Literary Montauk: And Then We Came to the End
Centuries of Unkempt Brooklynites Invading the East End
The eastern tip of Long Island has enchanted most who ever gazed upon it, from the native population to the spiritual descendants of the European colonizers—the publicly fornicating hipster boozehounds who have been invading all summer, making tabloid headlines. Neither, after centuries of building, dredging and paving, would recognize the other’s “Montauk.”
Nicknamed “The End,” it’s literally as far as you can go in New York State; the 50-year-old, Suffolk County-long Montauk Highway continues east past the series of summer getaways for wealthy Manhattanites called the Hamptons, each more fashionable than the next, through a pair of state parks, into the island’s easternmost region, a scrappier (though not inexpensive) cousin to its tony neighbors, looping back at a lighthouse on a point looking out at the Atlantic Ocean. That iconic beacon sits within a couple of other state parks, which have helped preserve a sense of prelapsarian Paumanok—the native name for Long Island—while also housing the ruins of an abandoned air force base. Modern demands have also borne capillary roads and filoviral cul-de-sacs, an airport, restaurants, marinas, a golf course and a train station.
It’s the last stop on the Long Island Rail Road’s Montauk line, which runs from Long Island City to the island’s eastern tip, the train’s double-decker cars cutting through East Hampton and dropping off its last passengers right at the northeastern edge of Fort Pond. The indigenous Montaukett explained the geological grandeur of this area with myth, recounted in W. A. Chandos Fulton’s 1866 Legends of Long Island, involving the Spirits of Fire and Water, who were said to have combined to produce this fantastic peninsula; the story also introduces a struggle between preservation and development, small town vs. resort town, that would define Montauk from the 19th to the 21st centuries. (N.B. It’s fair to remain skeptical of 19th-century white people’s accounts of “Indian legend.”)
[T]he Spirit of Fire endeavored to domineer over the Spirit of Water, who wished to make the peninsula a land for the white man as well as the Indian; but the other wanted to leave it an unfinished, wild state, and called upon the Spirit of Hell to assist him. Thereupon, the “beautiful isle of the sea” was a vast sheet of flame, and the Spirit of Fire gloried in his triumphs. But the Spirit of Water appealed to Manitou, who, in response, opened the floodgates of heaven, and quenched the flames. This so annoyed the Spirit of Fire that he openly denounced the Manitou, after having coaxed the Spirit of Hell to heave him up some of the stones from his furnace.
Then the Manitou loosed his thunder-bolts, silenced by their noise the Spirit of Hell, and whirled to destruction the Spirit of Fire…I am strongly inclined to think there must have been some such commotion to have produced on the peninsula of Montaukett the diversity of soil, hill, dale, table-land, rock and water as we find there.
This ragged, pre-Columbian wild remained after the first white men arrived, later immortalized in lines from Jared Augustus Ayres’s effusive epic poem The Legends of Montauk (1848).
There is no country like Montauk’s rude isle;
Strange are its rolling hills, its valleys’ smile,
Its trees lone dying in their ancient place,
As if in sorrow for a dying race;
Strange is its verdant sod, unbroken wide,
Through the deep vales, and on the hills’ broad side.
This is the locale to which Walt Whitman traveled, recounted in his final Brooklynania columns for the Brooklyn Standard newspaper—the first Kings County interloper to record his invasion into Montauk. The 25 mostly historical articles, from 1862, were collected by Henry M. Christman in a book called Walt Whitman’s New York, published a century later and presumably titled as such because midcentury Manhattan publishers felt a book called Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn (or, god forbid, Walt Whitman’s Long Island) wouldn’t have sold.
