The Lands That Hype Forgot

What kind of New Yorkers would choose to spend their weekends in podunk little country towns, without ocean waves and packed restaurants and Pilates classes and traffic jams and P. Diddy and a legion of publicists?The hikers, representing the East Village, TriBeCa, Chelsea, and the Upper East and West Sides, and including a psychotherapist, a New York Times reporter and her husband, a publisher, a museum curator, a portrait painter and his partner, and an architect, skirted a pond and ascended a vineyard to the top of a hill, the Hudson Valley before us and the Catskills beyond, then plunged back into the sun-dappled forest, crossing several streams and ending at our house for a potluck dinner.

Had the subject of the Hamptons come up – and rest assured, it didn’t – our hearts would have swelled with pity and we might have observed a moment of silence (interrupted, perhaps, only by the deep-woods cry of a pileated woodpecker) for all those swells caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Route 27.

In the old days, one could stereotype one’s fellow New Yorkers based upon the Manhattan neighborhoods in which they lived: Upper East Siders were Republicans who had their hair done to walk the dog and sent their kids to private school. Upper West Siders were liberal Democrats who didn’t. And anybody who lived south of 14th Street probably had an FBI dossier.

But those distinctions started to suffer with the testosterone-crazed real-estate market of the late nineties and the transformation of Manhattan into a Disney-style theme park where it takes a six-figure income to survive and Democrats and Republicans find they have more in common than they once thought – particularly when it comes to their shared belief that the estate tax is a bad thing.

In such a climate, perhaps a sharper implement to use in drawing social distinctions among Manhattanites is an examination of where they spend their weekends, since so many now seem to have country homes. “If you look at who’s buying things where, museum presidents tend to go to the country, not the Hamptons,” contends Steven Harris, a professor of architecture at Yale. “Artists that we know are actually going upstate.”

“There’s a certain sort of obscenity and vulgarity about spending the kind of money some people spend, no matter how much one has,” he continues, referring to the Hamptons and ascribing to those who point their sensible Saabs and Subarus north on Friday nights the virtues of modesty and prudence. “Better to give a Turner to the Met than buy yourself a $30 million beach house.”

To appreciate the Hamptons’ indispensable role as the Antichrist of resort destinations, one need look no farther than Shelter Island, that community that’s the briefest of ferry rides across Shelter Island Sound from North Haven. Shelter Island has lately seen a nocturnal invasion of Hamptonites, drawn by André Balazs’s Sunset Beach hotel. “They’re recognizable as they approach the boat in their BMWs, Porsches, and Range Rovers,” observes Cliff Clark, whose family has owned Shelter Island’s South Ferry since the mid-1700s. On more than one occasion, Captain Clark’s crew has threatened to return to port if his passengers, heading back to the Hamptons on the last ferry, didn’t stop dancing on the roofs of their cars.

If one were required to isolate an attribute that differentiates those who choose to spend their weekends anywhere but the Hamptons from those who believe that a Peggy Siegal screening is the crowning glory of Western civilization, it wouldn’t be lower net worth (though that may well apply) or a higher degree of comfort with insect life (say what you will about the Hamptons, but those cooling ocean breezes keep those alarmingly large biting flies, indigenous to upstate, at bay) but a sense of self-reliance that allows a person to feel fully alive even if he hasn’t been invited over to Ron Perelman’s or Puff Daddy’s, or rather P. Diddy’s, on a Saturday night.

“For me, it’s like ‘Let’s go to Coney Island,’ ” sniffs interior designer and northeastern Connecticut weekender Mario Buatta, referring to the Hamptons. “I haven’t been out there for years; I go out there to do jobs. I’m not a beach person. That’s why I have such beautiful skin. I rub it with potatoes and mayonnaise.”

Undoubtedly Idaho, not Long Island, potatoes. “I think people have to be in the hot place,” he goes on. “I guess they do a lot of their business there, a lot of networking. Thank God I don’t need to network. My business is established.”

“We seldom have benefits in the Connecticut hills,” says Broadway producer (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife) and art collector Douglas Cramer. “People are out gardening, caring for their houses, relaxing. People in the Hamptons have their gardens done. People in Connecticut do their own gardens.”

Not that Cramer spends the typical Saturday night weeding by Coleman lantern or curled up in his Barcalounger with a bag of Cheetos watching Seinfeld reruns. His typical dinner party numbers anywhere from 12 to 36 guests and includes such beacons of the cultural Establishment as Steven Sondheim, Anne Bass, Lee Radziwill, Jasper Johns, Aggie Gund, Peter and Brooke Duchin, and the Kissingers.

“I gave them some koi; they saw I had an overflow,” Cramer said, referring to the Duchins and a voracious weed-eating fish that’d done the trick on his own pond. “You’d never ask for a koi in the Hamptons.”

To hear one of them tell it, the typical Litchfield County weekender is only slightly less resourceful than the members of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. “I don’t have a jacket here, nor a tie,” boasts Peter Duchin, a Washington, Connecticut, resident. “Bill Styron and Arthur Miller certainly don’t wear jackets, and if I go to Oscar’s or the Kissingers’, I would never wear a jacket, either. Henry doesn’t dress up. I think he probably has a jacket for doing interviews and that’s it.

“I got a call one morning,” Duchin continues over the phone from the woods as his dog bays in the background. “He’s barking at a wounded coyote who just pulled himself out of the stream – I’m joking. It’s the FedEx truck or something.

“I got a call one morning – not a call you’d get in the Hamptons – from Nancy Kissinger. She said, ‘I’m taking out about 30 blueberry bushes. Do you want them?’ I jumped into my pickup truck and went right over. I only use that as an example of how relaxed things are, as opposed even to Bedford.”

