Every summer, without fail, two kinds of articles regularly show up in newspapers, magazines, and blogs that are focused on the lifestyles of the rich and famous and their accompanying aspirants.
One will invariably discuss what’s supposedly going to be hot in the Hamptons that particular year, given that restaurants, nightclubs, shops, events, and even whole towns go in and out of favor like the tides in Peconic Bay.
The other will bemoan what the Hamptons aren’t anymore: a golden-hued magnet for artists, writers, and other assorted folk looking to do an about-face from their sophisticated city lives. It will wax nostalgic about the days of buying tomatoes and fruit pies at farm stands and drinking wine out of paper cups in the middle of someone’s yard or gorging on lobsters on a blanket at the beach at sunset. I should know, as I am frequently asked to write one or the other, or both.
The reality is that much of what once made the Hamptons so alluring is still there: the evocative mix of farm fields and endless sandy beaches, the charming cottages and shingled manors, the leafy lanes and the extraordinary light-one that defies description-but surely results from the geography of being on a low-lying, narrow peninsula nestled between peaceful, mirror-like bays and ponds and the muscular Atlantic Ocean.
Clearly, there’s something special about it, otherwise paintings by William Merritt Chase, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollack wouldn’t exist. Neither would works of words by Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Plimpton. The book, Hamptons Bohemia: Two Centuries of Artists and Writers on the Beach could not be more accurate in its premise.
But it wasn’t all T-shirts with packs of Marlboros rolled up in the sleeves and paint-spattered chinos. From the get-go, there was a parallel world of decorum bordering on formality, as seen in Chase's paintings of women walking across the dunes in long white dresses and men sporting straw boaters and bowties.
This studied manner of dress evolved into the sportif Chanel-esque style of the 20s and 30s which, in turn, revved into the va-va-voom aesthetic of the 40s and 50s- long before vaguely Moroccan-inspired tunics, skinny white jeans, and jeweled sandals became de rigueur.
There are some sad truths. Bumper-to-bumper Bentleys and Maseratis have replaced the old Wagoneers and rusty pickups of times gone by, and the necessities of hedge funders-things like high-priced spin studios and Nikki Beach pop-ups-are edging out the local shops, farm stands, and clam bars.
But one institution remains stalwart: the clubs. Intensely private behind their walls of privet, genteel and yes, primarily gentile, the club system continues to thrive in the Hamptons, in spite of the headwinds of social change or supposed dearth of clubbable types.
There are most certainly cracks in the firmament, such as the annual leaking of names of hopeful applicants and their ultimate fate to outlets like Page Six, but other than that, time seems frozen in formidable places like the Bathing Corporation of Southampton, the breathtakingly beautiful Meadow Club or East Hampton's Maidstone Club, immortalized in the HBO version of Grey Gardens, a dramatized take on the Maysles Brothers' 1975 documentary about the iconic East Hampton home.
"Someone has to pay for the Maidstone Club and all those goddamn crab sandwiches," bellows Phelan Beale to his eccentric wife, Edie. But much of what really happens within the clubs is strictly hearsay. As is the case with most exclusive and exclusionary private clubs, photography of the club interiors and, more importantly, its members, is strictly verboten. But it wasn't always that way.
From the late 1940s up until the early 1960s, as café society evolved into the jet set, photographer Bert Morgan was permitted, if not welcomed, to take pictures of the daily comings and goings at the main entrance to the Bathing Corporation, known colloquially to its members as the Beach Club. Primarily on summer Saturdays, casually dressed for the beach or in prim dresses, hats, heels, and gloves, a parade of socialites, celebrities and "summer colony" families would willingly stop and pose for Bert, without any pushback or resistance from the club.
In much the same way as the legendary photographer Bill Cunningham would station himself at the corner of New York's 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, Morgan's presence became positively ritualistic to the smart set. Many even upped their usual sartorial ante, knowing that their images could very well end up on the pages of Vogue, the Social Spectator, and, of course, Town & Country.
Morgan, who was born in England but came to live in the U.S. with his parents as a child, prided himself on knowing almost all of his subjects by name, and he followed them beyond Southampton, to Newport, Palm Beach, Jamaica, and Bermuda, along with the Manhattan hot spots of the day, such as the Stork Club and El Morocco. Most notably, he was named the official track photographer of the New York Racing Association, so aligned was he with the Saratoga crowd.
At the time of his death, he left an archive of over a million and a half negatives. Much of it now belongs to Getty Images, but approximately 300 are the exclusive property of the Southampton Historical Museum, an extremely dedicated nonprofit organization that was incorporated in 1910. In addition to their mission of promoting the history and culture of Southampton to diverse audiences, they also maintain four historic properties and a sizable research library.
For more information about the Museum and its upcoming summer events, visit www.southamptonhistory.org
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