“Fascinating.” Don Imus, Imus in the Morning
“Finely crafted, inherently absorbing and highly recommended historical novel that will prove to be enduringly popular. “ – The Midwest Book Review
In the tradition of The Great Gatsby and Mrs Dalloway, Samantha Bruce-Benjamin delivers a haunting and evocative insight into five minutes in the life of a celebrated Hamptons society hostess, set against the backdrop of The Great Hurricane of 1938.
What have been the five best moments of your life?
September 21st 1938, and at Serena Lyons’ exquisite Hamptons estate, the footmen are serving vintage champagne, the orchestra is playing a favorite tune, and the house is lit so brightly it could almost be mistaken for a star in the distance. The occasion is the last party of the season at The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club and anybody who is anybody has turned out in force. All except for one. As her guests arrive, Serena watches from her bedroom window, searching for a face in the crowd: The Summer Visitor she has never forgotten.
For thirty years she has waited for him at the start of every party. But on this last evening, the ritual assumes a greater significance. On a road nearby, Kit Peel, is at last returning to her, bringing with him the answers to the unresolved mystery of his disappearance at the age of twenty-one, and the truth behind the secrets that will finally set her free. If only he can get to her in time; if only Serena’s estranged husband, Captain Lyons, will allow him close enough.
As The Great Hurricane of 1938 moves over Long Island, finally reaching the fabled Hamptons, the place and its people are irrevocably changed. Over the course of five minutes, as Serena relives the defining moments of her life, we learn of the tragedies that left their indelible mark, the promises that were made and broken, and the decisions that brought them all there that evening, their destinies forever intertwined and sealed.
Based on historical research about the Hamptons at the peak of its grandeur, the devastation that the 1938 hurricane wrought, and a real supper club called The Leisure Hour and Supper Club, Bruce-Benjamin spins a story that will remind readers of Rebecca or, more recently, Rules of Civility.
Here are some interesting facts concerning the premise and main themes of The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club. Do they inform or enhance your reading of the novel in any way?
The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club and Serena Lyons’ estate, La Doucette, was inspired by the Captain Rogers’ House on South Country Road in Remsenburg, NY, which is a hamlet of the greater Westhampton area. Built in the 1830s, one Mrs. Edward Lyon used to a host a club called The Leisure Hour and Supper Club in the house on Friday evenings during the 1930s.
The Great Hurricane of 1938, also known as The Long Island Express and Great New England Hurricane, remains the most powerful and devastating hurricane on record in the Northeast of America. A category 5 hurricane, it caused $39.2 billion worth of damage (by today’s standards), claimed nearly 700 lives, destroyed over 57,000 homes, including cherished landmarks, and felled 2 billion trees. Tragically, nobody in the Northeast was made aware that the hurricane was approaching. Charlie Reid, who worked in the Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., correctly mapped the path of the storm and its severity on the morning of September 21st, 1938, but he was dismissed by his superiors, one of whom, the Director, was in a hurry to leave early for his daughter’s birthday party. Had the alert been sounded, hundreds of lives may have been saved. Westhampton was the worst hit of the Long Island communities.
Lilacs are a prevailing symbol in the novel. In many cultures a symbol of love, they are also thought to be terribly unlucky. The myth says that Death arrives, if they are shorn from their branches and displayed inside houses.
The character of Annabelle Adams was christened in honor of the Annabelle hydrangea flower, which blooms throughout The Hamptons during the summer months. One of the most charming sights of the season, they own a haunting perfume, offset by the beauty of their delicate white petals.
The character of The Emperor was inspired by The Emperor of Exmoor, England, a nine-foot-tall, three hundred pound red stag, who was reportedly killed by a licensed hunter during the rutting season in 2010. His death, however, remains unverified as local observers seemingly sighted him days after his body was allegedly found. Although deer stalking is legal in England, the possible death of The Emperor of Exmoor prompted several MPs to sign a motion with the intent to ban the hunting of wild animals in Britain. In December 2011, a head said to resemble The Emperor’s was hung in the Hartnoll Hotel in Bolham, Devon. It was subsequently removed after the hotel was the recipient of threats.
