Samantha Bruce-Benjamin On Writing in Westhampton
August 17, 2011 | Author Series
West Hampton resident Samantha Bruce-Benjamin is no stranger to the summer dramas of 1930s high society. Her captivating first novel, The Art of Devotion, is set on an island in the Mediterranean in the 1930s and follows a wealthy family harboring dark secrets. Her in-progress second novel, The Last Party, narrates the events of the final party hosted by a fabled Hamptons society hostess on the day of the Great Hurricane of 1938. I sat down with her for a chat.
AMY MILLER GROSS: Did you base the main character in The Last Party on anyone in particular?
SAMANTHA BRUCE-BANJAMIN: The character of Serena Lyons, the fabled society hostess and central character of The Last Party, was inspired by my love of a house in Remsenburg, on South Country Road, known as the Capt. Rogers House—which has always struck me, to quote Edith Wharton, as the “prettiest house in America.” While researching some of the history of the hamlet—the “first Hampton” as it is perceived on the East End—I came across a snippet of information about a real-life resident of Remsenburg, one Mrs. Edward Lyon, who in the 1930s used the house—an exquisite 18th century Greek Revival structure—to host a supper club every Friday evening known as the Leisure Hour Supper Club. From there… I began to think of hostesses and parties and last parties and why someone would wish to entertain people. The Serena Lyons of the novel lives a rather more exalted existence in a fictitious Georgian mansion inspired by some of the fabled mansions of the Hamptons, which I have imposed where the house in question sits, at the top of Shore Road.
AMG: What was the most interesting tidbit about the 1930s-era Hamptons that you found?
SBB: The story that tickled me the most was that of the Woolworth heiress, Jesse Woolworth Donahue, and the rumor surrounding the redbrick wall on Gin Lane, which still stands. The admittedly uncorroborated story was that she built the wall at the foot of her property—the opulent Tudor mansion, Wooldon Manor, now sadly torn down—to obstruct the view of the Southampton Bathing Corporation, which had refused her membership to the club. Apparently she built her own swimming pool, which was unheard of, and the wall to spite them, possibly providing the inspiration for her cousin Barbara Hutton’s later infamous contention that “living well is the best revenge”!
AMG: How would you say the Hamptons society you wrote about compares to the Hamptons society of today?
SBB: The society of the Hamptons of the 1930s is an existence that seems perpetually to conjure up the idea of very wealthy people attending endless parties with society damsels wafting over well-manicured lawns, cocktail in hand, or spending all day at the Maidstone before returning to their fully staffed mansions. In essence that was basically the case then and, obviously, all of these things still happen. But we live in a far more casual age: Jackets are required less and less, Emily Post is no longer required reading, monogrammed linens (sadly) aren’t the norm. If I could have one wish I’d ask for the fashions to still be in place. I don’t think there was ever an era more elegant or refined than the 1930s. I would love it if men still wore tuxedos to dinner, as a matter of course, and ladies bias-cut silk dresses. That would be bliss.
AMG: What books will you be bringing to the beach this summer?
SBB: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, which was just shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His previous novel, The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker, is in my opinion a masterpiece and one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in years. Beyond that I’m reading World on Fireby Amanda Foreman, about the British involvement in the American Civil War. She’s such an accessible historian. It’s as brilliantly entertaining as her previous novel, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, which I also loved.
AMG: Where do you write?
SBB: Mostly in Westhampton, funnily enough. It’s a very inspiring place. I love the peace and serenity of the life out here, and being so close to the sea, which is my favorite thing in the world. I wrote The Art of Devotion over the course of a summer here, outside, whenever possible, on the deck underneath a beach umbrella. I’m a summer writer, it seems, and I’m drawn to summer as a theme. The Art of Devotion was predominantly set during the summer of 1938 on a Mediterranean island, and The Last Party is set on the last day of summer: September 21, 1938. I seem to be particularly drawn to that year, too! I often struggle to find the inspiration to write in Manhattan, perhaps because there are so many distractions. I’ve been known to be so frustrated at my inability to create that I drive out in the dead of winter just to write here. It always works. Inspiration swiftly follows.
AMG: Being such a summer person, describe your perfect summer day.
SBB: Whenever I think of summer I always think of the quote by Henry James, “Summer afternoon… the two most beautiful words in the English language.” To that I would add, “summer afternoon in the Hamptons.” It’s such a privilege to spend summers here, so my idea of perfection is usually what I find every day: peace and quiet, sea, idyllic beaches, and hours and hours of uninterrupted writing outside with my little dog, Geordie Beau, at my feet. Heaven.
For the full interview with Samantha Bruce-Benjamin and Amy Miller Gross, visit insightthelines.com.
Amy Miller Gross is a writer who lives in New York City with her husband and twin daughters.