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Rent a House by the Beach

The Dunes was the name of Frank Wiborg's well-known house, originally a farmhouse that had been enlarged into a mansion of 30 rooms on a bluff close to the sea. The summer houses of memory, however, are not quite so lavish. I first knew Long Island, as far out as Long Beach that is, in 1940. Then came the war. In 1952 I landed in Westhampton and spent more than a year there. There were sandy roadsides, a kind of sleepiness, beaches, bay. The air was fresh, the real estate offices almost moribund.

The first house we rented for a summer was in Amagansett, shingled, tall, and set on wooden supports. We could walk to the beach and an uncrowded farmers' market. The young daughter of a friend worked as a kind of au pair, and a surviving photo is of her—Lee Burchard was her name—hair blowing, the surf beyond her black and crashing.

The next year or the one after we went to Europe and had an old farmhouse, a mas as they called it, with walls of stone two feet thick and below, as far as one could see, the blinding silver of the Mediterranean. As it had been for ancient civilizations, so for us: the sea was our god. Sun-darkened and innocent of how unhealthy it was, we drove home past perfume factories and houses with gardens. We had two goats. They would be standing on the roof of the shed, raising their heads briefly or not at all as we arrived, or visible farther up beneath the olive trees where they had already eaten every leaf within reach.

John Collier, the short story writer, and his wife had a large house—an estate would be more accurate—a few miles away, on the far side of Grasse. It was said to have belonged to Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon's sister, and to have served as a love nest. There were secret tunnels and a stage built at one end of the living room. There were summer lunches—gigot and haricots verts, the classic—with many guests on the promenade that ran along the front of the house, shaded by trees. Though very left politically, John Collier was conservative, even right-wing in his tastes: good food and wine, Rolls-Royces if he could only afford them. He was blue-eyed and impish and, like his stories, archly witty. At one end of the promenade was a rabbit hutch. My oldest daughter held a small black rabbit in her arms.


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