The Beatnik Drug Bust of '65

“It was the social event of the 1965 season, no doubt about it,” was the rather sarcastic opening line in The East Hampton Star’s Aug. 26 issue. And even if that sly assessment was attributed to squares (uniformed police officers, in this instance), it’s hard to argue with it. It really was the party of the year.

On the front page, high above the fold—dwarfing reports about the purchase of Cedar Point Park and changes in the zoning code—the story, Narcotics Raid Here Caps Social Season, shocked many readers and offended others, who wrote letters to the editor complaining that they considered “the social season” a sacrosanct and sober matter.

August 24, 1965. With Labor Day fast approaching, the sun would soon set on another carefree summer. Responsibilities, school, normalcy—the real world—loomed large in many a young adult’s life. Printed invitations to a party at 148 Pantigo Road (“across from Town Hall,” they helpfully noted) were disseminated far and wide.

Omitted from the invitation, which promised live music by a band called the $ellouts (who would soon morph into the Lovin’ Spoonful), was a small detail later mentioned in The Star: The Town Hall lockup was only 200 yards diagonally across Montauk Highway from the party house, on the corner of Amy’s Lane. Before the night was over, 17 young men and women would be guests of the East Hampton Town Police Department, charged with drug possession or disorderly conduct.

As The Star reported, police from Suffolk County, as well as East Hampton Town and Village, “had been planning a party-crashing of their own” for a month: “The police, according to Captain Donald Schmidt of the Suffolk Seventh Squad Detectives, who led the party-crashing at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, suspected that some of those at the gala were selling narcotics, and that others were using narcotics.”

It was the first big blowup of the 1960s drug culture here on eastern Long Island, the first big bust, the first signal that something new and unsettling was brewing among the kids. Only eighteen months earlier, the Beatles had detonated a sonic blast on The Ed Sullivan Show, their joyous, big-beat sounds and shockingly long hair transfixing America’s youth. The British Invasion was soon in full swell, as the even-shaggier Rolling Stones offered themselves as the anti-Beatles, inspired less by the pop sounds of Motown and English dancehall than by the carnal electric blues of Chicago.

Though it was not fully evident to everyone at the time, the generation gap had gaped open, and the ceaseless flow of loud, raucous music was hardly the worst of it from a parent’s perspective. Mind-altering substances would soon begin to be consumed across the United States. Social unrest was imminent. Some of the young men partying at Pantigo Road that August night would soon be shipped to Vietnam. 

No one had envisioned 1967’s Summer of Love in the seemingly innocent summer of 1965, but drugs were already snaking their way out from Greenwich Village and the wider world, and Suffolk County’s Seventh Squad was turning its investigative gaze eastward.

On the day of the party, plainclothes detectives from the Seventh Squad, The Star reported, “had made a $1,000 purchase of drugs in Riverhead, and arrested three suspected ‘pushers.’ ” Night fell, and detectives and East Hampton police officers descended on the clapboard colonial house on Pantigo Road.

Suddenly, those present recall, “this raid was on and police were every which way. . . . It was very sudden. We walked in, turned around, and next thing, ‘This is a raid!’ ”

Not everyone present was using drugs. Some genuinely had no idea what was going on. One guest says that just how innocent most kids were at the time is proved by the fact that the party was staged directly across from the police station. “That shows you the thinking,” he says. “It wasn’t a big, bad event by any stretch. It was young, naive kids from the East End having a party.”

But others definitely were there to get high on something other than Rheingold. The Star had to spell it out for readers: “According to Captain Schmidt, L.S.D., a hallucinatory drug, was on the premises, making its first appearance in Suffolk County.” Officials also discovered “marihuana,” along with peyote, hashish, amphetamines, and even heroin. “One of those arrested was charged with possessing isonipecaine, also a hallucinatory drug.” (Isonipecaine is actually an opioid, better known as Demerol.)

The morning after the party on Pantigo Road, East Hampton (above), that signaled the coming Age of Aquarius. East Hampton Star Archive.

“I remember the night, and, indeed, there was a giant execution of a search warrant,” says a one-time patrolman named Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. . . . better known today as the mayor of East Hampton Village. “It was the cusp, the beginning of the introduction of hallucinogenic drugs coming on the scene.”

Mayor Rickenbach, taking the long view, has a benign retrospective assessment of most of those who went to the party that night. “They were almost like the extension of flower children,” he says. “To a great extent, they were peace-loving, not wanting war and conflict. Many were good people, looking back.”

Musing about the ways that history repeats itself—and thinking of American troops’ current open-ended presence in Afghanistan—Mayor Rickenbach says that the youth of the 1960s “were morally correct.”

That was not the prevailing attitude at the time. While one unnamed officer observed in The Star’s report that “some of those kids were as clean-cut as you’ll find anywhere,” a detective on the scene described others as “long on sideburn and short on soap.” The latter expressed a desire to “send them to Viet Nam.” >

By dawn, after the last arrestee had been marched across Pantigo Road to the lockup, and the last terrified teenager had disappeared into the night, and the last chord of the $ellouts had faded, the house was deserted.

“Tables and empty bottles shared the back lawn with a half-dismantled outboard motor, a small stove, and several cars parked on the grass,” The Star observed. A page-one photo of the house showed the aftermath, bottles covering nearly every square inch of a long table on the grass, Japanese lanterns still swinging in the trees. “The party was inside, outside, upstairs, and downstairs,” the caption read.

The hosts put up signs around the village and printed invitations to the "Mer party"—short for Sum-MER, according to someone who remembers the night—on fancy card stock. East Hampton Star archive.

The story was sensational—teenage mayhem in the millionaires’ playground! It was picked up by U.P.I., appearing that week in newspapers as far away as Nebraska and Ohio, where The Sandusky Register painted a kooky scene in which “more than 300 bearded boys and barefoot beatnik girls” shrieked and jumped out windows as police pounced. (Beatnik Heroin Party Smashed was the headline. No one even knew the word hippie yet.) “It was a groovy party, baby, until about 10 minutes ago,” The Register claimed one boy told his date as they were escorted away.

Skip Boone, a guitarist with the $ellouts (brother of a Lovin’ Spoonful founder), was living at the Pantigo party house that summer and was accused by police of being a ringleader. The others arrested were a mix of city kids and locals, in their teens and twenties, lawn-maintenance guys and folkie musicians from the Village.

“It was a snippet in the chronology of our American history,” says Mayor Rickenbach. “The illicit drug activity hit East Hampton just like it did mainstream U.S.A. We were not immune from it. So many of those youngsters . . . ” he says, before pausing for a long moment. “Many of them evolved into upstanding members of the community. It was part of the growing-up process.” • 

Christopher Walsh

Christopher Walsh was born in Manhattan and grew up in Montauk before moving back to the city, where he worked as a musician and journalist, including several years at Billboard magazine. In 2012, he returned to the South Fork, working as a longshoreman in Montauk before taking on a full-time gig covering politics and the environment for The Star. Occasionally, he comes out of music retirement to play guitar or piano with rock ’n’ roll bands.