EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. -- It's hard to say which of the following true facts from the rich and infamous Hamptons -- the string of seaside towns that for more than a decade have served as a sociocultural barometer, a definite ridge of high pressure -- best illuminates The Times in Which We Live.

That the businessman who used to own the big Mercedes and BMW dealership on Montauk Highway and sold it a few months after the stock market crash has lately devoted himself to trying to build a Roy Rogers fast-food restaurant?

Or that the bucolic Sagaponack General Store, which used to sell string and gasoline and now traffics in Sichuan noodles and pa~te', was visited last Sunday morning by a blue limo almost as long as the store is wide? A man in a suede jacket emerged, bought two cardboard cups of coffee, a roll and a newspaper and, saying he was on his way back to the city, was driven off. Locals were unsure whether that constituted true decadence (limousines for the 100-mile drive to New York being fairly standard), as opposed to someone taking the stretch two blocks to buy bagels in his bathrobe, but it still caused a minor stir.

What about violinist Itzhak Perlman's little green and white sign, at the foot of the long driveway leading past a vast lawn to his big white porticoed house, that says "Ole Kesef"? Lots of homeowners in the Hamptons post little signs at their driveways -- how else can friends know where to come for cocktails when so many homes are hidden by two-story-high hedges? -- and most of the signs bear surnames or discreet initials. Perlman's taken a more ironic approach: Ole kesef is Hebrew and loosely translates as "costs serious money."

This story began with a working hypothesis. There've been layoffs all over Wall Street; the New York real estate market is softening. Bloomingdale's is in bankruptcy proceedings; Drexel Burnham is kaput; Trump is bailing hard and Malcolm Forbes is dead. Enter a soberer era, supposedly, kinder and you-know-what-er, less flashy.

Where better to see the effects of such currents, in the first summer of the '90s, than in what New York columnists have taken to calling the Cashamptons? That's where money, fashion and celebrity, lightly breaded with art and literature, converge. Long Island's East End, having felt the reverberations of the greedy '80s from sea to shining Jacuzzi, would be having a different sort of season this year, wouldn't it?

Early straw polls on this subject proved contradictory, however. Decorator Mario Buatta, a k a the Prince of Chintz, a perennial Hamptons house guest, opined that yes, the times they were a-changing. "They're being less ostentatious, they're cutting back a lot," he reported of his socialite chums and clients. "People don't want to be seen out spending."

Oh really? Then who's buying all that $38-per-pound lobster salad at Loaves and Fishes and other upscale takeout shoppes. "They line up and wait as if it were Moscow," said Barbara Langman, who as a local contractor knows all about economic downturns but hasn't noticed Hamptonians behaving as if one were upon them. "I don't see any sign of any concern about seeming ostentatious. Being ostentatious is the name of the game."

The testimony went back and forth. Lots of houses sitting unsold, but more than 400 takeoffs and landings by private and corporate jets and helicopters at East Hampton's miniature airport one recent Sunday. Bargains in summer rentals -- an ocean-front East Hampton place with pool and tennis court could have been picked up for a cut-rate $135,000 for the season this year. On the other hand, real estate people say, one renter is paying $250,000 to occupy a new Southampton palazzo (known hereabouts as the Parthenon because of its neo-post-whatever columns) from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

How to get at the truth of the matter? The highest standards and traditions of journalism demanded firsthand investigation.

First stop, the annual midsummer gala for the Parrish Art Museum, one of social Southampton's musts. This is the first year the invitation didn't specify that gentlemen wear either black tie or blazers, tuxedos in July having finally been declared garments non grata. Various hostesses in Southampton see this as evidence of a simpler lifestyle. "People are more interested in a less bejeweled evening where they're just getting together to see one another and less to strut their stuff," one says.

