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Nelson Demille's "The Gold Coast"
Long Island, New York Elite Properties
Nelson DeMille’s story of The Gold Coast, located on the north shore of Long Island, New York, is an historical account of the area that once had the largest concentration of wealth in America. It is also a satirical statement regarding the changing lives of the people who were privileged enough to experience that enormously wealthy lifestyle firsthand. Long Island’s history goes back to the 1600’s, when mostly Dutch and English people settled there.
After World War II, the baby boomer generation and others began to quickly turn the area into suburban neighborhoods to provide housing for families after the war. The farmlands were sold to builders, then the forests, and soon all the old, great estates were destroyed by wrecking balls, divided up by surveyors and developers. Much of the evidence of “The Golden Age” of the Gold Coast can no longer be found, although it spanned the time period from the end of the Civil War to the stock market crash of 1929 in the U.S.
Gradually, housing developments covered land where ladies and gentlemen once rode horses, belonged to yacht clubs, and lived in mansions of one hundred rooms or more. Many of these exquisite properties were deserted, razed, or made into schools or institutions. During the 1970’s, the destruction slowed thanks to preservation efforts, so some estates were turned into parks, museums or nature preserves.
This is the place where F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, a well loved book that describes the lives, loves, and tragedies of those who lived in that wonderful time referred to as “The Roaring Twenties.” Nelson DeMille wanted to write a book set in contemporary times, to explore how people were faring as they continued to live in or near the remaining estates, mansions, and the crumbling ruins, and how they had to adapt to their changing circumstances.
He tells his tale based on the views of the main characters of Susan Stanhope Sutter and her husband John Whitman Sutter, an elite couple in midlife whose children are grown and away at college. John has a wonderful wit, and much of the story is told from his point of view. This reader is aware that The Great Gatsby is still on the required reading list for high school, but believes that if it was replaced by The Gold Coast, that students would actually read it, enjoy it, and come away from it with a much greater understanding of that time period and its history.
Rich People Can Live off Trust Funds
Susan Stanhope Sutter grew up in Stanhope Hall, a fifty-five room monstrosity that had massive heating bills, stables, a large staff of butlers, cooks, gardeners, and people to groom the horses. This is the life Susan was accustomed to. Unfortunately, her parents could no longer afford the upkeep on this white elephant, have closed it up, and moved to Hilton Head. Susan is an accomplished horsewoman, and many trails are partly on their property, and some are on the property next door.
Susan and John actually live at the guesthouse, a “more modest” fifteen room building, and this, along with ten acres of the Stanhope’s two hundred acres were deeded to Susan and John as a wedding gift from her parents, William and Charlotte. John was accepted as a suitable husband for Susan, since he was a descendant of Walt Whitman, and thus came from “Old Money.” John is also a partner in his father’s prestigious law firm. The property also has a gatehouse, a six room affair, occupied by George and Ethel Allard, who used to be the estate managers.
Now they do the gardening and some light chores on the property, but Susan and John mostly keep them on as “family retainers”, something the rich do for people who were their servants for many years, as a way of thanking them, and taking care of them in their elderly years, as they most likely have nowhere else to go. The Allards live in the gatehouse for free, in perpetuity, a fact Susan finds endearing, but John thinks that Ethel probably had an affair with Augustus Stanhope (Susan’s grandfather) to be awarded this gift, and never told George since he was away at war. John's warped sense of humor really keeps the story moving.
Stanhope Hall is up for sale, but nobody can afford it. Susan and John are just going through the motions of everyday life, eating at the Country Club, going out on the yacht, spending the summers in their modest summer home, and enjoying their children, Edward and Carolyn, when they are home during college breaks. Susan is a beautiful redhead and John adores her, but she is definitely a bit loopy. Growing up in Stanhope Hall was a very sheltered existence for her, and she is very naïve about how the “outside” world really works. She has never worked for anything she needs, it has all been given to her. She never reads a newspaper or cares what is happening outside her little town. In fairness, she never even went into the kitchen until she was about twenty years old, the servants took care of all the meals.
Even after many years of marriage to John, who makes good money, she receives an allowance from her father. John is really her lifeline to the world, as her view of it is so limited. She is also very moody and John even sometimes has trouble understanding her, and feels like she loves her horses more than him. He enjoys having a sex life with her that is filled with fantasy, and in her fantasies she seems to want to be dominated, which John can’t understand, as she often slips into her “Lady Stanhope” role and is very snobby towards others.
