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Where the Elite Meet to Self-Destruct ? and, Occasionally, Paint: The Hamptons

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons
Robert Long
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

There is something quaint and appealing about the idea of poets working alongside scholars to contribute to the historical record, but if De Kooning's Bicycle is an illustration of what we might expect from such future intellectual cross-pollinations, then scribblers of verse and history alike should be made aware of the perils and rewards. Part history, part prose poem, with a couple of cozy gossip sessions thrown in, the book succeeds when its author describes the unique beauty of New York state's coastal edges, or when he discusses the recent past.

The Easthampton poet Robert Long begins his history in an earnest, straightforward mood, grounded by research and fueled by an endearing determination to begin at the beginning and proceed methodically from there. He details the region's early settlers, the brief infusion of wealth from the whaling industry, and the slow evolution of the Hamptons into the trendy beach retreat for Manhattanites that it remains today. He continues to mine the vein of facts and figures throughout intermittently, emphasizing that the area has long been a magnet for artists, writers, and other creative types.

But the poet in him soon takes hold, and the result is something like an unusually painstaking term paper written by a gifted but rather dreamy schoolboy. Historical artifacts lead to imaginative musings and detailed descriptions of imagined scenarios; descriptions of significant places, such as the Pollock-Krasner house and studio or Green River cemetery, where the remains of famous Hamptonians lie, include such lulling details as the chirp of cicadas or the quality of the sunlight.

The muse first calls him during his description of the first wave of artists to colonize the area, during the last years of the nineteenth century. In the midst of describing the portrait painter William Merrit Chase's art school in Shinnecock, Long takes a look at Chase's paintings and finds himself narrating imagined scenes from Chase's life: ?He folded his newspaper and crossed to the window, where a pale cloudless sky stretched over the heather toward the sea. The near-fall air smelled pleasantly of leaves?? He invents banal dialogue between Chase and his sitters: ?Dorothy, please hold still while I paint your bonnet.? It's reminiscent of Edmund Morris's approach to biography: the inventiveness and refusal to be held captive by facts that, applied judiciously, made The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt a vivid read, but, taken too far, made Dutch disorienting and bizarre.

But Long's artistic flourishes aren't always a liability. His descriptive passages are lovely; combined with his intimate familiarity with the area, they result in the shiver of recognition that the best poetry can produce. Perhaps it's not surprising that in a book about the Hamptons, home to celebrities of every stripe, the author's occasional detour into gossip also fascinates. From glimpses of the Pollock-Krasner dirty laundry to an account of the apparently very competitive sport of vying for a plot in the famous Green River cemetery, we are treated to an insider's view of a unique community where major players in the cultural life of America went to the beach.


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