But when the 500 guests (Carroll Petrie, Betsy Bloomingdale, Mica and Ahmet Ertegun, Paul and Mai Hallingby, department store heirs, the editor of W, that crowd) walk into the tented cocktail reception, bejeweled strutting is precisely what greets them. Six very tall models in black unitards are acting as human display racks, pirouetting to show off opal-and-diamond earrings, gold-and-platinum bracelets, rings on their fingers and brooches pinned to their Lycra-ed tushes. Eddying behind them, a small flotilla of publicists, assistant publicists and marketing directors is intent on ensuring that journalists and guests alike recognize that these are the handiwork of designer Henry ("People inspire my work") Dunay and that they are available (for $20,000 to $1 million) at Black, Starr & Frost in New York.

And what to make of Sheila Natasha Friedman, who cruises in wearing a brightly beaded rendition of Picasso's "Girl Before a Mirror" with matching headgear, purse, earrings and shoes? None of these items could accurately be described as understated, but then, "I never thought that anonymity had many perks," says Friedman, who designs such dresses and would be happy to sell one to anyone who drops by her studio in Miami with a spare five grand.

On to dinner. Designer Robert Metzger rustled up $60,000 in donations so that he could decorate this air-conditioned tent with 5,000 yards of parachute silk and computerized "stars" twinkling above, plaster urns of camellias and roses and ostrich plumes, and Marie Antoinette. The gala, like senior proms, always has a theme and this year's is Bastille Day. Thus Marie, standing atop a tiered cake and playing the accordion, flanked by two uniformed cavaliers wearing "Let 'em Eat Cake" buttons.

Metzger burbles that this decor constitutes "taking the revolutionary and updating it for today." Guests come up to him shaking their heads in helpless admiration: It's divine; he's outdone himself. Later, "Marie" (actually cabaret singer Phoebe Legere) joins Peter Duchin's orchestra in an impassioned "Marseillaise." "She was really just a very innocent young girl from Austria," Legere says. "I'm sure she was used as a scapegoat."

The evening will raise roughly a quarter of the museum's $1.4 million operating budget. The New York antiques dealer who's chairman of the board says that peddling tickets was a bit more difficult this year ("We just hustled our butts off," is actually what he said). Still, the gala doesn't quite seem to qualify as evidence of hard times in the Hamptons, does it? Guests are encouraged to take home their chair covers, silk-screened with guillotines, as party favors.

Further research is called for.

It's a frowned-upon term, "The Hamptons," since there are several and residents of each think their particular Hampton delightful and the others insufferable.

Southampton is home to the old-money set and those intent upon spending their new money in old-money ways. It's where women are named Brucie, where dinner parties at which men wear Turnbull & Asser shirts sans jackets and women wear silk Adolfo pajamas are described as rakishly informal. Where Chessie Rayner, the socially connected decorator, says that she lives very simply and that when she entertains, "I happen to do a buffet because they amuse me."

Financiers Henry Kravis (and designer Carolyne Roehm, his wife), Milton Petrie and Felix Rohatyn, socialites Anne Bass and Robin and Angier Biddle Duke, former media machers William Paley and Henry Grunwald are all Southamptonians. "It's never been a yuppie group," Rayner says. "East Hampton is the one where you have the Billy Joels and the Calvin Kleins, all that sort of thing."

True, East Hampton is starrier. Further Lane alone is home to Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner, Lauren Bacall, Joel and Christie Brinkley, rock impresario Ron Delsener, liquor heir Edgar Bronfman Jr., writer and former Women's Wear Daily editor James Brady and Kathleen Turner as it wends into Amagansett. East Hampton is generally less formal (one dispenses with chauffeurs and drives one's own BMW or Mercedes or, if truly courant, four-wheel-drive vehicle). Has better restaurants and Ralph Lauren's Polo Country Store, where a down-home denim shirt costs $117.50. Has even higher real estate prices than Southampton.

Along with financiers and investment bankers, East Hampton attracts a high density of media people (Mortimer Zuckerman, CBS/Broadcast Group President Howard Stringer, Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, Christopher Whittle) and show biz folk (Steven Spielberg, Chevy Chase, Herbert Ross and Lee Radziwill). Its denizens think Southampton is impossibly stuffy and overdone; Southampton's advocates think East Hampton is too glittery and fashion-conscious to be truly restful.

