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Philistines at the Hedgerow
Passion and Property in the Hamptons
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As one of America’s most fabled communities–long a magnet for artists, celebrities, the very rich, and their respective hangers-on–the Hamptons have been a scene of constant collision among the established old guard, New Money, and the local families who farmed and fished the region for generations. In serving up three centuries of Hamptons history, Steven Gaines introduces a host of colorful characters including Jackson Pollock, Ron Perelman, Lauren Bacall, and the Bouvier Beales of Grey Gardens infamy.
Philistines at the Hedgerow is a mesmerizing feat of storytelling–a book that takes us behind the privet hedges and rolling sand dunes and brings vivid life to the curious passions and personalities that animate the Hamptons.
ONE FRIDAY NIGHT in December 1991, while dining at the home of Bruce Cotter, a retired East Hampton police lieutenant, real estate magnate Allan M. Schneider began to choke on a piece of rare sirloin steak lodged in his windpipe.
Schneider, fifty-four, was the most powerful broker in all the Hamptons—“the Pasha,” as he was affectionately called by his staff—with offices in Southampton, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, and East Hampton and revenues approaching $100 million. His empire had grown even larger that morning when he closed a deal to acquire a fifth office, in Amagansett. The new office, plus the imposing Allan M. Schneider Agency headquarters he was erecting along the highway in Bridgehampton, would seal his domination in the Hamptons real estate market.
Shortly after signing the papers at the lawyer’s office, Schneider started to drink—first with celebratory champagne, then a three-martini lunch at Gordon’s restaurant—and he hadn’t really quit since. Earlier in the day he had called his secretary, Rochelle Rosenberg, who gave him his messages and said, “I’ll see you on Monday, Allan.”
Allan answered playfully, “Maybe you will, maybe you won’t.”
The Cotters, one of the many local families with whom Schneider was close, had invited him over for a steak dinner to mark the occasion and, they hoped, sober him up. It was Schneider’s hallmark that he was friendly not only with the wealthy Summer Colony but with the hoi polloi, the farmers and tradesmen who were the “real people” of the town. He had met Cotter soon after arriving in the Hamptons in 1968, when the lieutenant had pulled him over on Montauk Highway for a traffic infraction. Allan stunned the policeman by inviting him home for a drink. Cotter indignantly declined, but over the years Allan became a good friend to Cotter and his wife, Carol Lynn. When Cotter retired from the force, Schneider invited him to sell real estate for the firm, where he became a valued employee.
That December night at Cotter’s house, Allan was cutting pieces of steak and shoving them into his mouth, several at a time, chewing and talking, very drunk and red in the face, when a chunk of meat got caught in his throat and he couldn’t swallow or speak. Cotter, who was trained in the Heimlich maneuver, calmly walked around behind Schneider’s chair and pulled the short, corpulent real estate broker to his feet. Then he clasped his hands around Schneider’s girth and with a mighty tug pulled upward. The steak dislodged with dramatic force, shooting ten feet across the room. Schneider gasped for air and sank into his chair, his blue blazer and starched white shirt askew. He loosened the striped rep Princeton tie at his neck and looked ashamed.
“I’m so embarrassed,” he said, uncharacteristically meek. He managed a wan smile to his dinner companions, showing small, ivory-colored teeth. “I’m so sorry,” he repeated, looking blankly at the table in front of him. For a moment there wasn’t a sound in the room. Then Allan pitched over to the side and hit the floor with such a thud, the walls shook.
ALLAN SCHNEIDER was a balding man with a cherubic face and the aristocratic bearing of an Edwardian lord. Princeton-educated, of good Protestant and German stock, a member of the Vanderbilt Club, he had his name and social credentials listed every year in the Blue Book, a privately published social register sold under the counter at Book Hampton to “our crowd.” He owned a historical mansion in East Hampton, a cooperative apartment at Forty Central Park South in Manhattan, and an eight-bedroom retreat at Dark Harbor, Maine, one of New England’s most exclusive resorts. He was also a trustee of the East Hampton Historical Society and a member of the board of directors of Guild Hall. He wore, proudly, his family crest on his pinkie ring, on the breast pocket of his dinner jacket, and on the vamp of his black velvet evening pumps.
