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.

So far this summer, though, I haven't heard a single complaint about Rennert. The summers of 1999 and 2000 were devoted to Rennert outrage. This is the summer of Lizzie Grubman. Here in the New York area, the Grubman scandal was as big a story as the saga of Gary Condit. Grubman, a 30-year-old high-powered publicist, got into an argument with a bouncer at a trendy Southampton club, then backed her Mercedes SUV full speed into a crowd of clubgoers, striking 16 people and mangling many of them. It might have been written off as a driving mistake, except that just before her SUV hurtled into the crowd, Grubman was heard to exclaim "(Expletive) you, white trash!"

The incident became an instant flashpoint for most of the tensions in the Hamptons -- the brashness and arrogance of the new money, the Hollywoodization of the area (Grubman comes out of a powerful show-biz background), and the clash between New Yorkers and the people who actually live here year round. Since then we have had a lot of talk about the afflictions of "affluenza" and "Hamptons rage," defined by author Steven Gaines, who has written a history of the modern Hamptons, as "a fit of pique in which newly rich people addicted to instant gratification fly off the handle." Meanwhile, many New Yorkers are clearly nervous about being portrayed as wretchedly overprivileged in a major documentary being filmed now about the Hamptons. The filmmaker is Barbara Kopple, who won two Oscars for pro-union documentaries about coal miners in Kentucky and meat packers in Minnesota.

Despite the city-country tensions and the coming of the hyperrich, the Hamptons remain astonishingly serene and beautiful. We are still awakened by the same roosters and horses, who seem undisturbed by Ira Rennert and Lizzie Grubman. Fresh vegetables and the best-tasting corn in America are right across the street. Great apples, too, in a couple of months, and Amy, the farmer's daughter, still bakes the best pies on Long Island's east end. No "Hamptons rage" here, thank you very much.


John Leo

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

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