Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Aristocratic Insight

The Hamptons are revealed to the plebeian masses.

By Leigh Rich

JUNE 15, 1998: 

Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons, by Steven Gaines (Little, Brown and Company). Cloth, $26.95.

MOST EVERYONE'S heard of the Hamptons, but how many could actually find them on a map? Then again, as any ninth-grade geography student has whined, would knowing be of any use in real life? Ah, perhaps for those few--those lucky, filthy-rich few--who can afford to inhabit one of America's last bastions of gentility and refinement.

The Hamptons are, and have always been, an hermetic society for we plebeians of the middle classes. But the latest pop-culture disquisition by Steven Gaines, Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons, brings the multi-million-dollar Hamptonite homes a little closer to our own. Known for his biographies of modern-day icons like Calvin Klein, the Beach Boys and Alice Cooper, Gaines is the publishing world's bizarre chimera of Robin Leach and Claudia Cohen (merging architecture, history and Hollywood hoopla). Sure, the Hamptons generate much grist for the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous mill, but Gaines steers away from tabloid-style hype and instead presents a tale with intimacy and integrity.

In Philistines at the Hedgerow, it is the houses, rather than inhabitants, which structure the narrative. Each chapter chronicles estates from East Hampton, Water Mill, Southampton, Sagaponack, Wainscott and Bridgehampton (the conglomeration of villages known as the Hamptons) from their earliest days to the present.

Gaines appropriately enough begins by recounting the career of the Hamptons' most successful (and recently deceased) Realtor, Allan Schneider. Schneider's story introduces much of the Hamptons' glitz and glamour as well as its intolerance for the uncultured outsider--the Philistine (on which Gaines vituperates in the last few chapters of the book).

Philistines at the Hedgerow awkwardly lurches ahead in the beginning. It's difficult to keep pace as Gaines inundates the reader with knowledge and lore, switching verb tenses and flip-flopping between eras in 20th-century American history. At times it suffers from its density, eagerly awaiting some theme or concept to tie each "house-history" together. But, like the Hamptons themselves, Philistines at the Hedgerow remains a mélange of esoteric, non-fiction short stories.

By far the most interesting and integrated chapters involve the East Hampton domicile of billionaire Ron Perelman (Revlon, Inc., Consolidated Cigar Corp.), known as "The Creeks." Situated alongside the famous Georgica Pond, The Creeks was originally built in the late 1890s by affluent artists Albert and Adele Herter (son and daughter-in-law of Christian Herter, Sr., the man who "practically invented the trade of society interior decoration"). The Herters eventually overspent their stay--hardly surprising considering Adele had servants swap out entire gardens of flowers each night and floated about Georgica Pond in Robert Browning's Venetian gondola during the day.

The Creeks further blossomed with its subsequent owners, art dealer Alfonso Ossorio and his lifelong companion, dancer Ted Dragon. Under Ossorio's control, "The Creeks became a Bloomsbury on the Pond...a Disneyland for esthetes," drawing the second wave of artists to the Hamptons. (The first artist infestation occurred in the 1930s and included the likes of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and one of Picasso's lovers.)

The most illuminating and touching chapters in the book are those on Ossorio and Dragon, in which Gaines explains their friendship with now-famous artist Jackson Pollack and his wife Lee Krasner. Not only does the author illustrate the rise and demise of the great American artist Pollack, he also conveys the tender bond between Ossorio and Dragon. Lonely in the large house with Ossorio away on business, Dragon at one point found himself stealing and refurbishing his neighbors' antiques: "He did such a good job...that the owners marveled at how handsome their furniture looked...and some even wrote (Dragon) thank-you notes."

Following Ossorio's death, Dragon sold The Creeks to Perelman, who gutted the house and discarded all of Ossorio's outdoor sculptures (these "conglomerations" are now worth more than six figures each). As Gaines writes, "The worst aspect is that The Creeks was so rich in culture and history that even the richest man in New York State has managed to cheapen it. To buy a house is one thing, to inhabit it is another."

In the end, Philistines at the Hedgerow presents a true slice of Americana, albeit the petit slice purchased with the Hamptons' exorbitant membership fee. Though it would profit from the touch of a good editor, Gaines' book nonetheless offers a spirited jaunt through this golden-gated community (the Hamptons are not a welcoming place for the uninitiated or uninvited), successfully placing it on the map for the rest of us...there at the tip of Long Island.

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