Like all brilliant salesmen, he was charismatic, an engaging conversationalist who enjoyed meeting people. Nevertheless, there was something in his small, deep-set eyes that was coolly assessing. He was a keen judge, of value and of character. His “reading” of people, as he would put it, was his greatest gift in the real estate business. “I understand people,” he was fond of saying. “I know what people want. I know about people.” About rich people especially. He was fascinated by the wealthy, by who they were and what they liked and how they lived. He loved elegance and possessions; most of all, he loved houses.
You could see it in the way he showed houses to his clients, in the relish he took in the home’s location or in some obscure architectural detail, like the “scuttlehole” trapdoor in the roof through which the occupants scurried to put out chimney fires. He knew everything about houses, from how foundations were poured to the way ceramic roof tiles were baked. He didn’t just know who McKim, Mead and White were, he knew which of their houses had historical importance and which were considered, in his words, “trash.” He also knew the modern masters personally—Gwathmey, Futterman, and Jaffe. Late at night, over an Armagnac, he talked wistfully about parcels of land and great beach cottages like an aging lothario recalling lost passions.
His love of business, mixed with a quick mind and a charming but superior attitude, gave him the golden touch in Hamptons real estate. For more than twenty years he ruled the market, becoming famous for listing the choicest homes with the most exclusive clientele. Schneider’s firm made some of the flashiest sales in the history of Hamptons real estate. It was the driving force behind the sale of the $6 million acreage for the new Atlantic Golf Club and was the agency that sold Calvin Klein his house for $6 million. His firm twice handled the sale of Toad Hall, the soaring glass-and-steel Charles Gwathmey—designed structure with a two-story greenhouse on Further Lane in East Hampton: once when Texas art collector Francois de Menil sold the house to Seagram scion Edgar Bronfman Jr. for $7.5 million, and a second time when Bronfman sold the house to art dealer Larry Gagosian for $8.5 million.
Schneider had the authority to pull off some breathtaking deals. “When I started asking people who was the best,” said Mickey Schulhof, then vice-chairman of Sony in America, who was shopping for a house, “his name was at the top of everyone’s list.” One day Schulhof and his wife, Paola, were being driven by Schneider to see a house for sale on Further Lane when on the way they passed an old French mansard house of white brick on Egypt Lane, near the ocean. Schulhof pointed out the house and said, “That’s exactly the kind of house I want.” Allan remembered that the house had only recently been sold, and he picked up his car phone and called the new owners on the spot. “Look,” he said, “I know you just moved in, but if you sell my client the house, I’ll sell you something else you’ll like better, and you’ll make several hundred thousand dollars’ profit.” Twenty minutes later Schulhof had his house and Schneider had a six-figure commission.
It was also Schneider’s agency that sold the house that nearly bankrupted the entire town of Southampton, Barry Trupin’s hideous Dragon’s Head, for $2.3 million, a feat they said couldn’t be done for half that amount. Despite the legend that it was Truman Capote who convinced CBS chairman William Paley to buy twenty-five acres of oceanfront land on Peters Pond Lane as a gift for the Nature Conservancy, it was actually Schneider who came up with the idea. Years later Paley’s estate sold the property instead of bequeathing it as a gift. And when Jackie Onassis’s sister, Princess Lee Radziwill, married the film director Herb Ross, and the pair decided to leave Southampton for the artier, more show-biz East Hampton, they turned to Allan Schneider. He not only sold the Rosses an oceanfront “cottage” on Highway Behind the Pond for $6.2 million but flipped Radziwill’s old Southampton house to magazine publisher Frances Lear for $2.5 million.
Perhaps Schneider’s greatest pride and joy was West End Road, his “street of dreams” in East Hampton. He took great pleasure in driving important clients to this narrow street in his gray Mercedes sedan and boasting, “I sold every house on this road at least one time.” The road is less than a mile in length and is perhaps the most exclusive strip of property in the Hamptons. It is unusual not only because it is a dead end but because it funnels into a narrow promontory that separates the ocean from Georgica Pond. The houses on the south side of the street stand high above the dunes in fields of saw grass. Those across the road have an unparalleled view of the shimmering, halcyon Georgica Cove to the north, its far shore dotted with sprawling mansions and timbered boathouses.