The character of Captain Lyons and the ledgers in which he commemorates the five best moments of his sailors’ lives – the ‘Five Things’ – was inspired by my family’s naval history. My Great-Grandfather and two Great-Uncles were all merchant seamen in the British Merchant Navy. My Great-Uncle Robert died at sea on his first voyage out at the age of fifteen and my Great-Grandfather spent the rest of his life trying to find his grave. My Great-Uncle Arthur’s boat was torpedoed at the onset of World War II, whereupon he was rescued and taken as a POW by a German ship, which was also subsequently torpedoed. He was declared Missing in Action, although my Great-Aunt Alice never failed to believe that he would return to her.
The idea for Captain Lyons’ ledgers derived from my Great-Grandfather’s naval logs, which my mother inherited, as well as the letter my Great-Grandmother received from the nurse in Nova Scotia where my Great-Uncle Robert died, into which the nurse had pressed a sprig of lilac.
Much of the gossip featured in the party scenes derives from fact. In particular, the story about heiress Jesse Woolworth Donahue and the rumors 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”!Close this
These questions are intended to enhance your book group discussion of The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club by Samantha Bruce-Benjamin.
*Please note that some of these questions reveal certain plot points that you may not wish to know before you have finished reading the novel.
Invite Samantha to join your book club. Email her at email@example.com to set up a virtual author visit.
- The cover of the The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club invites you, the reader, into the party as one of Serena Lyons’ treasured guests. With which one of the guests would you choose to spend the evening, and why?
- Throughout the novel, we learn about the five best moments in the life of Serena and her guests, with the exception of The Host. Discuss your favorite moments in the context of each character’s life and the light each sheds on their character. Did any of them surprise you? What do you think the five best moments in the life of The Host might be?
- There are many different characters in The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club, from The Host to Helen Fitzgerald, to May Cook, all of whom contribute to our understanding of Serena. With which character do you most identify? Why? Are any of the decisions they make on Serena’s behalf – in terms of not revealing what they know about Kit or Serena’s history – justified? Or do you feel that Serena plays an equal role in determining her own destiny through the choices she makes?
- The Host’s character is shrouded in ambiguity. Do you sympathize with the dilemmas he faces throughout the novel? Do you consider him to be a hero or a villain?
- There are many recurring symbols in the novel: the lilacs, the stars, the Five Things, The Emperor, the party itself. Discuss how the symbolism enhanced your reading of The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club and which symbol proved most meaningful to you.
- Do you think Serena Lyons’ life wasted in terms of the vigil she maintains? Do you empathize with her plight or are you frustrated by her passivity? Is she a victim of circumstance, the choices she makes, the era within which she lives, or is she heroic in the face of unimaginable loss?
- Of the five minutes that elapse, which one is your favorite? Discuss why.
- Discuss The Hamptons of the 1930s. Is it an era within which you would like to have lived? If so, what appeals to you most about living during that time, as opposed to modern-day society?
- When the last and uninvited guest – The Great Hurricane of 1938 – arrives at the party, the respective fate of each character is sealed. Would you have preferred a different outcome or partner for any of the guests? If so, why?
- The conclusion of the novel challenges nearly everything the reader has been led to believe throughout the book. Were you surprised by what was revealed? In re-reading earlier passages, do you see any foreshadowing of what ultimately transpires?
- What have been the five best moments of your life?
How did the idea for The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club derive?
