By Cecil Hoge
Under normal circumstances my family would never be able to rent a house for the summer in Southampton, but my family had a secret. Because they were one related family they were able to rent one house, even though, in truth, they were really four separate families. So, starting in the 1960s and continuing through the 1980s, my family rented one large house each summer.
As mentioned above, the collective family ensemble was composed of four separate families, my father, his wife and myself, my father’s sister, her husband, their two daughters and my father’s brothers and their respective families. Last of all, our family was capped off, fulfilled and driven by the presence of the family matriarch, my grandmother.
All told our basic collective family consisted of 18 people. This necessitated a large house with a sufficient bedrooms to house all these people. When making a selection of a house for the summer, we also had to consider the number bedrooms needed for relatives and guests who would most certainly show up.
There was also the collective financial status of our family to consider, since in some years we felt more flush than others. The word “flush” is probably not appropriate here since our family’s collective financial health ranged from poor to bad to middling decent. In any case, one way or another, the four families managed, usually at the last minute, to raise the necessary capital to rent a house for the summer.
In those days, using the word capital to refer to the money needed for the rent might also be a misnomer. The first house we began to rent on regular basis was The Hill Street House and it cost a whopping $2500 for summer. This meant that the individual contribution of each family was $625. The Hill Street House is still readily visible about a mile from the Indian Reservation on the left side of Hill Street as you approach Southampton. It has today, as it had then, a white concrete wall in front. You may call it our starter rental house and, as such, it was tight fit for our four families, even though it’ run on structure had 11 bedrooms, if I remember correctly.
Reading this today, you may think that $625 per family is exceeding cheap by today’s standards and you would be right, but I want to remind you that in addition to paying rent there were other vital expenses to consider. Membership in both the Meadow Club and The Southampton Bathing Corporation was considered an absolute must. Clothes for attending cocktail parties, balls, lessons for younger family members for tennis, sailing, swimming, tennis and perhaps golf, also had to be considered. There was listing of our respective family’s telephone numbers in the Southampton Blue Book and the subsequent cost involved. There was gas and/or train fare from New York City to Southampton and back. Last, but not least, their were the bare minimum of entertainment costs, which included invites over for dinner and barbecues and at least, one reciprocal cocktail party for the season.
Then, as today, these things cost money and they had to be considered in the overall investment for the season. And while none of these things were enormously expensive in themselves, taken together all these things constituted a relatively large “nut”, especially considering my family’s not so great financial abilities. No matter, whatever the monies involved, my family, through boom and bust, during inflation, deflation, recession, stagnation, somehow found a way meet these expenses, although sometimes the more prosperous members had to temporarily support the less prosperous members.
You may wonder how could an extended family of 18 people get along. My short answer is with lots of cocktails. My long answer is a little more complicated. My grandmother, being the dominate Louisiana Belle she was, was always a driving force behind my family’s social aspirations. She was absolutely insistent that club memberships, listing in the Blue Book and The Social Register, be maintained at all costs. They had precedence over everything except death and hospitalization. If you think taxes should also be on this list, some of my family members would disagree.
The pattern of our family life over the course of these summers took on a rhythm of its own. On Friday evenings the men of the house would arrive by car or train. The wives and their children would gather to greet the returning men. Cocktails would be served and young and old would sit down to discuss disparate events…the week’s toil in the city, the heavy traffic coming out, the dramatic events out in the Hamptons during the week, the difficulties shopping, national or local news, national or local gossip, the weather, any and all of this might be subject of Friday evening’s conversation. It was always animated and that usually called for a second round of cocktails.
The men of the house, now properly relaxed and greeted, would prepare with their wives for the evening activities, which could include a visit to a real cocktail party or going out to dinner to one of many local restaurants. John Duck’s, Ridgely’s, McCarthy’s Bowden Square, among others, would be considered. This is not say that the younger members were not without their own sets of plans. Adult automobiles may have been borrowed, friends were called. There were movies to go to, dances to attend, friends’ houses to visit. Young and old, in short, had plans for the evening. Certainly, in the early years, there were also some members of the house who had to stay home under the care and guidance of a local baby sitter, but the majority of the household was out for the evening.
Saturday also acquired its own pattern, though it may not have been easy for an outsider to perceive. Young or old might, depending on the previous evening’s activities, arise late. Usually, someone would emerge around 8 or 9am and start making breakfast for themselves. Other members of the household would gradually come in and also fend for themselves. My grandmother, one of the earlier risers, would usually sail in around 8:30 and make a substantial breakfast for herself and any other youngsters who happened to be abroad.
