The Press: Hoaxer of the Hamptons

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The front page of the East Hampton Summer Sun and five sister weeklies published for the well-heeled vacationers who flock to the east end of Long Island was given over in its entirety recently to a letter from the police chief of nearby Bridgehampton. The lawman asked that residents contribute raw meat to local authorities to help feed a killer shark roaming the area's beaches so that its consumption of swimmers could be cut back from one or two a day.

The papers forthwith received telephone calls from the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and other publications. If the inquisitors had been familiar with the weeklies, they would have known that the letter, like much else that appears in the papers, was a fake. The missive was the handiwork of Dan Rattiner, 35, who publishes the six summer papers and two others (a total of 64,000 giveaway copies a week) and has a good time doing it.

Eye-Opener. From sharks Rattiner has since switched to a Greek apple juice billionaire who had piled up a fictive $2,293,760 in East Hampton parking fines. Among other Rattiner whoppers: a 1972 disclosure that Billionaire Howard Hughes had moved into the top two floors of the area's tallest (seven stories) building, and an eye-opener last year about how Soviet oil drillers were operating off Hither Hills State Park with an oil rig disguised as a fishing trawler. Both the stories sent reporters from national news organizations scrambling to investigate. "I believe the line between reality and fiction is obvious," says Rattiner. "If I fail in making it so, it is my fault. But it certainly gets everyone talking about the paper."

Rattiner broke into creative journalism at age 20 after his father fired him from a summer job at the family drugstore in Long Island's easternmost village, Montauk. His offense: serving seven-scoop sundaes. He quickly raised $3,100 from local merchants and launched the Montauk Pioneer, his first free-distribution summer weekly. Today Rattiner owns a local printing firm, an advertising agency, a messenger and delivery service, as well as the eight weeklies—all of which he runs from his three-story gray-shingled "Dan's Papers Publishing Tower" on Main Street, Bridgehampton.

Rattiner lives contentedly. The papers gross $300,000 a year from advertising, netting the editor-publisher about $32,000—enough for him, his wife and two children to vacation three months each winter in Provence, Maui, or some similarly exotic spot, where he concocts the coming summer's hoaxes. Rattiner turns out fully 80% of his papers' copy (three reporters handle the rest), and not all of it is tomfoolery. The weeklies are heavy on local history and guides to entertainment and shopping.

Dan's Papers rarely stray into the crabby waters of hard news, but for years Rattiner has been campaigning to save the 1795 Montauk Lighthouse from demolition. The lighthouse was finally designated an official landmark, and this month a citizens' group presented a proud Rattiner with a plaque inscribed IN APPRECIATION. Notes Rattiner wryly: "For what, it doesn't say."