By Patrick Rogers
July 30, 2001 12:00 PM

Who needs Malibu when you have the Hamptons, home away from home for Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin and the Spielbergs, where sleek young women mingle with muscle boys, where a barbecue means Wellfleet oysters and sea bass for a couple of hundred guests by the pool, and where power brokers from New York City crowd into local clubs to get down—and sometimes get in trouble? “We are obsessed with the rich and famous,” says Nancy Geary, author of a murder mystery set among the Hamptons elite. “And if they screw up, it’s all the more exciting.”

Even Lizzie Grubman, rich but until recently not truly famous, is willing to concede that she screwed up. Around 2 a.m. on July 7, the 30-year-old Manhattan socialite and celebrity publicist stepped on the gas of her father’s 2001 Mercedes SUV outside Southampton’s Conscience Point Inn and sped backward into a crowd, injuring 16 people. Grubman, who has represented such clients as Britney Spears and Gloria Estefan, claims she didn’t know she was in reverse and never meant to hurt anyone (“I feel so badly,” she says). But others, including the police, who charged her with six counts of first-degree assault and one count of leaving the scene, and four victims, who have sued her for a total of $92 million in damages, say she deliberately gunned the car backward. Security supervisor Scott Conlon, 31, one of those injured, says that just before doing so Grubman angrily referred to him as “white trash” when he asked her to move her car.

And so what might have been seen as merely an unfortunate accident has ignited a bitter verbal class war in the Hamptons, pitting people who live there year-round against the affluent outsiders who descend each summer, bringing plenty of money—and attitude. “It’s like she’s better than anyone else,” says Edward Archer, 53, who owns a local men’s-clothing store and is particularly galled that Grubman didn’t wait for police to arrive before leaving the scene with friends.

In short, the locals are steamed. Indeed, 83 percent of the 1,100 residents polled on, a fiercely local Web site that includes such tips as how to avoid dressing like a New Yorker, agreed that Grubman (pronounced GROOB-man) is “a spoiled rich girl.” A rhyme posted on the same site reads, “Lizzie Grubman took her car, and ran down people at the bar; The car it seems was in reverse, maybe she should drive a hearse.” And among the jokes making the rounds of the more modest local hangouts: Why does Lizzie Grubman hope she gets beat up if she goes to prison? So she can continue seeing stars.

In fact, celebrity is no novelty for Grubman, whose father, attorney Allen Grubman, 58, amassed a fortune negotiating contracts for such music industry luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Elton John. And Lizzie, raised on Park Avenue as the elder of her father’s two daughters with former wife Yvette, 58 (who had surgery for ovarian cancer the day after her daughter’s arrest), has said she was actually a bit embarrassed by her family’s wealth. She once told New York magazine that she had the limo sent by her father to pick her up at school stop a few blocks away so schoolmates wouldn’t see it.

Never a stellar student, Grubman attended no fewer than four New York City prep schools before dropping out of Boston’s Northeastern University in her first semester to help promote local clubs owned by a friend. Six years later she wed attorney Eric Gatoff, an associate in her father’s firm, in a memorably lavish ceremony at New York City’s Pierre Hotel that featured $12,000 of beluga caviar stuffed into an ice sculpture of a sturgeon as well as entertainment by the Village People.

They split in 1997, but by then Grubman, who worked for a time in the PR department of VH-1, had launched her own publicity firm specializing in musical acts and nightclubs in New York City and Miami. Last year she merged her company with the more established operation run by press agent Peggy Siegal. “I admire Lizzie’s work,” says Madonna‘s spokeswoman and PR powerhouse Liz Rosenberg. “She’s one of the most steady, even-tempered people in this business.”

But maybe not always. On the evening of the incident at the Conscience Point Inn, Grubman, after attending a clambake at the seaside digs of friend Alex von Furstenberg, stopped in at the club after midnight. She was leaving at about 2 a.m. when she pulled into a fire lane and was asked to move her SUV, which her spokesman, veteran New York City publicist Howard Rubenstein, says she had driven “only a few times.” Moments later the vehicle lurched backward into the crowd, pinning at least two people against a wall. Grubman stayed on the scene until friends, fearing that she was going into shock, ushered her into a car and drove her to a house nearby, according to Rubenstein. When police arrived there two hours later, they were met by Grubman’s lawyer, who refused to let officers speak to his client and advised her not to take an alcohol breath test.

Grubman surrendered to authorities in Southampton on July 8 and was freed after posting $25,000 bail. Though she is not scheduled to appear in court until September, her story has left locals disbelieving and angry. “It used to be a blessing to have people flock here to spend their money,” says Kevin Murphy, 27, a produce wholesaler and onetime Hamptons resident. “Now it’s a curse. It’s not just the standard of living—the traffic, pollution, noise. It’s how people treat one another.”

Patrick Rogers

Fannie Weinstein in New York City and Bruce Stockler in Southampton