Rent a House by the Beach
One of my idols, Rust Hills, the longtime literary editor of Esquire whose credentials as a man of discernment go back to Arnold Gingrich and the original stylish magazine, has a simple rule regarding which wine to drink that even the French would appreciate. White with lunch, red with dinner, he says. A similar formula might be applied to seasons: winter in the mountains, summer by the sea. Summer means sun and for me its great companion, the sea, cool, green, and swelling. To rise and fall in it on a blazing summer day, to feel its huge embrace, to shower the salt from yourself afterward and stand pure, clean, and new is one of the real pleasures of life.
The greatest house by the sea that I know—I have never been close to it—is the one Curzio Malaparte, an Italian writer, primarily a journalist, built on a majestic rock promontory on Capri. A low, powerful building with walls of Tuscan red and a great flight of steps at one end going up to the long slab roof, it brings to mind an Aztec altar, not meant for sacrifice but for worship of the sun. In photographs it's something like the Winged Victory in the Louvre, nearly that thrilling. It seems to defy age and time.
Defying them also, for decades, in an eternal summer it was thought, were the figures of Gerald and Sara Murphy. A lot has been written about them, their life in the twenties, their famous friends. Like insects caught in the glow of amber, they were perfect and would never change. Their house in the south of France, Villa America; their stylish parties and the frequent remark of Gerald's that "anyone can live on his income"; their invention, more or less, of beach life; all this added to their legend.
Sara Murphy was an heiress, a Wiborg, and her father, who was a businessman from Ohio, had invested in land in East Hampton around the turn of the century, before the Long Island Rail Road extended that far. East Hampton at the time was a quiet resort with a main street of clapboard and shingle houses shaded by enormous elms. There was farmland all around and the brilliant summer light that fell on it was already admired by painters, many of whom would come there, Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, to name just a few.
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.
"Oh, they're so sweet!" she cried.
"Delicious too," John said, showing white teeth in a friendly smile.
Michael Thomas, the novelist, and his wife, Barbara, had a house one summer virtually on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic at the opposite end of France, in Perros-Guirec. The house belonged to another writer, William Spackman, known for a short, eccentrically written novel called An Armful of Warm Girl. In the kitchen, normally reserved, one felt, for staff, was a large, pale green Aga stove, familiar to those who lived at the high end, like Michael, but the first I had seen. Of English design, it always had a wood or coal fire burning in it, and each burner provided a different temperature. A big Bastille Day dinner was given with an English couple and their daughter among the guests. The daughter had short hair and coltish legs. She spoke Swedish and French and was clearly eager to leave. She went to the bars in Perros-Guirec, she said. To the bars?Why?To meet men, she replied. Honoria, the Murphys' proper daughter, would never have said that. I can still see the host reclining peacefully in a deck chair on the dark terrace at midnight as we bade good-night and made our way upstairs. He was not there the next morning, though he might have been had the chill at 3 or 4 a.m. not awakened him.
We were visiting from Belle Île, an island off the coast where we had taken a house ourselves for the summer. Though the French are familiar with the highest degree of civilization, they sometimes on vacation tend toward the primitive, and Belle ële had many small houses that were, to say the least, stark in their simplicity and in which you could find the most sophisticated Parisians. Our own house, fortunately, ran counter to the trend. It was sleek, modern, and altogether comfortable. From the upstairs bedroom window was a view of broad fields scorched the color of straw by that year's lack of rain. We gathered pails of mussels on the rocky shore, something strictly prohibited on Martha's Vineyard, where, a few years before, we'd rented a house, a beach shack really, so small that it could have been used for a packing crate. Only up to the high tide mark was the beach public, and couples came down long distances from their houses to inform you that the sand you were lying on was private property. Still, we were happy.
We spent another summer in a ship captain's house on the beach on St. Croix. The rent was very reasonable, a matter soon explained by the suffocating heat and the thieves who would jump over the fence and more or less shop through the house when we went out. They stole the radio, a Nikon camera, and other things but left the canned goods and most of our clothes.
Summer passes but the memory of it does not. Of all the seasons it seems the most imperishable. It's been a while since we took a house in one place or another, not in any quest for the perfect, but merely in the lazy dips of the writer's life. We own one now, small, light-filled, set in a grassy field near the station in Bridgehampton, not too far from the ocean, about $900,000 away from it at current prices.
The train that comes from New York nine or ten times a day and also at three in the morning used to, especially on Fridays on the 4 p.m. express, bring husbands who had reserved seats in the parlor cars. Their arrival was the zenith of the fashionable week. Train service is still good, but now it is helicopters or private jets that bring in the privileged, financiers still, as in the old days, lawyers, media giants, film stars. The Murphys are long gone, as is the Dunes. The era when they and their friends ruled summer is forgotten, quaint. The striped matelot shirt that Gerald Murphy wore and that became a virtual uniform for men at the beach, the meals with Léger and his wife or Léger and his mistress, the Dos Passoses, Philip Barrys, Fitzgeralds, Hemingways, MacLeishes, all of it more and more remote. These are new summers, new generations, new houses— well, not all the houses. The best ones, in fact, are often the old ones. They allow one to kick back, to put the days in first gear. For what is summer but ease, and what are the houses of summer but great boxes of pleasure?
The highway may be jammed with cars, the markets with brokers in tennis shorts and maids with whining children; it may be impossible to get a table at any restaurant or even a copy of a newspaper, but at five in the afternoon the beaches have emptied, the sun is still high, the sea invites you, and friends are coming to dinner.
If you're envisioning lazy afternoons in a hammock on the front porch, but you haven't found the porch yet, don't give up. To maximize your odds, check out resortquest.com for 20,000 houses across the United States. Beachhouse (949/863-0050; www.beachhouse.com) offers oceanside bungalows from Belize to New Zealand. If all 50 properties at FineVillas (561/833-3006) are booked, they'll hunt down a lovely Italian farmhouse for you. Indulge in a little schadenfreude—or just keep your fingers crossed—and get on the wait list for one of Abercrombie & Kent's European Concierge Villas (800/323-7308; www.abercrombiekent.com), which come with a maid and gardener. Or, you just may get the deal of your life by bidding on the rental properties on eBay's new travel site (recently Queen Elizabeth put up a cottage at Balmoral for a weeklong stay, with proceeds going to Caring for Kids). Last, Tuscany Now (44-207/272-5469; www.tuscanynow.com) will provide everything from bodyguards to Italian lessons—plus a 10 percent discount on select villas this month and next.