It started with a house. I am not the first author to suffer from real-estate envy: the most famous is surely Daphne du Maurier, who based Manderley upon Menabilly in Cornwall: a house she subsequently owned many years later. For me, it was the Captain Rogers’ house on South Country Road in Remsenburg, NY, which stands at the top of Shore Road, overlooking the Moriches Bay, just around the corner from where I live in Westhampton. Built in the 1830s, it is an exquisite Greek Revival cottage, smothered in hydrangeas during the summertime, and it has always struck me – to coin a phrase of Edith Wharton’s from The Age of Innocence – as “the prettiest house in America.”
Remsenburg itself, a hamlet within the greater Westhampton area that is unofficially known as the “first Hampton,” is filled with similar houses and is one of the most serene, relatively untouched pockets of The Hamptons. Driving through Remsenburg, I always feel as if I am returning to a bygone era. Yet, the Captain Rogers’ house has always seemed to me to stand most serenely of all and, like most authors who have their noses pressed up against the windows of houses they do not own, I began to research its history and came upon a snippet of information that was to form the genesis of The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club. Namely, that on Friday evenings in the 1930s, one Mrs. Edward Lyon used to host a club there known as The Leisure Hour and Supper Club. And so the character of my fabled hostess, Serena Lyons, and The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club was born.
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, however, lives a rather more exalted existence in a fictitious Georgian mansion inspired by some of the most famous mansions of The Hamptons, such as Onadune and Claverack, which I have imposed on the same spot as the Captain Rogers’ house, with its unrivalled view down Shore Road towards the bay.
Your debut novel, The Art of Devotion, is predominantly set in 1938 and the events of Serena Lyons’ last party also take place in 1938. What motivated your decision to set your second novel in the same year?
The Great Hurricane of 1938, which was to prove one of the missing pieces of the puzzle when I was determining how to tell Serena’s story. I stumbled upon a book about the hurricane, published by The Westhampton Historical Society, by pure chance at a summer fair in Westhampton. I had never heard of the hurricane before, but it remains the most powerful and deadly hurricane on record in the Northeast of America. By today’s standards, it caused $39.2 billion worth of damage, claimed nearly 700 lives, destroyed over 57,000 homes, including cherished landmarks, and felled 2 billion trees. Most crucially, I learned that the hurricane hit Long Island first and that nobody knew it was coming as the Weather Bureau in Washington had fatally underestimated its severity.
When I also learned that The Great Hurricane occurred on September 21st, 1938, which was the last night of summertime that year, it came to me that Serena Lyons’ guests would be attending the last party of the season, and that the party itself would be cut short by the hurricane as it makes landfall and causes the great tidal surge that claimed so many lives in 1938. This was when the blank canvas of the novel suddenly filled with potential, especially when I began to research the stories of the survivors, many of whom inspired events in The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club. The characters of Serena’s childhood friend turned alcoholic, Lucinda, and society matriarch, Helen Fitzgerald, were both inspired by true occurrences during the hurricane that I subsequently fictionalized. Ultimately, The Great Hurricane became a character unto itself.
Beyond that, I never need to be convinced to set a novel in the 1930s. It remains my favorite decade for its elegance and grace, as evidenced by all of the wonderful films and imagery produced during that era. I also remain fascinated by the year 1938, when perceived from a contemporary perspective. In relation to The Hamptons, in particular, the late 1930s were to prove the last hurrah for the exquisite estates and denizens of the area, who had remained relatively untouched by The Depression. The vast majority of the estates were subsequently shuttered or sold off as a consequence of income tax, the onset of World War II and The Great Hurricane itself. It was a way of life that effectively ended after September 21st, 1938 and that, for me, imbued the novel with a poignancy and fatalism that I wanted to explore.
Why did you choose to set the novel over the course of five minutes?
