Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Alpha & the Omega

My mother tells me I should write about things I know, not things I think I see in pictures.

When I came upon this site, Hampton Homes Photo Gallery, which specializes in posting aerial views of splendid properties located on the South Fork of Eastern Long Island, recognition of many of the estates triggered decades of memories.

The great house seen here carries a special meaning for me. In my early twenties, I took my first summer job in the Hamptons as a gardener on this beautiful estate, although the composition of the photograph doesn't do the grounds justice. The house faces the wide blue of the Atlantic Ocean in the foreground, and unseen to the right, along the road, is one of the most architecturally significant shingle-style carriage houses remaining in the Hamptons. Also not shown, is a pool tucked into the dunes, along with a good-sized pool house, which began life as the porch remnants of a house which burned down in the 1940's. That was known for its owner, Dr. Barnes, the medical doctor who cared for, and then attended the death in Rome in 1913 of, J. Pierpont Morgan.

A final missing element in the picture, to my eyes, at least, were the garden's former bones--rows of massive Japanese Black Pines perfectly bonsai-ed in ocean breezes for 100 years, then lost in the 1980's to nematodes and a blight.

The conjoined property is unequaled in Southampton's historic estate section, laid out in the 1870's in pasturage that swept down to the ocean from a boundary marking known now as Gin Lane.

I was hired by Germaine Cromwell, the widow of Henry Rogers Benjamen, and it is that family name with a long background locally. H.R. Benjamen was the great grandson of Henry Huttleston Rogers, the Standard Oil capitalist, whose son HHR,II, gave Southampton the estate, Black Point--the house gone now, except for gracing the cover of Houses of the Hamptons: 1880-1930, and inside pages of Long Island Country Houses and Their Architects, 1860-1940. Today George Soros lives in the former estate's outbuildings--if that gives you any idea--hidden behind the walled gardens at the foot of Gin Lane.

And since you haven't really arrived until your country house has a country house, H.R. Rogers II was also responsible for creating the Port of Missing Men, a magnificent estate which started out as a hunting and shooting retreat, and which still remains as Southampton's largest private land assemblage.

Because of my posture, diction and manners, I was enlisted to assist in the great migration out from city quarters at 4 East 66th St, a full-floor apartment high above Fifth-Avenue, the parameters of which are well known to addicts of the diversion known as "NYC floor-plan porn." The great Bernard Baruch lived out his days in the apartment on the second floor, and things only got better as you moved up the line.

It took eight gardeners to give the Southampton place the gloss of high maintenance. Mrs. Cromwell didn't like people around on the weekends, but she took to me, and I was segued into a role as the weekend gardener and pool boy. I can still recall the day of my neural-linguistic imprinting with the grammar behind: "Woe to the gardener who let an unstaked dahlia topple under the weight of a newly opened bud."

A perk of this duty was swimming in the ocean every day as a buddy to Mr. James Cromwell, the man of the house. I'd walk down the beach to deposit a load of towels, then throw a thermometer at the end of a long cord into the ocean and stand there, taking the temperature of the water. I can't remember now what the number was, just that it was always the same, and it was always cold, and that I loved having people witness my arcane behavior.

Mr. Cromwell was in his eighties the season we swam together, and still a fit specimen. For someone like myself, who had learned to dog paddle in the murky Mississippi, I often had a hard time keeping up. The only reason I didn't drown on one or two occasions was because I knew he wouldn't save me.

The oceanside facade of the central block of the Cromwell house, as built, circa 1890.

James Cromwell was a sportsman from one of those backgrounds that are blue chip, but don't pay very well. His stepfather was the wealthy Edward Stotesbury, but stepfathers are like the rules for playing horseshoes---close counts for nothing. The detail about the Stotesbury's that impressed me the most was, after World War II broke out, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was emptied of its art treasures as a safety precaution, the family's new 140-room house outside Philadelphia, with its air-conditioners and elevators, was requisitioned to hold the bounty for the duration.

"Jimmy" didn't do too badly in life when he married the heiress Delphine Dodge, but he definitely kicked things up a notch when he snagged the staggeringly rich Doris Duke. Doris was married at one time to Porfirio Rubirosa, but I am not sure if that was before or after, or if it matters, it's just, at this point several threads converge. The Cromwell attribute which impressed me the most was revealed when, after our ocean swims, Mr. Cromwell would strip down for a skinny dip in the cement pool. Having my first taste of life lived in houses on a scale so vast became indelibly associated with what was to me, Jimmy's corollary.

Porfiro, the Santo Domingan stallion, was Jimmy's notorious competition in this department, and I can only imagine poor Doris. To this day, in good French restaurants everywhere, waiters will ask for one of those giant pepper mills by way of saying, "Pass me the Rubirosa, please." Poor little rich girl, indeed.

