In the private clubs that nestle atop the Hamptons' social ziggurat, a low profile is highly prized. "It's one thing to be prominent," says the treasurer of one Southampton club. "But it is rather frowned upon to be in the news for the wrong reasons or in gossip columns constantly."
By that standard, Mr. Barthold von Ribbentrop, 57, must be one of the Meadow Club's ideal members. The former chief executive of Deutsche Bank's New York operation and now chairman of a German telecommunications company, Mr. von Ribbentrop -- son of Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who was hanged at Nuremberg -- has spent a lifetime quietly trying to rehabilitate his unfortunate surname. His Meadow Club membership and entry in the Hamptons' social register, The Blue Book, indicate how well he has succeeded. Still: If having a father who was executed for crimes against humanity is not a reason to be excluded from a private club, what is?
Well, it's hard to say. Carroll Petrie, minus her late husband, Milton, was deemed acceptable at the Southampton Bathing Corporation -- "the Beach Club" -- this summer, but real-estate mogul Richard LeFrak and his wife, Karen, and oil baron David Koch and his wife, Julia, were not. Elena Ford, daughter of Charlotte Ford and Stavros Niarchos, applied solo to the Meadow Club because her then-husband had been a groundskeeper there -- and got in. (When Ford later married a local plumber, the joke at the club was that she had "traded up.") And when Diana Ross married ship owner and Maidstone Club member Arne Naess, there was speculation about whether she would even be allowed on the premises. Naess diplomatically let his membership lapse.
Such exclusive, Waspy establishments as the Meadow of Southampton, the Maidstone, the Beach Club, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, National Golf Links, and (less so) Southampton Bath and Tennis may seem anachronistic, but a young Maidstoner disagrees: "The more the Hamptons becomes Nick & Toni's, the better it is to belong here. The wilder the rest of the Hamptons becomes, the more this place becomes our own piece of Paradise."
A few who felt excluded from Paradise carved out their own piece: Edgar Bronfman, Jonathan Tisch, Leonard Stern, and 155 others paid between $100,000 and $125,000, more than twice and in some cases three times the initiation elsewhere, to form the Atlantic. Other clubs -- Southampton, Noyack Golf, and Bridgehampton -- are regarded by some as B-list. "The qualifications for joining the Bridgehampton Club are a gold card and a driver's license," sneers a National member. "Noyack admits anyone who can pay, too."
Still, says a Bridgehampton member, "few memberships come up anywhere -- you are waiting for people to die. Which club is most exclusive is really something that matters more to outsiders. I would rather be in a club convenient to my home."
Maybe not too convenient. Socialite Catalina "Kitty" Meyer, who died in a fire at her Upper East Side townhouse in December, owned the house next door to Bath and Tennis. The club was there before she was, but its presence in the largely residential area enraged her, and she tried unsuccessfully to figure out ways, legally, to rid herself of it, even persuading Denise Rich to buy the club in the hopes that she'd close it down (Rich did buy it, but immediately sold it to the members). Meyer finally resorted to blaring opera music from her home all weekend. It is said that some members -- discreetly, of course -- viewed her death as karma kickback.
Peter Fearon is the author of Hamptons Babylon (Birch Lane Press, © 1998).