Not Bush-Related, But Funny/Sad/Pitiful in the Same “Out of Touch With Reality” Way


August 11, 2007
Summer Rituals | Boldface Barbecue
Hot Off the Grill, It’s Hamptons High Society

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Debbie Bancroft’s daughter Serena, a towheaded 11-year old with a tennis tan, had an important announcement one recent Sunday afternoon. “Mom, you know the Southside, that drink they have at National?” she asked. “Daddy put it in the chicken last night. Like, all of it.”

Mrs. Bancroft, an Upper East Side hostess who bears a strong resemblance to the actress Kathleen Turner in her prime, made a face that conveyed more annoyance than incredulity.

“You mean, to marinate it?” she wondered. “He did not.”

The two were high-stepping their way in flip-flops through the gravel driveway of the family’s trim house here, en route to their car, to head to town to buy provisions.

In five hours, 12 guests were scheduled to show up for a barbecue — 12 whose ranks included several names of the boldface variety: Vera Wang, the bridal-gown designer; Patricia Duff, the political fund-raiser and bridal-gown wearer; Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd singer and bass player; Robert Wilson, the experimental theater director; and Sarah Jones, who wrote and starred in the Tony award-winning play “Bridge and Tunnel.”

And in the “possibly” category: Kelsey Grammer (better known as television’s “Frasier,” he of the tossed salads and scrambled eggs) and his wife, Camille. “Kelsey hasn’t told me yes or no for sure yet,” Mrs. Bancroft said with a sigh. “I called him again yesterday to check, and some man answered, and I waited on hold for five minutes. I could try him again, but at a certain point, dignity kind of kicks in.”

As for the Southside employed at the National Golf Links in Southampton — a semisecret concoction of sugar, mint and lime, typically mixed in a sterling shaker with vodka or rum — well, it did not strike Mrs. Bancroft as an appropriate marinade, but she knew it was not up to her.

“Billy is in charge of the food,” she said of her banker-husband, who is listed in “The Blue Book of the Hamptons” as William Woodward Bancroft Jr.

Mr. Bancroft’s willingness to cook at a few dinner parties every summer, even if this consists mainly of monitoring the grill, is a pivot point of their 18-year marriage.

For while Mrs. Bancroft is about as steady a fixture as one finds on the society circuit — involved in charities galore, and a good deal of fashion promotion as well — Mr. Bancroft shows up in the party pages as often as J. Press alters the hemline on its Bermuda shorts, which is to say almost never.

“Small dinners like these are about the only times I can get Billy to socialize with other people,” Mrs. Bancroft said. “The party has to come to him.”

The Bancrofts of Southampton, both 52, may inhabit rarefied territory, but shopping for a cookout on a sunny summer Sunday they are like everybody: Is there any more quintessentially American experience than the opportunity to gather outside, throw meat (and maybe a representative from the vegetable family) on the grill, and eat under the sky as dusk falls?

Mrs. Bancroft and Serena drove first to La Parmigiana to buy fresh mozzarella, then to Tate’s Bake Shop for a chocolate mousse cake. Serena suggested that they get another cake to make sure they did not run out. “Two cakes is obscene,” Mrs. Bancroft said.

“We’re at 16,” Serena said. “If Kelsey comes.”

A Marie Antoinette cake — a six-layer extravaganza of yellow and chocolate cakes, raspberry jam, raspberry butter cream and chocolate mousse — was bought as well.

The Bancrofts have been summering in the Hamptons since more or less forever. “Billy’s family had a place here, and I grew up on Long Island,” Mrs. Bancroft said. “Billy’s not really big on change. He grew up on East 72nd Street; we live on East 72nd Street now. That kind of thing.”

Serena and her 16-year-old brother, Will, learned to swim and play tennis at the clubs of Mr. Bancroft’s childhood, the Southampton Bathing Corporation— “the Beach Club” — and the Meadow Club.

