July Fourth isn’t what it used to be. It’s been six years or so since the last Declaration of Independence party hereabouts, an annual ritual that lasted for some two decades. It was extraordinary and all-American, a coming together of like-minded individuals to recognize the best things about the United States, things from which we all have benefited. The Declaration was read, a brass band played marches, and the Union Jack was lowered. Guests were then invited to speak or read from pertinent material.
The celebration was the idea of Ed Costikyan, a lawyer who was active in New York political affairs. He was joined in staging these events over the years by a Sagaponack neighbor, the television producer Al Perlmutter. Between them and their wives, Barbara Heine Costikyan and Joan Konner — and, later, Ethel Person and Stanley Diamond, who hosted the party at their Amagansett summer house — they offered guests a pluperfect way to celebrate the holidays. The guests were, like the hosts, professionals, lawyers, doctors, writers, and politicians.
The first party was held on the beach in Sagaponack, and it then moved onto the hosts’ lawns under tents. Nine guests were selected to read the document, and other partygoers then recited the names of the 56 signers. It was reported one year that some enthusiastic participants had visited the Bridgehampton library to research material before the big day. “America the Beautiful” was sung, as were occasional patriotic solos. The fare was as traditional as possible: hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, beer.
I was late joining in, partly because the organizers didn’t want the press to be there. As the numbers grew, from about 50 to 150 or more, it was hard to keep the much-talked-about party secret. Partisan politics were not permitted, although Bruce Llewellyn, who lived in Bridgehampton at the time, and Betty Friedan, a Sag Harborite, were known to speak out on equal rights and women’s rights or Supreme Court decisions. It’s sad to realize how many of those who coalesced to make this such a memorable ritual are gone. It’s hard to imagine something like this being revived today.
In at least one other way, however, July Fourth is what it always has been for me. Our family has had a house on Gardiner’s Bay with a perfect view of the Devon Yacht Club fireworks since the early ’60s. Friends and family have gathered on the beach there every July for about 50 years, from the time my eldest was a baby until today, when my children’s children, ranging from 4 years old to 13, get into the spirit by waving sparklers and glow-sticks.
The Rattray crowds on the beach have waxed and waned. In the really old days, when the fireworks were over and the kids in bed, we would sit around a bonfire singing till morning. There was a year at the very beginning when only one couple and their infant girls came to the party because it rained. (No matter. We roasted hot dogs in the living room fireplace.) For a time, in the ’80s, as many as 500 people would show up, and it turned into a major bacchanalia.
In the last decade or so, our Fourth beach party has been considerably smaller and mellower. My son David and his wife, Lisa, run the show now, and they have stopped issuing formal invitations. Instead, they just open up the beach to whoever wants to participate in this quintessential summer evening.
The party is still for parents and children, but these days it’s for grandparents, too. Gangs of kids run up and down the sand, as it grows dark, splashing and making noise. But everyone still grows quiet, as if in awe, when the fireworks start. Kids return to mother’s lap and everyone’s face turns to the sky. Some years, the night is a bit of a happening. Two summers ago, for instance, my son enlisted friends to help him build a driftwood sailing ship on the beach. A video artist projected scenes of the sea on its sails before it was set aflame.
Although I miss the Declaration of Independence party and the feelings of well-being and camaraderie it engendered, I exult in the fact that my family is still able to gather the clans on the Fourth of July. How lucky are we?