Beach Reads

Three Writers from Sagaponack: Matthiessen, Capote, Jones

The Hamptons is ideal for the writing life.

Perhaps the wildest parties ever thrown in Sagaponack were the famous Bastille Day firework celebrations at George Plimpton’s home in the 1970s. The parties were attended by everyone who was anyone from Chevy Chase and Dustin Hoffman to Kurt Vonnegut and Louis Malle, to Paul Simon and the Rolling Stones.

While some were just there for the party, some of Plimpton’s guests were residents of Sagaponack in a time before the 11962 ZIP code carried the title of most expensive in the country. In the 1960s, the small seaside hamlet attracted some of the most talented working writers the country has ever produced: Writers who were looking not only for a quiet place to work, but also, for something affordable.

Peter Matthiessen
Peter Matthiessen, Photo: Linda Girvin

PETER MATTHIESSEN
A co-founder of The Paris Review with the aforementioned Plimpton (hence the Bastille Day fireworks), Matthiessen purchased a six-acre compound in Sagaponack in 1959 for a mere $35,000 when the area was still a farming community with simple, small houses and rolling farmland—a far cry from Matthiessen’s WASPy, Fifth Avenue upbringing.

“From Labor Day to Memorial Day it was absolutely dead silent,” Matthiessen once said. “I loved it, and I got a lot of work done. But it was very tough on our wives.”

When he first moved out East, Matthiessen worked on the water and only wrote when weather prevented him from doing so. It was from this home that Matthiessen left on his 1973 journey to Nepal with naturalist George Schaller—a trip which resulted in his writing The Snow Leopard, part travelogue, part natural history, part spiritual journey and winner of the 1980 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In addition to that and the East End classic Men’s Lives, Matthiessen also wrote the Shadow Country trilogy in his Sagaponack writing shack.

Though the first, Killing Mr. Watson, found success, the final two didn’t. Matthiessen decided to rewrite the entire trilogy, sentence by sentence. The undertaking took a decade to complete, but the gambit paid off as the book won the 2008 National Book Award, making him the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both Nonfiction and Fiction.

His Sagaponack home was open twice a week for visiting Zen Buddhists. While in Sagaponack, Matthiessen became friends with many other writers who turned to the East End for its peace, quiet and low cost of living. Perhaps more than any other, he became close to James Salter. Every day during the summer, at about 6 p.m., the pair would meet at Gibson Beach for a swim. While they only did so daily until Labor Day, every November 1, they would meet again for one last swim of the year.

“We dove in, splashed, and came out running,” Salter later recalled. Though they were both exceptional writers and great friends, Matthiessen confessed, “I never tell Salter I’ve read his books, and vice versa. Writers worry you’ll be giving faint praise, and it’s somewhat undignified.”

Recommended Reading: Shadow Country, The Snow Leopard, Far Tortuga

truman capote
Truman Capote, Photo: New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Roger Higgins

TRUMAN CAPOTE
In 1962, the Breakfast at Tiffany’s author commissioned a home about 100 yards from the ocean in Sagaponack. It was in that nondescript home—“Kansas with a sea breeze,” he called it—where he wrote In Cold Blood and spent his winters until his death in 1984.

“I spend most of my time out here reading, writing, going for walks with my dog and talking on the telephone,” he told Architectural Digest in 1976. “I see people in New York; I don’t see New York people out here. I hardly see anyone when I’m here. In the past 14 years, since I’ve had this house, I’ve gone out six times for dinner. Now that’s quite a record for someone known for being so social, isn’t it?”

He may not have gone out for dinner often, but Capote was certainly a regular at the bar of Bobby Van’s in Bridgehampton back when it was in the current World Pie location. Two years after Capote died in Los Angeles, half of his ashes were shipped back east to his partner, Jack Dunphy, who died in 1992. Two years, later after Dunphy’s death, a group of friends spread the pair’s ashes on Crooked Pond in the Long Pond Greenbelt in Southampton town—land preserved in part by proceeds from the sale of Capote’s Sagaponack home. The other half of Capote’s ashes was sold at auction in 2016 for $43,750.

Recommended Reading: In Cold Blood, The Complete Stories of Truman Capote

JAMES JONES
In 1969 Jones told an interviewer, “I wouldn’t live anywhere else. It has nothing to do with my work. When I’m at my typewriter, I could just as well be living in New York.” The U.S. Army veteran wasn’t talking about Sagaponack, where he would move in 1975.

“When the day’s stint is done, I walk the streets with Stendhal, Proust, Rousseau and Voltaire. I stand under the Eiffel Tower…. I get goose pimples just looking at the Seine.” Jones and his wife, Gloria, moved to Paris in 1959. There, Jones wrote The Thin Red Line, about his experiences in the Pacific theater during WWII—the second of a trilogy of novels, which began with his National Book Award-winning From Here to Eternity, about the time he spent in Hawaii during the war, which included the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Following a teaching gig at Florida International University in Miami and facing increasing health problems, Jones and his family moved to the East End, settling on Sagg Main Road in Sagaponack (“It’s close enough to New York if you have business in there,” he told a New York Times reporter. “But I only go into New York when I absolutely have to.”), where he set to work on the third part of his trilogy, Whistle.

Jones died in May of 1977. He was eulogized by Willie Morris, Irwin Shaw and William Styron, who called Jones’ critics “voracious little barracudas” and called Jones “a writer deeply implanted in the American grain.” According to the Times “It was recalled that until about a year ago he had been a regular at Bobby Van’s bar in Bridgehampton, and when he gave up liquor he still went there to imbibe grapefruit juice, smoke cigars and to talk.”

Recommended Reading: From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, Some Came Running

Join our celebration of East End literature and writing at the Dan’s Papers Literary Festival at Guild Hall on Thursday, August 23. Read all about here or visit DansLitPrize.com.

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