While one devoutly wishes not to disrespect any area the New York weekender has colonized and delegated Heaven’s little acre, and at the same time doesn’t want to challenge Duchin’s image of Litchfield County as an Arcadia only slightly more tame than it was in the days when the locals hunted with arrowheads, the fact of the matter is that life and the landscape get funkier – or, to borrow Doug Cramer’s description of his friend’s (the artist Ellsworth Kelly’s) place in Columbia County, more “rustic” – on the New York than on the New England side of the border.

“It doesn’t have anything like the really restrictive zoning Connecticut has,” Cramer observes. “It took me about a year to get an approval to put up a barn for art. But at the same time, I’m grateful for it.”

When people refer to less restrictive zoning, it means something different in Dutchess and Columbia Counties or out west in Callicoon on the Pennsylvania border – where the most anticipated event of the summer is the tractor parade down Main Street – than it does in Sagaponack.

The problem upstate isn’t megalomaniacs who want to build 100,000-square-foot Taj Mahals that block lesser millionaires’ ocean views – hell, there’s so much space, you could probably erect something the size of the Louvre without getting zoning approval – but two-bit developers loading 50 mobile homes onto a two-acre site.

It’s what Geoff Kerr, a resident of Millbrook, New York (perhaps the toniest weekend community north of the George Washington Bridge and south of Newport), a wing-shooting instructor at Orvis’s Sandanona shooting range and a purveyor, in his spare time, of reconditioned vintage Land Rovers to the weekend gentry, describes as the “dog-patch ratio.”

He’s referring to the frequency with which one’s view is sullied by mobile homes on cinder blocks and rusted cars in backyards – a ratio that roughly increases as one travels from east to west, perhaps culminating in the Catskills. “The Columbia County weekender is more capable of overlooking the occasional dog-patch home down the road,” Kerr observes, drawing a distinction between his tweedy clientele who dress in plus-twos with kilt hose to bag startled pheasant, grouse, and woodcock and those intrepid souls who travel further north on the Taconic State Parkway into Columbia and even southern Rensselaer Counties. “I’ll go visit friends in Columbia County, leave the home, and a half-mile down the road there’s a refrigerator with two old stoves lying next to it and they’re all rusted.”

Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, the author of Comfort Me With Apples, and a part of the Columbia County weekend contingent, has a simple explanation for her fellow part-time country folks’ open-minded attitude toward the occasional landscape eyesore. “We’re poorer,” she says with a laugh, referring to a part of the world where it’s still possible to pick up an eighteenth-century farmhouse with a pond and a hundred acres for the price of a privet hedge on Lily Pond Lane.

Of course, it would be an exaggeration to paint Dutchess County as an utterly rust-free zone. While Millbrook is distinguished by secluded estates and a level of snobbishness that could make Mort Zuckerman and the entire Hamptons Artists and Writers Softball League drop a routine pop fly – “The Hamptons are to Millbrook what Cats is to Un Ballo in Maschera,” snorts one Millbrook weekender who, as is their wont, declined to be identified – other parts of the county are somewhat sketchier.

In fact, Michael Korda’s mission in Country Matters, his latest book, seems to be to convince the reading public both that he and his beautiful wife, Margaret, are the real thing – not weekenders at all but fully credentialized country folk (perhaps the final stage in weekender evolution) – and that their neck of the woods is not some sort of stage set but farm country where men are men and the sheep are nervous.

“I really live up there,” he insists even though he is speaking from Simon & Schuster’s office in Rockefeller Center, where he serves as editor-in-chief. “Margaret lives up there completely and comes into the city only for what she calls ‘maintenance’ – doctors and hair and so forth. I’m up there about four of seven days. I vote up there, and I think of myself as a resident. I’ve long since given up thinking of myself as a New Yorker.

“It’s not everybody’s cup of tea to move up to a place on the weekend that is basically a farming community,” he goes on, “where you can’t say to yourself on a Saturday morning, ‘Gee, what I’d really like to do is go out and buy a whole bunch of wonderful bagels.’ It’s even hard to buy a copy of the New York Times.

Indeed, Korda’s book devotes an entire chapter to manure. “We produce a lot of manure,” he says, apparently referring to his animals, “although most people don’t find pig feces disagreeable, actually.”

One might logically deduce that Columbia County or, even worse, Ulster or Sullivan County weekenders, up to their asses in rusty appliances, would be crippled by self-doubt were they forced to compare themselves to the country squires in Dutchess County, the professional musicians and their hangers-on who flock to Tanglewood just across the border in the Berkshires, or Connecticut’s constellation of boldfaced names. However, the opposite seems to be the case.

They embrace the local color as a badge of honor – to say your kids play with the town road crew’s kids is way cooler than attending one more birthday party on Georgica Pond with the obligatory petting zoo and Good Humor truck – and point to the lack of indigenous culture as proof of their intellectual self-reliance.

“I have my friends up there,” explains Reichl. “A lot of writers and artists and absolutely no pretension. In a place like that, you have to have people to talk to. What I do is cook all weekend and have people to dinner. Nobody gets dressed. There are no shops. There are no restaurants.”

Unfortunately, Reichl’s vision of a culture-free utopia is already in peril. Slowly but surely, Mercedeses are starting to fill the parking lot at the local Grand Union and social X-rays have been spotted unit-pricing the Skim Plus milk. “I see New Yorkers standing in the aisles trying to find the bay leaves,” reports Susan Bodo, an art dealer who lives in Pine Plains on the Dutchess-Columbia border. I’m thinking of moving to the other side of the river.”

The Lands That Hype Forgot