By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Mary Lou, Sue, Deirdre, Paull, Joe, Judith and Roy share a group beach house for singles on the Eastern Shore. But it's not what you think.
This is how the world sees group beach houses: ratty shag carpets and drunken 20-somethings passed out under beer pong tables. Boozy pickups and one-night stands.
This is life at the Cottage, as Mary Lou and the others have dubbed their well-appointed house: tennis matches in the morning and cocktails on the beach in the late afternoon. Their first party this year was a black-tie affair, and a recent dinner featured grilled swordfish steaks and pinot grigio, accompanied by gazpacho served in chilled martini glasses.
And the singles? They're all over 50. Some are way over 50, though they'd rather not be more specific. " Nobody knows how old I am," Cottage member Joe Herbert said.
The Cottage is one of about 10 singles beach houses in Rehoboth and Dewey Beach for the "mature" set. They have names like the Heartbreakers, the Bird House, Sunsations and Summer Dreams. The singles host progressive gourmet dinner parties and take turns throwing the weekly, invitation-only cocktail party.
"When one of my tennis friends asked me to join a group beach house, I thought, 'Oh no, I'm much too old for that.' I imagined people swinging from chandeliers," said Deirdre Murray, relaxing at the Cottage after an invigorating tennis game. "I didn't know about these houses for people my age. I didn't know it would be this much fun. This has been wonderful for my social life."
Members are recruited by word of mouth and vetted thoroughly. They work for the federal government, big corporations or defense contractors. They are college professors, economists, political consultants. Many are at the top of their game professionally. And many say the beach house scene is like a salve. Because life can be, well, lonely.
Some call themselves "re-singled" by divorce or the death of a spouse. Others just never found the right one. That's part of what brings them back to the beach each weekend.
"Maybe you'll find the person you've been looking for," said George Seymour, the retired Army colonel who runs Summer Dreams. "At least you won't be sitting home alone."
Some houses cater to curl-up-with-a-book types. "In our house, we have a bottle of vodka that's been in there two or three years," said David Mann, who runs the Bird House for singles with his wife, Bonnie. "I would say the biggest problem we have is not people coming in drunk. It's snoring."
Others tend to be on the wilder side. "At the beach, it's not your age or what you do that's important," said Hank Robinson, who ran the Mardi Gras house for 18 years until recently. "It's what you drink. I drink Captain Morgan and ginger."
But all the houses have rules. Everyone gets their own bed. No in-house dating. If you like someone, wait until after Labor Day to start a relationship. If you're interested in someone, hand out a card with your first name, the name of your house and the house phone number.
There are no overnights.
"People make noise. We don't want that," said John Wallace, 60, the "house father" of the Dewey Drop In. "I don't want disruption of any kind. I want people to sleep properly."
* * *
It's Friday evening of Labor Day weekend, the last beach house weekend of the summer. At Summer Dreams, singles have been arriving all afternoon, choosing which bed they'll sleep in. The Seashell and Palm bedrooms are highly sought after for their private baths. The Sails Bedroom, with its bunk beds, usually fills last. The phone starts ringing for tennis dates, lunch invitations and dinner plans. Seymour uncorks a bottle of wine. Miles Davis music plays softly while some members sit in front of their laptops, using the house Wi-Fi to finish up some work.
A few miles away, a crowd gathers on the back deck with Coors Lights at the Dewey Drop In, one of the older singles beach houses, before leaving for Taco Toss, a weekly happy hour at the Lighthouse bar. Members of the group, some well into their 50s and 60s, dutifully present IDs to the bouncer at the door.
"Do you remember Lori?" Robinson, who is wearing Mardi Gras beads, asks a friend over the pounding music and the crush of people. "She used to be with the Kahuna House."
"You mean the one with the black hair?" his friend asks.
"Well, it's gray now."
The Taco Toss is one place where the "seasoned" set mixes with the 20-somethings. True, there are some older people in group houses with Gen X and Gen Y-ers. And no doubt there are the "cougars," older women on the prowl for younger men, and older men who joke about finding not necessarily Miss Right, but "Miss Right Now." But they're not part of the more exclusive mature beach house scene.