But in the 1860s, decades before the consolidation of the five boroughs, a century before Levittown and suburbification, Brooklynites identified less with Manhattan and New York City, to which they were merely adjacent, and more with Long Island, of which they were a part, the glorious end of a lengthy landmass whose wondrous western terminus was rivaled only by its antipodal correspondent to the east. As Whitman wrote,
Montauk Point! how few Americans there are who have not heard of thee—although there are equally few who have seen thee with their bodily eyes, or trodden on thy greensward. Most people possess an idea (if they think at all about the matter), that Montauk Point is a low stretch of land, poking its barren nose out toward the east, and hailing the sea-wearied mariner, as he approaches our republican shores, with a sort of dry and sterile countenance. Not so is the fact. To its very extreme verge, Montauk is fertile and verdant. The soil is rich, the grass is green and plentiful; the best patches of Indian corn and vegetables I saw last autumn are within gun shot of the salt waves of the Atlantic…
The rolling hills, deep vales and valleys’ smiles so intoxicated the poet-newspaperman and his companions that they morphed into proto-Sendak wild things.
We rambled up the hills to the top of the highest, we ran races down, we scampered along the shore, jumping from rock to rock we declaimed all the violent appeals and defiances we could remember…we pranced forth again, like mad kine, we threw our hats in the air, aimed stones at the shrieking sea-gulls, mocked the wind, and imitated the cries of various animals in a style that beat nature all out!
…We hopped like crows; we pivoted like Indian dervishes…and some one of our party came nigh dislocating his neck through volunteering to turn somersaults like a circus fellow. Every body caught the contagion, and there was not a sensible behaved creature among us, to rebuke our mad antics by comparison.
Artists followed in Whitman’s wake, to cheep and squawk and honk and quack, especially later on, as it became a grungier alternative to the more stylish Hamptons. It almost became the opposite, however. The rise of the automobile, combined with the newfound wealth of the 1920s, drove people east, far past Gatsby’s Egg, as far as the end of the island. The developer Carl Fisher envisioned turning Montauk into a second Miami Beach (which he had previously created out of mangroves), a beach resort for elites.
In fact, he did more than envision it—he purchased almost the entire peninsula, 10,000 acres, for $2.5 million ($33 million, adjusted for inflation), more than the $151,000 Arthur W. Benson, eponym of Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood, had paid in 1879. Fisher then proceeded to build roads, modern infrastructure (plumbing, electricity) and sporting amenities: a 178-room hotel, a golf course, a boardwalk and more. He even dredged landlocked Lake Montauk to create a deep harbor, capable of accommodating oceangoing ships.
Robert Moses, New York’s notorious urban planner, had beat Fisher out to the end of the island by a few years, but landowners with whom Moses had made deals balked when they heard word of Fisher’s bankroll. Moses responded by grabbing a few thousand acres of Benson’s land—via eminent domain, to create state parks. In his bench-pressable Moses biography, The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro inventively draws a thruline from Whitman to Moses, merging the spirit of the artists with that of the developers, as Moses in 1924 began planning his extensive parks and parkways system.
Few men had ever visited Long Island entire. One who had was Walt Whitman, who saw it as a “Sea Beauty! strech’d and basking! Isle of sweet brooks of drinking water—healthy air and soil! Isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine!” Now Moses saw it entire, and if he had written poetry once, he wrote park reports now, and brooks, healthy air, salty shore and breeze and brine meant parks. Standing on Montauk Point, where Long Island’s southern fluke ends in the steep bluffs plunging abruptly into the Atlantic, Whitman had [written in the 1888 poem “From Montauk Point”], “I stand as on some mighty eagle’s beak.” Now Moses went to see Montauk, not with the eyes of the poet but with those of the park planner. “The Montauk pensinula,” he wrote, “is an extraordinary mass of clay, gravel and rock with high bluffs on the south shore and, back of the bluffs, kettleholes and rolling hills clothed with bayberry, shrubs and gnarled and twisted trees. The irregular shore line and a number of small islands…form a veritable patchwork of smaller peninsulas, straits and bays which afford many miles of beaches, dunes and varied waters for cruising, fishing, swimming, golfing and other forms of recreation.