Between and around these two poles are other smaller communities. Bridgehampton. Water Mill. Sagaponack.

Westhampton draws more singles and clubs and discos for singles. Rich singles. "I had people in Westhampton come in and say, 'I'm having a party; I want all the smoked salmon and caviar in the store,' without even finding out how much that was," says Ina Garton, who had a shoppe there but now owns the Barefoot Contessa (calling it a takeout deli is like calling Le Cirque a luncheonette) in East Hampton.

Sag Harbor is the site of a Saturday media softball game. The changing teams are unnamed although, first baseman and PR honcho John Scanlon points out, "If Mort Zuckerman is on the other side, he's the Haves and we're the Have-Nots." The roster includes authors Richard Reeves, Ken Auletta and Robert Sam Anson, attorney Richard Emery and his actress wife, Lori Singer, U.S. News columnist John Leo as general organizer and writer Wilfrid Sheed as commissioner.

The Sag Harbor group forms the nucleus of the writers' team at the annual Artists' and Writers' Game, an August charity event played behind the A&P in East Hampton. "Last year," recalls Scanlon, who does the play-by-play with Stringer, "Christopher Reeve scored the winning run -- Paul Simon drove him in -- and the artists won for the first time in years."

What these places have in common, aside from physical beauty and overwhelming infusions of money, is that their residents invariably claim to be in search of seclusion and sloth. They don't brave the Long Island Expressway every weekend to go to parties. No. They never go out at all. They certainly never talk business with their illustrious and well-connected neighbors, though they've heard that such things transpire. Someone else must be keeping all those caterers and cafes in business.

Maybe the ubiquitous George Plimpton. Last weekend, between matches of a celebrity-and-amateur tennis tournament in East Hampton, he attended Liz Fondaras's annual Bastille Day luncheon for 140 at her seaside home. That night he helped set off the fireworks at the annual Boys' Harbor benefit picnic.

Next morning finds him co-hosting a garden fund-raiser for New York State Assembly candidate Linda Bird Francke in Sagaponack, where Bloody Marys are dispensed in a purple-and-white gazebo surrounded by hollyhocks and where this inquiry into the hearts, minds and checkbooks of the Hamptons continues.

Wilfrid and Miriam Sheed are here, and ur-feminist Betty Friedan, veteran journalist Ted Morgan, super-editor Alice Mayhew of Simon & Schuster, author and columnist Michael Thomas. Neighbor Kurt Vonnegut drops by toward the end.

Novelist John Irving, who actually is reclusive ("I buy enough food on Fridays not to go out -- defensive living"), gives a sort of keynote address about the importance of legal abortion, the separation of church and state, and his own boyhood experiences buying (he whispers) "prophylactics." It's a charming tale, well-told, of how an overzealous pharmacist called Irving's mother, who loudly defended the boy's right to buy condoms and ordered the pharmacist to sell him a dozen ("I thought a dozen would surely last me through college"). Then she turned on her son with a fierce "And just what do you want with these?"

"So much for parental consent," says the now-famous son, introducing his Sagaponack neighbor Francke. "Oh, he's adorable," sighs a woman in white linen pants.

Francke, a former Newsweek writer who has collaborated with Rosalynn Carter, Geraldine Ferraro and Benazir Bhutto on their memoirs, is trying to unseat a six-term Republican incumbent who votes against abortion rights. She says she's "deadly serious" about this campaign, that "this is not Gidget Goes to Albany."

She and fellow Democrat Sherrye Henry, a former New York broadcaster running for the state Senate, have been staging fund-raisers all summer. The biggest was an auction where Plimpton (!), Nora Ephron and playwright Peter Stone were among the auctioneers and supporters bid on birding walks with Peter Matthiessen and dinner at Elaine's with Bruce Jay Friedman.

The writer-and-artist axis, which has always existed in the Hamptons alongside the coalesced money and power, helps give the area its cachet. In fact, given enough phone lines (Richard Reeves just put in three) and fax machines, more writers are staying here week-round or even year-round.

