Southampton's 20th Century Influencers: Larry Rivers, In A Class By Himself

Updated: Mar 11




 

Self Portrait, 1998

92 Little Plains Road - Today

I’ll start my talk today on a brief personal note. When I was in high school in Southampton we got a thrilling new next-door neighbor on Little Plains Road. That is when the renowned artist Larry Rivers moved into #92 with his two sons and a housekeeper. It didn’t take long to learn that the housekeeper, Berdie, was actually Larry’s mother-in-law, recruited to tend to his children when he and his wife agreed to separate. Their understanding was that Larry would raise their two sons with the help of his wife’s mother, who also became one of Larry’s favorite models.

Rivers posing his Mother-In-Law Berdie c. 1953

Berdie was apparently an extraordinarily unflappable woman who drew praise from the poet Frank O’Hara as “a woman of infinite patience and sweetness, who held together a Bohemian household of such staggering complexity that it would have driven a less great woman mad.”

Rivers at the Bluebird in Riverhead

The neighbors were certainly aware of Larry’s colorful reputation as a force in the New York art world, an irreverent, sometimes shocking figure. I never actually met Larry though I occasionally saw him zooming around town on his motorcycle. I caught the occasional show of his work in Bob Keene’s Main Street gallery and I heard him practicing his saxophone late at night. He often played jazz with his friend and fellow artist Howard Kanovitz at a Water Mill offshoot of the New York nightclub The Five Spot. The Elm Tree Inn in Amagansett was another favorite venue, as was the Bluebird in Riverhead, where he was usually the only white man in the room. The big draw at The Bluebird was Red Lincoln’s Band, which invited him to play whenever he wanted to.

"Boy in Blue Denim" (portrait of son Steven), 1955

I missed a lot of the action when I left home for college but my younger sister Laura was well positioned to take advantage of our proximity to greatness. Laura and Larry’s son Steven were about the same age and as a friend, she was sometimes invited next door where she fell in love with the Rivers’ dog Bongo. She was also impressed by the bohemian lifestyle that permitted the children to eat Spagetti-o’s cold out of a can and allowed a fellow artist to fill the kitchen with captured wild birds that had some role in the man’s bizarre artwork. Adding to the offbeat aura of this unusual domestic arrangement was the constant parade of Larry’s friends, lovers and fans.

Larry Rivers c. 1972

The critic Sam Hunter wrote of Larry’s penchant for “generously throwing open his Southampton summer house to an endless troop of artists, poets, students, collectors, petitioners, and curiosity-seekers with only the vaguest credentials…” Hunter also noted that around town Larry could be immediately identified by the flamboyant attire he favored at the time–”cowpuncher’s boots, elaborately decorated shirts, gaudy, hand-painted neckties.”

Bongo the beagle

Eventually, when Bongo became an inconvenience in the Rivers household, she was allowed to move next door and became our dog. I was gone by then but when after Berdie’s death, the Welsh-born Clarice Price was hired to replace her, things got even livelier. Vivacious, voluptuous, and uninhibited, Clarice was soon Larry’s lover and later his wife. To the delight of neighborhood kids, she and her friends often gathered for some nude sunbathing in the Rivers’ backyard, where gaps in the hedge offered the kids a thrilling peep show. So that’s a glimpse of what it was like to live next door to Larry Rivers.