The Southampton Historical Museum’s new exhibit, Southampton Blue Book, 1930 to 1960: Photographs by Bert Morgan, based on the new book of the same title, provides a glimpse into a world that has all but vanished. A mid-20th-century world where Hamptons society was carefully, and officially, divided into those who belonged and those who didn’t. It was a time when the wealthy selected friends and party guests from a pre-approved list. An era when different strata of society never mixed freely, and you always knew which stratum your family was in.
How did you know? You consulted The Southampton Blue Book, that quite public document of the private exclusion that ruled behind the hedgerows. If you weren’t in the book, you weren’t going to get to go behind those hedgerows. If you weren’t in the book, you weren’t going to jump horses or foxhunt at the Southampton Riding and Hunt Club. If you weren’t in The Blue Book, you would never be a member of the Southampton Bathing Corporation.
For whatever reason, though, the chosen families didn’t mind photographer Bert Morgan (1904–1986) infiltrating their private world. In fact, they invited him to their private clubs and parties and would pay him for prints of photographs they especially liked. They also allowed him to provide photos to glossies such as Vogue and Town and Country.
But make no mistake—Morgan was not a paparazzo. That’s a term that didn’t even exist at the time.
“Bert was impeccable,” says exhibit curator Mary Cummings. “He had moved from England as a boy, and he had the accent and carried himself like a gentleman.”
Morgan also knew how to dress his part, a key requirement—as Cummings points out. “They trusted him. He was quite dapper. And, he never released an unflattering photograph.”
The result: a treasure trove of images, which the current exhibit draws from, showing Southampton’s “Blue Book” society at play. Like the man behind the camera, these people knew to dress their parts. There’s Angie and Tony Duke in their playboy days, looking tanned and casual outside the Bathing Corporation. There’s fashion columnist and editor Diana Vreeland looking relaxed but very well put together—notice that her earrings match her shorts.
And then there’s the young Jacqueline Bouvier (later to become Jackie Kennedy, of course) at the Southampton Riding and Hunt Club, in perfectly fitted riding dress. In one shot, she appears to be about 5 years old, but she already projects an air of calm indifference as she gazes confidently at the camera, leading her pony on a beautiful late-summer day. In the other, she is older, now taking a muscular horse over a jump. Both images, like the rest in the exhibit, are stunning in their clarity and skillful composition.
“Bert was an expert photographer,” observes Cummings, who notes that at the time Morgan used large-format cameras that required sheet film, which had to be reloaded prior to every shot he took. “Bert would carry a supply of the film in his pocket, and when he ran out, he would pack up and go home,” says Cummings. It’s this large-format film that has resulted in the exhibit’s beautiful high-resolution prints. The clarity makes Morgan’s subjects, so removed from our time, come back to life.
I found myself particularly drawn to a 1930s shot of New York Governor Al Smith standing on the beach with New York Senator Robert Wagner at the Southampton Bathing Corporation. It looks like it must have been a hot day—a woman in the background wears a light dress—but Smith and Wagner are fully dressed to the politician’s standard of the day: closed collars, neckties, waistcoats and jackets. They, too, were required to dress their parts.
Visit southamptonhistoricalmuseum.org for more information on this and other upcoming events and programs.