Debbie McDonald, a Dewey Drop In alumna, squeals as she finds the current members and hugs them all. She calls them her family. She nurses an orange crush, the drink of choice at The Lighthouse -- orange vodka, triple sec, Sprite and O.J. -- and quickly becomes serious when explaining her connection to these houses for older singles. After her husband died eight years ago, she was lost. And after you've been part of a couple for so long, you don't know how to be single again.
"I wish I could have that life back," she says, her bright eyes watering. "But you can't. So you do what you can and go on."
* * *
The boomer beach house scene has been quietly going strong for decades. Lynne Meyer, 67, who was a member of the Heartbreakers for years, recalls the heyday of the mature scene about 10 years ago, when cocktail parties were elaborate and took months of planning. The Circus House party had a dunk tank, clowns and a kissing booth. The Balloon House party required everyone to bring a helium balloon and release it in the house once they arrived. One house hosted a plantation party, and women showed up in hoop skirts and men in Confederate get-ups, some in carriages, some on horseback.
But over the years, people have retired or moved away. A few died. Others got tired of the beach scene. Some, like Meyer, bought their own beach houses. And some did find true love, got married and moved on. The Bird House is known for such magic -- producing more marriages than any other.
"It does happen. But not that often," said Ed Goode, 58, who is divorced and works for the federal government. "If you come down here to meet the 'one,' your soul mate, it just doesn't happen. Usually, you're wound too tight. You've just got to think that you're coming here to have fun. To be free. To get away from the constraints of official Washington."
Of course, the beach is a draw, as are the restaurants. There is the freedom to don a pair of mauve shorts and a purple T-shirt and jump on your bike, as Goode likes to do, away from the hassles of a stressful Washington job. And there is companionship. Wilson Varga, a middle-aged man with a heart condition, takes comfort in knowing that not only will his housemates watch his keys and wallet when he goes for a swim, they will know what to do with his nitroglycerin should the need arise.
Still, that promise, that hope of a second chance, runs through the crowd like an electric current. Many want what Steve Tupper, 63, a Vietnam vet formerly of the Margaritaville group house, just got.
Shortly after 11 p.m. Friday night, Tupper charges into the Summer House restaurant and bar, the hangout for the older set in Rehoboth. He is bursting with happiness. He brushes sand off his right knee, the one he knelt on at the beach moments ago to propose to a woman he met last year at a "Back to the Beach" party. Even in the dim light of the bar, the diamond ring sparkles.
"I'm in love!" Tupper says as the 1980s hit "Don't Stop Believing" plays loudly in the background.
* * *
Saturday night. The group at the Cottage has spent the day playing tennis or biking the new seven-mile trail to Lewes. Paull Phillips, a retired defense contractor, has brought his special plastic cocktail glasses with the pink flamingos to the beach. Roy, an attorney from Northern Virginia who prefers not to give his last name, is searching for the eyeglasses he lost after a swim in the ocean and can't drive home without. They've decided to cook together and forgo the Sunsation House's end-of-summer "Women in Black" cocktail party.
There, house father Joe Kane, dressed in a loud green-and-red Hawaiian shirt, greets the partygoers with hugs. He's spared no expense to make this a memorable send-off. Chocolate martinis. Shrimp. Champagne fountain. Inside, Bev Farrand, a Washington caterer in a black cocktail dress accented by a thick necklace of turquoise, surveys the crowd. She jokes that some of her friends have dated half the men in the room. She herself has dated three. A friend comes by and describes the novel he's writing, "Ladies' Oasis," about his 10 years in the mature singles beach house scene. "It's not a love story, but it's about love," he says before going off in search of drinks.
Farrand joined Heartbreakers after her 10-year marriage failed. Maybe she'll find someone special again. Maybe she won't. Maybe here at the beach. Maybe not. She shrugs. She adjusts her wide-brimmed black hat and plunges into the crowd.