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Eileen Obser | The Literary Life of the Hamptons

On September 1, 1975, the day I moved to East Hampton from suburban New Jersey, New York Magazine published an article: “Out Here in the Hamptons: Snapshots of the Literary Life” by Anthony Haden-Guest.

A decade earlier, while in my early 20s, I had thought seriously of moving to Paris, of becoming an expatriate in the city where so many American writers had re-established themselves. Now, according to this article, many expats were moving back: Irwin Shaw “from the dwindling group of culturati holed up in Switzerland,” and James Jones “disillusioned, from the formerly splendid sidewalks of Paris, France.” I would be part of the new wave of writers and artists settled in the charming villages collectively known as the Hamptons, only 100 miles from Manhattan, a haven for those of us who needed space and time for our creativity and found it here in this special paradise.

One autumn afternoon in Bridgehampton I watched James Jones march across Main Street carrying a long wooden rifle in his arm. This image seemed right out of From Here to Eternity, the novel loosely based on Jones’ own experiences as a soldier in Hawaii right before World War II. On another day, I was delighted to find Peter Matthiessen — tall, slim and handsome — strolling along Beach Lane in Sagaponack with – could it be? – George Plimpton! Two founders of The Paris Review right near my car. I loved At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Matthiessen and read it twice; I had also read and enjoyed Plimpton’s Paper Lions, about football.

I longed to put the car in park, climb out and introduce myself to these giants of literature but stayed put, clutching tight on the steering wheel and staring. I would meet up with both these men in the future and be within nodding and smiling distance when they appeared at artist and writer events.

Several times, I saw Joseph Heller walking alone on Main Street near the center of East Hampton village. Pleasant looking, with his thick white hair and easygoing smile, hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans, he seemed approachable, as if I could go up to him and just start talking. About writing, about literature, about anything I wanted.  I smiled at him, and he smiled back. But I was too shy to walk over and introduce myself.

In late October, a new acquaintance, Steve, invited me to lunch at Bobby Van’s in Bridgehampton, the “in” place for writers and artists. Another recent transplant to the area, Steve was a tall, thin guy with a pleasant smile and Bronx accent. Like me, he was a writer; unlike me, he was on the make. I knew that but figured I could field the flirtations and get to see the local authors close up in their literary hangout.

We entered Bobby Van’s, a place with dark wood paneling, a hardwood floor, and booths: an old-fashioned, Victorian tavern with mirrors and bar stools. About six people sat at the bar, talking and drinking in a haze of cigarette smoke.  Steve and I followed the hostess to the half-empty dining area where we chose to sit, not in a booth, but at a table that was close enough so we could listen in on the conversations of the “glitterati,” as Newsday had called them. I felt shivers of pleasure and tried to appear at ease. Harper’s editor Willie Morris, A Separate Peace author John Knowles, Peter Maas (Serpico) and Wilfred Sheed (Office Politics) talked and laughed and smoked their cigarettes, never letting their glasses run empty. The wait staff was close by, ready to refill ‘em up.

“Impressed?” Steve asked, giving me a big wink and grabbing my hand tight, after giving our cocktail orders to the waiter.

I smiled in response, slowly taking back my hand, and bent my ear to the right.  This was writer heaven; I was actually sitting in the same room with these famous, successful authors.

But the talk was not very literary. It was about mechanics who fixed their cars about gardening, about poker games. As the New York magazine article pointed out, the writers who gathered at Bobby Van’s or at local parties did not talk seriously about writing. Sometimes they talked about the business of writing, including hiring or firing editors, or about taxes. Joseph Heller was quoted as saying, “I’m not all that comfortable with other novelists. We are . . . competitors. The idea of writers flocking to be with one another is, I think, wrong.”

The Bobby Van’s creative foursome that day consisted of these men, ordinary-looking to strangers, but not to Steve and me who knew them from book jackets and TV appearances. Their morning work at their typewriters completed, they were spending the afternoon relaxing with their pals. They had left their homes and studios on the beachfronts or in the woods to drive here and socialize. This was a place where everybody left them alone. Bobby Van, the owner, who was a musician known for his piano playing every night, was not around. He had opened this “joint,” as it was affectionately known, in 1969. At one time or another every visiting celebrity author to the east end dropped by to visit.

