Barely a mile from the hedge-fund mansions that now define the Hamptons lies a very different world: the endangered Sagaponack preserve of such literary lions as E. L. Doctorow, Robert Caro, and Jason Epstein. Chronicling the rise of “the Sagg Main Set” in the 1960s and 1970s, when Truman Capote, James Jones, George Plimpton, and Kurt Vonnegut came out to play, and Bobby Van’s was the place to drown a bad review, Michael Shnayerson focuses on two of the fraternity’s surviving grandees—James Salter and Peter Matthiessen—whose decades-long friendship remains as remarkable as their books.
The splashiest new home in the Hamptons sits perilously close to the ocean dunes of Sagaponack, hard by Gibson Beach. In early June, workers were racing to finish the huge main house with its bulbous wings for its owner, hedge-fund billionaire David Tepper, 55. The next big storm may sweep it away, but Tepper, who made his fortune buying distressed stocks, has already rebuilt once, after razing the mansion that stood here before. He can do it again.
All along the ocean dunes, from Southampton to East Hampton, Wall Street money is back in action, doing what it wants to do. Embattled hedge-fund mogul Steve Cohen has decided his new, $60 million home, on Further Lane, needs to be larger—seven bedrooms and 10,000 square feet are not enough.
As for Courtney Ross, widow of media mogul Steve Ross and founder of the Ross School, in East Hampton, she’s put her 5.4-acre Georgica Pond property up for sale at $75 million and plans to spend the next few years on a boat—studying the environment.
It wasn’t always like this. Barely a mile away from Tepper’s folly lies the hidden and overgrown compound of 86-year-old writer Peter Matthiessen. He is the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both nonfiction—for The Snow Leopard—and fiction, for Shadow Country.When he bought those six acres, in 1959, Sagaponack was a farming community of small wood-frame houses and fields that rolled down to the sea. The early wave of New York City dwellers who came here were artists and musicians and writers. They first found these towns in the 1950s and 60s—before they were the Hamptons. Now, half a century later, only a few of the writers remain, friends for decades.
After co-founding The Paris Review, Matthiessen came out to fish and hunt with pals he’d made in the Coast Guard. For several years, he worked as a scalloper and haul-seine fisherman, writing mostly on bad-weather days. He palled around with artists who’d settled nearby—chiefly Jackson Pollock—and did his share of drinking but also duck-hunting. “I had farmer friends who kind of adopted me and took me into their gun club.”
Other writers followed: Truman Capote, George Plimpton, Kurt Vonnegut, E. L. Doctorow, and more. Rents were low, houses cheap. Along with the year-round beauty of the fields, the isolation was what drew them. “From Labor Day to Memorial Day it was absolutely dead silent,” recalls Matthiessen. “I loved it, and I got a lot of work done. But it was very tough on our wives.”
Capote, too, came to escape the social lures of Manhattan, recalls his old pal writer Dotson Rader. Now “the very people we went out to escape are the ones living in the McMansions today,” he says.
A Beach of One’s Own
Hardly anyone had a pool or tennis court, but Arthur and Joan Stanton did, and the Stantons loved writers. He’d made a fortune importing Volkswagens to the U.S.; she was a former actress, the first Lois Lane on the radio series The Adventures of Superman. The Stantons’ East Hampton house became a literary salon. A sign on the tennis-court fence read, OH PLIMPT!, for George Plimpton’s decorous outbursts to chide himself when he hit a bad shot. Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions) was Arthur Stanton’s best friend, but that didn’t keep him from trying to seduce Stanton’s wife, Joan. “How can you make a pass at your best friend’s wife?” Joan hissed at him one night. Shaw shrugged. “Who else do you meet?”
The climax of any evening at the Stantons’ was the Camouflage Game. “You disguise items in a room to look like what they’re not,” explains Jane Stanton of her parents’ favorite pastime. “And then you give your guests a list of 20 items. The first to identify them all gets a prize.”
One night when composer Stephen Sondheim and director Mike Nichols were both out as houseguests, a crowd stumper was “a human eye.” Finally Nichols thought to look through the keyhole of a large stereo cabinet. He shrieked: there, staring back at him, was the eye of 11-year-old Jane Stanton, who had been hidden in the cabinet before the game began.
