Discovering The Real Captain Quint in Long Island
On the surface The Hamptons are for the super-rich, but deep in Montauk’s belly lies a shark-infested and cinematic history that will leave you speechless…
Jennifer our hostess and guide to the Hamptons slowed the hire car up and pointed across some wasteland to a couple of houses. “That was where I grew up,” she said, gesturing towards the nicer of the two. “What about that one?” I asked, pointing at the shut down haunted house next door. There were no other properties around – just this nice family home, clearly still occupied, and then just in front and across from it this remarkable looking wreck. “Ah that was Captain Mundus’ house, I grew up next to him.”
Myself and the two colleagues I was travelling with looked at the state of house and then all turned to Jennifer and asked, “Who was Captain Mundus?”
She looked at us kind of amused and said “He’s the guy they based Quint on in Jaws. I’ll take you to where he used to fish from.” All around her in the rental car mouths were dropping like singing fish.
For ‘professional’ reasons three of us, Martin, Chris and myself, had come to Long Island to write about their emerging ‘wineries’, as they call vineyards. There’s a fully developed wine industry on the North Fork of Long Island. We’d taken the Long Island Rail Road from Manhattan to East Hampton and then picked up a hire car at the small East Hampton Airport, and based ourselves in Sag Harbour with a local wine expert, Mike Todd, who ran the Grapezine, a respected wine fanzine.
For a week Mike drove us on and off the ferries from Sag Harbour as we toured the little known but prodigious Long Island Wine Country. We had a fantastic time. I should say here this story happened a long time before the film Sideways came out but when it did, all three of us recognised their journey in ours.
AROUND GATSBY’S LONG ISLAND
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water
So it’s the end of the last century and this seemed about the best trip anyone could possibly take, being driven round a nice area with great views drinking wine. And then, just as we were considering returning to Manhattan, we were sitting in an Amagansett Diner eating a breakfast of English muffins, crispy bacon and melon, when we came across a Supermodel Beach Volley Ball Charity Match advertised in the local paper, organised by Calvin Klein’s wife Kelly. Martin and Chris booked tickets instantly; I watched from across the knee-high-sized picket fence. And there were real, world famous supermodels – and they were playing beach volleyball. We had developed a sense of wonder about the place. The long grass lined beaches, the old houses in Sag Harbour, the huge brooding Atlantic in front of us at Amagansett. The Hamptons were a great place to just hang about.
There were real, world famous supermodels – and they were playing beach volleyball.
Everyone knows The Hamptons are synonymous with the rich and famous, movie stars, comedians, captains of industry, but somehow it seemed more inclusive than Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe lived in the Hamptons many years ago, as do Jerry Seinfeld, P Diddy, Beyonce and Jay Z now. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin posted footage of their summer party there on her website recently, Sarah Jessica Parker, Stella and dad Paul McCartney were all guests. The Great Gatsby is set on Long Island, it’s where the super rich come and show they can relax. It’s been like that forever so it shouldn’t have really shocked us that supermodels would be playing volleyball on the beach for charity. Once we’d got over the excitement of this sporting bonanza we became quite blasé about picking up balls and handing them back to the sort of women you normally only see on Vogue covers.
SHARKS AT THE END OF THE LINE
Quint’s Orca was based on Captain Mundus’ boat
Image credit: NBS Sportfishing
The news about Quint, though, the rough sea-bitten shark fisherman anti-hero of Jaws, was a different, er, kettle of fish altogether. To be honest you can see supermodels every week in newsagents but here we were being told the real life back-story of a cinematic legend. It not only shocked the three of us, it stunned us. Of all the great mainstream blockbusters few have quite so gnarled a character as Quint. From the moment Robert Shaw’s nails scrape down the blackboard, interrupting a civic meeting with an ear-splitting scrawl, to his terrifying climax when he’s bitten in half on his own sinking boat, The Orca, his death signifying ultimate doom, Quint electrifies the screen. The grizzled World War II veteran with the knowing smile gives Spielberg’s first blockbuster real depth; without his personal tussle with the shark Jaws might have seemed like nothing more than a giant rubber fish eating holidaymakers we hadn’t even got to know. Yet none of us on the trip knew that the best character in one of the greatest thrillers ever filmed was based on a real person. And we certainly had no idea the source material was partly based on Long Island. And so Jennifer promised to take us to Montauk. And take us she did.