Fisher couldn’t reel in his dream of a Miami Beach North. In 1927 a hurricane (“Hurricane Two,” before they were named) hit Miami Beach, hurting Fisher’s finances, four months after Black Friday, which had already hurt them. He died in 1939, after liquidating much of his holdings. “Although Montauk itself had a few good years in the 1930s and 40s, Fisher’s dream of another Miami Beach was buried along with him,” according to the magazine Montauk Life. “Without his considerable talent and salesmanship, Montauk was left with the imposing infrastructure of a grand resort, but with few of the details completed. Within years of its zenith, much of Fisher’s Montauk fell into decay and ultimately abandonment. By the 1950s his office building stood empty, the beautiful Montauk Manor was a brooding wreck, and his grand boulevards ran off to nowhere. Montauk was left with no other choice but to fill in the gaps as best it could, resulting in a somewhat uneven but always interesting community. Montauk today is an amalgam of Fisher’s original vision of a getaway for the rich, and the reality of an affordable vacation village.”
Of course such a setting would appeal to more artists. Andy Warhol, like a neo-, mini-Moses, bought property here with Paul Morrissey in the 1970s. A real estate agent “started showing them houses in the primest of areas of the East End,” according to a different article from Montauk Life, “but nothing moved Andy. It wasn’t until they drove into Montauk that eccentric Andy began to perk up… it was the unlikely sight of the absurd architecture of the Memory Motel and Ronjo Motels that caught Andy’s eye. It seems the mix of Polynesian, Tudor, and Motel Six design amused Andy.” For $225,000 ($1.27 million, adjusted for inflation), he bought a five-house, twenty-acre estate designed by Stanford White, which went back on the market this May for $85 million.
Warhol’s guest cottages housed many celebrities, including John Lennon, Liza Minelli and Elizabeth Taylor. But it was the Rolling Stones who made the biggest impression, first in 1972 and again in 1975, when they worked out the following year’s Black and Blue album. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards immortalized the Memory Motel, a seedy bar and lodging on the Montauk Highway that’s still in operation, by naming a song on the album after it—“We spent a lonely night at the Memory Motel/It’s on the ocean, I guess you know it well”—even though Jagger only visited the place once, and was (so it’s said) insulted by the owners and staff. The band and its entourage spent more time a few blocks away at the Shagwong Restaurant and Tavern, which is also still open.
Such weighty bold names would these days be more expected in the Hamptons than Montauk (though a few New York notables, such as Robert DeNiro, Ralph Lauren, Dick Cavett and Paul Simon, have homes there). “While Montauk is politically part of the Town of East Hampton, it is culturally and physically a separate place,” William Morgan writes in the first chapter of Leisurama, a history of fab prefab housing built in northern Montauk in the 1960s. “At the very narrow tip of the island, ten miles beyond the Hamptons, Montauk seems like another world. The land is flanked closely on both sides by ocean and thus there is only one road that goes there; even in the best of times it is far away and not easy to reach…Until the advent of railroads and highways, it was just too far away. Montauk’s isolation and its natural beauty would eventually become attributes and attractions in the twentieth century, but for a long time it was simply the eastern extremity of New York State—132 miles easy of New York City and essentially miles from nowhere.”
That’s the sense you get from the scenes set there (fewer than you’d expect from the title) in Max Frisch’s 1975 novel Montauk (trans. Geoffrey Skelton)—not the rich-person’s getaway, or even the artists’ hideaway, but a coastal community of tangled wilderness. The architect-turned-writer comes across as a classic European intellectual in this digressive, diaristic and frequently profound work, which rambles through past and present, switching casually between first- and third-person, Frisch the writer objectively observing Frisch the man.
He’s on vacation (Frisch and his girlfriend stay at Gurney’s) with a woman he’s only recently met, pursuing a young relationship with no chance of developing (which is why the book begins at the end as well as The End). As he puts it in the middle of the book, he’s/they’re “Living in the present until Tuesday.” Like its appearances in the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the Montauk landscape in Frisch’s prose becomes weighted with metaphor, an expressionistic, psychophysical space that often, and not overbearingly, seems also to describe his state of mind or the state of his relationships.
Then, all of a sudden, they once more do not know what to talk about. This being together all day: not boring, but then I am seeing them both from the outside; they will never get to know each other . . . It is still the coast, the sea closer now perhaps than a couple of hours ago, but the waves neither larger nor smaller. The sun is still high above the horizon, but it is pleasant now, no longer so hot. (Ellipsis Frisch’s.)