“Later on, the whole talk was ‘Why didn’t we buy more land when the potato fields were $2,000 an acre?’ ” Jane Stanton says. “But no one was really focused on money then. Money was not what it was about. It was about talent and achievement and ideas.”
It still is with this set. James Salter, at 88, has published his first novel in 30 years to rapturous reviews: All That Is has even grazed the New York Times best-seller list. Salter’s late-life success is dazzling but not, in this crowd, singular. Matthiessen has just finished a new novel. So has Doctorow, 82, winner of numerous literary prizes for his luminous historical novels (which include Ragtime and Billy Bathgate). Robert Caro, 77, is researching the fifth and what he promises will be the last volume of his Pulitzer-winning biography of Lyndon Johnson.
All these men have socialized together for decades. Salter and Matthiessen, though, have a special bond. Close but competitive, wishing each other the best but maybe not quite the best, they share all the complexities of the camaraderie that draws writers together in the first place: the literary friendship.
To call this a Hamptons group isn’t quite right, for none of these literary lions reside in the high-hedged villages of Southampton or East Hampton but rather between them. The “Sagg Main Set” might suit them better—for the road that cuts due south from the old whaling port of Sag Harbor to the ocean beaches of Sagaponack. They settled at one end or the other of that axis—if not on the road itself, then nearby.
John Steinbeck was arguably the first writer to come here, buying a waterfront house in Sag Harbor in 1955 and setting off from it five years later with his dog, a trip which became the basis for his 1962 book, Travels with Charley. But Steinbeck was a generation older than the Sagg Main Set. Doctorow, the “chief editor” at the Dial Press in those days, remembers seeing him in local restaurants but wouldn’t have thought to approach him.
Another early Sag Harborite was Alice Mayhew, then an up-and-coming editor at Simon & Schuster, who went on to a distinguished career publishing serious nonfiction. The town was scruffy and cheap, and editors in those days, when publishing was a gentleman’s business, had even less money than writers. The $35,000 that Matthiessen paid for his Sagaponack compound was a bargain, even then, but it was still a stretch for him.
One of the few who bought (as opposed to rented) in Sag Harbor early on was Jason Epstein, then a Doubleday editor, who would later become editor in chief at Random House. As astute about business as he was about books, he dreamed up the quality paperback (under the Anchor imprint) to publish books that homecoming G.I.’s could afford. He also helped start The New York Review of Books. Yet neither of these gambits had made him any money by the early 1970s, he says, when he paid $65,000 for a rambling 1790 house, complete with a once extravagant garden. (The property is probably worth $5 million today.) “I always had money,” Epstein says, “but I don’t know where it came from.” His fellow Random House editor Bob Loomis, who retired at age 84, in 2011, has a theory: “We used to say that Jason had gold buried all over his yard.”
Salter and his first wife, Ann, came out in the 1960s, too, but to East Hampton and Amagansett, away from the others. He’d just published A Sport and a Pastime, a slim, highly charged novel about a romance in France. Now it is revered for its highly polished, almost pointillist prose, but early on it led, as Salter puts it, “a secluded existence.” He turned to film writing, unsure he would ever be able to support his family as a novelist.
“I had just met him, and I said I thought [A Sport and a Pastime] was so wonderful it would make a great movie,” recalls Piedy Gimbel, then a United Artists script reader, later the fourth and last wife of director Sidney Lumet. “And he turned on me with an almost brutal fierceness. Fifty years later, he apologized and said what he most wanted not to be was a screenwriter.”
The jazz pianist Bobby Van opened a bar and restaurant that in the 1970s became the red-hot center for writers in the Hamptons. In an old wood-frame house on Bridgehampton’s Main Street, now housing a pizza restaurant called World Pie, Van played show tunes as Willie Morris—the young ex-editor of Harper’s magazine, in self-imposed exile after his dramatic resignation from the magazine over an editorial disagreement with the owner—held forth with fellow writers James Jones (From Here to Eternity), John Knowles (A Separate Peace), and sometimes Capote, providing hilarious imitations of characters from his native Yazoo City, Mississippi.