John is really bored working at his father’s firm, but can work in the New York office three days a week, and out of his office in town the other two days. He is beginning to get sick of their friends at the country club, all they talk about is money, “Don’t touch the principle” being their motto. He looks forward to the times when he can go sailing on his yacht with the kids, and is tired of William nagging him about the sale of Stanhope Hall. John loathes Susan’s family, and William is such a cheapskate he never pays for John’s legal work or chips in for dinner when they go out together (which they do as seldom as possible). But John is having something of a midlife crisis, and is not too fond of his own parents either.
An Example of a Gold Coast Mansion
The Mafia Moves in Next Door
Just as life is getting too settled for John and Susan, new neighbors move into the estate next door, called Alhambra. They have not formally met the new neighbors yet. One Sunday after church, John is at the garden store, and his new neighbor calls him by name and introduces himself as Frank Bellarosa. They talk and joke around a bit, and although the name sounds familiar, John can’t place it until he gets home.
Frank’s name is all over the news, he is a Mafia Don who has been accused of shooting down two members of a rival Mafia gang. Both John and Susan find this quite exciting, and so do their friends. But problems soon arrive when Frank begins to ask John to defend him in a court case. To defend a Mafia figure would ruin John’s legal reputation, especially living in a social structure where all aspects of the wealthy life are so strictly defined. Frank actually has gunmen guarding the gates outside his home, and the FBI is spying on him while he is there.
Frank and his wife Anna invite the Sutters over for drinks one evening, and Susan actually has to tell them how to use which rooms for what purpose in the large mansion next door. They have no idea what a “morning or breakfast room” is, and Anna thought it was the dining room of her new house. Frank asks John if Susan will help “show Anna around”, but people in Susan and John’s social group are terrible gossips and snobs, and the first time they bring Frank and Anna to dinner at the country club they are asked to never bring them back.
This angers John, because at this time he is looking at his life and not liking what he sees. Even a man from the FBI begs John to stay away from Frank, telling him the association will negatively affect his career and reputation, that no good can come from it. Susan is a good painter, and as the old mansions were falling into disrepair, she found she enjoyed creating paintings of the ruins. She offers to paint one for Frank and Anna for free, even though she charges her own parents for her paintings!
John is still undecided about whether to help Frank with his legal issue, although deep inside he knows that to defend a Mob figure will wreck his career and he will most likely get kicked out of not only his father’s law practice, but ostracized by his peers. Frank is really pouring on the pressure. He is trying to get to John through Susan. She wants the stables on her parent’s property moved about 20 feet over to one side, a Herculean task. Frank has it taken care of within days and will only allow the twenty men who did the job take minimum wage for it. So now he created a situation where John is in his debt. Frank is smart, he attended a Catholic college, hence his name “Frank the Bishop” Bellarosa. He has studied Machiavelli, and has been manipulating the Sutters since before he even became their next door neighbor.
Susan is spending a lot of time at Alhambra, while supposedly working on the portrait. She really is painting, but John is beginning to wonder what else she is doing over there. Frank Bellarosa can be very charming when he wants to be, just like other sociopaths. John knows he should stay away, and there is one point where Susan actually has a long conversation with John. She pleas, “John, let’s leave here right now, drop everything, and just go away for a few months, before it’s too late”. When John says he cannot leave his practice right then, Susan replies, “John, no matter what happens, please never forget I asked this of you.” Whether it was because of boredom, or because the pretentious pressure of keeping up the outdated and impractical rituals of wealth got to Susan and John, by the end of the book, they have both been thoroughly seduced by Frank “The Bishop” Bellarosa, in ways they never expected.
The reader enjoyed this book very much, and has read it more than once. There really is no better endorsement than that. The way John’s character uses his humor and wit to narrate parts of the book is hilarious. This book was written more than twenty years ago, but Nelson DeMille actually did write a sequel to it that came out in 2008, called The Gatehouse. The reader cannot divulge that storyline without revealing the ending of The Gold Coast, which was shocking in ways quite surprising. Nelson DeMille is more than an excellent writer. A reader will really appreciate The Gold Coast, and I highly recommend any other work of his too. DeMille also writes a series that features a special agent named John Corey, who is a smartass in a similar way to John Sutter, but the plots are always engaging and DeMille is always steps ahead of the reader.
© 2011 Jean Bakula