The language used to refer to Montauk invites this sort of emotional superimposition—how you have to reach The End to get to The Point. But what’s most revealing to me about Frisch’s descriptions of Montauk is that they’re so unconsciously late 20th century. For starters, when in the last few pages he finally offers an overarching description of the place, it’s not from Whitman’s boat, or Moses’s car, but an airplane.
…a gray-greenish-brown tongue of land with a lighthouse, yellow sandbanks separated from the mainland only by a frill of surf; on the right there is also the sea, but open sea: like coarse felt to begin with, then hard like slate (quartzite).
More so, though, it’s how he responds to the area’s natural spectacle not with Whitman’s ecstasy or Moses’s vision but with something more passive, describing the pleasant way it affects his mood, which seems to have little to do with his specific location. “He is happy when he does not know what he is thinking about and when the spray, the shallow frothing water, the sand, remind him of nobody at all,” Frisch writes. “It is just the present moment he wants, nothing more…He feels content.” Here is the modern era, with nothing left to imagine or interpret, nothing to reshape or reinvent. It brings to my mind the end of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s Long Island classic.
…for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to this capacity for wonder.
Frisch arrived many generations later, his wonder incapacitated. The last of Montauk’s dreamers, willing to do strange and amazing things, was the military—at least according to Peter B. Nichols. The United States armed forces had a presence on Montauk since World War I, when the Montauk Air Force Station was commissioned; it’s not like the whole of the peninsula was some free-for-all artists’ colony; if the artists and the developers are on one side, encouraging directly or indirectly outsiders to descend upon this beach community, the military seems to stand conservatively with the private old-timers.
For much of the middle of the last century, Montauk was heavily militarized, the anxiety over which, combined with 1990s-era cynicism and mistrust of the federal government, spawned Nichols’s 1992 “exposé,” The Montauk Project (written with Peter Moon)—unreadable, pseudoscientific gobbledygook in which he relates a decade of fringe-science research conducted on the East End air force base, beginning with mind control and ending with time travel, conducted with technology “allegedly” provided by two different groups of aliens. The book spawned not just a pair of sequels by Nichols and Moon but also a quarterly newsletter still being published 22 years later, as well as half a dozen books by just Moon, which explore, among other subjects, the pyramids of Montauk and its forgotten pharaohs.
Nichols is privvy to the details of the experiments because he was in charge of their technical execution, a fact he forgot when he was brainwashed at their conclusion but which he later recalled with the help of a psychic—a close friend who’d also been erased from his memory! Montauk is the arbitrary setting of this story, but the book does feature some evocative passages describing the abandoned base—now a state park, Camp Hero, where you can still see a now-iconic, football-field-sized radar reflector—especially at the beginning and the end, when the writers engage in actual storytelling and not interminable technological exposition. There are also several experiments that affected Montauk’s civilian population, from broken windows to a crime wave (caused by mind control, you see). The base was officially decommissioned in 1981, but Nichols insists it was operational until 1983, when it was quickly abandoned following some particularly harrowing telekinetic, interdimensional experimentation that involved unleashing a nine-foot beast on the base.
As the Point gradually demilitarized, it became increasingly popular for its fishing, which had attracted people since the Native Americans. “Suffolk County was known for its potato farms, but Montauk was too sandy, too windblown for agriculture,” Morgan writes in Leisurama, “although fishermen have always called it home.” And soon it wasn’t just the shack-dwelling kind who frequented the point but also the sporting kind, who like developers brought in the outsiders. Frank Mundus became a legendary sport fisher, attracting crowds in the 50s and 60s for “monster fishing” and inspiring Peter Benchley’s Quint, the saucy, nonpareil ship captain who shows up at the end of Jaws, played in the movie by Robert Shaw. (Shark fishing off Montauk is also the subject of the first episode of John Lurie’s cult TV show on Bravo, Fishing With John. Lurie and Jim Jarmusch stay at Kenny’s Tipperary Inn.)
