It was not the Labor Day weekend in the Hamptons that anyone expected or wanted. Most of Saturday was spent marking time, in fact, waiting for Sunday and Jeff Salaway's funeral service at the East Hampton Jewish Center.
Jeff, who was 46 and the father of two, died early Friday morning after his red 1998 Volvo crashed into a tree. He was the owner of Nick and Toni's, the restaurant that was Ground Zero for any important activity in the Hamptons.
He and his staff had been partying late, celebrating the end of the summer. But please, don't get me wrong: This was not the kind of guy who drank, or drank and drove, as a habit. I don't know how he celebrated in those couple of hours after shutting down the restaurant, but it was not his style to be reckless. He was one of the most responsible people you could hope to meet or know.
Jeff's funeral was a Who's Who of the Hamptons A-List, a call to arms for everyone who is anyone, and many who were just plain folks.
One thousand or more people jammed the spacious grounds of the center, and most of us sat in a large tent that had been set up in the backyard. To the right of the tent there were even more rows of chairs. By the time the service started, it was standing-room only.
Yes, the stars were there, remarkably well behaved. People who ordinarily get the best seats in Nick and Toni's got the worst ones at the service. They didn't care.
Paul Simon, his wife Edie Brickell and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels sat on an uncomfortable-looking bench on the side of the tent. Simon sobbed at one point. For a while Alec Baldwin sat on the end of the same bench, then got up and stood. In the center of the tent, Jaws actor Roy Scheider and his wife went unnoticed.
Candice Bergen, who looked magnificent and like a real movie star, also took a rather insignificant spot. Chevy Chase shook hands and hugged a couple of friends, including artist Eric Fischl. 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt came late and sat in the side chairs. Writer Steven Gaines, who's chronicled the Hamptons extensively, chatted with New York's star radio personality Joan Hamburg. People cried. There was a lot of wiping away of tears.
It didn't matter that we in the tent couldn't see the service. It only made sense that the chapel was for family only.
A few celebrities did make it into the sanctuary, which seemed only right: Billy Joel, ex-wife Christie Brinkley, and her husband Peter Cook, were more than just Nick and Toni's regulars. Billy and Christie's daughter, Alexa, grew up in the restaurant; her school artwork hangs on the walls. They belonged inside.
Broadway writer Peter Stone was also there. Fellow restaurateurs from the city, Bobby Flay (Mesa Grill) and a newly slim Drew Nieporent (Nobu, etc.) were also privileged. Jeff's only real competitor in the Hamptons, the very popular Jerry Della Femina and his wife Judy Licht, sat outside.
But the real tribute to Jeff was that they all came, every single one of them, all the hotshots and the bold-faced names, a group of people who are harder to get together in one place at one time than Arafat and Barak. Even more impressive, that just as in the restaurant, they were cheek-by-jowl with the regular people, the locals, the staffs who worked for Jeff, the dentists and lawyers and doctors and bankers and artists and construction workers.
They, we, sat and listened as Jeff's sisters, his first cousin, his brother-in-law, father-in-law, business partner, and close friend all recalled his warm sense of humor, his penchant for wisecracks and the many instances of Jeff — who was of average height — jumping onto a chair or the maitre d's podium, a menu shading his eyes, trying to figure out what tables were available, or which one was finishing up so no one would have to wait at his very friendly bar.
It's been a crazy summer in the Hamptons. First public-relations legend John Scanlon keeled over and died. Then Lizzie Grubman backed into 16 people. Writer Peter Maas, who was universally adored, died in August after complications from surgery. Then Jeff Salaway.
Were we always heading toward some kind of social apocalypse? Several people were overheard suggesting that this was all universal karma, some kind of payback for excessive living.
I don't think so, though. Although it seemed like the end of a great novel of manners, Jeff's funeral was one of the saddest events I can remember attending. And one of the most enlightening.
For two hours, it seemed, the clocks all stopped. Gossip was halted. Forks were put down. And we learned about someone who maybe we hadn't completely appreciated and most certainly had taken for granted, a man who a thousand people considered their close friend even though they couldn't possibly have known him that well.
It turns out that at the center of this decade of cold decadence in the Hamptons, there was a warm heart beating after all. Too bad we had to wait so long to find out. And now we'll have only the memory.