Marylander at the hedgerow

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Home, sweet home. There's no place like it.

I returned to work last week after two weeks of sunshine and indolence in one of the most rarified environments of the universe. This was not Mars. But if water is ever discovered on the red planet, some of the people living where I spent my summer vacation surely will be among the first to try to build a mansion overlooking it.

This vacation was spent in the Hamptons, specifically East Hampton, Long Island, N.Y., in the home of a relative who is affluent but unpretentious and generous. His house is expensive, I am sure. It is marvelously decorated. It has a pool with a fully appointed pool house. The grounds are lush and verdant, tended by a variety of people who stop by during the week to make sure the grass is cut and no weeds have intruded. In that respect, the garden could be a metaphor for East Hampton itself, where someone always is trying to make sure no weeds appear.

Now, I have been to some of the most expensive and luxurious places in the world, from Palm Beach to the resorts and hideaways of the Caribbean, the French Riviera, Rome, Paris, London. But I have never, anywhere, seen anything like the Hamptons. Palaces, monuments to wealth and vanity on huge manicured acreages, line the beaches, hidden behind gigantic hedgerows. They are bought and sold in the double digits of millions of dollars with less than the blink of an eye.

One place I know of faces the Atlantic Ocean past the dunes behind a hedgerow that must cost the equivalent of an average working stiff's salary to keep trimmed. The structure - I can't call it anything else - seems to be modeled after Versailles, and it may be the size of Buckingham Palace. Three people live there: A father, a mother and a young boy. Much of the structure is rarely used.

An acquaintance of mine, an enormously successful investor, has a splendid house on the eastern fringes of the exclusive Maidstone Club's golf course. Last summer, he had a $14 million contract to sell his house to a well-known entertainer. The entertainer had given him a $2 million deposit. My friend was still in the house this summer because the entertainer had backed out of the contract at the last minute. He didn't argue about the $2 million deposit.

His wife and my host had bid successfully at a charity auction for a dinner for two dozen people to be served on the beach, prepared by David Feau, the chef of Lutece, one of the most expensive French restaurants in New York.

It was her birthday week. It was also mine and my daughter's, so they turned it into a birthday party for three with not one cake, but trois. Rain threatened so the party was moved into the $14 million house. There was plenty of room to spare.

Like practically every house worth its address in the Hamptons, this house has a swimming pool; in this case heated even in the summer.

Remarkably, while the Hamptons have some of the best beaches in America, hardly anyone who has a house there ever seems to go to the beach. It could be because they don't like the beach; they just like to overlook it. It could be because they have spent so much money keeping themselves looking young that they don't want the sun to ray them. (There was talk of one woman of the Hamptons who had so much plastic surgery she was beginning to disintegrate rather like the final stages of Dorian Gray's portrait.) It could be they don't want to mix with the riffraff that can't afford a pool. In any case, the beaches are splendid and never crowded.

Crime does not touch the Hamptons in the way that it touches other places, which would be reason enough to consider it a good vacation. High crime in those environs is building something that outrages the tastes of the already outrageously ostentatious. There is the occasional murder. But for the most part, crime is so petty it is laughable. The East Hampton Star's crime blotter is more hilarious than frightening. Someone had stolen someone else's newspaper five days in a row. A man was seen "smiling" as he drove down the street deliberately knocking over traffic cones. Another man was arrested after he came out of a clothing store changing room and asked the saleslady to zip up his fly.

The Hamptons are said to be snooty. And anyone trying to get in with the "old family" society, or the more recently arrived business tycoons and glitterati of the entertainment industry, may find that's so. People who live or summer there - once arrivistes themselves, back to the first Englishman who arrived among the Indians - always have looked down upon the latest arrivistes. As Steven Gaines remarked in Philistines at the Hedgerow, his excellent book about the Hamptons, "Everybody in East Hampton is somebody, each more privileged than the next. "

My 20-year-old son discovered one day just how relative it all is. A car full of people pulled up next to him as he waited to cross Main Street.

"Is this the Hamptons?" the driver asked.

"Yes."

"Are there famous people here?" the driver asked.

"Yes."

"Is it OK to drive around and look?"

"Sure," said my son.

His authority as a Hamptonite was unchallenged, never mind that socially, he was the lowest form of inhabitant - a weekend visitor.

Did I have good time? Of course. It was a grand vacation in a grand place. But the Hamptons are almost too pretty, too rich, too extravagant.

Returning home, the traffic was horrendous. I got onto U.S. 40 after the Delaware Bay Bridge, drove over the Susquehanna and turned down into Havre de Grace for a quiet dinner. Looking out over the river at sunset, watching sailboats and other vessels gliding toward the Chesapeake, I felt happy to be home.

"Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home!"

Chacun un a son gout, as they say at Lutece. So what if the author of those lines, John Howard Payne, had in mind his grandfather's house in East Hampton - about two centuries ago.

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