Two prominent men who have been in residence in Montauk for more than half a century are Dick Cavett and Edward Albee. Cavett is the celebrated former late-night talk show host on ABC whose wit and intellect are legendary. Albee is considered by most critics to be America’s greatest living playwright. (He wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Goat: or Who is Sylvia? and The Zoo Story). They both live oceanfront on wooded estates, Cavett to the east of town near the lighthouse, Albee to the west, near Gurney’s Inn in Hither Hills. I think it fair to say that in the late 1960s when these men, both now full of years, first came to the East End, Cavett came to get out of the spotlight and away from it all to enjoy time with friends and family. Albee, however, came to work. He rented a stable at the Montauk Manor, where he worked with actors and tried out scenes from the plays he was working on.
In recent years, both men, Cavett more than Albee, have reminisced about their extraordinary experiences during past years. And yesterday, listening to a radio interview with Cavett on WPPS Public Radio in Southampton, I realized that both men had encounters with a President of the United States, who also came to Montauk in those early years.
Who does not, even an Albee or a Cavett, vividly remember encounters with presidents? Richard Nixon had no home in Montauk. But he did, both before his presidency, during and after it, frequent Gurney’s Inn in Montauk from time to time. He kept a low profile in those years, of course. He asked Gurney’s not to publicize his presence here, and they didn’t. He wanted to be alone with his wife, Pat, and, of course, with his entourage, which included Secret Service men.
I learned of Albee’s encounter with Nixon because he wrote about it in an introduction to a book I wrote not long ago called In the Hamptons. It was not an encounter up-close and personal. It was an encounter from afar—something that Albee knew was going on but Nixon did not. Here is what Albee wrote.
“I wish I had known Dan while he was writing his piece on Nixon’s stays at Gurney’s Inn in Montauk. My house, looking down the beach, is not far from that spot, and, one day, I was looking over my gradual cliff and I saw an extraordinary sight: There was a man in a suit and tie and shoes walking the beach among the sunbathers, shaking hands with those who were willing to have their hands shook. Five paces behind him were two other men, similarly dressed but with their right arms extended and covered with beach towels. It is so clear to me now: There was Nixon and there were his bodyguards with guns. The mind boggles: What if I’d been gifted with insight into the future and what if I’d been, by nature, a killer. Just think what I could have saved the country, from my perch on my cliff.”
Dick Cavett’s encounter with Richard Nixon was up-close and personal and took place at Gosman’s Dock when Cavett, returning to Gosman’s after having eaten there the night before to pick up a Tilley hat he had left at his table, was told by Roberta Gosman at the front door that she wanted Cavett to know that Richard Nixon, now a former president, was eating lobster with his daughter Julie at a table by the railing overlooking the inlet. She waved in that general direction, and Cavett, happily distracted because of finding what he thought had been lost, made the decision to walk over to the former president’s table to talk cheerfully and wittily with him. He now says—he wrote about this in his blog column for The New York Times several years ago—that this was one of the most awkward few minutes in his life. It was one of those encounters where, he says, you absolutely say the wrong things and cannot help yourself. This is quite an admission. Dick Cavett is so elegant and polite, it is almost unimaginable he would ever do this.
A little background might be in order here for those who are not familiar with Richard Nixon’s spectacular rise and fall in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He was our president for five years. Earlier in his term, his Vice President Spiro Agnew had to resign for financial improprieties. Then Nixon himself resigned the presidency—the only man to ever do that—to avoid being impeached for lying to Congress and the American people about his role in the Watergate burglary, where hired criminals stole things and planted recording devices in the headquarters of the man who was running against him for president in 1972. Before he resigned, however, he fought. The investigation to uncover his lying was proceeding. He was denying. And at this point, still in the White House, he began to become paranoid and vindictive against what he said were his “enemies.” He had lists of people he wanted to “get,” among them members of the liberal media who were writing every day about all his trickery.
