Me and My Hat: The Scary Story of Why I Started Wearing a Hat in the Hamptons


Twenty-five years ago, I was diagnosed with melanoma. The disease came in the form of an innocent looking mole on my back. A doctor told me it was life threatening. If I didn’t have surgery to have it removed I would likely live less than a year. If I did have it removed I would probably have five years.

“Of course even with the surgery you could die within a year. But you could also live a long and normal life. There really is nothing that can be done for melanoma other than removing it. It comes back or it doesn’t. There are no medicines for it. There’s no lifestyle changes you can make, other than not going out in the sun. There is a great correlation between getting too much sun and skin cancer.”

Among the many other things I thought about during that frightening time was how ironic it was that the sun might have done me in. I was a sun worshipper. Always had been. I drove a convertible car. I stayed out in the sun. Indeed, even my life’s work, writing this newspaper, involved sunshine. There is nothing more important to a summer resort than sunshine. Now I would have to stay in the shadows?

I was 47 years old at the time of this crisis. I’ve always had a rebellious streak. I thought well, I will still go out in the sun, but I will wear white or off-white long sleeve shirts to fend off the sun. I will avoid being out in mid-day. I will always lather up exposed parts of my body with sunscreen. When possible I will look for dappled sunlight rather than straight sunlight. I will specialize in watching sunsets. And whenever I am outdoors, I will wear a hat. One with a brim that runs all the way around.

At first, wearing a hat outdoors all the time presented some problems. I’d set it down somewhere. Then I’d forget where that was. So I’d go on a hunt for it when it came time to go outdoors. And if that failed, I’d have to buy another hat. Needless to say, I developed quite a hat collection. But even then, sometimes, I’d forget to go out in the hat.

Dan Rattiner on the beach
Dan Rattiner wearing his iconic hat, Photo: Oliver Peterson

I soon found one thing I could do that would solve every one of these problems in a single stroke. It was to simply wear my hat all the time. Then I would know where it was. On my head.

People sometimes ask me do I ever take off my hat? And I say I do. There are three occasions where I do not wear my hat. All begin with the letter S. One is sleep. You can figure out the other two on your own.

There was another thing I decided to do. I decided that for the most part I would wear straw hats. This was, in the wintertime, a definitely defiant act. But if I was a sun lover and a proud member of a resort, I felt I owed it to Mr. Sunshine to proclaim summer even in the wintertime, when the sun shines just a few hours a day as it does in December and January.

I have to say when all this happened, which was in 1986, the eastern end of Long Island was still a place where people generally dressed as they wanted to. There were clammers in boots, car mechanics in overalls, rich resorters in white linen and tie, merchants in open shirts, farmers in dirty corduroy, artists in jeans and sweatshirts.

Soon afterwards, however, particularly in the Hamptons, people began to dress to impress. High fashion came in. High heels came in. Jimmy Choos. Polo shirts and pants. It occurred to me at the time that the way I dressed could surely look like some sort of affectation. I suppose, if you think about how this came about, it was. Although it was for reasons of health rather than to see and be seen.

Finding nice-looking straw hats, particularly out of season, was on a catch as catch can basis. We’d travel south. I’d wear two hats on the plane coming home.

One time in New York City a year or two after I began to wear hats all the time, I went into the Stetson Hat Store on Sixth Avenue just up the street a bit from Macy’s. This was a very famous hat store at the time, there for generations, and I thought I’d find something made of straw I could wear. I also thought maybe this could be My Official Hat Store. Unfortunately, straw hats were not much in attendance that month. But I did wind up with a modified cowboy hat I thought might work, and, as the salesman was very persistent, I bought it even after learning it was expensive.

The salesman said I should wear the new hat out and pack up my old battered straw hat in the hat box the new one came in and I declared that a fine idea. He walked me to the door and then right out onto the sidewalk. He had his arm over my shoulders in friendship. He then looked at me directly.

“You know, you really look good in hats,” he said. He then shook my hand and I walked off proudly.

By the next block, I thought of something. Of course he would say that. That’s how you sell more hats. From there I shuffled on back to our apartment.

I finally did settle on one source for all my straw hats. I had four young children during this time. Every year we went to Disney World. The straw hats in the store just at the end of the ride at the Pirates of the Caribbean were the perfect straw hats for me. I began buying them by the half dozen and having them shipped. They were, as I recall, about $11 each. I’d go to a fancy party.

“Where do you get your hats?” a man with a staggeringly expensive Borsaleno Panama hat said.

“Pirates of the Caribbean.”

“You look good in hats,” he replies gaily.

I’ve heard that before.

After about 10 years of these Disney hats, however, I went online to order a new batch (online sales had come in) and found they no longer made my regular hat. They had a slightly new model for the same price. I ordered that. Just one, to make sure it was okay. It wasn’t. So ended my link with Mickey and Donald. I’m back to catch as catch can.

Now one conclusion for this story is that the cancer came back and got me, I died and I was buried in my hat, even though it was no longer necessary since there’s no sunshine down there.

However, since it is now 2012 and I am sitting here at the beach typing this story, that is not what happened. What happened is that I had the surgery and the cancer never came back and so here I still am.

I still get my body checked for suspicious moles and stuff every six months. Dr. Austin in Southampton does it.

“I don’t know how you do this,” Dr. Austin told me last time I was there. “You absolutely manage to stay out of the sun. You’re doing terrific.”

You know, dear reader, you should wear a hat. You would look good in hats.

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