Founders: These Individuals Altered the Course of History in the Hamptons

Hamptons founders
Hamptons founders, Photos: iStock, Public Domain, 123RF

During the 57 years I’ve been writing this newspaper, I have seen this place change in many ways. Usually it happens when a particular individual comes on the scene who has not been here before. They see things in a new way. And they have enough determination to make things happen.

Sometimes, whatever it is sticks, and this place lurches off in a new direction. Sometimes it falls off the wall and whatever the change was disappears.

I hereby present those who made these changes. Emboldened by this effort, I have looked back into history to see others who made changes before I came on the scene. Here are the results.

William K. Vanderbilt brought golf to the Hamptons. In 1889 and ’90, he took a trip to Biarritz with Edward Meade and Duncan Cryder, where they met a Scotsman by the name of Willie Dunn, who was building a golf course there. Returning to America in a steamship with Willie Dunn in tow, Vanderbilt had him design a golf course on 80 rolling acres in Shinnecock. It was built by the Shinnecock Indians. Vanderbilt hit the first golf ball off to the top of a hill from the first tee at the aptly named “Shinnecock Hills Golf Club” in 1892, now believed to be the oldest golf club in America. The course was 12 holes long. Vanderbilt also caused to be built a nine-hole ladies-only golf course the following year, and soon after that expanded the men’s course to 18 holes, which is what it is today.

The club has hosted the U.S. Open four times since then, and will do so again in 2018.

In 1863, this well-to-do young physician from Manhattan came out to Southampton with his family in a horse-drawn carriage. It may have been in the middle of the Civil War, but he had a wonderful, peaceful time in this bucolic place. He wished it wasn’t so far away. In 1882, he and his family returned for his next visit, this time aboard a Long Island Railroad train. Tracks had been completed to Southampton only a short time earlier and the trip took three hours, not three days.

He bought oceanfront land and, returning to Manhattan, persuaded wealthy friends to buy land, too. Thus were the great Southampton mansions for wealthy New Yorkers constructed. Soon the Southampton Association was formed, and the Southampton Bathing Association. The Meadow Club, the National Golf Club, the Parrish Art Museum and so much more followed.

This is the woman considered to have founded the Women’s Movement in America. Although she never considered herself a feminist, her book, The Feminine Mystique, written in 1963, sparked women all over the country to consider lifestyles that were well outside the traditional lifestyles expected by society at that time. At home on Garden Street with her husband, Carl, in Sag Harbor, she held a series of panels called “The Sag Harbor Initiative” in the late 1960s. She has been noted as one of the 10 most influential women in American history.

The first celebrity movie star to vacation in the Hamptons was Marilyn Monroe. She was here on the beach in a cabin in Amagansett with her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, during two summers: 1957 and 1958. She had only recently been divorced from her second husband, Joe DiMaggio. Other movie stars had come before her, but all had come for peace and quiet, not for publicity, as did Marilyn.

The city of Paris had not been harmed during World War II, but much of the rest of Europe was in ruins. Before the war, Paris had been considered the center of the art world. But afterwards, that title was taken by New York City. Just two years after the war, that honor had to be shared with the community of Springs, where Jackson Pollock and his wife decided to go to paint. Abstract Expressionism was now the reigning type of art, and many others painting in that way followed, but Jackson Pollock was the first of them and, by 1950, was considered, with his drip paintings, the most celebrated. He was killed in a car crash on Springs-Fireplace Road in 1956.

What is Paris Hilton doing here? She was the founder of the trend, which exploded on social media, of being famous not for doing anything but for being rich and beautiful. Her X-Rated film, put out by others without her permission, started her off. Among her descendants in this trend is Kim Kardashian, whose family also visited this place.

If there is a trend toward the Hamptons being the growing-up place of American First Ladies, then the first of them would be Julia Gardiner, of Main Street, East Hampton, who married President John Tyler, sitting President of the United States, in 1844. She was pretty and feisty, and was the daughter of a well-known New York City lawyer who had a summer home here. She and her parents were “presented” to the President at a ball in Washington one year. Sparks flew.

If Kim follows Paris, then Jackie Bouvier, the wealthy, beautiful daughter of an ambassador to England who had a summer home in East Hampton (John Vernou “Black Jack” Bouvier III), followed Julia. She married Jack Kennedy and later, after his death, married Greek shipping millionaire Aristotle Onassis.

Before the movie Jaws premiered in East Hampton in 1975, there were people in the film business here in the Hamptons, but not of any great note. When Jaws came out, its director, Steven Spielberg, fell in love with the Hamptons and moved here, as did the movie’s star, Roy Scheider. Because of these two—and perhaps because the movie premiere had been on a red carpet with paparazzi and limousines and all the fuss and feathers—a large number of people from the film industry began to come here. One could say that the Hamptons International Film Festival was born because of Steven Spielberg and Roy Scheider. Today the place is overrun with TV stars, Broadway stars, comedians, political commentators and network anchormen and women and we think nothing of it.

There are famous poets from the East End, but the first of them was surely Walt Whitman, who taught school in Southold in 1842 and wrote many poems. “From Montauk Point” is in Leaves of Grass, his famous volume of poems.

