The Affair: Montauk TV Show Recalls Old Scandal

The Affair
The Affair, Photo: Courtesy Showtime

The Affair is a TV series about a writer and a waitress who have an affair one summer in Montauk. It was shot last summer in locations around Montauk and the story is set in Montauk. It has been renewed by Showtime for another season, so there will be more filming going on.

I had not had a chance to see any of the episodes of its first season. Until last night. This came about because one of the members of my family was sick in bed and binge-watching successive episodes of The Affair. I happened in, and then couldn’t tear myself away from these episodes as they unfolded one after another for the two hours we watched.

The reason was not because of how well the series shows off Montauk. And it was not because of the fact that it pretty much described accurately how the town is put together—with a big ranch out by the point, a fishing village on the bay and some rocking resort motels in the center of town. It was because of how amazingly close the plot of this story resembled the crazy emotions that accompanied a very public “affair” in Montauk in the 1950s, when I was a teenager here. It did make me wonder if the writer of this series knew about it.

Way back in 1957, a wealthy advertising agency man in Manhattan named Marion Harper Jr. bought the ranch out in Montauk and other properties on East Lake Drive. His agency was one of the largest in the world at that time, an assemblage of other ad agencies. It was called McCann-Erickson. Harper would hold retreats at the ranch for his ad agency executives. There would be conferences there. He also had the ranch open for guests. And Harper also built a small castle of a home on East Lake Drive for himself and his wife, Virginia.

By the time my dad moved our family to Montauk in 1956, when I was 16, the Deep Hollow Ranch was a busy place, not yet with the ad-agency executives but for ranch activities and for the renting out of cottages on the property for visitors. Deep Hollow had been given the name “Oldest Cattle Ranch in America,” since it had been a cattle ranch since 1658—the English settlers who first arrived used Montauk as pastureland. They fenced in large pastures. One was where they built Third House, to be home for the shepherds and also a resting place for visitors from afar. This was to become Deep Hollow Ranch.

There was a lot of skeet shooting and trail-riding going on at the ranch back then. There were also horse shows and hayrides. And often, people on horseback would ride to downtown Montauk, hitch their horses to a post, and go off into a luncheonette or a store such as my dad’s (White’s Drug Store).

Harper had hired three brothers, all familiar with horseback riding and the ranch chores, to run the ranch. They were Shank, Jack and Phin Dickinson. Jack was the cowboy in charge. Phin was the true rancher and head honcho.

Our family’s home was now on South Fairview Avenue. And my sister, who was 8 when we moved here, soon became friends with an 8-year-old girl who lived across the street named Peggy. They remained friends all through high school. The two girls would sometimes shout from their bedrooms across the way to each other. As the older brother, I got to know Peggy, and my parents got to know Peggy’s mom, Nancy Dickinson. She was married to Phin Dickinson, the foreman at the ranch.

The affair, as it was known in town, was between Phin Dickinson and Virginia Harper. It was rumored to have gone on secretly for years, and when passions finally got out into the open, they reverberated down to South Fairview Avenue, where, one day, Peggy came over to our house crying because her mother was throwing dishes and furniture around across the street.

Divorce was something not done often in those years. But divorce is where this one went. After Nancy Dickinson threw Phin out, he moved in openly with Virginia Harper, into the bunkhouse at the ranch. And so multi-millionaire Marion Harper—he would have been a billionaire today—ended up in divorce court. He had built that castle on East Lake Drive for himself and Virginia. Now he wanted it back.

One of the divorces went quick, the other, which involved lots of money, took years. Phin lived with Virginia for a while, but then that ended. But Nancy would not take him back. Eventually, Nancy moved away. And Peggy, along with her older sister Ann, moved away, too. And after that, my sister and Peggy lost touch with each other.

As for Marion and Virginia Harper’s divorce, in the end Virginia got possession of the castle on East Lake Drive. As for the ranch, it got split in two. The smaller parcel, about 30 acres south of the highway where the bunkhouse was (and still is), was given to Virginia. She renamed that ranch Indian Field Ranch. But Marion got to keep everything north of the highway, which included the historic Third House—which had been used as the dining hall for his dude ranch and as the ranch headquarters—and about 1,100 acres, much of it waterfront on the bay side. That remained as Deep Hollow Ranch until about the 1970s, when long after all four participants in this passion play were gone, it was sold to the county, and became a state park. Meanwhile, across the street, the Indian Field Ranch came to be owned by the Dickinson family. It continues on today in private ownership.

Now here’s the plot of The Affair on Showtime. And I won’t spoil it for you.

The ranch—all they seemed to do was change the sign out front when they filmed it—is owned by a wealthy widow who has four sons, now grown. You get to meet them all at family get togethers at the ranch. There is not much money other than the tens of millions that the ranch is worth—the kids will get it as an inheritance—so the kids shift for themselves. One of them is married to a local Montauk girl, Alison Lockhart (played by actress Ruth Wilson), who works as a waitress at the Lobster Roll restaurant (popularly known as Lunch). This couple is not getting along.

Into town for the summer comes a handsome fortyish man named Noah Solloway, played by Dominic West. He is a New York City schoolteacher summering out east with his wife and four kids, writing a novel. He is supposedly at work on the book most of the day, but in reality he’s suffering from writer’s block. And he just kicks around.

One day, at the Lobster Roll, he espies the waitress. She notices him, too. After a second encounter on the beach, she invites him back to her little house on the ocean and that affair begins.

The trouble is that the writer is also married. And he and his wife have four kids. They are all living in a summer house owned by the wife’s wealthy parents. But there are problems, most of which come from the fact that the family is basically leeching off her parents and Noah feels inadequate.

There are scenes shot on Cranberry Hole Road in Napeague, down at the fishing docks at Montauk Harbor and at a beachside nightclub called “The End” on the show, which, I believe, is one of the refurbished motels in downtown Montauk that, at night, really rocks. The waitress and the writer can’t keep their hands off each other.

I promised you I wouldn’t spoil this. So I’m not going to. Maybe we’ll just have to wait for the new season. But the creators of this series, Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, also writers on the show, know all about Montauk and how easy it is for romance to blossom there.

As they say, everything changes, but it just remains the same.


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