A Memoir by Lona Flam Rubenstein

Did we start on shaky ground? 
You bet we did, three children, my husband Marty and I, pulling into the driveway of our new East Hampton home (we bought from the Barrys). We were packed with our belongings in his bright yellow Checker taxicab.

Marty drove the cab in New York for a living. As for me, I was a lecturer in philosophy at City University, attending two days a week, where I was both teaching and working for my doctorate. I left at four in the morning in my old and cheap Dodge I had bought from DiSunno’s in Amagansett. Mr. DiSunno had warned me about it, while doing the best he could to get the car in shape.

Why leave at four o’clock in the morning? Yes, well, to avoid traffic on the L.I.E. Scholar I might be, but driver? I am not — I was always fearful I wouldn’t be able to navigate to the exit lane and would end up in New Jersey.

Oh yeah — as I was saying, did we start on shaky ground?

I ask because our elderly neighbors were busy finishing a six-foot-high fence between their Maple Lane property and ours, and they didn’t wave a greeting, in fact they waived the greeting. (Can’t resist the pun!)

Within weeks the security of what would become “the Hamptons” was breached — “unprecedented,” I was later told. Here’s what happened.

We were barely three weeks in residence, and of course, like any newcomer, I kept our doors unlocked.

It was early evening as I was lying on the living room couch and our youngest child, Amy, was taking her bath, when the large, tall, bulky man in an overcoat (and it was summer) barged in and went straight to the bathroom, shutting the door after him.

Naturally I did what any coward would do. I ran out of the house like a shot.

My older son, David — 12 at the time — went in to see if Amy was okay. The man was on the toilet, he reported, and Amy was okay. My younger son, Scott, ran up the road to get one of our neighbors to call the police, which they did. Neighbors then came down the road, looked straight at me, and said, “This kind of thing never happened when the Barrys lived here!”

Yes, well, we had brought danger with us from the city, like muggings, rapes, home invasions, and G-d knows what other mayhem!

It all worked out. It turned out, explained the policeman, that the man was autistic (how appropriate the synchronicity, so was one of my children!), and the man’s elderly parents had taken him to Snowflake, the ice cream place on Maple Lane, for a treat while he was visiting them on leave from the institution, the safe place where they had put him.

When Amy, not crying, no sign of terror in her face, came out of the house wrapped in a bath towel, I asked her what she had thought when the man came in the bathroom.

“I just thought it was some philosophy friend of yours, Mommy,” she said calmly.

Or was it my mother’s fault? (Isn’t everything somebody’s mother’s fault?) My mom was a first-generation American and had come on a brief visit to check out where I had landed. Did she help me start on the wrong foot by talking in Yiddish to the bank president when I opened my account? At that time in East Hampton, 1965, they barely knew what a Jew was, let alone understood 18th-century German.    

Next, Marty had a terrible accident with a 15-year-old in a stolen car, and with no insurance! So I had to pick up more classes, teaching at Queens College, Lehman College, and Rutgers University.

But I was to discover an alternative to all that driving. It was a pyramid scheme, selling large cookies — the more you ate the more weight one lost. They were like cardboard.

Now, the more boxes you bought, the cheaper they were, increasing one’s margin of profit. So, smart money that I thought I was, I literally filled up our garage.

People in town were great, buying them. I went everywhere — Town Hall, street corners, standing in front of post offices and near supermarkets. The product was moving, except within weeks of my going into business the scandal was on TV’s Channel 7. The cookies were a scam, a fraud, they didn’t make you thin, the manufacturers were going to jail. For the next two years I lived on cookies, which, since they were like cardboard, had an open-ended shelf life. I gained weight and no one in town turned me in. So, back to teaching and driving.

Shaky ground?

An up-the-road neighbor who raised chickens accused my dog, Mandy, a gray-eyed Weimeraner-Lab mix given to us by a school social worker, of stealing her birds. There was no leash law in town. I told her indignantly on the phone that my Mandy would never do that, as Mandy just then pranced by on the road with a chicken in her mouth, delivering it somewhere to someone, who knows to whom.