“They used to call this the ‘Trippe Strip,’” Schneider explained, a hint of a British accent sometimes seeping into his voice, “because the ‘anchor’ of the twenty or so houses on this road used to be the one owned by Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American Airlines and a president of the Maidstone Club. Calvin Klein is in there now, and it’s no longer the anchor. I guess you could say the first one on the right that I sold to the director Steven Spielberg is the anchor.”
Schneider was gesturing to an unprepossessing white gate wide enough for only one car to squeeze by. A small placard stuck in the ground said, QUELLE BARN. Tall bushes hid from view anything other than a dark gravel drive. “It doesn’t look like much from the outside,” Schneider said, “but it’s the only house in the Hamptons that was ever guarded by a crack team of retired Mossad, the Israeli secret service.”
Without a doubt, not only is Spielberg’s house the most important on the block, but the film director is probably the jewel in the crown of the Hamptons’ hierarchy of celebrity. In the Hamptons there is ne plus ultra than Spielberg and his wife, “Katie,” actress Kate Capshaw. He is a reluctant potentate, in residence only during the summer months and even then rarely seen in public. In fact, he is loathe to have his presence in the Hamptons publicized at all (even though he has twice invited the cameras of Architectural Digest beyond his gate and protective shrubbery), seeing the place as a sacred refuge.
The Spielbergs live in pristine white buildings of classic geometric shapes—one, a massive square barn attached to a huge circular silo; another, a long, low rectangle—all sheathed in rows of cedar shingles stained milky gray. At the highest point of the main building is a weather vane in the silhouette of a Tyrannosaurus rex, a homage not only to Jurassic Park but to Spielberg’s abiding interest in dinosaurs. The guest house has a spine of glass skylights and three separate master bedroom suites. Since this is a child-friendly estate, each suite has its own adjoining dormitory room, designed in a ship’s-captain theme, furnished with four built-in bunk beds. The artifacts of family life are everywhere: games and toys, easels and paints, musical instruments and myriad computers or state-of-the-art electronic equipment. A giant-sized TV screen disappears out of sight into the floor of the guest barn at the push of a button, so as not to detract from the beautiful views. On the walls are pieces of expensive American folk art or framed drawings and paintings by the Spielbergs’ favorite artists—their children and their children’s friends, making up an art gallery that is changed and edited with the care of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the main building was originally decorated by Steve Ross’s widow, Courtney, the newer buildings were decorated in similar Arts and Crafts style by Naomi Leff, a Manhattan decorator who also did the Spielbergs’ Los Angeles home.
Steven Spielberg is a California boy who came to visit the Hamptons for the first time one summer twenty years ago to see his best friend and mentor, Steve Ross, the man who melded Time Inc. with Warner Communications Inc. into the largest media empire of the time. Ross lived for years on West End Road and practically insisted that Spielberg be his next-door neighbor. It wasn’t hard; Spielberg paid one visit to the Hamptons and, like so many before him, caught Hamptons land lust. In 1983 Ross was tipped off by Allan Schneider that the widow who owned the three-acre property next door was thinking about selling, and one weekend when Spielberg was visiting, the two friends walked over and rang the woman’s doorbell. They introduced themselves (“This man is Steven Spielberg,” Ross is reported to have said to the startled lady) and told the woman that if she wanted to sell her house, Mr. Spielberg would be happy to buy it. “Within a week,” Allan Schneider said, “they had a deal for one point two five million dollars—a steal.” Spielberg reportedly didn’t even lay out the money. Ross negotiated the price for him, Warner Communications fronted the money, and Spielberg reimbursed the company later.