Morris was a master of the phone prank, persuading Jim Jones’s wife, Gloria, for example, that he was a government worker relaying the grim news that Sagg Main was about to be widened, and the new road would come straight through her kitchen. But he also had a dark side, drinking more than anyone else. One night, recalls Rader, he got so drunk he passed out on the double yellow line of Main Street. There he stayed for several hours, undisturbed by the occasional passing car.
The Bobby Van regulars drank until they couldn’t, or until they died, and all too soon were gone. (Bobby himself left the bar in 1980.) But others took their place.
One was Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse- Five), as much a drinker as any of the others, always puffing on a Pall Mall—a tough old bird who pulled wit from despair. “He was in his study,” recalls still-life painter Donald Sultan of a visit to the writer’s house on Sagg Main, “and he had a big stack of posters he had to sign; a publisher would sell them, but he had to sign them all.” The wall, Sultan noticed, was covered with Vonnegut’s handwriting: reminders to himself, notes about his troubled family, all written directly on the wall. “What’s that about?” Sultan asked. Vonnegut glanced up from the stack of posters and said, without missing a beat, “That’s what prisoners do.”
One of the later arrivals was Robert Caro, who, despite winning a 1975 Pulitzer for The Power Broker, knew no writers and only one editor: his own, Knopf’s Bob Gottlieb (who still edits him). When he came into some money after his first L.B.J. book, Caro grandly told his wife, Ina, “Go buy a house in the Hamptons.” Ina arranged for a real-estate agent to show her houses on a street she’d liked: Lily Pond Lane, in East Hampton. The agent had a big ring of keys. “How much do you have to spend?” she asked as they headed over.
“Fifty thousand dollars,” Ina said proudly.
The agent made a U-turn, dropped all the keys but one back at her office, and took Ina out to the Springs, a Hamptons backwater of mostly modest cottages. There the Caros settled, though when they could, they moved to Sag Harbor proper. By then they knew where to go.
Writers and editors all mixed as a happy throng at beach barbecues and rounds of the parlor game Murder and martinis. “You can’t think of any other town in which that happens quite that way,” says Loomis. “And it’s all pretty private.” Though not private like a club, he adds. “That would be the last thing anyone wanted.”
From those friendships, Jason Epstein came to edit Doctorow and Matthiessen; Bob Loomis edited Willie Morris and essayist Wilfrid Sheed and honorary Hamptons houseguest William Styron, whom Loomis would fly down from Martha’s Vineyard in his Cessna 172. As for Alice Mayhew, she took on one Hamptons-based journalist after another: Carl Bernstein, Walter Isaacson, Richard Reeves, J. Anthony Lukas, Robert Sam Anson, Linda Bird Francke, and more.
Epstein was, unquestionably, the most serious cook of the bunch. On a typical Saturday night, he’d whip up clams Casino, followed by grilled lamb chops with rosemary or striped bass with fennel, elegant vegetable purées, and fettuccine with black-truffle shavings. One night his houseman, cleaning up in the kitchen, mistook a baseball-size leftover truffle for a rotten potato and threw it away; Epstein dove facedown into the garbage to find it.
Salter had his own approach to dinner prep, with minute-by-minute instructions: 6:30, boil water; 6:42, put in asparagus; 6:47, remove asparagus. “Air-force operations,” he calls it, while his wife, Kay, wrote up the menu for arriving guests to see, as in a restaurant.
Boys of Summer
Doctorow, who calls himself “not socially gifted,” may have felt—for a while, at least—that he didn’t quite belong. With his first success—The Book of Daniel—he got a call from Vonnegut, whom he didn’t know. “He said, ‘This [book] is so good you never have to publish again,’ ” Doctorow recalls. “I thought: Is this a compliment or is he just hoping I’ll stop?” Even after Ragtime became a huge best-seller, Doctorow remained a bit apart, the shy one of the class.
Among the rest, some liked to work off the food and booze—and writing—with sports. Touch football on Matthiessen’s field was as hard-played as any Kennedy game at Hyannis. (Indeed, it had its requisite Kennedys: the two sons of Jean Kennedy Smith, Will and Steve.)
