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 Mandalay 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.