I set out yesterday to write this piece without any sense of how it might end up, or whether or not a moral or message would appear, and I got this far. But indicative of the extraordinary times we are living in, and the grace underlying our affairs, an ending did appear. After I dropped work to get ready for dinner, I went outside to take a shower on the deck. A friend of mine who is staying out back arrived just then along with his visiting four-year-old son. The kid ran up onto the deck to say hi, and he just looked at me--he was seeing me in the nude for the first time---and then he said, not shyly, "you have a tiny wee-wee."

I said, "Go Away! I've seen yours, and mine is bigger," but it was a moment that took my breath away. How subversive of my self-identity, of my desire and longing, of my present state of feeling at war, fighting other men. I mean---a four-year-old saying you have a tiny wee-wee doesn't leave you any wiggle room at all. It's funny, yes, I know---laughable. But I'd asked God for an ending and He gave me one just like that!

Cromwell house, center; the lost Dr. Barnes house, left; present day Alfred Taubman house, altered, right.

I haven't talked with his dad yet to see if he put him up to it, and I don't want to. It would spoil the point, which is recognizing feelings unhealed independent of any Oedipus, and turning them over because I can't fix them.

So I'd have to share it on the internet, understanding the coincidence had to be served up as an example of transparency and shamelessness. Otherwise, not only would the experience have no meaning, it could become a poison, waiting to be triggered by the next testosterone laden jerk. Because this is just one way we control and manipulate one another--with shame and ridicule. The "suck my dick," and the "kiss my ass," a refrain, year in, year out, growing up.

Jimmy Cromwell gave me a wonderful present back then: it was a left-over Cartier Christmas card from the 60's, which had two aerial photographs of the great estate tipped in; north and south views, perfectly centered in the composition, and framed by the brilliant blue of the ocean and the deep green of privet hedges. It represented my sense of perfection.

After Mrs. Cromwell died, I handed it off as a favor to the agent who was marketing the house, Allan Schneider, with the understanding that I get it back, but--typically, no good deed went unpunished. I remembered the creamy goodness of the envelop stock, and I mourned my disadvantage in not being able to show the images to you.

Then it occurred to me: what kind of person would sent a Christmas card so single-mindedly on-point with the only message being: "I am rich and unashamedly house proud." An unsubtle subtext seemed to say: FU.

I really can't recall for the life of me if it even said Bon Noel or not. It must have.

So I have stopped basing my life on a fear that I'm not going to get something I want, or that I'm going to lose something I already have. The more I turn things over this way, the more wonderful and rich life feels. I don't know if someone could synthetically make up a blog post like this one if it were not true. I know I couldn't and wouldn't want to if I could. It is just a piece of my truth--take it or leave it, although I hope it does someone some good, somehow.

Because if this represents my Alpha, it also contains a little Omega, for which I'm really very grateful. We see what Dick Cheney wrought.

"Not by my counsel," said the Prince. "I
would save my horse, Coalblack, and the Witch's
Snowflake (a noble beast and worthy of a better
mistress) which are both stabled in the courtyard.
After that, let us make shift to get out to high
ground and pray that we shall find an outlet. The
horses can carry two each at need, and if we put them
to it they may outstrip the flood."

Friday, June 27, 2008

Happy Birthday 51

Wearing my pink Pith-helmet birthday present.

A few friends:
Jim is a builder up from Florida to supervise construction of a shopping plaza mid-island. Since he's away from his family, we hang out. We went to see Sex In the City together (if you can believe it.) I hated the movie, but the theater got hit by lightning before it ended so we got vouchers and can see something else. I don't photograph well--but my lawn does.

Jeff is an Ivy-League-trained architect who designed the last house in SH Village over a new super-size law limiting houses t0 25,000 s.f.: ___kai____'s redo of the old Magda Gabor estate.

Jeff designed the well-received Ammon house in East Hampton a few years ago, which "widow" Generosa tried to claim credit for. But since she was having an affair with the handsome electrician who installed the house's alarm system, the man who was later convicted of the bludgeoning death of her husband Ted, we know her level of creativity.

Berty teaches my inner child how to play soccer.

Dwight (right) is an estate gardener; Nick, (left) is an estate garden-ee.

Tom is a Village Parks Department employee and Nancy is a stay-at-home mom. Tom 's father was the groundsman at National Links for decades and he grew up in a wonderful house just inside the formal gates. In his childhood he was given free-range over miles of forest, bay and stream--I call him my nature Mogli-boy. "Stay-at-home" mom is a misnomer for Nancy. She brought four homemade crab-and-broccoli quiches to my party--and I'm talking the crabs you catch and pick over--so she gets out. The topic of conversation had just been, "Giving our children the teeth our parents didn't give us,"

Lois and Valerie are both public school teachers. One of them has been unlucky in love recently. Can you tell which one?

Future vegan muttocracy.