But one hears a lot of muttering from the creative set too. Francke, raising the environmental flag, complains about the snowy-flowered potato fields turning into development sites. Irving recalls with a shudder that "one reprehensible architect described Sagaponack as an architectural laboratory... . There are a couple of houses on Hedges Lane that look like they were erected as deterrents to parachutists." He and his wife flee to Canada each August.

The media have intensified as well as documented these problems, Michael Thomas is complaining, by taking softball games and other "ordinary things -- like people giving a cocktail party every year -- and transforming them into objects of desire."

"Or fund-raisers," says Wilfrid Sheed, who's next up as a host on the Francke circuit.

"Things you have to get into," says Thomas (personal tally: three phone lines, four counting the car, one fax). "So some of us get out."

He is not certain whether chastened '90s attitudes have yet arrived in the Cashamptons. "I think the glitz quotient is down a little. I haven't heard of the usual outrageous tales," he muses. Last August Gayfryd Steinberg crossed some sort of invisible but significant line when the 50th birthday bash she gave in nearby Quogue for husband Saul, a very '80s sort of corporate swashbuckler, cost a million bucks, maybe more, depending on whose estimate one believes. It might have been the tableaux vivants she staged (gilt-framed dioramas of famous old masters peopled with live actors, including a nude woman as a "Rembrandt" portrait), as much as the price tag, that caused the gagging. Nothing comparable has occurred this season but, Thomas warns, "it's not August yet."

The Trupin house is unmistakably a symbol, sitting vacant on the beach in Southampton, its chateaulike turrets still encased in scaffolding, but a symbol of what? Barry Trupin, a financier grown wealthy on tax shelters, began building it in the early '80s, while the land rush was on, transforming the old du Pont estate into a dream house so bizarrely opulent, with a 20-foot indoor waterfall and a replica of a 16th-century pub, that it scandalized even this aristocratic town. He planned to spend $25 million on it, but was forced to stop work amid local clamor in 1984 when the town found that he had violated zoning restrictions. It's never been finished, and no one wanted to buy it for $12 million last time it went on the market, so it has sat empty while tourists drive up to the gates with binoculars and cameras.

But last week Sotheby's officially relisted it and is preparing to mail out 5,000 color brochures offering the Trupin house and its 6.3 acres for sale at "an irresistible price," a Sotheby's saleswoman says: a mere $6.5 million, plus whatever it costs the buyer to either finish the thing or tear it down and start over.

Clear evidence that the bloom is off the boom. Clear evidence that belt-tightening in the Hamptons has little to do with deprivation as the rest of the world knows it. Forget the working hypothesis, okay? Let history judge. What everyone really wants to know, anyway, is what are all those crazy rich people with suntans up to out there?

Well. Ronald Perelman, corporate buccaneer, reportedly kept his helicopter pilot living in a mobile home by the airport to save precious time in case his pregnant wife, gossip queen Claudia Cohen, went into labor and had to be flown to New York.

Carl Icahn has had construction cranes hovering over his beach-front house in East Hampton all spring, causing some neighborhood grumbling about noise. He paid $6.8 million, which some real estate folks thought a tad high for a house without a pool or a court, but he could afford it.

Elsewhere on the real estate front, Barbra Streisand is looking, Jann Wenner's place is on the market for $5.75 million (without a water view? good luck), Lauren Bacall won't drop her $2.7 million price, so her house remains unsold after more than a year.

Sinatra was set to rent TV producer Keith Barish's place on the ocean in Southampton last season but backed out because, real estate people say, the privet hedges had been cut back, leaving the house visible to passersby. Of course, the hedges would swiftly have come back; so far, Sinatra hasn't.

Elsewhere, the talk is of Lyme disease, the traffic (they say it's worse than ever; they always say it's worse than ever) and whether it's time to move to Connecticut. And how uncool it was of the town of Southampton to make the newly restored Carvel stand on the highway remove its two fabulous plastic rooftop cones, gems of retro-roadside architecture.

Also -- this just in -- Rick Moranis was spotted eating a muffin at the Buttery in East Hampton last weekend. A sugarless oat-bran muffin, low in fat. With blueberries.