Shelter Island is nestled in the Long Island Sound, ten minutes by ferry from Sag Harbor and a good 30 from the horrible Hamptons with its Porsches, mega-mansions and celebrity trash. It is where, on my last week in the Big Bagel, I was taken back to the Forties and Fifties for a weekend. Shelter Island is what the Hamptons used to be: tranquil, beautiful, rustic, unspoiled, with lovely ponds bordered by shady oaks and maples. The pace slows the minute you get off the ferry and step into the peaceful enclave. There are forested hills, secluded coves and quiet beaches. The sea is hardly the Mediterranean, but there are no migrant bodies, and not a single mega yacht to spoil the surroundings.
The island is not about to join the Hamptons circus any time soon. More than a third is set aside as a nature reserve, and so developers are as eager to put up their horrible houses as Hasidic Jews are to build synagogues in Saudi. The unacceptable rich are staying away because ‘it’s inconvenient’ (i.e. the ferry ride), but seaplanes land regularly and the price from Manhattan is the same as dinner for two in a medium-priced restaurant.
The excesses of the summer season on the tip of Long Island keep the gossip columns busy, but have driven yours truly back to his birthplace, migrants and all, not to mention austerity measures. The Hamptons was brought down by an invasion of the hedgie fungus, a disease worse than lime, one that compels the sufferer to outdo his neighbour in size. Things were made worse by an invasion of club promoters with sensibilities like those of the Kardashian clan, and similar illnesses. In the space of ten short years, the potato fields were gone, the mega-mansions were up, the slime of the city had come up to breathe the Atlantic Ocean’s air, and I had sold my house and retreated to Gstaad to look at cows.
Not, however, on Shelter Island, where blue-collar fishermen are still holding forth and families bike around the winding roads. Not a single Ferrari engine bruised my eardrums, and the only thing missing was the human chains we children used to form in the old days on Faliron Bay. Never mind. Michael Mailer and I drove out to the island where our host, André Balazs, owns a house that seems untouched since the Revolutionary War. The only thing missing were the redcoats, but a beautiful young girl by the name of Cosima made up for the lack of Brits. My host is a hell of a fellow. He owns countless properties and hotels in New York, and the Firehouse in London, a place so popular I have trouble getting inside even on a rainy Sunday night in August.
Balazs was all dressed up when Michael and I arrived. The reason was that he had just visited his mother, who had had an operation. Like a dutiful Hungarian he was not about to displease his mother by arriving half-naked in the manner of the natives. Some of us still respect the old customs as well as the old ladies. I was billeted on the third floor, sharing a bathroom with two beautiful women who looked rather aghast when I arrived. (They were expecting someone younger.) Michael and his girl were on the second floor, and soon everyone was out hiking through the hills. The drinking of rosé wine began in earnest after we had watched the most beautiful sunset, and then we took off for Sunset Beach, André’s sensational hotel-club-restaurant, where he hosted a dinner in our honour.
Some honour. Mixing tequila, rosé and very good red is like jogging through a minefield, or handing a live grenade to a child. Soon I was up and dancing, an exercise I gave up 30 years ago. Apparently, I danced in a new way, striking karate poses but not moving to the rhythm. The girls thought it quaint, Michael found it ridiculous, and some big asshole said something unacceptable. But before I had a chance to teach the bum a lesson in manners, Michael reminded me that we were guests and that getting into a brawl would be the equivalent of farting in church. I agreed. As I stepped away, Mailer charged the bum, grabbed him by the throat and the whole thing was over in a jiffy. (Like most bullies, he turned out to be a big but paper tiger.)
Everything was hunky dory until we got back to the house around 5 a.m. I had hooked up nicely with a girl called M. As we shared a bathroom, I waited for her sitting on the loo. She came half-dressed and smiling, but then disaster struck. She whispered in my ear that she was a Sephardic Jew. My first reaction was to say no one’s perfect, but instead I said, ‘So?’ ‘Well, I’m married, love my husband and have never cheated!’ To call it the worst news since the defeat at Stalingrad would not be an exaggeration. The only thing I managed to say was, ‘Now you tell me…’
I returned to my room, broken-hearted and unable to sleep. But soon I was up and having some more rosé at lunch, and André’s hospitality and Michael’s driving made up for my Stalingrad. And there’s always another night.