We drove for 30 minutes through the natural parks up the 27 with Napeague Bay to the left of the fork and the Atlantic on the right. Brushland and telegraph wires led us along the way until we arrived in what Michael Caine’s character in Sydney Lumet’s film Deathtrap called “the end of the line”. The wilds that surrounded Montauk, all sea and countryside and not quite so many huge hedged off estates as the rest of the Hamptons, has attracted a different type of wealthy weekend jet settler.
In the 1950s Andy Warhol and his boyfriend bought a small estate here for a quarter of a million dollars that would sell fifty years on for £50,000,000, becoming one of America’s most expensive homes. In the 1970s Warhol attracted Jackie Kennedy and her sons to the area, followed later by the Rolling Stones who rehearsed for their Black and Blue tour at Andy’s place. The famed wildlife artist and photographer Peter Beard lived nearby. If the Hamptons had wealth as their badge, Montauk boasted natural beauty and bohemia.
Down in the harbour sport fishing boats lined up alongside each other and we found an English lass from Yorkshire called Tracey organising the charter hires. We stopped and chatted with a Kris Kristofferson lookalike who was a Washington lobbyist taking some time off to fish and recommended we take to the sea. He also told us that Captain Mundus had retired to Florida or Hawaii or some place. As we watched white craft come in and out of the harbour, sound-tracked by that constant tinkling of wind through the masts, it was immediately apparent what Peter Benchley had taken from the area and laid down to the pages of his book about a saltwater serial killer.
Right next to us was a photograph of a man showing his bare backside to great white sharks chewing on whale meat.
We settled down in one of the wood panelled seafood-serving fisherman’s restaurants and ordered. All around were photographs of shark jaws being pulled open, sharks dangling from gallows scales, groups of fishermen in line-ups. And right next to us was a photograph of a man stood on the floating carcass of a whale, out at sea, showing his bare backside to great white sharks chewing on the whale meat just yards away.
“That! Is Captain Mundus,” said Jennifer. “He pretty much invented shark fishing, jealous rivals said that the day before a charter he would go out to the shelf where the fish gather, and drop a fridge full of old butcher’s meat into the deep knowing the blood would attract the sharks. Until he started doing this no one had ever really caught sharks, they were considered the garbage trucks of the ocean so no one wanted to catch them. Once they saw how impressive they were it took off.”
THE SEARCH FOR A BIG ENOUGH BOAT
“I’ll find him for three, but I’ll catch him and kill him for ten…..”
Image credit: Tabloidbaby
Inspired by this tale, we checked into a crazy little place called The Montauket, hidden away from the main town but with amazing views over the ocean, where a tall ship used for teaching kids to sail sat out on the blue. Nearer to shore there was a floating square the Montauket owner drove golf balls at and would then go out with his scuba gear to collect every now and then. It was a budget option back in the 90s but it’s still there and its bar at sunset is legendary.
We had come to Long Island to find out about wine and ended up discovering a true legend immortalised in film.
We booked a boat and went shark fishing, starting at dawn, after a night of no sleep in the café with Mundus and shark jaws on walls. We caught one and let it go but that’s another story. I later began writing to Mundus on email and his website had started doing well with his own merchandising. Neither Peter Benchley, Spielberg nor anyone else had ever disputed Mundus was the basis for Quint and Frank wasn’t at odds to try and prove it. It was just a given, a man once discovered never forgotten. We had come to Long Island to find out about wine and ended up discovering a true legend, a man immortalised in fiction and film. Montauk is a special place, one of our party, Chris who is now a Sunday Times photographer, went back there this month.
“It’s a lot trendier now than when we went, the rest of the Hamptons is so expensive Montauk has become a bit of an attraction for younger travellers and holiday makers. There are good hotels and it’s very boutique now, but the harbour is still the same and those amazing pictures are still on the walls of those cafés we ate in.”
Although he died a few years back, the legend of Frank Mundus lives on. Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women.