There were many inventions in America during the 19th and 20th century, though none seem to have originated in the Hamptons. Among the inventors who tried, perhaps among the first who tried, was Thomas Edison. He spent time out here in 1914 and showed off a way he had invented to make silent movies into “talkies” in the music hall (today Vail-Leavitt Music Hall) in Riverhead—it failed—and built a small factory on the beach at Quogue to mine iron off the top of the sand for use in factories elsewhere. It too failed.

There were small resort inns along the beach before 1926, but nothing of the scale that Carl Fisher brought that year. Fisher bought 15,000 acres of Montauk—virtually all of it—and on it built a Surf Club and boardwalk, a polo field with barns, a yacht club, the Montauk Manor hotel, the town’s Presbyterian and Catholic churches, a whole downtown area with stores and shops laid down onto streets and sidewalks he built where none had been before, a fishing village to replace the one that had been destroyed by a hurricane on Fort Pond Bay—by dynamiting a channel between the open sea and Lake Montauk—a race car track (Fairview Avenue today), a boxing ring and tennis court building and much, much more. It was a terrific effort but it never got off the ground, and after the country went into the Depression in 1929, Carl Fisher’s fortunes sank and his Montauk companies went into receivership in 1932.

Nothing would have happened in the Hamptons if the English fort builder Lion Gardiner had not taken his family aboard a sailboat from Old Saybrook, Connecticut—where he had built a fort to protect the settlers from the natives in the 1630s—to Gardiner’s Island, which he purchased in 1639, and thence to the area he founded as East Hampton. He bought the land from Wyandanch, the chief of the Montauk Indians. And later, he became the mayor of East Hampton.

In the early 1750s, Samuel “Fish Hook” Mulford, a state assemblyman from East Hampton, went to London to appear before Parliament to argue that the tea tax levied on the colonists was unwarranted. He was laughed at, but he went back for a second try, this time with fish hooks in his pocket to ward off pickpockets who, according to legend, gave him a hard time during his first visit. He is considered the first protestor from the East End.

When Albert Einstein came to the East End of Long Island, his visit was an inspiration to other intellectuals who subsequently founded the Brookhaven National Lab and the Grumman Aviation facility in Riverhead. Subatomic particles were under study at Brookhaven. The Apollo lunar module was designed and built at Grumman. Einstein lived at Nassau Point in Southold in 1939 and famously wrote a letter to President Roosevelt urging him to begin work on splitting the atom. The atomic bomb resulted.

One of the first full-blown hippies in the counterculture lived in Bridgehampton with his wife, Janet, in the late 1960s. His work helped found a revolution that changed how we view things in America today.

“The Group for America’s South Fork” was the first environmental group devoted to promoting and preserving the ecology on the East End. The board of directors chose this professional environmentalist from Australia, who was active here for 10 years, to be its director.

Suffolk County Supervisor John Klein developed a brilliant land use plan that saved what some say are thousands of acres of farmland and open space on the eastern end of Long Island to keep agriculture a viable industry here. The plan gave farmers the ability to sell their development rights to the county. Then they could farm forever.

In 1973, this young couple, with help from the Cornell Cooperative, founded Hargrave Vineyard in Cutchogue, Long Island. This had never been done before, and most farmers said that wine grapes could not be grown on eastern Long Island. The Hargraves sold the vineyard in 1999. There are currently more than 60 wineries and vineyards on the eastern end of Long Island, one of the largest grouping of vineyards in America.

Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, as a contingent of nearly the entire U.S. Army that invaded Cuba, spent the summer of 1898 recuperating in Montauk after that fight. From that summer to this there have been a wide array of military bases on the East End, including an army training facility at Camp Upton in Yaphank and the guided missiles at Westhampton airport during the Cold War.

The legendary advertising man, president of McCann Erickson and later founder Interpublic—which for a time was the second largest advertising agency in America—bought Third House in Montauk to use for executive retreats for his firm in 1950. Other well-known ad executives followed, and the East End today remains a favorite watering spot for those in the advertising industry.

The man who extended the tracks of the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan to Montauk in 1883 was Austin Corbin. Thus, a journey to East Hampton could be accomplished in a matter of three hours, rather than, on horseback, three days. The extension was not a successful one. Corbin’s real plan was to create a freighter port at Fort Pond Bay in Montauk to compete with the Port of New York. A port city in Montauk would have cut travel time almost in half for shipping. Ships don’t go as fast as trains, and, more important, at that time there was often a delay of six hours at the Narrows because ships drafts were too low to travel through at low tide there. Eventually, objection to Corbin’s plan by New York City officials delayed and ultimately did in that plan.

In the late 1940s, Frank Mundus is believed brought shark fishing to Montauk. Before Mundus, the shark was considered a junk fish, a frightening one to be sure, but not fit for proper deep-sea sport fisherman. Mundus changed all that, became the local character after which the obsessed fisherman in Jaws was modeled, and a local hero. Shark fishing tournaments are held frequently in the summertime in Montauk.

Note: There have been founders of other activities on the East End. I’m looking to pinpoint founders of surfing, the African-American experience, deep-sea fishing, potato farming…well, there’s a lot still to go.

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