The New York Times, Sunday, May 18, 1997
Artists vs. Writers: How a Rivalry Escalated
By Leif Hope
On summer Saturdays almost 50 years ago, artists and wives, husbands and lovers would gather in Wilfrid Zogbaum’s yard in Springs to play softball.
Softball was a casual affair. A bat, a ball, sneakers, lob ball pitching, pop flies, occasional home runs, muscle strain and talk. Not high-caliber perhaps, but competitive and fun. And arguments. Abstract Expressionism was in full flower. Cubism was over. Constructions, sculpture, color field painting, Matisse, Braque, Picasso and David Smith were subjects of talk during these lively games.
Many artists had migrated to eastern Long Island after the war for its beaches, the sea, wonderful light and cheap rent. Some had reputations for sales. Many struggled to pay the rent. Several drank too much. The camaraderie was strong, and memories of those days are precious.
Among the artists were Philip Pavia, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Norman Bluhm, Esteban Vicente, Wilfrid Zogbaum, Syd Solomon, Jackson Pollack, Ibram Lassaw, Joan Mitchell, Howard Kanovitz, Leo Castelli, Grace Hartigan, Conrad Marco-Relli and Ludwig Sander. They were joined by two writers: Barney Rosset, whose girlfriend was an artist, and Harold Rosenberg, who, after all, was an art critic.
In the late 1960’s, writers began to infiltrate. The artists accepted them, with reservations. “They changed the game,” Phillip Pavia recalled. “It had been fun, with a lot of laughter. Now they insist on rules.” And, indeed, it changed.
Gradually the definition of “artists/writers” was expanded to included people of different talents – auto-body painters for example, and skywriters – and celebrity. Some catergories and players were:
Writers: Ken Auletta, John Leo, Peter Maas, Avery Corman, Jay McInerny, Jackie Leo, Mike Lupica, George Plimpton, Jack Graves, John Irving, Jim Brady, Ed Tivnan, Sylvia Tenenbaum, Josh Lawrence, Lee Minetree, Brett Shevak, Kurt Vonnegut.
Actors: Malcolm Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Roy Scheider, Sam Robards, Lori Singer, Alec Baldwin, Christopher Reeves, Bonnie Feiffer, Alan Alda, Eli Wallach, Ed Burns, Christie Brinkley.
Journalists: Ben Bradlee, Mort Zuckerman, Walter Isaacson, Gail Sheehy.
Composer and Singer: Paul Simon.
Television and radio: Howard Stringer, Mr. G., Kathleen Sullivan, James Lipton.
Athletes: Ham Richardson, the former tennis champion, Gerry Cooney, the former boxer, and the Jets football stars Marty Lyons and Wesley Walker.
Architects: Charles Gwathmey, Ronette Reilley.
Artists: Eric Ernst, Dennis Lawrence, Eric Fischl, Bill Durham, John Conner, Bill Hofmann, Nick Tarr, Mike Solomon, Jeffrey Meizlik, Victor Cagliotti, John Alexander, Walter Bernard, Rudolph Hoglund, Patsy Powers.
Politicians: Eugene McCarthy, the Senator and Presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, and Abbie Hoffman, the Yuppie leader.
The first game for charity took place in 1968, to raise money for the legal costs of two artists who protested the Vietnam War. Today is it serious business, benefitting three wonderful charities: The East Hampton Day Care Center, The Retreat (battered women and abused children) and The Hospice. But the game has changed, from a pleasant, open, often hilarious picnic to a serious business, which results in little laughter, some profanity, deep unhappiness for the losers, pleasure for the winners and great satisfaction for the charities.
As one artist said recently, “When the writers and their egos showed up, there goes the neighborhood.”
Leif Hope of East Hampton is a painter and carpenter and was an organizer of the artists/writers’ softball game. It will be played at 3 pm on Aug. 16 in Herrick Park, behind the A. & P. in East Hampton.
