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  • Sam Darling

Secrets of Southampton

I’ve told you before how I am a sort of time traveler, inhabiting worlds and activities from a bygone era. This is a common pastime of the very wealthy; they want to trap the world in amber.

When I was fourteen I worked as a mother’s helper for one of the old monied families in Southampton. They lived in a mansion behind a towering hedge. I’ll call this family the Banks.

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[Although I am not as cute as Mary Poppins, this is in every other regard an accurate picture of the family in question.]

My job was to entertain the children in their cavernous old mansion. We’d break up the monotony of the day by taking the private paths between mansions to the swimming pools of other friends and do little play dates. These swimming pools had cabanas that were outfitted more nicely than your average city apartment.

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I was also charged with keeping the children away from the parents most of the day. The five-year old son once asked after his father’s whereabouts and I said, “Your father is working,” to which he countered, “Don’t be ridiculous, my father doesn’t work.”

I also took the kids to their tennis, swimming, and sailing lessons. A few of those were at “the beach club,” known to outsiders as The Southampton Bathing Corporation.

The beach club is incredibly elite and I was scrutinized by the members for uncouth behavior. A few of the old timers even pulled me aside to let me know when I’d broken some bit of local decorum. One lifelong sun worshiper, her body and face like a well-used saddle, let me know that I should not be seen eating a Charleston Chew in public. “Women don’t eat candy on the beach, dear.”

This beach club is not fancy. Real money doesn’t flaunt. They keep things private and elite, but then the actual food and amenities are practically pedestrian. It’s something I learned early on, the wealthiest and most powerful person in the room is never the one wearing a $20,000 watch and a fancy suit putting on airs. It’s probably the relaxed dude in a pair of sandals and torn jeans eating Fritos.

The Banks family was particularly old money and even at the club there is a pecking order, their family at the top with ownership of one of the changing cabanas, the buildings you see surrounding the pool area, a glorified closet:

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There was a scandal. One of the nicer members, a surgeon and his young attractive wife, were caught in a sex scandal. He’d traveled with her to a university in the midwest and paid coeds to sleep with his wife as part of a “study” on human sexuality. Only 800 families are members of this beach club so scandal of this nature sends shock waves through the uptight community.

Conveniently–as the club unofficially requires family lineage for membership–the membership roster stays very WASPY. The new rich of other ethnic persuasions had to found their own, separate beach club in Southampton. The Southampton Bath and Tennis Club is more modern and less uptight in most regards. When news of the scandal broke the old members kept saying they knew this surgeon and his wife belonged at the Tennis Club and should never have been given membership.

The Banks children did not have their tennis lessons at that club, they had their tennis lessons at The Meadow Club, another elite group where their father was on the board of directors. It’s so elite even the website requires membership login. I wasn’t allowed to hang around the grounds when the kids were having their lessons. The “help” had to wait outside. So I’d sit by the croquet lawns near the front entrance and read a book.

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There was a second scandal that summer. I thought a door in the mansion had slammed shut and a few minutes later charred pieces of paper floated down in the garden. It turned out that a nearby mansion had been rigged with a massive bomb in the basement, part of a botched mob hit on the owner–someone with ties to the Gambino family. No one was injured as the bomb detonated too early, but bits of the mansions were turning up around the neighborhood for weeks. “It looks like a piece of a Picasso. What a pity,” their mother said while pruning the roses.

Personally, I was more comfortable with the eccentrics. The Grey Garden outcasts. These darling women with first names derived from maternal surnames were my people. Usually a captain of business and finance had married a bird of paradise, a gorgeous strumpet with a creative streak he picked her up in the city while she was in between Broadway gigs. She’s gorgeous and she’s refined and comes from a good family. She has no actual skills but she’ll make a terrific hostess. She’ll be a perfect society wife and a yummy mummy when she decides to give up on the creative career.

1986 Sam Chardin vineyard

[A photo of me around that time visiting a vineyard on eastern Long Island.]

I suppose I had the proper breeding to attain that ability to “marry well” but I fell off the path somewhere. Most likely my unquenchable desire to eat candy in public makes me unfit for high society.

I went to a restaurant in Southampton where a woman was showing off her prize-winning llama. It had just done a llama show and was wearing a rhinestone (diamond?) collar. Its lush fur was meticulously groomed. I couldn’t pet the llama because she would spit at us. The llama or the owner? You decide. If I’d lived that life would I have taken up competitive llama showing?

I doubt it.

There are few members of the Southampton society who have lost all of their fortunes and simply hang around, spending their old age couch surfing their way through mansions and hanging out at the beach club. They’re not fit to work a real job and it’s a louche sort of homelessness, but they pay their way with eccentricity, providing a bit of color and chaos in an otherwise predictable culture. I liked those women quite a lot. If you get them talking they’ll tell you about their affairs with movie stars from long ago. I know more about Errol Flynn and Milton Berle than I’m willing to admit to you here.

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[Image from the terrific book, Advanced Style by Ari Seth Cohen.]

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