"It's going to explode!" a woman shrieked to her husband on the steps of the Sagaponack General Store. Clutching their newspapers and Poland Spring, the couple watched in dismay as a gaggle of bicyclists, joggers, and Rollerbladers tried to navigate the tangled course of luxury cars sitting out front. Drivers irritably jockeyed for parking space, and a man in a black Porsche pulled out so suddenly that he sent a terrified bicyclist toppling over in the dirt. "If it gets any more crowded," the woman moaned, "this place is going to explode at the seams."
If the overheated Hamptons do burst this summer, watch out for the tidal wave of StarTac cell phones, Tight Lies golf clubs, and redesigned Porsche convertibles. The new Hamptons are a high-calorie froth, where social-climbing baby-boomers, wobbly Wasp dowagers, European fun seekers, and Hollywood émigrés try to play nice on the same thin sliver of turf. The place has been declared out more times than anyone can remember, and yet it continues to survive -- thrive, even -- on a diet of Wall Street cash and Hollywood glitz, a community so self-involved that more than a dozen weekly magazines and newspapers are published there in season.
So who's who in the latest incarnation of the Hamptons? It's difficult to measure status in a place where everybody is rich and/or famous and has a garage full of expensive cars and a sprawl of a house. It's just as easy to buy a $12,000 watch in East Hampton as it is to pick up a carton of milk, and new homeowners are so impatient that they landscape their front lawns with "mature gardens" of full-grown trees. An mini-forest can cost $500,000 to install. Cherries at the local gourmet market are $10 a pound, and at the Life's a Beach disco in Southampton, you will be charged a "bottle fee" of $1,000 for the use of a table in the VIP room. Stoli never had it so good.
The arcane rules that once defined the pecking order in the Hamptons have gone the way of, well, modesty. These days, north of the highway can be a terribly chic place to live (Ed Bradley, Donna Karan, and Alec Baldwin helped make it so), and it's not so much the first three digits of one's home phone that determine who's gentry anymore but whether one's cell-phone number has the desirable 516 area code. Twenty years ago, a membership at the Maidstone was a badge of social prominence; today, the biggest status marker is the ability to snag a Friday-night reservation in the front room at Nick & Toni's or a $250,000 handshake from the president himself at Bruce Wasserstein's house, where the most turbocharged political benefit in Hamptons history will be taking place this weekend.
A long time ago, on the South Fork, families lived quietly in big houses behind tall hedgerows, where they stayed put for weeks at a time. There was little traffic, even on weekends. The movie theater was open only on Friday and Saturday nights. But even back then, there were lines neatly etched in the sand. A popular jingle labeled the phyla indigenous to the three major villages: "Southampton for the sporting rich; Bridgehampton for the nearly rich; East Hampton for the filthy rich." In 1950, a correspondent for the upscale Holiday magazine smugly reported that the Hamptons boasted the "ultimate asset" in a summer resort: "the guaranteed presence of other summer folk with the same tastes, background, and money as your own."
What would Holiday make of the brothers Alan and Ivan Wilzig, the bachelor bankers who built the $4.7 million "Wilzig Castle" in Water Mill and celebrated at a party at which naked male moguls were entertained by busty lap dancers imported from Manhattan? And what does it portend for the Hamptons that the hottest party on July 4 was the one that Mike Tyson and a crush of bodyguards attended at the mansion of Sean "Puffy" Combs, where the canapés included marijuana brownies, and a Mister Softee truck at the gates satisfied guests who got the munchies?
It means that, for better or worse, there's a new order afoot, and that 37 miles of beachfront villages and hamlets are fibrillating with settlers at a rate so furious, the Hamptons will, inevitably, explode into something unrecognizable. What the future may hold is anybody's guess. Just make sure you're on the list.
Steven Gaines is the author of Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons (Little, Brown & Co., © 1998).