The Dick Cavett Show was on in those years. Tens of millions of people watched it every night. Nixon’s list had many liberal thinkers on it. Some said Cavett himself might be on it. He wasn’t, but then Cavett was told that there was a video—Nixon was not only taping all his encounters in the Oval Office for posterity, he was also filming them there—in which Cavett and his show were mentioned. At a later time, Cavett saw it. It was a short, 30-second clip. In the Oval Office with Nixon at this time was his lieutenant Bob Haldeman, who took orders from Nixon and made things happen. Recently, on his blog, Cavett published the transcript of this encounter. Here it is:
Nixon: So what is Cavett?
Haldeman: He’s…Oh, Christ, he’s…God, he’s..
Nixon: He’s terrible?
Haldeman: He’s impossible. He loads every program…automatically he’ll…
Nixon: Nothing you can do about it, obviously?
Haldeman: We’ve complained bitterly about the Cavett shows.
Nixon: Well, well is there any way we can screw him? That’s what I mean. There must be ways.
Haldeman: We’ve been trying to.
Needless to say, Cavett, having heard this, never forgot it. And it was in his mind when he later approached Richard Nixon and his daughter at the dinner table in Montauk. On the other hand, he had found his hat. Cheerful him.
Here, in his own words, from his New York Times blog, is Cavett’s happy encounter with Richard Nixon at Gosman’s. Cavett also mentions, in this encounter, an entertainment he was invited to at the White House in the Nixon years when he met and shook hands with the President, something else anyone would never have forgotten.
So he picks up two menus from a waiter’s stand and comes over to stand behind the former president. He’s going to be a waiter entertaining the Nixons at their dinner table.
“Our specials today include the Yorba Linda soufflé, the Whittier College clam chowder .” he says. Whittier was the college Nixon attended.
Nixon looks up.
“Oh, yes. I thought that was you.”
What Cavett should have said, he says on his blog, was nice to see you, won’t disturb, goodbye. But he didn’t.
“I guess the last time I saw you was when you were nice enough to invite my wife and me to that wonderful evening of Shakespeare at the White House with the great actor Nicol Williamson,” he said. “Mr. Nixon, in the reception line that night you asked me, ‘Who’s hosting your show for you tonight?’ and I told you Joe Namath.”
At this point, there was a long silence. Cavett had hoped the President might say something at this point. He didn’t. So Cavett pressed on.
“Oh, I just remembered that a funny thing happened that night. You may recall that just as we all sat watching the last minutes of Williamson’s show, a smell like paper burning wafted into the room.”
Nixon seemed not to remember. So Cavett once again pressed on, stupidly.
“It smelled sort of like a small fire in a wastepaper basket and that there were a few looks of alarm but then it went away and the show ended. (And then) coming up the aisle I found myself beside the great British critic and wit, Kenneth Tynan, who was doing a profile of Williamson for The New Yorker.” At that moment, Cavett remembered, horribly, how that story ended. But he couldn’t help himself. “I asked Tynan what he made of the smell of smoke,” he said.
“And what did he say?” Nixon asked.
Cavett gulped. “He said, ‘They’ve let Agnew into the library.’”
Uh, oh, Watergate. Nixon’s daughter Julie tried to save the day.
“I hope your nightclub act was funnier than that,” she said.
And then Nixon piped up.
“Oh, I see. Book-burning.”
And with that, the three of them said their goodbyes, the Nixons went back to their dinner, and Cavett walked out of the restaurant, reporting how he did that with this marvelous sentence he wrote at the end of his blog post:
“And like a concussed fighter with no memory of being carried from the ring, I got home somehow.”
A few minor notes:
As it turned out, Joe Namath, the New York Jets quarterback, WAS on the Enemies List.
As for my own involvement with Richard Nixon, as Edward Albee comments, it’s in my book. I got a phone call one day from Nick Monte, who was CEO of Gurney’s Inn, telling me that once again Mr. Nixon and his wife were at his resort. He wondered if I would like to interview him. He could arrange it.
At the time, I was 21, just finishing college, and in the first year of publishing Dan’s Papers. This was BEFORE Nixon had become president. He had run for president that year and he had lost. And, in a famous press conference, he announced to the media, “Well, now you won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around any more,” and had stalked out, presumably to oblivion.
I thought, well if Gurney’s Inn wants me to interview this loser and get all that publicity for their hotel, they should take an ad and pay for it.
“No thanks,” I said. And so that is how I never met Richard Nixon.