While Gwathmey was busy renovating the barn, Spielberg was too busy to come out to the Hamptons and check on the progress, so Ross would sneak next door every week or so, check it out himself, and then call up Spielberg. “Don’t tell Gwathmey I told you this,” he would say, “but I think the windows are too small.” The next thing Ross and Spielberg did together was to secure as much abutting property as they could get their hands on. Word spread among the neighbors that if they wanted to sell, Ross and Spielberg were collecting property like a moat. They even bought a huge chunk of farmland clear across Georgica Cove so nobody would build an ugly house in the distance and block their sunset.
Just across from Quelle Barn, through a time warp 100 years into the past, stands a primly painted white and blue-gray Gothic mansion with a small portico and an exquisite English garden. This is the mist-shrouded Grey Gardens, now the home of former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, writer Sally Quinn. The house gained infamy years before when it was the home of Edith Bouvier Beale, the paternal aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and her daughter, Edie. “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” as they were known, could have had a life as promising as the rest of their family, but Mr. Beale died young and left them to live in the big house by the ocean. By the mid-seventies, the two women had become charmingly eccentric. By then a spinsterish sixty, Little Edie wore Jackie’s designer hand-me-downs—upside down; she was several sizes larger than her svelte cousin and had to wear the skirts with the Chanel hemlines bunched around her waist. Big Edie never left her bed on the second floor, which was littered with garbage, and the two women lived in the house with twenty-eight cats, no litter box, and a raccoon that was fed a steady diet of white bread.
The house had been built by Mrs. Stanhope Phillips in 1908 and later was occupied by Anna Gilman Hill, an internationally famous horticulturist who built the high concrete walls surrounding the gardens, to break the ocean wind. Within this courtyard she planted all pale flowers, gentle blues and grays that played against the frequent mists and gave the house its melancholy name. Under the Beales’ neglect, the gardens had become a tick-infested thicket of vines and brambles, in the midst of which stood the rusted carcass of a 1937 Cadillac that once belonged to Mr. Beale and had great sentimental value to Little Edie.
The town hated the eyesore at Grey Gardens and when an oil burner repairman tipped off the fire safety officials that the burner was unsafe, the town seized on the opportunity to decide it wasn’t humane to allow these eccentrics to live not only in filth but with a dangerous oil heater, and one October day the East Hampton police, the Suffolk County Health Department, and the ASPCA raided the house with a search warrant. They burst in with a photographer and reporter in tow and took pictures of what they called “evidence,” including mounds of raccoon excrement. Mrs. Beale, thinking she was being robbed by stickup men, became hysterical as she was photographed in her bed. “It was a raid,” Little Edie complained to the local paper, calling it the work of a “mean, nasty Republican town.” She said her mother thought it was the “most disgusting, atrocious thing ever to happen in America.”
The plight of the clueless mother and daughter became a national cause célèbre and eventually the subject of a fascinating film by Albert and David Maysles, called Grey Gardens. The attention motivated Jacqueline Onassis and a few other embarrassed relatives to cough up enough money to make the house habitable for the Beales. When Big Edie died in 1985, Little Edie finally decided to sell the place, and Allan Schneider was enlisted to find a buyer.
“It didn’t take me long,” he said, “because the house was a gem, really. The Bradlees bought it for the bargain price of eight hundred and forty thousand dollars.” The day Bradlee bought the estate, he discovered that the legend of Grey Gardens was so great that the front door had been stolen off its hinges. It turned out that an overzealous fund-raiser for Guild Hall, the local East Hampton cultural center, had used the door as raffle prize. The woman who won it was disturbed to learn that it had been stolen and refused to claim her prize. Bradlee only discovered what happened to his front door from reading an account in the New York Times. Unfortunately for him, a more troubling legacy than the house’s notoriety was the stench of cat urine that had soaked into the wood of the house, forcing him to rip out a portion of the floors and walls in the east end in an attempt to get rid of the odor.
