Rage Of The Hamptons

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On lazy summer Sundays, publicist Lizzie Grubman and her entertainment-lawyer father Allen would run a father-daughter errand down the road from their Easthampton home to the local Hess market in Wainscott to pick up the newspaper. (This being the Hamptons, summer playground for Manhattan's elite, the Hess station looks more like a Starbucks, but the gas pumps give it away.) The Grubmans were always pleasant on these weekend jaunts, insists a Hess employee, who asked to remain anonymous. But each time they came, he notes, they would park their car (sometimes a Jaguar, sometimes an SUV) in the same spot, right outside the front door, the one labeled for the handicapped.

The cashier does not recall seeing a handicap permit, but he wasn't bothered by the ritual. In the Hamptons, plenty of people drive luxury cars and flout the rules. As Lizzie Grubman learned last week, it's only when they do something so outrageously emblematic of their type that the simmering cauldron of animosity they've brewed boils over.

Two mysteries surround the incident of July 7. First, is it possible that, as police allege, Grubman intentionally backed her SUV into a line of people, then left the scene as victims bled and moaned for help? A more interesting question is, Why have so many people responded to the tragedy with an unabashed victory dance on her figurative grave? Answering the second question requires understanding the Hamptons, a grand but tortured resort area just 100 miles outside New York City that attracts a flashy spectrum of celebrities, from Alec Baldwin to Tommy Hilfiger to Martha Stewart. It's a place where the beaches are wide and lovely, where it's considered normal to have a summer home with a service-entrance driveway, and where almost no one looks happy to be there.

The basic facts of the "Grubman event," as a local termed it, do not make good sense. Surely Grubman, 30, one of the latest in a flashy new breed of New York public relations experts, who has represented the likes of Sean Combs, Britney Spears and America Online, was not so professionally suicidal as to intentionally mow down well-heeled patrons at the Conscience Point Inn, a nightclub she represents. But if Grubman did not mean to hurt anyone, if she just failed to wrestle the powerful Mercedes-Benz SUV into compliance (as her lawyers contend), then how to explain her behavior before and after the wreck? Scott Conlon, 31, the club bouncer, told police she called him "white trash" when he asked her to move her illegally parked car around 2 a.m. After she moved the car a few feet away, Conlon says, he heard the engine roar and turned to see the SUV lurch backward, directly at him and a line of people waiting to get into the club. When the car came to a stop, 16 people were pinned against the building's front wall. Conlon had sustained injuries to his leg, shoulder and liver. Someone opened the driver's door and Grubman "fell out of the car," said a witness. She fled in a friend's car. By the time patrol cars got to the friend's house, so had her lawyer. With her attorney running blocker, police could not even ascertain if Grubman had been driving the car, says Suffolk County district attorney James Catterson. "She was lawyered up, as we like to say." By the time police showed her photo to victims and identified her, he says, it was too late to test for alcohol.

But before the engine of her father's now impounded SUV cooled, Grubman was under scathing attack. The p.r. machine she hired--high-powered attorneys and a spokesperson--could not put the woman once ordained "Queen of New York City Nightlife" back together again. Not even word that her mom was seriously ill bought much sympathy. Colleagues who hadn't made her A list at one party or another declared her career ruined. "Her name is like Dan Quayle or, indeed, Lizzie Borden," sniped a music-industry insider. Online Hamptons-gossip boards lit up, calling her unprintable names, tittering about her hair, her nose, her clothes.

It's an anger born of longstanding envy. The locals nod as if they had been predicting this fiasco for years. "There's something called 'Hamptons rage,'" explains Steven Gaines, a 20-year resident and author of Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons. The culture of conspicuous consumption has turned toxic here, he says. "Social status is now defined by money only--and everyone has tons of money. This is a competition that has turned ugly. These people are fighting with each other to show how important they are--and nobody's that important."

Walking down Main Street in Southampton is like strolling through a handsome New England village--except that not one but two of the boutiques are Saks Fifth Avenues. Nearby, there's a sale at a store called Rags, with handbags at $175. On a gorgeous afternoon last Wednesday, two well-dressed women shrieked at each other in front of the Ralph Lauren store over who bumped whose SUV. "Why did you move?" screamed one. "Why did you move?" screamed the other.

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