My uncle Hamilton was one of the most regular and dependable of the breakfast crowd. He would generally be down by 10 and set himself up at the end of the dining room table. His breakfast was always the same: The New York Times, a glass of orange juice, a pack of Camels, several cups of coffee, a bowl of cereal and a pint of heavy cream. My uncle was plagued with a throat condition which impaired his ability to swallow. There was considerable debate as to whether this problem with his esophagus was a pre-cursor to cancer and whether my uncle’s lifelong smoking habit might be responsible. I don’t think he spent too much time worrying about this.
My uncle’s solution to this problem was to eat extremely slowly.
So, if you came down to breakfast, invariably you would find my uncle seated at the head of the table, reading The New York Times, sipping his coffee, pulling on one of his Camel cigarettes, content from all the worries of the world, occasionally adding heavy cream to his coffee or his cereal. People would be sitting down having their own breakfast. They would leave, others would come, have their own breakfasts and duly leave. Through it all, my uncle would happily peruse his newspaper and nibble at his breakfast. Generally, he finished sometime before noon, just in time to head to the Beach Club for swim and a late lunch.
The family’s Saturday was usually devoted to the Beach Club or the Meadow Club, with activities alternating between swimming, lunch, tennis and cocktails. In late afternoon or early evening, they would reconvene for cocktails. After that, as on Fridays, it was all family members for themselves. Sometimes this many meant they all gathered for cocktails or dinner, but more often than not, it meant that we all scattered to the four winds, each to find their own destiny.
On Sunday, the men would again prepare to go back to the city, sometimes waiting until quite late for the traffic to subside or until the last train was about to leave. The house would assume a quieter demeanor, with only the wives and younger generation there to hold the fort. For those of us who did not have work the weekdays were a glorious time spent swimming and chatting and playing tennis and watching movies and visiting friends houses. For my grandmother, my step mother and my various aunts this was also a period of comparative quiet in which they could chat among themselves, catch up on household duties and prepare for the next weekend.
This was the way spent our summers for over 20 years. Over time, we came to rent many different houses. We lived for a couple of summers in a place we called The Monster. It was an enormous house about a half a mile from the Beach Club (aka The Southampton Bathing Corporation). Fortunately, it had fallen on something like hard times and we were able to obtain it for a steal. It was so large that it didn’t seem to need to be cleaned. The dirt just got lost in the enormity of it all. We stayed a summer in early 1960s in the original Halsey House. This is the same house that is on South Main Street and is now a museum. It was and still is, I suppose, the oldest standing house in New York State. All I remember was the really huge fireplace that doubled as a stove with hanging pots.
We stayed in numerous houses on First Neck Lane and Great Plains Road. These houses were considerably larger and nicer than our original Hill Street House. By this time, my family’s financial condition had passed from poor to bad to a little bit better to not too bad. Through it all, my family somehow found the money to pay for the rent and expenses of living in the Hamptons. The early 1970s found us almost prosperous.
As the family fortunes rose or declined, so did the size of the houses we rented. Good times found us in extremely comfortable quarters, with houses located near the Beach Club and the Meadow Club, less prosperous times found us in smaller, less well-appointed houses further away from the two all important clubs.
But whatever the house and whatever our collective financial condition, summers found us in Southampton and whatever the difficulties of four families living in peace, we generally had a collective blast. This experience, which brought the different families together, actually created closer family ties and made us through it all, happier than we would have otherwise have been.
There was a constant ebb and flow of relatives and friends and house guests coming and going that provided ceaseless activities to whatever house we stayed at. Outsiders, who would come over for dinner or drinks, could only wonder from a distance how it worked. To them it was a kind of mysterious miracle. And truthfully, I am not sure that any of us knew why it did work. Perhaps, it had to do with the centralizing effect of my grandmother, although I suspect some of the wives found her a challenge and in some cases, a true pain.
Whatever the reason, for over twenty years, our family did gather this way, spending their summers in relative harmony, learning quirks and foibles of every family member. And because this was in a time when their was a lot of controversy about the direction the country, with numerous periods of financial upheaval, with doubt about the progress of the Vietnam War, with doubts about the future of the country after the Vietnam War, with the advent of drug use throughout the country, there were many excited and impassioned discussions about the meaning of these events between in the families. I cannot say we all agreed and were of one mind. Far from it, we all had strong opinions and profound disagreements about all these subjects, but through it all we had fun and remained a family.