John Leo
The price of lobster salad hit $60 per pound at Loaves and Fishes, a tiny specialty food shop a couple of miles down the road from our summer place in the Hamptons. For several seasons, the Loaves and Fishes people valiantly held the line at $48 a pound. But there is way too much money here in New York's summer playground. So despite the surprising glut of lobsters and the sobering new economy, lobster salad rose to the grand $60 level, or about $4 or $5 per bite. At that price it makes no sense to eat the stuff. Better to put it in a vault, wait for the next price hike, then sell it off and put a child or two through law school on the profit.

The amount of money sloshing around the Hamptons is astonishing. A generation ago there were 27,000 year-round residents here and 6 million ducks on duck farms. Now there seem to be around 50,000 residents, no ducks and 6 million Maseratis and BMW convertibles. Merrymakers barely out of their teens think nothing of running up a $600 or $700 one-night bar bill at the trendy clubs, and one new tycoon proudly announced that it costs him $40,000 per weekend to keep his beach house open.

Real estate prices have reached the point where a not-very-attractive 1-acre lot, miles from the beach, is considered a steal at $1 million. Spec houses that languished unsold at $1 million or $2 million a couple of years ago are now selling briskly for $3 million or $4 million. One activity of the newly rich is building a personal Taj Mahal in the middle of a huge potato field. Five years ago, while kayaking on Georgia Pond, I was startled to see a new house that looked like two Catskill hotels glued together. I passed the house again recently and it seems small by current standards. McMansions of 10,000 or 12,000 square feet are becoming common, with bigger ones on the way.

The current champion in the gross-house sweepstakes is the five-building, 110,000-square-foot complex industrialist Ira Rennert is building in Sagaponack on one of last unspoiled potato fields that roll down to the sea. In our house, the Rennert home is known as "the Bolivian prison." Actually I have never seen a Bolivian prison, but if I do, I expect it will look very much like Rennert's place, only smaller and more understated. The Rennert complex will have a 10,000-square-foot "playhouse," 25 bedrooms, 39 bathrooms and -- for some unexplained reason -- a 200-car garage. Maybe Rennert has plans for a 2,000-square-foot lobster salad vault, too. The Rennert potato-field palace is the standard by which future wretched excesses in the Hamptons will have to be measured.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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