How to Lose a Wife in the Hamptons

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The first dinner party I hosted in the Hamptons was to reciprocate for the dinners that my then-boyfriend, Dan, and I enjoyed as guests. Dan couldn’t turn on an electric oven. Yet he had neither starved to death nor lacked for dinner party invitations. If I’d left well enough alone maybe the relationship would have lasted. But I doubt it.

I could cook anything at all—as long as it was from The Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook. But cooking in the Hamptons was wildly competitive. Restaurant stoves popped up in home kitchens faster than yoga studios in Brooklyn. I was in my early twenties and lost at sea like a Frisbee in the Atlantic. Dan came to the rescue. His housekeeper knew women who cooked but didn’t serve. He found a professional butler named “Coco” from Lily Pond Lane who served and bartended.

There was an A-list and a B-list of Hamptons guests, Dan explained. Wasn’t that harsh? No, it was just the way things were. We would invite everyone to a cocktail party from 5 to 7 p.m. The “B-listers” would go home at 7 p.m.; the “A-listers” would stay on for dinner.

It hadn’t occurred to me that Dan’s party plan relied on what I call “manlistening”—as opposed to “mansplaining.” Like if your poodle (one of the smartest dogs) watched a person execute a series of intricate social actions over several years’ time, and you seriously expected he was taking detailed notes. Coco (whose complexion was indeed deep-dark cocoa) arrived and surprised us with his spotless, starched white serving jacket. Coco was equally surprised by our haute bohemian writers’ nest. Fortunately, he was a consummate professional and hardly showed his disdain.

Naturally, the “B-list” failed to depart at 7 p.m.; they were having a great time, with better and better guests arriving every second. Something had gone wrong in the kitchen—a problem with the peanut sauce for the Thai chicken. The “A-list” was cranky with hunger. I was torn between bidding adieu to writer George Plimpton (I hate to say this, but he was the last of the “B-list” to go) and attending to composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who had already seated himself at the dinner table.

Coco produced a small bell, rang it, and announced, basso profundo: “Dinner is served.” I don’t remember anything after that except I never saw Sondheim again (yes, he’s still alive). But for my sense of the absurd, I would have hidden in a closet for a couple hours like my mother occasionally did. Dan and I got married. I learned to whip up tricolor vegetable pâté, salmon en croûte, cold cucumber soup, chocolate soufflé; my desserts rivaled those of any French pastry chef. All I needed was a proper cookbook and ingredients. My dishes came out as described, on time, and were followed by the instant gratification of a party. Cooking was so unlike writing. You never knew how writing would come out; it could go on forever if you weren’t careful, and you were alone in the middle of the night when you typed “The End.”

I had more dinner parties. I reviewed restaurants for Esquire. I was, at last, a Barefoot Hostessa. I didn’t enjoy cooking, but I loved the long, creative meals with friends it produced. Before insider trading billionaires became the best thing at a Hamptons dinner party, books, movies and TV series were packaged there. They still are. If your agent, your publisher, your editor, your financier, your star and your ideas are at a dinner party together, projects are born. Money is made—just not quite by the same people. This is a column for another day, but basically, we all work for Amazon now.

One thing hasn’t changed in twenty years. Going out to eat at the beach is awful. It involves a car. It’s overcrowded, it’s noisy, it’s expensive, you can’t get a reservation. But you need a break from cooking. So I worked out a trio of (still-great) restaurants less than a mile from the house we owned next door to designer Jack Lenor Larsen’s LongHouse Reserve. I didn’t (and still wouldn’t) have to cross the highway to get to them: The Laundry (now Dopo La Spiaggia), the East Hampton Grill (formerly Della Femina’s), and Nick & Toni’s. I had gotten to know the owners in the off-season so they were nice to me even though I was hardly famous.

Years later, when I began staying in Wainscott, my friend Alison Price Becker had a wonderful restaurant down the street. Today her business, Alison Hospitality, Food & Event Advisory, makes locally sourced dinners right in your own kitchen. But Alison arrived too late to save my marriage.

Back in my kitchen, I was cooking instead of writing a screenplay (about a professor who falls in love with her physical trainer). My husband was writing a horror novel about a man who hangs humans in the cellar and force-feeds them like French geese to make human foie gras. (I know, I know.) Bastille Day was coming; I loved the Great Bonac Fireworks Show (celebrated in 2017 on July 16, 9:20 p.m.) over Three Mile Harbor and Devon Yacht Club. So, to lift my spirits (we were out of money), I unwisely decided to cook a dinner for forty friends on the bay beach. The deal was, I would do the party (without resentment) if he unloaded our Jeep at the beach and spent 30 minutes turning the chicken paillard on the grill. This didn’t happen.

Instead, he arrived separately and disappeared into the crowd like a guest. When it was time to cook the chicken, I found him lounging in the sand with a couple of friends. Someone else’s famished husband took over the grill.

A while later, my husband came to life and accidentally launched a bottle rocket almost straight into the face of actor Griffin Dunne (whose present-day mini-series, I Love Dick, is streaming on, you guessed it, Amazon Prime).

“His face! His face is his career!” a pal yelled at me.

I went home that night and asked for a divorce. And that was the end of my life as a Hamptons chef.


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