“Look over there,” Steve said, after our drinks were served and we made a toast to “the literary life.” It was Truman Capote, a short man with a sweet face, heading toward a table with a woman neither of us recognized, waving to the group of men near us. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Other Voices, Other Rooms, In Cold Blood.  I’d read all those books. I waved back, which made Steve laugh.

“Maybe he’ll come join us,” I said boldly, which made Steve lean forward and

grab my hand again. I let him hold on for about five seconds, then released his grip.

“I’ve seen lots of other writers here,” Steve said, looking around. “Not all on the same days. James Jones, of course.  And Irwin Shaw. But Murray Schisgal and Dwight MacDonald, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Albee, Jerzy Kosinski. Artists, too. Roy Lichtenstein, Willem de Kooning.”

“All men,” I said, frowning. “No women in the group?”

Steve smiled. “Shana Alexander hangs out here. And Barbara Howar. Not everyone who writes comes here, obviously. Males or females. Betty Freidan lives out here, and Gael Green. Nora Ephron, Jean Stafford . . .”

There’s a quote from Barbara Howar in Haden-Guest’s New York article: “If you have writers in to dinner, you set the food on the table early. Because pretty soon, they’re going to be bombed.

Haden-Guest wrote of a particular session at Bobby Van’s that started at five in the afternoon. “At about eleven, Truman Capote began saying, ‘I’ll just have one more little drink, and then I’m going home to curl up with a book.’ John Knowles left around midnight, and the Plimptons at one. Truman Capote, Willie Morris, and James Jones stayed till the oyster light of 4:30.”

Linda Bird Francke, who moved out to the east end in the late 1970s, recalled that “it was so much fun on a cold winter’s night. Bobby would play the piano. We would swap stories, and even sing. James Jones had recently died, but Joe Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and Peter Mattheissen, who (lived) in the area, used to come. There was such camaraderie.” Linda would go on the bestseller list after publishing Growing Up Divorced: How to Help Your Child Cope with Every Stage in 1984.

Bobby Van’s restaurant was “virtually a writers’ club,” according to still another author, and while I didn’t get there often, being a single mom at home with kids, like Linda, I stopped in when I could – never alone, but when I had a companion, usually one of my new women friends. We’d sit at the bar and have a couple of drinks. Or we’d be at a table having dinner, and I would look around for recognizable faces during the meal.

Dan Rattiner, In his 2008 book, In the Hamptons, wrote about the days and nights at Bobby Van’s and mentioned Winston Groom (Forrest Gump), as a regular, along with sportscaster Jack Whitaker and CBS News anchor Jim Jensen. Dan stopped by often, observing like a newspaperman like Dan would do.  He recalled fistfights, where people would start shouting. They’d get up and start swinging, and then other people would stand and hold them back. There’d be a lot of cursing for awhile. I never witnessed such scenes, but I’ve no doubt that they occurred.

In 1979 Bobby Van’s restaurant left the building and moved across the street. Authors still came; Bobby still played the piano every night. He’d play Gershwin, Porter and Berlin, and his playing gave a sophisticated air to the new space and the artsy crowd who still came around.  But it was never the same; those first years, from 1975-1979, were very special to this writer and to her new life in the Hamptons. It’s a period I’ll never forget; just as I won’t forget the Meet the Writers Book Fairs at Elaine Benson’s Art gallery in Bridgehampton. These annual events began in May of 1978 “to open the season,” with so many of the Bobby Van authors attending, and would grow over the next 25 years from some two dozen to almost 100 writers participating. They came from all over the east end, Long Island, Manhattan and elsewhere, well-known and not, showing up to sign their books for their admiring audiences.

Steve showed up each May with a different woman, and we’d smile and make small talk. There were always new faces, and nonstop conversations about the writing life. And afterwards many of us would go on to dinner. Where? To Bobby Van’s, usually. And maybe, just maybe, some of the authors and artists who just attended the Book Fair would be sitting nearby, or standing at the bar, bringing me right back to the mid-1970s when I first arrived out here to the Hamptons and to its remarkable literary life.

Eileen Obser’s memoir, Only You, set in her teenage years of the 1950s and early 1960s, was published in April this year. This excerpt is from a memoir in progress, set in the mid-1970s. She is a frequent contributor to The Star.