Tuesday, August 13, 1996
A Perfect Sunday in Amagansett
The perfect Amagansett Sunday starts with the sunshine waking me up, to sit outside on the deck in the morning coolness. The pool below looks inviting, but I am waiting for our host Paul and his three-year old daughter, Sara, both light sleepers, to drive down to the Farmers Market for the household's morning supply of bagels and buns. The Market is a long low white shed, selling breakfasts, fresh and prepared food, flowers and mountains of the Sunday Times. We get in line with the crowd of early risers, most dressed in white tennis clothes, who wait without fidgeting while the smiling Polish muffin server patiently listens to every child's morning desires. Nobody fusses, all the A types bond in patience, making funny comments about the other server, a stern-spoken blonde who is slowly setting up her side of the counter.
When she is good and ready, she orders the line to split. We get our reward for shopping, coffee and huge chocolate muffins, and amble down the lawn on right side of the market, toward the spreading cornfields and the big flower patches, where you can cut your own bouquet (these wonderful fields of flowers are a major industry in the Hamptons). The wicker chairs on top of the slope with the panoramic rural views are taken, and we settle on the wooden benches near patches of Cosmos and giant blackeyed Susans, and have a leisurely conversation about kids. Last year there was a tractor on the meadow for the children to climb aboard and manipulate the gears; this year a child-size toolshed house with a mansard roof and mullioned windows has taken its place, and a little girl has claimed possession, against the wishes of her younger brother and Mom, who wants both kids to come along.
After a leisurely return to the house and another cup of coffee with the families we pack up the Sunday Times and drive down to the ocean shore in Paul's car which has the proper stickers. The beach is wide and the white sand is clean. It is a good walking beach, you can go for miles, having intimate conversations, with terns and sandpipers as neighbors. It is as good as the beach at Jekyll Island in Georgia, where wings of pelicans flying in formation pass you time and again, almost touching the crests of the wawes; or Jensen Beach on Hutchinson Island, Port St. Lucie, Florida, or Kaanapali Beach on Maui, leading halfway to the old whaling town of Lahaina. The best of all walking beaches was on Fire Island, where we had a group house on Kismet decades ago. A few of us would get up early of a May morning, bundled up except for bare feet, and walk the beach, past Dunewood, Lonelyville, Robin's Nest and the houses destroyed by the ocean. On the way back we would cross inland to Saltaire and buy a whole large fish brought in by a local fisherman, to be wrapped in aluminum foil and broiled on the charcoal potbelly grill that night (no gas then). We were young and a six-mile morning hike was easy.
The Atlantic at Amagansett is pleasant and swimmable, once you wade past the shoreside breakers. I do the water exercises learned at the New York Health and Racquet Club, slightly apprehensive of any relics from the TWA 800 flight that Paul had warned us about. Lunch is chicken and ices from the Beach Shack, and we get back to the house in time for a nap, drinks while resting on solid wooden poolside lounges carved by a French sculptor, and a leisurely early dinner, after which we drive up Abraham's Lane, to the bayside beach, Louse Bay, to observe sunset with the other local traditionalists, all gathered in small clutches. There is an osprey nest on top of a dry tree, with a lone bird sitting above it, bay plums holding down the dunes, and Gardiner's Island is visible in the far distance. We wade and skip stones with Sammy, who is six, while Sara is entertained by an old fisherman in rolled white trousers, who continues to surfcast into the dusk as we leave the shore. We are going back to the city Monday morning, and the evening is still ours.
Our pilgrimage to Paul and Peggy's house is a pleasant relief from the city bustle, and from the chores associated with gardening and lawn care at our upstate getaway. We time it before the tomatoes start coming in and the blueberries and peaches are canned. Amagansett is relaxed, and the natives hold the bustle of East Hampton's Georgica Pond in contempt. There are still lots of woods and huge properties and privacy. Three big estates, called Kitchen, Pantry and Larder, are rumored to be old Rockefeller holdings. Peter Mayles, the Riviera and cooking expert (Toujours Provence, A Year in Provence, Acquired Tastes), has sold his French property and bought a house in Amagansett, and we may begin to hear more about the area from this perceptive observer.
The area was discovered by Adriaen Block in 1614, sailing the 14-ton Onrust (Restless), stated to be the first decked vessel built in North America. Verrazano may have sighted the land in 1524. Lt. Lion Gardiner, who had built a fort for the Lords Say and Brook in Connecticut, across the Long Island Sound, obtained a grant of 3,500 acres in 1635, confirmed by Sachem Wyandanch of the Montauks, whom Gardiner aided in fighting the Pequot raiders.The family became Lords of the Manor (1639-1788). Gov. Winthrop sent some settlers over from Lynn in 1640, and started Southampton, with Water Mill to mill grain for the settlers in 1644. Capt. William Kidd of New York, a privateer turned rogue, commissioned by King William III in 1696 to harass the Madagascar pirates and other enemies, may have buried his treasures on the third Lord of the Manor John Lyon Gardiner's island before surrendering to the authorities - he was hung by the neck in 1701 in London, for murder, some say unjustly. Pirate treasure hunters have been tracking the fortune for three centuries.
Nearby Sag Harbor was a rousing whaling town in the 1600s, and in 1789 President G. Washington signed an act declaring two ports of entry for the US - New York and Sag Harbor. That's where Melville's Queequeg came to learn Christian ways and became disenchanted with the practitioners. J.F.Cooper bought and outfitted a whaling ship in Sag Harbor in 1818, described in his Sea Lions (New York, 1849).
East Hampton was rural. In the 1870s Stanford White and Augustus St. Gaudens of the Tile Club moved in, as did Jackson Pollock (Springs area), Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning in the mid-1940s.
Amagansett was cattle country, and Montauk further East was undeveloped, except for the Montauk Lighthouse President Washington authorized in 1790. The farmers drowe their cows towards Montauk in the Spring and collected them later. The cattle and sheep herders lived in common houses, which explains the Second House Road one passes while heading for the lighthouse on Route 27. In the 1920s Carl G. Fisher, the developer of Miami Beach, built Montauk Manor, now a condo colony, as New York's vacation retreat. Now Montauk is rich in second-homes and vacation facilities, and Gosman's Dock, at the West end of the island, has popular restaurants and shops to rival any small resort.
As for the dreaded Long Island Expressway, it was not bad. You have a choice of exits 69 to 72 tto get to Rt. 27, the only access road to East End, and it turns single lane someplace around Southampton and becomes slow, through Amagansett, then speeds up towards Montauk. You have to have patience to sit in a car if you want to enjoy a Gosman's waterside Fra Diavolo while watching fishing boats and the New London - Block Island ferry pass in and out of Montauk Harbor.
A revelation from Melissa Mungo, the Voice of Hagedorn Communications, after she read my story about the Public Radio stations of Northeast New York. It seems that in 1987 she was a deejay in the network, in Monticello, playing the Top 40 and other music of her choice. She had a truly captive audience, in the nearby correctional institution, and the inmates of the Big House kept sending letters, asking for her picture. She refused, concerned about possible post-jail involvements, and the prison authorities did not permit such correspondence from people not on the "approved list" anyway. She won't give out her picture today either, so don't even try.
Wally thanks Paul and Peggy Roden.