Soapbox Derby

In many ways, the story of Jerry Della Femina versus Michael M. Thomas is the story of the Hamptons.

Della Femina is the glossy-pated adman out of Gravesend, Brooklyn, who talks like a prizefighter who’s had his nose broken once too often. He built a fortune on hawking Meow Mix and Joe Isuzu to America, and in the early nineties he deployed that fortune on East Hampton and began to found an empire. First, there was his eponymous trattoria, Della Femina. Then came another restaurant, the Malibu-worthy East Hampton Point. And after that, he lavished Jerry and David’s Red Horse, a Balducci’s-like food market, on the East End. And in case you still were missing the point, Della Femina was happy to clarify his newfound sovereignty in his weekly column in the paper started by his daughter, Jodi, the East Hampton Independent – an alternative to the old-line East Hampton Star. Della Femina, in a nutshell, was the living embodiment of the Hamptonization of the Hamptons.

So if you enjoy, as does Michael M. Thomas, expressing the view that the East End was going to hell in a handbasket, Jerry Della Femina is pretty much made to order. Accordingly, he dubbed Della Femina one of the “Four Horsemen of the Hamptons Apocalypse,” along with Martha Stewart, Mort Zuckerman, and Peggy Siegal.

Thomas, 64 – novelist and New York Observer columnist – is the irascible, Exeter-and-Yale-educated son of former Lehman Brothers partner Joseph Thomas. Having summered in the Hamptons since 1938, he golfs at the National and talks Wall Street over Diet Cokes at the Maidstone. His unofficial club, however, was always the barroom of Sag Harbor’s American Hotel, owned by Ted Conklin. “He’s so brilliant. I figure anyone who is that intellectual and that goddamned funny has a right. You really look forward to being insulted by him,” says Tara Newman, the well-connected realtor who is married to Conklin. “But he’s just burned so many bridges.” (Newman is one of them; Thomas trashed the hotel in print one too many times.) Thomas boozily, and hilariously, held court under the moose head at the American’s bar for years, mercilessly gutting carefully selected – and conveniently absent – Hamptons quarry like Della Femina. It was excellent sport – until Thomas went after Della Femina’s daughter.

In May of last year, Jodi Della Femina, now 32, pubished, to much fanfare, the Hamptons guidebook Jodi’s Shortcuts. The book outraged plenty of Hamptons folks who aren’t blue-chip Maidstone types, since it revealed all the sacred backroads detours through leafy neighborhoods off the Montauk highway.

You can see where the book tweaked Thomas. If “The barbarians are at the gate” is already your worldview, you’re not going to take kindly to the person who’s offering them the keys. “I know people who live in North Haven who say the traffic increased 15 percent because of that book,” Thomas told New York.

On August 2, 1999, Thomas lashed into the book, writing: “Next year, young Ms. Della Femina can include a map of the homes of the rich and famous in her Hamptons guide; that’s the sort of thing that people of her background and breeding do to the places they claim to love.”

Jodi, hurt, stayed mum. Her father, however, like Jodi’s dog, Chester – part pit bull – took it upon himself to dig his sharp canines into Thomas, who looks like a bit of a bulldog himself.

“He’s either back on the sauce or missing it so much he’s lashing out at my kid because he’s frustrated with his own failures,” Della Femina wrote in his “Jerry’s Ink” column in the Independent (Thomas quit drinking a few years ago). “His father Joseph … was a real giant… . His son Michael is a pathetic old sot who didn’t set the world on fire at Lehman Brothers even after his father got him a job there.” He even compared Thomas’s “vile tripe” to the diaries of Heinrich Himmler (Della Femina’s wife, New York TV personality Judy Licht, is Jewish).

In addition to the Himmler crack, Della Femina labeled Thomas an “anti-Semitic, miserable old son of a bitch,” recycling accusations that had dogged Thomas since publication of his acclaimed novel Hanover Place, in which Thomas portrayed anti-Jewish sentiments on Wall Street a bit too gleefully for some critics. Each of these guys has always gone looking for a good public scrap. But this one was different.