As Schneider drove farther down West End Road, the gravel top narrowed protectively and the hedgerows grew higher for privacy. The houses could be glimpsed only in the brief hiatus of a driveway, if at all. “That’s Iona Dune, the writer Ring Lardner’s old house,” he said, “which was a play on another house called Ona Dune. One year as a joke Lardner renamed his house The Mange. Next door is the house built by his pal Grantland Rice, the prince of sportswriters in the nineteen twenties. And that’s Michael Cimino’s house. Four acres. He might have bought it in part with his fee for making one of the great flop movies of all time, Heaven’s Gate.” Cimino wanted to call the house Heaven’s Gate as well, but that name was usurped by television journalist Judy Licht and her advertising-executive husband, Jerry Della Femina, for their own oceanfront home. Cimino sent Della Femina and Licht a letter demanding that they cease and desist using the name Heaven’s Gate, to which the couple pointed out that Cimino didn’t invent the expression; it was from the Old Testament. The Della Feminas stuck with the name.
Farther along, hidden up a curving drive, was the former Juan Trippe estate, which was the subject of a court battle between the Trippe heirs, who wanted to divide the eight and a half acres into smaller parcels, and their next-door neighbor, Cox Communications heiress Katherine Johnson Rayner. The grown Trippe children hadn’t occupied the 8,000-square-foot estate since matriarch Elizabeth Stettinius Trippe died in 1983. They wanted to divide the property into four buildable plots and applied for a zoning board variance, which would have raised the value of the property from $6 million to $8 million. The estate was still intact when Calvin Klein and his wife, Kelly, came along to rescue it.
“I sold this to Calvin and Kelly Klein in 1991,” said Allan. Klein leveled the main building and, with the design talent of Thierry Despont, had it rebuilt into an airy palace, a paean to one of his own commercials. Other than the stained dark floors, made of antique wood planks brought from a Vermont barn, everything in the house is white or muted shades of sand and gray, including sheer white drapes on every window that billow like spinnakers in the ocean breeze. In perhaps the most unusual move of any homeowner in the Hamptons, Klein filled in the large terraced swimming pool behind the house (because he said it distracted him from the vista of the dunes, ocean, and horizon) and had it sodded over. As a final touch the dunes were hand-planted with 7,000 blades of saw grass and 4,000 square feet of pine trees, to make them look as perfect as a fragrance ad. Total cost, purchase and renovation: $10 million.
Finally, Schneider came to the last on the road, perhaps the most privileged tract of land in all the Hamptons. “It is the only house in the Hamptons from which you can see both the Atlantic and Georgica Pond in one sweeping gaze,” he said reverently. The huge barnlike structure was a wedding gift from Ann Cox Chambers, the daughter of the 1920 Democratic presidential candidate, James Cox, to her daughter Katherine on the occasion of her marriage to former Condé Nast publishing executive William Rayner. Mrs. Cox paid approximately $4 million for the house, buying the adjacent wetlands for an additional $3 million. With views so extraordinary, the Rayners have kept the inside of the house strikingly simple. The southern side of the living room is all sliding doors of wood and glass, an impractical touch because the damp continually warps the wood. The rooms were decorated by society designer Mark Hampton, the bleached-blond floors covered with sisal carpets and the furniture upholstered in Hamptons signature khaki-and-white stripes. Although Mrs. Rayner had a small second story added to the house, there are still only six bedrooms. Mrs. Rayner prefers a more formal country lifestyle than many, and there’s a ritual time for breakfast, lunch, tea, massage, and cocktails.
Schneider always ended his tour not on West End Road but on Main Street in the village of East Hampton, pulling his Mercedes beyond the white picket fence of his own home, one of the most charming and distinguished houses in all the Hamptons. “This is the Summer White House,” Allan explained, his head tilting back. “‘Tyler House,’ we call it, the former summer residence of John Tyler, the tenth president of the United States. 1836 Greek Revival.” Situated on a rise across the road from the manicured town green and pond, the immaculately kept four-bedroom house had deep green shutters; a low, overhung porch; and an American flag fluttering outside the side door.
The house was furnished with a museum-quality collection of antiques—Chippendale cupboards and lowboys, a $45,000 Empire dining room table, a $40,000 George III linen press and bar, and hundreds of nineteenth-and twentieth-century hunting prints. Hunting scenes were everywhere in the house, from the embroidered place settings on the dining room table to the rim of the teacups. The scent of lilies, overflowing from tall Chinese vases, mixed with the clean smell of furniture polish filled the air. In the plush master bedroom on the second floor, Allan slept in a Federal four-poster bed worth $20,000.