The Bancrofts camped in Billy’s godmother’s pool house for some years, then rented, and finally bought their shingled Colonial here three years ago. It’s north of the highway — so it goes — and, as it’s of new construction, came covered with siding, which they promptly tore off and replaced with wood. It has a big yard and a swimming pool, and a wet bar off the living room. Will christened it “Da Crib.”

“And Holly Peterson put it on stationery for us,” Mrs. Bancroft said, referring to the television news producer and author.

“You know, like how Pop-Pop has Ocean Grove or whatever?” Serena said. “And we have Da Crib.” Pop-Pop is A. Alfred Taubman, the former chairman of Sotheby’s. His daughter, Tiffany Dubin, a style author, is a friend of the Bancrofts.

Driving up their block on the way home, Serena counted the cars outside a house the Bancrofts are convinced is being used by a horde of young people as a summer share, violating a local ban on group houses.

“Mommy, I see 10,” she said.

“I’m going to Hampton Bays tomorrow to fight them,” Mrs. Bancroft replied.

Back in the kitchen, she and her daughter set about decorating the cakes. Serena poured half a box of dragées over the tops. Then, after much deliberation, she pressed a big pair of wax lips right in the middle of each.

“That’s kind of fantastic,” Mrs. Bancroft declared.

Soon Mr. Bancroft appeared in the kitchen in shorts, a pink and green golf shirt and bare feet. He had been playing golf all day in the annual two-ball tournament at National, and his wife asked how it went. He shrugged disconsolately.

“We might come in second,” he said.

“Well, that’s good,” Mrs. Bancroft said. “Do you get a silver cup for that?”

“No, you get one of these,” Mr. Bancroft said, shaking hands with an imaginary person.

Then Mrs. Bancroft and Serena turned their attention to place cards. “We try to come up with a theme every year, and this year I’m writing them as prescription labels on little pill bottles,” Mrs. Bancroft said. “So, like, for Roger Waters, I’m writing, ‘For the treatment of vertigo,’ because, you know, ‘The Wall?’ ”

And for the photogenic Ms. Duff, who has been known as something of a man-killer, Mrs. Bancroft dictated to her daughter: “Write … ‘Patricia. Hydrochloric acid.’ ”

“I don’t get it,” Serena said.

“It’s a joke,” Mrs. Bancroft said. “To throw in her face, because she’s the kind of woman that you just have to hate her sometimes, she’s so perfect. You really don’t want her seated next to your husband.”

Suddenly, Mrs. Bancroft looked up. “Daddy hasn’t started cooking yet and I’m getting nervous,” she said.

“I think he’s upstairs watching golf on TV,” Serena said, then went to fetch him.

When they returned, Mr. Bancroft got down to business. Out came platters, tongs, bug spray, frozen tacos, arugula mix and plenty of meat: tenderloin, sausages and that Southside-soaked chicken.

He even offered to help his wife with the place cards. For one of his golfing buddies, he suggested she prescribe something for the yips, a tendency to seize up when putting. For Steve Colman, a performer and poet, he said, “How about something for ‘rhymatism?’ ”

“Oh my God, Billy, you are on fire!” Mrs. Bancroft said.

“I used to be an ad man,” Mr. Bancroft reminded.

Things were coming together. Mrs. Bancroft went outside, cut a few hydrangeas from a plant, and stuck them in a vase. Ms. Duff, who was staying with the Bancrofts for the weekend, came outside to help with seating arrangements (putting Mr. Wilson next to Mr. Waters turned out to yield the following introduction: “I think we met years ago, actually. I believe you were very drunk.”)

Mrs. Bancroft made a quick trip to the Meadow Club to pick up Will, and appointed him to program the evening’s soundtrack on his iPod.

“Oh, poop,” Serena said. “Mommy, I hope your friends like hip-hop.”

Mrs. Bancroft went upstairs to change and insisted that her husband put on long pants. Soon, the gravel crunched outside with the arrival of the evening’s first guests.


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