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Walden Revisited

Wed, 07/17/2019 - 12:03
GUESTWORDS

A 10,515-square-foot home inspired by the owner’s favorite book, “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, has been listed for sale for $29 million, The Wall Street Journal reported. The house was built because the owner had been “traveling a lot and wanted a place to be very quiet and in touch with nature, out of the craziness of New York City life.”

We moved to the Hamptons last summer because we wanted to live simply, to embrace only the essentials of life.

Manhattan is so frenetic with work, dinners, deals, charity boards, parties. Our vacations aren’t relaxing either: NetJets to St. Bart’s and Aspen. It seemed that no sooner would we arrive than it was already time to leave. So when Memorial Day approached, my thoughts turned to Henry David Thoreau. Like him, I “want but little.” Where better to get in touch with nature and contemplate the meaning of life than our house in the Hamptons?

“Walden” always spoke to me. A lot of my college friends went into law or investment banking, but I marched to a “different drummer” and chose private equity. I knew I didn’t want to be one of those guys leading what Thoreau called “a life of quiet desperation.” He said “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” That’s how I feel. Our house is an unassuming 10,515 square feet — noticeably smaller than those near us. We didn’t care. As Henry David put it, “Most men appear to have not considered what a house is, and . . . think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.”

We named our home Walden. The architecture is Modernist, and it’s decorated in a contemporary-Zen style. Organic fabrics, a lot of neutrals. We really embraced simplicity. “I wanted to live . . . so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life,” Thoreau wrote.

We led a primal existence in the Hamptons. We didn’t need possessions. “Do not trouble yourself much to get new things. [People’s lives] are frittered away by details,” said Henry David. So we kept our house spare; the Warhols and Hirsts stayed in the city. We opted for Minimalism instead: Donald Judd, Richard Serra, some Ellsworth Kellys.

Embracing the austere life helped us discover what’s really important. I have a bunch of Ferraris, but didn’t even use them; I got around in my vintage Land Rover. I wasn’t trying to impress people.

We lived casually in the Hamptons. Thoreau said, “No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes.” My sentiments exactly. Tanya went in for the ripped jeans look. (Dolce & Gabbana fits her perfectly.) I got my distressed jeans at the Ralph Lauren Country Store in East Hampton.

“Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself,” Thoreau wrote. Those words ring true. I usually had my morning coffee on the porch while looking over an Arcadian setting consisting of our gardens, manicured lawn, and pool. I’d sort of meditate while reading The Financial Times. We were into mindfulness all summer.

I realized that the less you want, the more you have. “That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest,” Thoreau said. I’m with him 100 percent. In the afternoons I played tennis with a pro on our court out back. If that isn’t a cheap pleasure, then I don’t know what is.

We lived a quiet, bucolic life, at peace with the natural world. Many days we didn’t even go into East Hampton. “In society you will not find health, but in nature,” said Thoreau. Since we did without a cook for the summer, our one concession to society was dining out. We ate at our regular table at Nick and Toni’s. Even Henry David Thoreau would appreciate the cuisine there.

As the days grew shorter and Labor Day rolled around, I realized the time had come to return to civilization. “Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live and could not spare any more time for that one,” H.D.T. said of his decision to leave the woods. So it was for me. My firm was in the process of acquiring a global petrochemical company, and the renovation of our penthouse in the city was complete. Somewhat reluctantly, I made my way back to society. But as I move forward in the direction of my dreams, I carry with me the imprint of austerity and self-reliance gleaned from life in the wild.

This summer, inspired by my second favorite book, “Moby-Dick,” Tanya and I are going to cruise the Mediterranean on our new yacht.


David Schiff is a writer and investigative journalist. For many years he wrote Schiff’s Insurance Observer. He’s been coming to East Hampton since 1963 and can be reached at [email protected].

 

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