one of his recent columns.

Some sharp local residents make their peace with the celebrity invasion by building businesses to serve new demands (after all, someone has to sell them overpriced picnic tables) or securing their own 15 minutes of fame. Nancy Fuller Ginsberg, the Paula Dean-esque wife of a local food distributor, is the focus of an upcoming Food Network segment about cupcakes, shot at the county fair and slated for broadcast in November. Another five episodes are tentatively planned under the working title Farmhouse Rules.

Others hope that things won’t change too rapidly. “The whole point of the area is that it’s not cool,” contends realtor James Male, who arrived here in 1984. He seems partly bemused, partly annoyed that “now The New York Times writes it up as the new hot place almost once per week.” (Note: The paper’s vice chairman, Michael Golden, has a place nearby, as do a number of Times reporters.) The appeal, Mr. Male thinks, is that “Hudson is the small American town that everyone imagines exists somewhere but can never actually find.”

In such a town, the most valuable social currency is not having agents and maîtres d’ on speed dial, but having a snow plow guy who reliably shows up after a blizzard or the cell number of a furnace repairman who will fix the boiler on weekends. “Nature is the biggest celebrity up here,” said Mr. Gardner.