Wintering In The Hamptons

The summer playground for celebrities, artists and the very wealthy is no less a gem in the off-season.

New York

Cover Story

January 26, 2003|BY STEPHEN G. HENDERSON | BY STEPHEN G. HENDERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A few weeks ago, after driving straight east from Manhattan onto Long Island for an hour and a half, I arrived at an isthmus bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Great Peconic Bay. A group of towns link together here along Highway 27 like a strand of costly pearls: Southampton, then Bridgehampton, Saga-ponack and Wainscott. Sag Harbor is a detour north, but leads quickly back to East Hampton, Amagansett and Montauk.

Flat, fertile land that was once potato fields is jeweled with ponds, lakes and salt marshes. With so many watery facets in which the sun can shimmer and shine, the light here is famously clear and flattering. Originally colonized in the 17th century, the Hamp-tons have attracted summer pilgrims ever since, especially those fortunate enough to be painters, writers, rich or famous. The South Fork of Long Island is a place of great natural beauty, but also unnatural wealth and a fantastic, at times even grotesque, excess.

Like whispers about Jay Gatsby, stories of Hamptons intrigue are savored far beyond these shores. In the ever-expanding gossip grab bag, tales of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Truman Capote jostle against more recent shenanigans by Martha Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld or P. Diddy. A maze of fact and fiction grows high in the Hamptons, nearly as tall as the green privet hedges surrounding the palaces where the millionaires live. Not for nothing are these communities called the American Riviera.

Everyone knows -- or think they know -- what a summer in the Hamptons might be like. But what about Oz during the off-season? Those who live here, or are part of the growing number who come for weekends year-round, count the days until summer crowds disappear after Labor Day. September and October are the most beautiful months on the South Fork, they claim. Die-hards even maintain that the frozen months of January, February and March have their unique charms.

"It's a completely different experience in the winter," said Newell Turner, editor of Hamptons Cottages & Gardens magazine. "There is such peace and quiet. It's easy to go shopping, to park, and it isn't a struggle to go out to dinner. It's what I imagine the Hamptons were like year-round in the 1950s."

"As the temperature drops, the sky changes from an azure to a chrome gray, with only hints of blue," said Markie Hancock, a documentary filmmaker who spends weekends in East Hampton. "The birds fly south, boats are pulled out of the water and the landscape becomes vacant. It's still joyous, but a more contemplative joy."

I thought I knew what Hancock meant, but decided recently to see for myself by visiting three of the area's best-known villages. For my winter weekend at the beach, I packed a bag not with sunblock and shorts, but gloves, a scarf and goose-down slippers. Only then, did I feel ready to chill in the Hamptons.

Seeing the flowers

In the summer of 2001, an addled publicist named Lizzie Grubman drove her SUV into a crowd of people outside a Southampton nightclub called Conscience Point, thereby creating the latest homegrown scandal to be clucked over.

As fate would have it, this was precisely the same spot where a group of families from Massachusetts landed in 1640, thereby being the first whites to colonize Long Island's east end. The native Shinnecock Indians reportedly befriended the newcomers and taught them how to survive in the wilderness.

To learn what life was like way back then, shortly after arriving in Southampton, I visited the town's Historical Museum. This charming and quirky spot has 12 buildings, including a printer's shop, blacksmith and a one-room schoolhouse. Apparently, the Hamptons has always harbored rogues, for on display are a set of stocks for men guilty of public offenses such as cursing or sleeping on guard duty. There is a pillory for women who "spoke with a forked tongue."

Browsing along Main Street, I looked in at Hildreth's, what is proudly touted as "America's oldest department store." For the record, it has a numbingly vast inventory, including a baffling wealth of lampshades.

Around the corner, on Job's Lane, the Parrish Art Museum also has eclectic holdings ranging from masterpieces by Andrea della Robbia to American painters like Winslow Homer, Robert Rauschenberg and Helen Frankenthaler. In the Parrish's gardens, more than 250 types of trees and shrubs from around the world are displayed, as are two parallel rows of marble busts depicting Roman emperors, among them Hadrian, Trajan and Tiberius.

Thinking it only polite to hail Southampton's current caesars, I spent the afternoon touring the village's so-called "estate district."

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