Summer again. Salt on my tongue, sand in my suit, sun on my shoulders. It takes me back to Napeaque, to a new A-frame on a vast expanse of bare shore, dunes covered with storm fencing. A pristine playground for a lucky few in the early ’60s.
They were halcyon days before the glitterati discovered the East End, before Mercedeses and Jaguars clotted Montauk Highway, before that 40-cent weekly People magazine hit the stands, before Ralph Lauren’s empire and before Paul Simon’s hits, before Dick Cavett’s talk show and when Dan’s Papers, still in its infancy, was actually owned by Dan.
Childhood friends thought us blessed when we departed for our vacation house on Napeague in June. Mornings we hopped out of bed into our suits and flew down to the shore under a canopy of blue sky, hair billowing in the wind like birthday streamers. On weekends Daddy taught us to ride the waves on glasslike seas. How great is it to lie back in your bed after a day in the ocean, feeling the gentle swell and fall of waves you no longer tread?
Mom preferred the living room couch, a cup of coffee, and Glamour magazine, the gorgeous Jean Shrimpton gracing the May 1964 cover. Mom loved fashion: pink pedal pushers, checked gingham, “Bye Bye Birdie” blouses, clutch handbags, hooded sweaters. She was an early fashionista.
By Independence Day we were well acquainted with our tic-tac-toe tract Napeague neighbors. Mr. Hamilton, president of Scripto pens and owner of our tiny beach enclave, lived just south of the highway. Farther west on Osprey Road, Bob Diercks, with eyes like buttons and a leathery tan, called a cottage on stilts home. Bob, who numbered Richard Avedon and Judy Garland among his friends, was a photographer for Life magazine.
Like my dad, Warren Fitzsimmons was in the ad biz. He lived across from the White Sands Motel. He and my dad used to sit on the deck by night, the golden glint of cigarettes barely visible through the rolling fog, the clink of martini glasses barely audible, plotting future ads and discussing my dad’s Cleo-winning campaign for Chase Manhattan Bank. Dad and Warren commuted into Manhattan during the week. When other ad men were sharing watery lunches at the Russian Tea Room and Ma Bell’s, Dad traveled to Chinatown gathering Roman candles, cherry bombs, and sparklers for our Fourth of July celebration.
There was speculation on the beach and behind closed doors that summer: Would our oceanfront neighbors, the ones whose house, it was whispered, had cost $100,000, join us? Would they be watching from their upper deck? Or would Gwen Verdon, appearing on Broadway in “Damn Yankees,” and her husband, Bob Fosse, soon to be famous for “All That Jazz,” be entertaining at home? And if so, whom?
We kids had our own celebrities. Lee Nelson, a guitar player, labored as a handyman at the White Sands Motel. Lee’s dad was the famous ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson, notable for the Nestle commercial parroted by his dog dummy Farful, “Oh, N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestle’s makes the very best . . . chocolate.”
All of us — my siblings and I, Sherry from next door, and Rob Murphy, whose family owned the White Sands — gathered nightly on the beach, building bonfires, roasting marshmallows, and singing. Lee taught us “Moriah” and played lots of Peter, Paul, and Mary. The eclectic collection of music in the air that summer included the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the Motown sound with the Four Tops’ “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” and “Can’t Help Myself,” the Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll,” the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love,” “Glad All Over” by the Dave Clark Five, “Wishin’ and Hopin’ ” by Dusty Springfield, Barbra Streisand’s “People,” and Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody.”
The teen nightclub Cola Copa was nestled in the hills of Montauk. I could never find it today, though there are rumors that the playwright Edward Albee can. Kids congregated there Friday and Saturday nights, watches glinting in the poor light, flipped hair pivoting around shoulders, mohair sweaters itching excruciatingly, dancing the Monkey and the Mashed Potato.
Independence Day finally arrived. Unfurled flags flapped on poles from east to west. Dad assembled his arsenal on a high dune still hot from the summer sun as dusk descended. Warren Fitzsimmons, Bob Diercks, Sherry, Lee, Rob Murphy, Mom, my brothers, and my sister assembled on our deck in Adirondack chairs. There was no sign of the Fosses.
Sand sifted between my toes as I handed Dad a Roman candle. Bright splinters of light were subsumed into the black theater of the night sky. A burst of green, a dripping fountain of red shattered the ocean stillness. We took a collective breath. The whoosh of a whirling Roman candle. Colors blended in ways never beheld before. Snap, crackle, pop.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw them — the Fosses — climb into a long white limo. Gwen was in red, white, and blue spangles, Bob Fosse dressed down in denim. They missed our fireworks, and we missed theirs.
Jacqueline Beh has been contributing to The East Hampton Star for more than 20 years. She writes a column for Great South Bay magazine, works in human services, and lives in Sayville.