By Ellen Frankman
It all began with the dresses. A languid rose-colored sheath sprinkled with dusty metallic beading. A sleeveless black velvet shift punctuated by a drop waist of brightly embroidered flowers. A striking red silhouette of gauzy chiffon detailed with delicate cap sleeves and patterned by a geometric bugle-bead design. Worn by Peggy Sherrill, Lela Edwards Cook and Mary Udell Edwards, the dresses evoke the ethereal whimsy of 1920s glamour, and from them an exhibit was born.
“It was those dresses, that once the registrar and our costume curator started looking at them got pretty excited about their condition,” said Richard Barons, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society. “Therefore the idea was, let’s come up with an exhibit and see, do we have enough here to do the Jazz Age?’ And we did.”
“Jazz Age East Hampton (1919-1933): Clothes, Clubs & Contraband” is now on display at the East Hampton Historical Society’s Clinton Academy Museum. The exhibit, which runs through October 13, brings to life the history of the East End framed by the years of Prohibition.
“The wealth and the styles that were brought out here to the East End during Prohibition make the summer resort areas quite special because it was probably a taste of fashion and style that a lot of small communities away from the metropolis would not have had the chance to share,” said Barons.
According to Barons, a second impetus for the program was a collection of glass plate negative images which were posted on the website of the Library of Congress.
The intricately hand colored photographs feature some of the many lush gardens that were a centerpiece of society for the summer colony.
“These were a great discovery,” said Barons, who had the images printed for the exhibit. “What could be more Jazz Age than these?”
More than one of the photographs on display are of the Frank Bestow Wiborg house, which was located on 600 acres between Hook Pond and the Atlantic Ocean in East Hampton. The Wiborgs’ wealth came from their business in ink manufacturing, and in search of a summer retreat near the city, Frank Wiborg began purchasing land in East Hampton in 1895.
“The Wiborg estate had one of the greatest gardens out here,” said Barons, who described it as a huge sunken garden likely planned by a landscape architect from New York or Boston and modeled on Italian designs. “It certainly was a conceit during the period that if you had a beautiful house, a beautiful garden was something that you had to have.”
The garden of “The Fens,” otherwise known as the Lorenzo Easton Woodhouse Estate, was another important garden of the period. Located on Huntting Lane in East Hampton, the garden, peppered by roses and lilies and peonies, would occasionally be opened to the public for various church and social events throughout the summer. But it also would have been a private sanctuary for the homeowners.
“These were garden rooms,” explained Barons. “These were places to get out of the house. Even if you are on the ocean and have all of your windows open, there are going to be those days in late July and early August that are just going to be unbearable. So you have sleeping porches off your bedchamber, and you have all of these very elaborate areas with places to sit down, places to walk, places to contemplate.”
The beach, too, was another sustaining fixture of life in the summer colonies. A place where everyone could go, the traditions of beach culture in the 1920s have not changed all that much from then until now. Limited parking meant that large expensive cars would be parked very near if not on the beach, and the ladies would relax beneath the protective shade of square striped umbrellas. Typical swim attire were thin wool sheaths that hit mid-thigh for ladies and wool shorts and tanks for men. Examples of both are on display at the Clinton Academy Museum.
“People did feel it was important to go to the beach and breathe in that fresh air,” said Barons. There is a photograph of artist Hazel Miller reading on the beach in 1919, and a still from a silent movie of Sara Wiborg Murphy and her husband Gerald Murphy dancing on the beach around the same year.
“The Murphys went off to Europe, he to become a painter, and they became friends with Cole Porter and F. Scott Fitzgerald,” said Barons. “A lot of Europeans think that the American beach ideas came to Europe through the Murphys.”
Amidst all of the frivolity of the summering wealthy, the local people on the East End continued to work, often in jobs that were in service to the summer colony. Locals cared for the opulent gardens, farmers delivered eggs and milk and produce to East End families even after they had returned to the city, and many profited as rumrunners, serving the demand for liquor in a time when it was unlawful.
A photograph of Bill McCoy, one of the most famous of the rumrunners, shows him sitting, smiling legs outstretched atop his boat.
“That was big business out here,” said Barons. “Rum could come up from the south and then be buried on the beaches and transported to Sag Harbor and then taken off to Connecticut or elsewhere.”
Nearby sits a 70-year-old bottle of the contraband. The bottle originated on the Lizzie D., a rum running ship with a crew of 13 men that was last seen 50 miles east of Fire Island before it sunk on October of 1922. A diver discovered the bottle of what is presumed to be Kentucky bourbon or Canadian rye whiskey in 1978 while diving through the ship’s wreck.
The exhibit is also marked by ephemera such as hairpins, brooches and shaving brushes. There is a narrow faded golf bag, a set of old polo mallets, an Adirondack-style croquet set and a fan and toaster of the period. Martini glasses and a cocktail shaker, that would have mixed the many drinks being served, greet visitors upon their entry.
Barons refers to it as a collage that covers all of life on the East End from 1918 to 1933, and as soft jazz of the 1930s floats throughout the centuries old space, it almost feels as if you’re there.