Hanging out at The Hamptons

Spielberg, Bacall, Heller, Bassinger may be superstars but in the East End they're just faces in the street. By Simon Worrall
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The Independent Culture
When it recently became known that Peter Mayle (famous for his Provence books) had paid $1.2m for a grey-and-white, shingled house near the East Hampton village of Amagansett, in New York State's Long Island, hardly a head turned. "In a place where there are so many celebrities," said Elaine Benson, galleriste and doyenne of local society, "it's possible that people don't even notice him."

Though it is better known for show biz celebrities like Steven Spielberg, Alec Baldwin and Lauren Bacall, "The Hamptons", as it is known to people who want to be there, and the "East End", to people who already are, has long been home to some of the heavies, hitters of American prosody. And with the authors of Catch 22, The Snow Leopard, Slaughterhouse Five, JR and Billy Bathgate all living within a few square miles, who can wonder that the arrival of the man who gave the world "Wee Willie" has raised about as much interest as a chipmunk crossing the road.

As I arrived at Bill Gaddis's house in East Hampton, I found him deep in the throes of a typical East End problem: shingles. Not the disease, but those small, oblong slats of wood that clad the exterior of houses in these parts. There is a whole, complex terminology of shingles and shingling, and being able to talk fluently about "barnsplits" or "handshakes" is as much a part of a writer's life here as knowing where to get the best vegetables (the Farmer's Market, in Amagansett), order a duck (Dreeson's, in East Hampton) or find a parking place in the season (nowhere).

Gaddis is a wizened leprechaun of a man with a whinnying laugh and a shock of ash-grey hair that looks as though it is standing up in a gale force wind. Unshaven, thin as a beanpole, and dressed in a darned grey sweater, he looks like someone who has spent several months on an ice- floe waiting for Shackleton to rescue him. But though, at 73, Gaddis is in the sunset of his life and a life of spirited imbibing has taken its toll, the blue-grey eyes hold you with a gaze as steady, and as fierce, as an osprey's.

Houses have always played a major role in his work. The rambling, Victorian house featured in Carpenter's Gothic was inspired by his previous domicile on the Hudson. This one, a renovated carriage house, is the barely disguised genius locus of his latest novel, A Frolic of His Own.

"I wouldn't say it is modelled on this house, but it did get absorbed into the book. There is a big, old house overlooking a pond, with this kind of old family, old money, and not much of it, running down."

The view from the desk in the living-room where Gaddis wrote the novel on a portable Olivetti would stop a real estate agent's heart. Through a plate-glass window, he looks through pine trees to the tea-coloured waters of Georgica Pond, one of the most sought after areas of The Hamptons. On a glass table in the centre of the room lies a copy of Philip Larkin's Collected Poems. In the bookcase are autographed copies of the works of some of his peers. Heller's Closing Time, William Gass's The Tunnel.

House-building in The Hamptons has always been about the conspicuous display of wealth. Landscape architects are flown in to create instant English gardens. Tudor barns are dismantled and shipped over. "Historic" trees are trucked in from Pennsylvania at a cost of $50,000. Three years ago, as Gaddis was writing A Frolic of His Own, Michael Graves, the Disney architect, was commissioned by a renowned plastic surgeon to build a multi- million dollar bunker on the plot next door.

"You cannot imagine the noise. There were often 30 vehicles on that tiny property. It's that absolutely ruthless money, the sort of people that don't give a damn for the neighbours. They just move in and say: 'If I want to spend a million dollars putting in a new shower, I will.' "

Airline pilots flying in to JFK say that they can see a clearly defined band of smog, dividing suburban Long Island from the East End, passing roughly through the town of Patchogue. The area was first "discovered" by painters, not writers, when an artist called Thomas Moran came out with a group of colleagues to paint en plein air at the end of the last century. Since then it has been home to Picabia, Fernand Leger, Max Ernst, de Kooning and, of course, Jackson Pollock. These days, writers outnumber painters. As well as Gaddis, there is Kurt Vonnegut in Wainscott and EL Doctorow in Sag Harbour. The novelist Peter Matthiessen is in Sagaponack, Joseph Heller in Amagansett. For many years, John Irving lived here, too.

"Some you see just every now and again," Gaddis told me. "Some you have dinner with. We have Peter and Maria [Matthiessen] over to dinner, or the Doctorows. But as Gore Vidal once said: 'Every time I hear of another writer's success, I die a little.' I suppose there is something to that."

What do they talk about at dinner? I wondered. "It's pretty much mundane, middle-class stuff. House, family; common problems. We don't sit around and dissect each other's books. Whenever we have a book out, we do send out a copy to the others, but often it's never mentioned."

The summer is their least favourite time of the year, as Le tout Manhattan descends on The Hamptons and these small, country towns are suddenly full of power women and personal trainers (Tina Brown has a house in the Hamptons satellite village, East Quogue), Wall Street executives and corporate moguls. Restaurants teem with people hoping to catch a glimpse of Billy Joel or Kim Bassinger. The roads are choked with rollerbladers and svelte blondes in black Range Rovers who are more than willing to run you into the ditch if you make them late for their al fresco lobster dinner. But if you were paying $2,000 a day to be here, wouldn't you be in a hurry? Faced by this invasion, writers like Gaddis hunker down and wait for September, and the Long Island Expressway, to take the "summer people" back to New York.

To screen himself from all the razzmatazz, Peter Matthiessen has let an impenetrable, 20ft-high wall of creepers, vines and privet run riot round his Sagaponack home. From a distance, it looks like a setting from his novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and at any moment you expect the author to emerge from the driveway and fire a poison blow-dart at the passing BMWs. Surprisingly, for a man as private as Matthiessen, the house is open twice a week to any Zen Buddhist who happens to be in the area. On a busy day, as many as 20 people sit cross-legged on cushions in a converted barn in the garden and contemplate the futility of existence in the Hamptons.

Matthiessen is the only one of the writers living here for whom the migrating terns and ospreys, the kettlehole ponds teeming with fish and herons, and the ever-present ocean with its loons, seals, whales and dolphins, are more than a bucolic backdrop to more serious endeavours. Men's Lives, his passionate and soon to be filmed meditation on the vanishing culture of Long Island's fishermen, is still the best book about the area. Matthiessen is also involved with local conservation issues.

Joseph Heller has lived on a secluded plot of land half a mile from the ocean in Amagansett since 1982, when he moved out of New York to recover from the illness, Guillain-Barre syndrome, that had nearly crippled him. "I like it here more than any other place I've ever lived," he told me as we sat by the pool at the back of his house. "It's most enjoyable in the spring and the late fall, when it becomes a village again. I'm not part of any circle. I know most of the writers here, but I've always had an aversion to being part of a group."

Heller was dressed in flip-flop sandals, olive-green cotton trousers and a blue polo shirt. Two Volvos glinted in the drive. Like most American writers, and certainly the ones living here, Heller is not ashamed of worldly success. He is proud of it. But as I asked him to describe a day in his life in the Hamptons, he grinned mischievously.

"Well, nothing happens. I let the dog out, walk outside and pick up the New York Times from the mailbox, drink my coffee, read the newspaper, then get to work. For an hour and a half, maybe two, I work on writing. Afternoons, three or four days a week, I drive to Southampton and exercise at the gym there, meet a friend for lunch, get back at 3.30 or 4.00pm. Either work a little or rest, read another newspaper. Have dinner, either work after dinner, or not. I almost never watch television and I almost never go to the movies. It's a dead-ass life, really."

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