Those who’ve only seen Steven Spielberg’s movie might be surprised by Benchley’s novel, which is about the politics of a small beachtown more than it is about a shark. It’s set in the fictional city of Amity, which seems clearly modeled on Montauk; the Montauk Bookshop even includes the book in its “Locals Only” section. Spielberg and his screenwriters cut all the subplots, re-set it on a fictional New England island, and shot it on Martha’s Vineyard. Embedded in the novel, however, is a conflict between year-round residents and summer-only tourists.
Ellen Brody, née Sheperd, is a Manhattanite who summers on the East End on her ad-exec father’s dime. She meets and marries a local boy (who rises to police chief, played in the movie by Roy Scheider), transitioning from summer folk to year-rounder, New Yorker to townie, a transformation that doesn’t bother her until summer, when the vacationers return and provoke a class anxiety and deep-seated disappointment as fearsome as any squaloid mandible. Benchley describes it in piercing prose.
There were some awkward moments during the first few years [of their marriage]. Ellen’s friends would ask them to dinner or lunch or for a swim, and they would go, but Brody would feel ill at ease and patronized. When they got together with Brody’s friends, Ellen’s past seemed to stifle fun. People behaved as if they were fearful of committing a faux pas. Gradually, as friendships developed, the awkwardness disappeared. But they never saw any of Ellen’s old friends any more. Although the shedding of the “summer people” stigma earned her the affection of the year-round residents of Amity, it cost her much that was pleasant and familiar from the first twenty-one years of her life. It was as if she had moved to another country.
…when her last child started school, she found herself adrift…At first she tried to re-establish bonds with friends she hadn’t seen in ten years, but all commonality of interest and experience had long since vanished. Ellen talked gaily about the community, about local politics, about her job as a volunteer at the Southampton Hospital—all subjects about which her old friends, many of whom had been coming to Amity every summer for more than thirty years, knew little and cared less. They talked about New York politics, about art galleries and painters and writers they knew…
Once in a while she would try to make new friends among the summer people she hadn’t known, but the associations were forced and brief. They might have endured if Ellen had been less self-conscious about her house, about her husband’s job and how poorly it paid. She made sure that everyone she met knew she had started her Amity life on an entirely different plane. She was aware of what she was doing, and she hated herself for it… By now she had largely given up active forays into the summer community, but the resentments and the longings lingered.
This anxiety also animates last year’s first season of Showtime’s The Affair. One of the Times’s TV critics, Ginia Bellafonte, was known to complain about the show’s muddled sense of local geography, but at least a subplot, in which Joshua Jackson plays a local ranch-owner fighting overdevelopment, felt authentic. “My family’s been in Montauk for seven generations,” he says at a town hall meeting in the third episode. “My wife was born here and my son is buried here. This is sacred ground to me, and I don’t want too much, but I want my wife, and I want my family, and I want this land, and I know I’m not the only one because this is our town. These are our schools, our churches, our beaches, our docks, our sunrise, our little piece of heaven under God, and I am never going to leave this place because I am going to be buried right next to my boy, and I will fight to my last breath to keep Montauk local.”
His wife (played by Ruth Wilson), however, feels less of a connection to the place since their son died, and she drifts away from her husband into the arms of a summerer, a frustrated writer from Brooklyn (another in the long line of out-of-towner artists, this one played by Dominic West, writing a book about Montauk called The Descent, a followup to his debut, called—no joke—A Person Who Visits a Place); he’s staying at his unkind father-in-law’s house for the season with his plain wife and several children. You get a sense that, when Jackson discovers it, his wife’s infidelity would’ve stung a little less if it hadn’t been with some interloper.
“The natives do not take kindly to anyone who doesn’t live in Montauk year-round,” John Surico wrote in the Village Voice in 2012. The “isolated location gives the natives a sense of authenticity and, as a result, anger toward visitors.” That’s from an article about the then-bourgeoning “antihipster movement,” now in full force. But flamboyant visitors from Brooklyn have been a problem since at least the 1860s. “The east end of Long Island, for a summer journey, affords better sport, greater economy, and a relief from the trammels of fashion, beyond any of the fashionable resorts or watering places,” Whitman wrote, “and is emphatically a good spot to go to, as many of our Brooklynites have long since discovered.”