By Christine Bellini
It’s always been something of a sticky wicket for local media to reference celebrity-status globe-trotting notables as local folk. Of late the blurring of the lines has taken on fascinating proportions which sheds light on the competitive edge print and digital media scramble to gain in cozying up to eyeball-grabbing headlines.
Last week’s Arts & Living section lead of The Southampton Press begs the question once again as the article, titled “Fitting Tribute To A Musical Legend” is contextually massaged with a subhead which reads, “Local musical genius Marvin Hamlisch to be remembered in another East End concert.”
First, let it be said, this is not to single out The Southampton Press or its editors as the only media group likely to make such a thinly constructed leap to claim the internationally renowned New York and Los Angeles based Broadway and movie composer as a neighborhood face. A New York native, Hamlisch has owned vacation homes in Sag Harbor and Westhampton Beach for the past 20 something years and more than once shared his talent for the benefit of local venues. And for that it is altogether reasonable for the local press to honor his passing — but does vacation home ownership and celebrity status a local make?
Locals buy their groceries at the local market, own local businesses, are generally seen shopping Main Street at the most unglamorous times of the year. They run for school and village boards, send their kids to local schools and for the most part are on a first name basis with their neighbors. Most locals were born here, but of late, that more rarified bird has been awarded the moniker ‘native’ to make room for relatively recent transplants who have claimed primary residence in the last 20 some years.
The desire to reference a familiarity and relevance to celebrities in relation to the “local” realm originates from the compunction to make a distinction between ‘lock-stock and barrel locals’ from the influx of high-toned summer elite who had chosen the sea-side neighborhoods of Southampton, Westhampton, East Hampton and Amagansett for their extended summer excursions since the late 1800s.
The local weeklies relegated coverage of luminaries and high-toned summer colony residents to society columns and kept the run of the paper relegated to the comings and goings of local folk as those busy being born, going to school, working, marrying, governing and dying here.
The Wiborgs, The Murphy’s, The Juan Trippes and Black-Jack Bouviers who heightened the celebrity voltage of the Summer Colony from the pre Roaring Twenties on through two world wars and The Great Depression, paved the way for the generational passing of the guard onto the likes of the thoroughly modern Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill, to Hollywood favorite Lauren Bacall and celebrity fascinated Truman Capote. Heralding the arrival of the 1960s, a new breed of trend-setters broadened the confines of blue-blood Summer Colony living to that of a social playground.
To this day there remains a societal divide between true ‘blue bloods’ (appearing in the true arbiter of local snobbery, the mysteriously-generated Blue Book) and modern era media fueled celebrity. Even editors at Hamptons Magazine, a publication dedicated to this celebrity culture, noted in 2010, “the likes of Combs, Seinfeld, Stewart, Spielberg, and Madonna [who] have been dominating newsprint about the Hamptons for years,” never made it into The Blue Book . “Not that the book forswears celebrities — literary brat-packer Jay McInerney is listed, though it can’t hurt that he’s married to an American blue blood like Anne Hearst.”
It is the job of the media to provide context and relevance to the course of events that change communities. Fumbling over what to call celebrities who bother to care about the communities they frequent enough to own vacation properties in is a rookie error. Claiming them as one of our own is self-aggrandizing, unless, of course, they are one of our own.
It is high time local editors sharpened their editing skills to relay relevance among celebrity in order to honor community participation among those who bother to reach out and impact the neighborhood. It’s been decades now since this new breed of celebrity has reached across the hedgerow and bothered to step up for a good cause to help save our bays, champion local organizations and support local arts. Can’t we return the effort in kind and find a way to honor their loyalty and longevity by not co-opting their neighborhood status?
It is disingenuous to call Dona Karan, Paul Simon, Dick Cavett, Ralph Lauren, Paul McCartney, Julian Schnabel, Madonna, Chuck Close, Steven Spielberg, Howard Stern, Beth Ostrosky, Gwyneth Paltrow, Renee Zellweger and Jon Bon Jovi local. For my dime, Long Islanders Alec Baldwin and Billy Joel are as local as non-local can get.
A former news editor, essay writer Christine Bellini is an editorial consultant who spends a good deal of her time pondering the cultural curiosities of The Hamptons from her Sag Harbor tree house.