“Playing softball or baseball at this stage is a joy—(a) it has baseball, which I have played since I was a kid, and (b) it’s playing with a lot of friends, which makes it special. So the Artists & Writers Game has a combination of tradition and the amusement that goes along with watching a lot of out of shape baseball players trying to live up to the tradition.” –Mort Zuckerman
“Every Saturday for more than three decades we play softball in Sag Harbor. Only one Saturday each Summer do we play in the Artist & Writers softball game. I’ve played in the annual game for about thirty years, half of them as captain of the writer’s team. We kid each year about wanting to thrash the artists, about how they cheat by smuggling in football players and house painters who can slug a ball four hundred feet. But we’re united in a belief that no matter how sometimes foolish we look on the field, we’re luring fans to contribute to worthwhile local charities, we’re helping fortify a sense of community on the East End, and we’re laughing with, not at, each other. After the game, which are usually nail-bitingly close, we repair to a pub together to tip a glass and to wait to learn how much money we raised for our favorite local charities.” – Ken Auletta
There are other summer traditions in the Hamptons. The Artists vs. Writers Annual Softball Game is ours. And it is a tradition that has lasted, for so many fine reasons, starting with this one: The fellowship that those of us who have played in the game for a long time, those for whom this Saturday in August is the highlight of our summers, feel from the time we show up at Herrick Park for the longest batting practice on the planet. One Saturday every August, we have a town meeting of softball in the middle of East Hampton. We raise money for our charities – the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center and the East End Hospice and the Retreat and Phoenix House – and know how important that money is. But it is almost as if those charities are doing us the favor, because they help bring us back every year. They put us together on that field, and for a few hours we are all reminded – the ones who play the game and the ones who watch – why we were drawn to this part of the world in the first place. We celebrate each other and shake our heads in wonder that people still make donations to watch us play. We remember the time Paul Simon drove home the late Christopher Reeve with the winning run; remember the Ben Bradlee being out at second base for the Writers when he was 75 years old. We laugh about the ringers Leif Hope, the godfather of the whole thing, has brought in over the years – all the “landscape architects” who can hit the ball all the way to the tennis courts. We remember how funny the late John Scanlon was doing commentary. We remember, boy do we, how the last time George Plimpton played, I was supposed to run for him if he got a basehit. George did get a hit, a clean single to center. And if you were there that day, maybe you also remember the two of us running parallel courses towards first base. We remember our dear friend Roy Scheider, so ill the last time he played, showing up to pitch on a day when we didn’t know if he would show up at all; how he pitched eight innings that day and how when we called him later to tell him he was the first unanimous MVP in the history of the game, he heard us all chant his name from the patio bar at Race Lane. This is our game, run by Leif and the great Deb McEneaney. It is the fun Capt. Ken Auletta and I have on the sidelines, for 30 years, trying to make some order out of all the people who want to get into the game for our team. Somehow Auletta makes it work, every time. Then on Sunday morning, win or lose, the two of us are going over the game pitch by pitch, and talking about next year. We all look forward to next year. Already it is closer than any of us can believe. There are other important summer days and nights in the Hamptons. That Saturday in August, that is ours. See you there.
“At first, the artists were real and the writers tended to be make believe. But real artists don’t grow on trees, and gradually the word loosed from its moorings. After all, everything one does short of breathing can be an art if you do it right. And for a while the writers scoffed as they lost every year to some of the most dubious artists who never picked up a brush. Although writers really do grow on trees, rich writers don’t. So as local prices rose to the moon, that word came loose too, to apply to anyone who has ever signed a cheque, or knows someone who has. And the cult of celebrity has added new possibilities. Acting is obviously an art, but does forgetting your lines and making up new ones or signing a ghost written memoir count as writing? Nobody is under oath to any of this. If you’ve always wanted to be a writer, step right up. The one thing you cannot be, because it would ruin the game, is a real ballplayer. Otherwise it comes down to winning the definitions every year and mastering the highly verbal, but not real art of persuading this year’s crop of hot dogs that they really do have an eye for detail or a way with words.”