June 11, 2016
Shelter Island—Nestled in the Long Island Sound, ten minutes by ferryboat from Sag Harbor and a good thirty from the horrible Hamptons, their Porches, their mega-mansions, and their celebrity trash, lies the island that in my last week in the Big Bagel took me back to the ’40s and ’50s for a weekend. Shelter Island is what the Hamptons used to be: tranquil, beautiful, rustic, unspoiled, with lovely ponds bordered by shady oaks and maples. The pace slows the minute you get off the ferry and step into the peaceful enclave. There are forested hills, secluded coves, and quiet beaches. The sea is hardly Mediterranean, but nor are there migrant bodies floating around, and not a single mega-yacht spoiling the surroundings.
The island is not about to join the Hamptons circus anytime soon. More than a third is set aside as a nature preserve, hence developers are as eager to put up their horrible houses as Hasidic Jews are to build synagogues in Saudi. The unacceptable rich are staying away because “it’s inconvenient,” referring to the ferry ride, but seaplanes land regularly and the fare from Manhattan is the same as dinner for two in a medium-priced restaurant.
The excesses of the summer season on the tip of Long Island keep the gossip columns busy, but have driven yours truly back to his birthplace, migrants and all, not to mention austerity measures. The Hamptons went down due to the invasion of the hedgie fungus, a disease worse than Lyme, one that compels the sufferer to outdo his neighbor in size. The scene was also stoked by an invasion of club promoters with sensibilities such as those of the Kardashian clan and similar illnesses. In ten short years the potato fields were gone, the mega-mansions were up, the slime of the city had come up to breathe the Atlantic Ocean’s air, and I had sold my house and retreated to Gstaad in order to look at cows.
Not, however, in Shelter Island. Blue-collar fishermen are still holding forth, families bike around the winding roads, not a single Ferrari noise bruised my eardrums, and the only things missing were the human chains we children used to form in the old days on Faliron Bay. Never mind. Michael Mailer and I drove out to the island where our host, André Balazs, owns a house that seems untouched since the Revolutionary War. All that was missing were the redcoats, but a beautiful young girl by the name of Cosima made up for the lack of Brits. My host is a hell of a fellow. He owns countless properties and hotels in New York, and the Firehouse in London, a place so popular I have trouble getting inside even on a rainy Sunday night in August.
Balazs was all dressed up when Michael and I arrived. The reason was that he had just visited his mother, who had had an operation. Like a dutiful Hungarian he was not about to displease his mother by arriving half-naked in the manner of the natives. Some of us still respect the old customs as well as the old ladies. I was billeted on the third floor, sharing a bathroom with two beautiful women who looked rather aghast when I arrived. (They were expecting someone younger.) Michael and his girl were on the second floor, and soon everyone was out hiking through the hills. The drinking of rosé wine began in earnest after we watched one of the most beautiful sunsets, and then we took off for Sunset Beach, Andre’s sensational hotel-club-restaurant, where he hosted a dinner in our honor.
Some honor. Mixing tequila, rosé, and very good red is like jogging on a minefield, or handing a live grenade to a child. Soon I was up and dancing, an exercise I gave up thirty years ago. Apparently I danced in a new way, striking karate poses but not moving to the rhythm. The girls thought it quaint, Michael found it ridiculous, and some big asshole said something unacceptable. But before I had a chance to teach the bum a lesson in manners, Michael reminded me that we were guests and that getting into a brawl would be the equivalent of farting in church. I agreed, and as I stepped away, Mailer charged the bum and grabbed him by the throat, and the whole thing was over in a jiffy. (Like most bullies, he turned out to be big but a paper tiger.)
Everything was hunky-dory until we got back to the house around 5 a.m. I had hooked up nicely with a girl called M, and as we shared a bathroom, I waited for her sitting on the loo. She came half-dressed and smiling, but then disaster struck. She whispered in my ear that she was a Sephardic Jew. My first reaction was to say no one’s perfect, but instead I said, “So?” “Well, I’m married, I love my husband, and I’ve never cheated!” To call it the worst news since the defeat in Stalingrad would not be an exaggeration. The only thing I managed to say was “Now you tell me.” Then I returned to my room, brokenhearted and unable to sleep. But soon I was up and having some more rosé at lunch, and André’s hospitality and Michael’s driving made up for my Stalingrad. And there’s always another night.