“I was brought up to believe that exchanging piss with a skunk is generally unproductive,” Thomas salvoed in print.

He now explains: “I said something about ‘people who are brought up that way,’ which is the way people of my age and background just talk. He chose to take that statement as an earnest theory of eugenics. I had a lot of people call me up and say, ‘You could sue this guy for libel.’ But I’m not a litigious person. People like Jerry Della Femina just behave that way. He’s interested in publicity. I think he’s kind of a loser, and there you are.”

In July, Jodi Della Femina and fiancé John Kim were scheduled to wed. Steven Gaines, author of Philistines at the Hedgerow and a New York contributor, talked her into a Webcast of the reception on Gaines’s iHamptons Website. Jodi, after all, writes for iHamptons herself.

“It was a cute idea,” Thomas wrote in early July. “To claim as a social function an event that had about as much relation to ‘society’ (as the word is used by those who properly know what it means) as one of those Japanese semi-porn Web sites that hides a camcorder in a ladies room does to the ballroom of the Colony Club.”

“It was a sneak attack!” howls Della Femina, who ended up nixing the Webcast. He responded by reprinting the “Diaries of Himmler” column in its entirety. “I’m shocked at how many people truly hate him,” Della Femina says. “My wife and I were in Southampton, and a very nice Waspy gentleman with wife pulled up in his car next to me: ‘You give it to that sonofabitch,’ he says to me.”

This spring, however, Thomas had delivered the ultimate insult to the Hamptons – he moved to Brooklyn (where Della Femina hails from, of course). Some Thomas foes wondered if he had been priced out. After all, Farrar, Straus & Giroux had declined to publish his last novel, which would be his eighth. While Thomas freely admits that he’s not the sort who could afford two homes, he did quite nicely on the transaction, selling his house on Madison Street for $815,000, almost double what he paid five years ago.

Della Femina gleefully interprets Thomas’s move as a surrender. “I’ve got a smashing tan right now,” Della Femina said the other day. “I’m sure he’s nice and pale back in Brooklyn.”

He continues: “If he ever attacked someone’s family like that in Brooklyn, he’d be looking out at the world from the trunk of a car, you know? If he did it in the Hispanic part of Brooklyn, they would use him as a piñata.”

Thomas, however, scoffs at the idea that either Della Femina or money had anything to do with him relocating.

“I had a life out there, and that life ended,” he says. Indeed, last November, Thomas wrote a lyrical Observer column detailing his painful breakup with a local woman (though unnamed, she was Valerie Smith, an equally quippy Sotheby’s real-estate broker and owner of the Monogram Shop in East Hampton). At one point, of course, he interrupted his reveries to take a swipe at “that ghastly woman who looks like Eddie Cantor in drag and is wife to the bullet-headed East Hampton vermin who last summer libelously likened me to Himmler.”

If nothing else, Thomas has fallen in love again – this time, with Brooklyn, which he compares to Paris. He owns a spacious loft beneath the Manhattan Bridge, with a stainless-steel kitchen and room for 800 feet of bookshelves. “I’m a city boy,” says Thomas. “I rusticated myself, and I think it was a mistake. Going to cocktail parties is terrible for serious creative people. I look at Joe Heller, who I think just completely lost it. And I think that was true of me.”

He’s still, however, concerned about the Hamptons. “If you want this kind of tourist economy out there, then do something for the tourists. These day-trippers look lost. I mean, maybe they should build a Disney World out there. Instead of Pirates of the Caribbean, you could have Rich People of the Hamptons. You could have a large plastic Jerry Della Femina make these movements and say terrible things, and people would pay 50 cents to go look at him.”

“The fact is, Michael Thomas is over. The Hamptons are here.” Della Femina laughs – the town wasn’t big enough for the both of them. But in the next breath, he wonders what, in fact, he won.

“There are more people coming here than ever before,” he says, sounding a lot like – you guessed it – Michael Thomas. “Do I like traffic being that crowded? No. So I just stay away from the middle of town. I find myself rarely eating in town – even in my own restaurant.”

Soapbox Derby