East Hampton is the most beautiful village in America. You read this in magazines, see it on the internet, hear it said at cocktail parties.
Well, it’s a lie. And it’s my fault. In the 1950s when my dad and mom first brought me out to the Hamptons as a teenager, I overheard two wealthy dowagers walking along Main Street in East Hampton talking about how beautiful this place was.
“You know,” one of them said, “The Saturday Evening Post held a contest and subsequently declared that East Hampton was ‘the most beautiful village in America.’”
The Saturday Evening Post was one of the most respected publications in America at that time.
“My, my,” the other dowager said.
I never forgot this conversation, and a few years later when I first started Dan’s Papers at the age of 20, I wrote about this honor.
East Hampton certainly deserved it. From the day I first set foot in this place, I was overwhelmed with its beauty. The town pond with the swans. The wide boulevard of Main Street with the giant elms arching over the road. The grand beach pavilion at the end of Ocean Road. The three magnificent 18th and 19th century windmills that rose 60 feet in the air on various lawns on Main Street – the Hook Mill, the Home Sweet Home Mill, the Gardiner’s Mill—this was a peaceful, astonishing community like no other I had ever seen. It was a far cry from the suburb where my parents had raised me in New Jersey. There was no comparison.
For years and years, I repeated this statement of East Hampton’s greatness in the pages of Dan’s Papers, in a guidebook of the Hamptons I wrote, as a slogan on a pamphlet about East Hampton, and even on a roadmap I drew showing where everything was in the Hamptons.
Remember, this was long before the internet, smartphones or Google. If something was in a newspaper, people tended to believe it.
And of course, everybody else in East Hampton was telling everybody about this too. It appeared in literature from the Ladies Village Improvement Society. It appeared in quotes in a brochure published by the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce.
At this point, dear reader, you are probably thinking that I was repeating this accolade based on pretty flimsy information, but, forgive me, I was a fledgling reporter with no journalistic experience running a new newspaper and took it as gospel. If one East Hampton dowager was telling this loudly to another, well, how could anything be wrong?
And then one day 10 years later, I got a letter in the mail. I did not know the person who sent it. I do not remember his name. But this was what this person wrote to me. Just one sentence.
“I worked at The Saturday Evening Post for 30 years and we never published any competition that declared East Hampton to be the most beautiful village in America.”
It struck me like a thunderbolt. Of course this person had to be wrong. Maybe he was out sick on the week that came out.
And so, I embarked upon a quest. I would find that article. At the local library I learned that there was a library in Manhattan almost directly across from the New York Public Library where back issues of almost every magazine in America were saved. The New York Public Library Annex it was called. I went there.
I sat at a table where a librarian, at my request, went through the card catalogue looking to find an article called “East Hampton, the Most Beautiful Village in America,” and when that came to nothing, she brought me, a few handfuls at a time, every back issue of The Saturday Evening Post from 1945 to 1954, which is when I overheard this conversation, and over the next three hours I flipped through every page and every article in every issue.
And I found nothing that said that. The closest I came was, earlier, being shown during the card catalogue search, an article written in Holiday magazine called “Beautiful East Hampton,” which described the adventures of a young woman who with five of her friends had rented a house in East Hampton for the summer in 1948. But that wasn’t it.
Well, the misinformation continues to this day. I’m sorry.
* * *
There is another story for which I took the blame some years ago, though in this case, incorrectly.
Sometime in the 1970s, we locals began to use the backroads to avoid the traffic jams on the highway. It was said we knew these shortcuts, and of course we did. It was also said, by us locals, that we sure as hell shouldn’t be telling anything to the summer people about these intricate directions.
Because of this, I decided to write something naughty on this topic in Dan’s Papers.
I headlined the article “The secret Back Road Shortcuts in the Hamptons.”
“Getting Around Bridgehampton” I wrote. “After you pass the Carvel heading east on the highway, make the first right onto Farmhouse Road, go 2 miles, turn right at the big boulder, then after a quick left at Florence Nightingale Lane, take Surf Drive directly down toward the beach, with your foot on the gas the whole way so when you reach the back of the dune you have enough speed to catapult your car over the bathers on the beach beyond to splash down into the ocean.”
I wrote the exact same paragraph, with modifications at the beginning for “Getting Around Bridgehampton,” “Getting Around East Hampton” and “Getting Around Amagansett.” But at the end? The same Surf Drive, the catapult over the sunbathers, the works.
A week after publishing this, I sat in a luncheonette listening to two men talk about how Dan Rattiner had given away the shortcuts. For the next year, I got to hear it over and over. Some of it was nasty. Nobody apparently was reading anything other than the headline. I tried explaining this. Eventually I had to give up.
It all only ended around 1985 when a young woman named Jodi Della Femina wrote a guidebook called “Jodi’s Shortcuts,” which gave away the actual shortcuts. So then I could say it wasn’t my fault, it was hers.
And life went on.