Plimpton would play. So would television anchor Peter Jennings, magazine editor Terry McDonell, and novelist John Irving (The World According to Garp). Joe Fox, a glum but sweet and much-loved Random House editor who edited Capote in later years, would play despite smoking so many cigarettes that his sweaters all had holes from the ashes. (Fox’s wife, Anne Isaak, owner of Elio’s restaurant, in Manhattan, was by far the group’s best athlete.) Real-estate entrepreneur and man-about-town Coco Brown would bring his chauffeur; Brown would watch while the chauffeur played. Matthiessen and Salter were sometimes opposing quarterbacks. Salter took the sport so seriously he made notes of each game.
Matthiessen and Salter played hard tennis too, until a year or two ago. “Peter was the better player,” Salter says. “Also very competitive. I feel I’m equal to him in that regard.” Sometimes sheer tenacity won Salter the day. “Boy, does that kill them,” he says with a puckish smile, “when they’re better and you beat them.”
As writers, the two inhabited worlds so far apart that the very notion of literary rivalry seemed daft. Matthiessen sought out the world’s wild places, tracking birds and big cats, living with indigenous peoples, celebrating nature’s marvels and mourning their passing. Salter wrote of characters in urban settings—often moneyed characters amid the trappings of wealth—homing in on small but telling moments and remarks, often gleaned from talk with friends and jotted down on the backs of hotel envelopes.
“My stuff is not really what interests Jim,” says Matthiessen. “I moved out of the city a long time ago. It was my parents’ world, not mine.”
Salter does seem a bit vague on Matthiessen’s books about the natural world. “He wrote a book about … birds, wasn’t it?” he asks, perhaps meaning Matthiessen’s definitive 1967 guide, The Shorebirds of North America.
That Matthiessen wrote mostly nonfiction made a rivalry even less logical. And yet both writers nursed a conviction, all along, that fiction was the higher art. Each wanted to write the best possible novels—which inevitably raised the question: whose was the best?
“Your competition is not really personal,” Salter says. “Normally, what you’re envious of is a book, not a writer: standards, ideas, levels … almost nonexistent things.”
By 1980, Matthiessen had published two highly acclaimed novels, At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga, along with his lengthening shelf of nonfiction, including The Snow Leopard. But Salter, after A Sport and a Pastime, had won high praise for two more novels: Light Years and Solo Faces. They were gorgeously crafted: the basis of a growing reputation for Salter as “a writer’s writer.”
The two remained the closest of friends, as if their books themselves were doing battle somewhere far away. But for all the affection they shared—visibly happy in each other’s presence—the undercurrents were not inconsequential.
Matthiessen was a highborn Wasp with a social pedigree. He’d grown up on Fifth Avenue (in the same building as George Plimpton), gone to St. Bernard’s (also with Plimpton), and summered on Fishers Island with his patrician parents.
Salter had hardly suffered—he, too, had been raised on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, on 86th Street and Madison Avenue—and his father, a real-estate broker, had sent him to Horace Mann and West Point. Still, being the son of a real-estate broker wasn’t the same as being from old money. As one friend puts it, “It was easier for Peter, Jim felt.”
Each had a story about his name that said a lot. As a youth, Matthiessen found himself in a chauffeur-driven car with a school-mate who said he’d agreed to play with him after checking to see that the Matthiessens were in the Social Register. Appalled, Matthiessen at 16 had his name struck from that bible of Waspdom. According to a West Point classmate’s memoir, Salter took some taunting for being Jewish, and was called “Horrible Horowitz.” At 40, he changed his name to Salter. Asked why, he cites a slew of well-known authors who did the same, from Nathan Weinstein (Nathanael West) to Alisa Rosenbaum (Ayn Rand). “Or you can just say, ‘He felt it would look better on [book] jackets,’ ” he adds dryly.
Yet Salter had his own high perch. For all of Matthiessen’s travels, Salter had taken the truly dangerous trips: more than 100 missions as a fighter pilot over North Korea. Matthiessen was awed by that. All the writers were.
As an odd sort of courtesy, neither Matthiessen nor Salter acknowledged reading each other’s work. “I never tell Salter I’ve read his books, and vice versa,” says Matthiessen. “Writers worry you’ll be giving faint praise, and it’s somewhat undignified.”
Always, the friendship far outweighed the rivalry. In summer, the two met almost every day at about six P.M. at Gibson Beach for a dip in the ocean. Beautiful swimmers both, one or the other often went way out to do laps parallel to the shore.