Even in the highly social world of the Hamptons, an invitation to one of Schneider’s elegant parties was a coveted ticket. At one time or another the gamut of the inner Hamptons’ hierarchy, what Schneider called the “local noblesse,” was invited to a party at Tyler House, to mingle with visiting notables such as Donald Trump or Governor Mario Cuomo. Schneider gave parties nearly every week in the summer, strawberries and champagne for as many as 100 people. Other times he would give intime dinner parties for eight, after which he would play piano in the living room and challenge his guests to Name That Tune.
Christmas was Allan’s favorite time to entertain, and under his direction the house took on a storybook quality. The florist literally decked the halls and mantels of Tyler House with holly, there were wreaths and candles in every window, and the pine trees on the front lawn were roped with blue lights. On Christmas Eve, near midnight, Schneider and a small group of close friends would bundle up in their coats and hats and mufflers and step out onto Main Street of “the most beautiful village in America,” according to one register of historic landmarks. The group would wend its way past the serene pond with the Christmas tree frozen in place, along a path by the textured tombstones of the South End Burying Ground, where the town fathers were laid to rest, and into the brick-and-mortar sanctuary of Saint Luke’s Church. Later, a little teary-eyed and sentimental, Allan Schneider took communion at midnight mass.
One night, after one of the many parties, when the staff was in the kitchen cleaning up and Allan was seeing a last guest to the door, the man turned to him and said, “Allan, your house is beautiful. Picture perfect! The only problem is, there’s nobody sharing it with you.”
Allan looked flustered. “Yes there is,” he said, and shut the door.
IN 1969, when Allan Schneider arrived on the East End of Long Island, as the fin-shaped piece of land is sometimes called east of the Shinnecock Canal, the Hamptons were on the brink of enormous change. Until then the only phone book the Summer Colony needed was the Blue Book, and when you picked up a phone to make a call, it was still possible that a local operator would ask with a brisk Yankee twang, “Number please?”
Until then, the string of villages and hamlets that collectively compose “the Hamptons”—Southampton, Water Mill, Bridgehampton, Sagaponack, Wainscott, and East Hampton—was home to only 27,000 year-round residents and some 6 million ducks (originally imported from Peking). But in 1951 a tiny airport was developed in East Hampton and in the late sixties a roadway from the Long Island Expressway was extended to Route 27, challenging what had kept the Hamptons safe for two centuries—its remoteness. Also, the prosperity of the postwar economy afforded upper-middle-class families vacation homes for the first time. These newcomers to the Hamptons, although wealthy by any normal standard, weren’t rich enough to build the kind of grand summer “cottages” (they were always called cottages, no matter how big they were) that lined the grassy dunes of Gin and Lily Pond Lanes. Instead, they built fashionably low-key “second homes,” as they came to be called. So great was the influx that between 1950 and 1960, the population of East Hampton alone grew by 68.3 percent and three out of every four new homes built were for “summer people.” The migration of these common millionaires—many of them self-made in the manufacturing or retail business—was so distressing to Hamptons society that the determinedly protective local newspaper of record, the East Hampton Star, which for nearly fifty years had run a column called the “Summer Colony,” officially declared 1969 as “the end of the Summer Colony” and did away with the heading in the paper.
The seventies were chaotic for the staid Hamptons. There was even a jingle about the neatly discernible lines that had divided them until then: Southampton was for the sporting rich (inherited wealth); Bridgehampton for the nearly rich (working on it); and East Hampton for the really rich (a meritocracy of the self-made). In each community the Summer Colony denizens knew one another, their children went to private boarding schools together or to summer camp in Maine, they all belonged to the same clubs: in Southampton, the Meadow for tennis, the Southampton Bathing for the beach, and the Shinnecock or the National for golf and in East Hampton, the Maidstone Club, of course, for everything.
- On Sale
- Aug 7, 2018
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown and Company