Vanilla beaches and Lilly Pulitzer

Let me clear up one mystery at the outset: Southampton was not, as so many seem to think, the setting for the novel "The Great Gatsby." My authority is Robert Keene, bookshop owner, town historian, and friend of Truman Capote and most of the other writers and artists who dwell, seasonally at least, in the renowned Hamptons, on the east end of Long Island.

"Fitzgerald's East Egg and West Egg were not the Hamptons, but probably Little Neck and Great Neck on the north shore of Long Island, much closer to the city," Mr. Keene told me the other day in his bookstore at 38 Hampton Road, which is going out of business after 35 years. "We had hardly been heard of then," he said, referring to the Hamptons of Fitzgerald's 1920s, "but this couldm have been the place."

In other words, Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, and Nick Carraway would have been right at home in Southampton, with its towering privet hedges, vast green lawns, and enormous showy houses at the end of winding gravel driveways. All the cars of yesteryear are here, too: puttering Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, the classic, square- backed 1950s MGs, and at least one 1930s BMW roadster with a folddown windshield which stopped me in my tracks at the Coopers Beach parking lot one day.

Southampton, probably the stateliest of this cluster of towns (which also include Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Sag Harbor, West Hampton, Quogue), is not, however, splendidly approached from New York City. With a recent fare increase it's an $8.40 ride on the Long Island Rail Road, 2 1/2 hours looking through windows like waxed paper. For a few dollars more you can take the Hampton Jitney (really a bus) on the Long Island Expressway, which some call the world's longest parking lot.

At trip's end, however, you step into another country where breezes smell of Atlantic Ocean, flowering privet, and loamy potato fields, where vanilla beaches run flat and wide for miles, where rabbits, pheasants, and noisy crows live unthreatened lives, and where the natives are friendly on weekdays and even more so before and after the July-August vacation crush.

If I wanted to capture the old Southampton with a single word-picture, it would be an outsider peeking around the hedges and through the green-mesh fence of The Meadow Club, a sort of seaside Wimbledon with a dozen velvety lawn tennis courts where members in their baggy whites dance almost tenderly across the well-trimmed grass. You and I cannot test the bounce and skid of the Meadow Club courts, nor can we disport ourselves at the several private bath clubs, but the surprise about Southampton is that almost everything else is free, accessible, and unfettered.

The shops, boutiques, galleries, and restaurants on Job's Lane and Main Street, the two perpendicular shopping blocks in Southampton village, could not be less standoffish. I haven't been in Lilly Pulitzer or the classic menswear storre Shep Miller, but at Harry Lillywhite & Son ("Est. 1895") sporting goods store I found a hobby and games department and a grandmotherly clerk, Mrs. Lillywhite, at the counter. She said her husband's grandfather and father had built The Meadow Club at the turn of the century, and she still sells plenty of the obligatory white balls for lawn tennis play. Are the Lillywhites members? "Oh, no, we couldn't afford it," she said with a chuckle.

Around the corner on Main Street, Silver's plays at being the Russian Tea Room of the Hamptons (samovar behind the counter, Russian country murals on the walls, borsch and caviar omelets on the menu), but at heart it's an overgrown soda fountain, and the Texas-born woman at the cash register is pure panhandle. Hacking's Buttery is a bustling little diner with English owners and a few English items -- kippers, porridge -- but an otherwise apple-pie menu. At 76 Main Street, the Chamber of Commerce is open six days a week, and Joyce Bormuth will provide guide maps and lists of rooms for tourists, inns, and cultural events.

Southampton, and the Hamptons in general, are short on hotel rooms, but Hill Street has a selection, beginning nearest Job's Lane with the circa-1968 Southampton Inn, then the Village Latch Inn, a 25-room clapboard house so full of antiques and knickknacks that it could pass for an American folklore museum. Its owners cut the front hedge to a modest height this summer, something rarely done in Southampton, to attract the attention of potential customers.

At the 11-room Hill Guest House, Mauro Salerno can expend his considerable energies on innkeeping, now that he's sold his sausagemaking business in Queens. This is perhaps the most economical lodging ($20 to $30 weekdays, continental breakfast included) in town. It may also be the most colorful, thanks to the Italian-American gusto of Mauro and his wife, Ronnie, their daughter Laura and his mother-in-law, Nanny Josie, born in Sicily. There are rockers on the porch, walk-in closets and fireplaces in the rooms, and maples and locust trees on the one-acre grounds.

Weekdays are civilized in the summer, and the fall promises to be serene, a time when the ocean is still warm and you can walk or pedal the shaded streets in peace, gazing over and around the hedges at the big houses with the fetching names, some of them curiously French: Les Hirondelles (the Swallows), La Mouette (the Sea Gull), and Domaine d'Artignan. Vacationing Europeans, so discernible in the Hamptons this summer, must be amused. Houseowners' names are fun to ponder, as well. Is "Sills" who I think it is? And beneath the house sign "Summer-Salt" is the name Jose M. Ferrer.

Until Sept. 20, the Parrish Art Museum on Job's Lane will show the area works of William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, William Glackens, and others in a show called "The Long Island Landscape 1865-1914: The Halcyon Years." And until Mr. Keene sells his last books, he and his thousands of volumes and his mementos will continue on display on Hampton Road. Tacked to a wall in a dusty corner is a letter he received years ago from Adlai Stevenson thanking him for campaign help. I copied down this lovely Stevensonian line.:

"If I trouble the nation's sleep a little, I am satisfied."

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