The summer swimming stopped with Labor Day, but on November 1 the two went for what Salter calls a “farewell-to-it-all swim,” which lasted about five seconds. “We dove in, splashed, and came out running.” Salter’s wife, Kay, would be waiting for them with big towels and martinis.
Salter’s next book, to everyone’s surprise, wasn’t another slim novel: it was a meaty memoir, much of it about his time as a fighter pilot. Yet Burning the Days (1997) was written with the same poetic grace as Salter’s fiction: more proof that Salter was the writer’s writer.
“Peter felt the whole time that his fiction wasn’t given the same attention as his nonfiction,” says Loomis. Styron, Doctorow, and now Salter—all were deemed novelists of the first rank. Not Matthiessen.
In his writing shack, a mile or so from Salter’s Bridgehampton saltbox, Matthiessen spent years on the novel he hoped would change all that. Killing Mister Watson was based on the true story of a rough-hewn Florida pioneer who’d hacked away at the Everglades, living by his own rules, and had gone down in a hail of gunfire. But as his manuscript grew to 500 pages with no end in sight, Epstein encouraged him to publish it as a trilogy.
Matthiessen went along with the idea, but when it came time to publish the second of the three, Epstein balked. “I can’t remember why,” he muses. “I did have one foot out the door in those years, starting businesses.”
Stung, Matthiessen asked Bob Loomis to read the second book. Loomis finished it with a heavy heart. After some agonizing, he went over to Matthiessen’s writing shack to tell him he didn’t feel the book worked on its own.
The last two books of the trilogy did appear, but to lukewarm reviews. The late critic Bob Hughes, then a close fishing pal of Matthiessen’s, would jokingly ask friends, “Isn’t Watson dead yet?”
Frustrated, Matthiessen made a decision that startled his friends. He would re-write the whole trilogy, sentence by sentence, in the process cutting it enough to republish it as one book. Random House made no promise to go along with that plan. Matthiessen just went ahead.
The re-write took almost a decade. Random House did publish it in its Modern Library series—a quiet hardcover imprint mostly for reprinted classics. Expectations were low, but early reviews made clear Matthiessen had done something extraordinary. That year—2008—Matthiessen won the National Book Award for the retitled Shadow Country.
Along Sagg Main, a lot had happened in the meantime: marriages, children, life and death. The most dramatic marriage was Jason Epstein’s to New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whose later Iraq reporting made her a lightning rod for controversy and briefly landed her in a federal prison for contempt of court. Bob Hughes went through a painful divorce. It left such hard feelings among his ex-wife’s women friends that their husbands could no longer see Hughes. Later, when Hughes lay near death, Matthiessen and another fishing pal, editor and writer Steve Byers, drove up to make a deathbed visit. Hughes reached up to take each friend’s arm. “I can’t believe I … ” he said, his voice trailing off. Three more times he said it: “I can’t believe I … ” Let the friendship lapse? The friends could only guess.
In starting All That Is nearly a decade ago, Salter was facing long odds himself. His last novel had come out in 1979. He says he wasn’t daunted. “I was young when I started the book,” he exclaims. “I was 78!”
All That Is unspools the up-and-down life of a New York book editor who glides through moneyed worlds but never quite gets rich himself. This summer, Salter’s friends have made a parlor game of guessing who inspired the character. Is it Jason Epstein or Bob Loomis? Or Robert Ginna, onetime chief editor of Little, Brown, who edited Salter’s early work? Or the late, lamented Joe Fox, who edited Matthiessen and Salter both? At one recent dinner party, Loomis waved off the speculation. “Don’t you see?” he said. “It’s Jim himself.”
In the literary bullpen, Doctorow is next up. He’s let a first, dramatic sentence lead him where it will. Andrew’s Brain, to be published by Random House in January, starts with a man named Andrew knocking on the door of his ex-wife with a baby in his arms because his new, young wife has died.
The others are busy, too. Epstein has rolled out a bold invention: the so-called Espresso Book Machine, which prints and binds downloaded books within minutes. Mayhew is still editing at Simon & Schuster: one of her upcoming projects is Judy Miller’s memoir. Loomis has edited Styron’s letters. As for Matthiessen, he won’t say what his new novel is about, though he does suggest it may be controversial. Call it one more bid for immortality—and, perhaps, a chance to compete against Salter’s All That Is.