Nixon in Montauk

By Debbie Tuma

“Frost/Nixon” at Bay Street Theater has been getting rave reviews, which shows that even 50 years of history haven’t diminished the impact this president had on our nation.

We all know the Watergate story, but watching the intense drama build up between the British talk show host David Frost (played by Daniel Gerroll) and Richard Nixon (Harris Yulin), you can’t help but remember that shocking moment when Frost got Nixon to admit that he had usurped power, illegally wiretapped Watergate, obstructed justice, and, in his own words, “let the country down,” leading to his impeachment and resignation in August 1974.

In the fourth and final segment of Frost’s interviews onstage, there was dead silence in the audience, as all eyes were on Yulin, who did an amazing job as Nixon. He not only looked the part, but his accomplished acting was so spot-on you actually thought it was Richard Nixon sitting there. Daniel Gerroll was brilliant, too, in his portrayal of the hard-hitting Frost, who was the first to get Nixon to open up and admit his own personal flaws and frailty, and his political mistakes, on TV.

Watching Peter Morgan’s play, directed by Sarna Lapine, we see how it is relevant to what’s going on today, as history repeats itself with yet another controversial presidency, in which investigations and accusations of illegal activity are still going on, in 2018, with Donald Trump. And at the height of summer in the Hamptons, over this past glorious week of Independence Day holiday activities, we may remember that both presidents have had a big presence here, with a history of summering in our very backyard. 

President Trump came to Montauk on his yacht, stayed at Gurney’s Inn, and attended polo games with his daughter Ivanka in Bridgehampton. President Nixon stayed at the Montauk Lake Club and at Gurney’s Inn, where he set about writing his speech in advance of the Republican nomination in 1968.

Paul Monte, president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, whose family owned and operated the former Gurney’s Inn for over 50 years (before the new corporation, Gurney’s Inn Resort & Spa, Ltd., took over), recalled how Nixon stayed in the Skipper’s Cottage on the ocean bluffs several times. 

“He holed up there, I think in the winter, to write his acceptance speech for president,” Monte said. “I was working there at the time, and I remember a security detail all over the property. . . . A huge press corps set up Teletype machines and communications equipment. There was even a trailer in the parking lot with pay phones.”

Monte said his late uncle, Nick Monte, was friends with Nixon, and over the years they exchanged correspondence. “Montauk was a special place for President Nixon, and he loved it,” Paul Monte said. “He came here to relax, to write, enjoy the beach, and to go boating.”

Paul Monte also recalled how President Nixon was good friends with the inventor and engineer Robert Abplanalp and the banker Bebe Rebozo, who were members of the Montauk Lake Club. Nixon, an avid boater, joined Abplanalp on his famous yacht, the Sea Lion, and on Abplanalp’s private island, Walkers Cay, in the Bahamas. 

Steve Kalimnios, an owner of the Montauk Lake Club for the past 15 years, said President Nixon was a frequent guest there, and friends with many of their members, including the late Perry B. Duryea Jr., owner of the former Perry B. Duryea & Son lobster company in Montauk, who ran for governor of New York, losing to Mario Cuomo.

“We named his room after him, and had a Richard Nixon plaque on the wall for many years,” Kalimnios said. 

Other Montauk politicians had also met Nixon, either in Montauk or in Washington, D.C. Fran Ecker recalled that her late husband and former East Hampton Town supervisor, Ed Ecker Sr., had met him there, as had John Behan, the former assemblyman and director of New York’s Division of Veterans Affairs.

“I remember shaking his hand in Washington, when I was wanting to run for Congress,” said Behan. “A lot of the Vietnam vets were glad that he ended the war in Vietnam in 1974, and he respected the men who served there.”

As I watched the “Frost/Nixon” play, I reflected on the first time I saw Richard Nixon, at his January 1973 inauguration for his second term. I was in college upstate during the height of the Vietnam War and had been covering the many antiwar protests for my college newspaper. At the time, I was a member of the Young Republicans Club (but have since become a Democrat) and had received invitations to Nixon’s inauguration, ball, and banquet. 

Covering the inauguration, I saw firsthand those turbulent times, the turmoil on the parade route as Nixon’s car weaved its way through the violent protests, with students wrapped in American flags burning snow fences and throwing tomatoes at the president.

About 10 years later I saw him again — at my dentist’s office in Manhattan. Checking in at the desk, I was surprised to see Nixon walk in with his bodyguard. Nixon’s cheek was swollen from an abscessed tooth. After they chatted with the secretary at the front desk, they entered the waiting room, and I found myself, amazingly, alone with them for a long 20 minutes while we waited.

Nixon was living in Manhattan, writing his books. Feeling like I should take this opportunity, I told him I had gone to his second inauguration with the Young Republicans Club. To my surprise, he seemed glad to hear that, and happy that I seemed excited to meet him. I told him my mother was a big fan of his, and he said that he was coming back in a week for another checkup, and that he was bringing some signed books for the girls at the desk, so if I made an appointment near his, he would have one for my mother. 

We talked about writing, about Vietnam, about how we liked living in Manhattan, and about how we liked Montauk. He was surprised to learn it was my hometown, and he said it was one of his favorite places.

I somehow got my dentist to pencil me in the next week. Nixon signed a copy of his book to my mother, and signed a large color photo of himself for me, spelling my name wrong, but I didn't care. 

I have often wondered why I had that rare, chance meeting with him alone at the dentist’s office, and sometimes I simply attribute it, somehow, psychically, to our Montauk connection. Ten years later we met one last time, at the Montauk Lake Club in summer, when I was with a group of photographers from the local newspapers, and he was there with his wife, Pat. 

I wonder how many other presidents may have written their speeches in Montauk, or somewhere in the Hamptons, on one of these lazy summer days at the beach. And I think it’s appropriate, and timely, given the state of the world, that “Frost/Nixon” is going strong at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.

Debbie Tuma is a freelance writer and a host at WLNG Radio. She lives in Riverhead and can be reached at