In considering writing a novel about a society hostess, I couldn’t escape the literary shadow of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which famously recounts twenty-four hours in the life of a London society hostess, Clarissa Dalloway. When I was an editor at Random House, however, I would frequently field or hear of submissions from writers similarly inspired by Woolf’s masterpiece. The books were always wonderful and would update the concept to set it in the present day or in new locales, such as Paris and Cairo, but I began to wonder why nobody was taking a greater risk with Woolf’s ingenious idea. All authors are the sum of their parts, after all, and we are all inspired by our literary predecessors, to greater or lesser degree. I asked myself how I could evolve the idea to make it in some way fresh and challenging to readers and to myself as a writer, whilst still acknowledging Woolf’s inspired concept. This is when the idea of examining a society hostess’ life in microcosm, over the course of five minutes, came to me.
It struck me that such a narrow focus could allow me to explore not only the minutiae of Serena Lyons’ life as it passed over five minutes, but also allow me to go back into the defining moments of her life, to mine her history and understand how she became the celebrated hostess of The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club. Moreover, by setting a novel in the five minutes leading up to the devastating tragedy that was the 1938 Hurricane – of which the guests and Serena are entirely unaware – I wanted the novel to be as much a celebration of life, in all of its comedy and tragedy, as a poignant rumination on those handful of memories that define who we are and impel the choices we make: the choices and decisions made for us and by us that are decided and enacted in less than a minute.
This is when the most evocative element of the story came into being: the ‘Five Things,’ the origin of which is revealed in the third minute when Serena uncovers her husband’s secret. And so the question, “What have been the five best moments of your life?” crystallized and I began to examine its ramifications and meaning to Serena, as well as for the other characters. This enabled me to start writing some of my favorite parts of the novel, the individual stories and party scenes of The Summer Visitors, and to fully realize Kit’s story, with which I was struggling at the time.
The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club is filled with comedy and tragedy. What inspired the comedic scenes at the party and in the stories of the individual Summer Visitors?
While I love Serena’s story, it is inherently sad and I felt the need for some light relief to balance the novel. Moreover, as the story relays not only Serena’s history, but that of multiple characters, I wanted to capture those five minutes in a realistic and authentic fashion. I recognized that not all of the guests gathered at the party would like her, many would have things to say about her that may or may not be true, and that, fundamentally, gossip would be the key to realizing the party scenes to their maximum potential and also to furthering the reader’s understanding of Serena.
As I researched the history of The Hamptons, I came across the gossip columns of that period, as well as uncovering all of the societies and clubs to which people belonged during the summer months, and I wanted to convey this information, not as a staid history lesson, but as a fun and involving insight into how people might have lived then. Moreover, as the cover of the novel effectively invites the reader into the party, I wanted the reader to be privy to that gossip: a guest experiencing the party along with everyone else, albeit one who is forearmed with more knowledge than any of the others. By effectuating this narrative ploy, I wanted to highlight how easy it is to misconstrue people, to judge them only by the façade they present to the world.
As a consequence of my research, I asked myself what the guests would have been chatting about that evening, what had happened the previous week, what piece of gossip would be paramount? I also began to consider iconic party guests, such as one might have found at a party in The Hamptons in 1938, and the characters of the individual guests were born; that of the ageing roué and screen idol, Rupert Turner-Hume; the unrequited lovers, Anthony Duverglas and Venetia Dryden; the society matriarch from Gin Lane, Helen Fitzgerald; Serena’s childhood friend turned inveterate alcoholic, Lucinda; and the impish eighty-year-old-scion of one of the richest families in East Hampton, left alone to sit in a corner, May Cook. I recognized that it was imperative to represent 1930s Hamptons society in all of its splendor, frivolity and pathos, in order for the full impact of the hurricane to be felt, as the guests move unwittingly toward impending tragedy.
My only regret is that I had to cut so many of the party vignettes as the novel was running too long. I still miss them, but I think the best remain and I hope readers will enjoy them as much as I enjoyed writing them. Essentially, I perceive the party scenes as the pulsing life force that courses through the story – filled with the ritual highs and lows, the disappointments and happy surprises, the rewards and regrets, we all experience throughout life. To this end – for me – they remain some of the most entertaining yet indelible scenes, when re-examined in light of the conclusion.Close this