Mandy would also visit the Spring Close House restaurant, a neighbor to the east, going from table to table. She was eventually shot; we found her dead and asked no questions. No one wants a big, gray-eyed, black dog drooling at them when they paid hefty bucks for a good dinner, which Mandy hoped they would share.

The driving was impossible; the old Dodge was grinding out the trip. So I somehow convinced Henry Mund, then State Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea’s executive assistant and an East Hampton Town Board member, that what his boss needed if he wanted to run for governor (and he did) was a bright, Jewish intellectual on his staff. I was hired and lasted until that exceptional man’s failed attempt at same.

So, without a job, like everyone else in town I went into selling real estate. Marty’s suggestion. I hated it; knew nothing ahout it except paying a mortgage, and I cried on my way each day to work. Overachiever that I am, I naturally was very good at it.

While I was showing a horse farm on a Three Mile Harbor flag lot while menstruating, one of the stallions fell in love in with me. I mean really and visibly in love. My customers were walking ahead with the seller; I tried to hide behind an oak as I screamed for help as lover boy closed in.    
“Don’t move!” commanded the property owner, as he came back to fetch the aroused and lovesick horse.

Move? Yeah, right!

So was I on shaky ground? Yes, well, back at Maple Lane, with the kids at a high school basketball game, I was home alone when a car parked in front of our house and just stayed there. Growing up with the maxim that policemen were our friends, and that the town police were, I proceeded to call the police. (I always called the police. Like the time a rooster was in my yard, though it sadly had been reduced to feathers by Mandy before they arrived.)

“It’s the Maple Lane lady again,” I heard the officer say. I was, after all, a regular customer.

Police arrived. The person in the car parked in front of my house was, of course, the police chief’s daughter, who had a crush back then on one of my boys. Aaaaagh!

Talk about a small town.

I was always looking for a job so I wouldn’t have to go back and drive to teach in the city. My daughter Amy got me a two-month position as a house cleaner at the Finklesteins’ Southampton, almost-oceanfront, summer rental. The Finklesteins were then-Manhattan Borough President Andy Stein’s parents. They were leaving; he was coming.

At the interview, and as I walked in to meet Mrs. Finklestein, I realized my dress was inside out. Without skipping a beat, she pointed that out to and hired me to be their cook.

“Cook?” I exclaimed. “I’m coming for the house cleaner job!” To my mind, my cooking was in the same class as my driving.

“You raised your family on food, right?” she pointed out. “So you can cook,” she said, and I was hired on the spot.

On the hottest summer days, Andy Stein and guests ate goulash, meatloaf, tuna salad, and some breaded chicken made with milk and sour cream. To survive I called good cooks like Betty Duryea and Sandy Watson and used my trusty American beginners’ cookbook. (“Now turn around and face the oven!”)

I called Cromer’s market three times a day at least, saying, “This is the cook from the Stein residence,” as I got the new recipes and was — believe it or not — offered a job as cook in the city by none other than folks like Lee Radziwill and Mort Downey. I made dishes that I never heard of and, characteristically, made them well.

That job lasted about three and half weeks. I quit right before Shirley MacLaine came to visit. An animal issue. I loved their dogs, Magic and Downy, but they were a problem for my bosses since I was the only one that Downy didn’t nip at . . . okay, bite.

There are more snapshots, incidents, and experiences that could have happened to me only on the eastern end of Long Island — meeting who I did, doing what I did, exposed to all the stuff a New York City taxicab driver’s wife wouldn’t have been: Lauren Bacall calling me a hotshot, flying around the state in a two-seater for gubernatorial candidate Perry Duryea Jr., conversations with Bill de Kooning, who loved philosophy, playing friendly poker games, (oh, really, friendly poker games?!) with the Schisgals, Alan Arkin, Marty Balsam, and other names worth dropping.

But I have run out of film, right now, and the ground is still shaky.

Lona Rubenstein is the author of two novels and a memoir, and is a champion poker player. In this piece, she reflects on a half-century of life in East Hampton.