The loyal customers of Larsen’s Fish Market, a barebones place that buys straight from the docks out the back door, awoke early on August 19, 2019, the Monday morning after the Ag Fair. Some had gotten word from an email to everyone with a house charge account, others via Instagram. We gathered at Menemsha Texaco at 6:45 AM, more than a hundred strong, arranged ourselves by how many decades we’d gotten fish from Larsen’s and marched down to the store. The bell buoy in the harbor clanged behind us. It was Martha’s Vineyard as the island wishes to see itself, the “Old Vineyard” come back to life, corporate raiders and housepainters, writers and farmers, natives, washashores, and summer folks all celebrating together. The surprise 50th birthday party was organized by Ken Iscol, cell phone impresario, whose wife, Jill, co-chaired Hillary Clinton’s finance committee when she was in the Senate. We sang “Happy Birthday” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Betsy Larsen, who had inherited the fish store from her father, cried when she saw the crowd. A Chilmark poet had composed an ode: “For actors and Crickers, moms and mobsters, / Once-harpooned swordfish and chicken lobsters.” Caroline Kennedy, just rolled out of bed, gave a peck on the cheek to Vernon Jordan, impeccably turned out even at such an early hour. Everything was over by 7:30, and Larsen’s prepared to open for the day at 9.
The metaphor in all island talk is Eden. Once upon a pastoral time, whenever that time might be, the Vineyard was paradise. In 1973 MIT urban theorist Kevin Lynch described the up-Island vistas he knew well from his summers in Gay Head as
a soft, flowing landscape, quiet, rather old and worn—sometimes almost mournful. Stone is very much part of it, as are erratic boulders, old stone fences, old foundations. The land does not change so much with the seasons as with the light, or in the mist. . . . Although many island views are broad, and give a sense of great openness and spaciousness, the scale of the natural features of the island is actually rather small. Hills are neither long nor high, and most trees are low.
That ineffable sense of place, familiar and mysterious, draws people here, whether for a week or a summer or all through the quiet, gray winters. The Vineyard clings to an aura of community, of rootedness, of permanence. Its pleasures are timeless ones: a swim in salt water, a bucket of steamers. And yet the island is also a constant reminder, once you get to know it, of the fragility in its illusions.
Martha’s Vineyard has a year-round population of almost twenty thousand, which swells to more than one hundred thousand in the summer. The island is twenty-six miles long and nine miles wide at its furthest points. It has six towns. The three larger towns, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury (centered on the port of Vineyard Haven) are “down-Island.” The three more rural towns, Aquinnah (formerly Gay Head), Chilmark, and West Tisbury, are “up-Island,” so named for being upwind or up the lines of longitude. Governance is fragmented. Despite manifest inefficiencies, the towns, themselves cumbersome amalgams of boards and decisions taken at open Town Meeting, guard their prerogatives zealously. Then come all the other bodies filled with islanders trying hard to do good, and with long-running internal politics of their own: the Land Bank, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which reviews big developments, the county (thanks to a seventeenth-century drafting error, it’s the County of Dukes County), the Vineyard Transit Authority, which runs the buses, and, most important, the beloved, vexing Steamship Authority, which runs the boats that are the only way to bring your car over, and whose motto, when things go wrong, is said to be “we’re not happy ‘til you’re not happy.”
Martha’s Vineyard has always been a place that gives people their privacy and allows separate, siloed communities to have their own social affairs. “Chilmark midnight” is nine o’clock, at which time things are still going strong down-Island. Only Edgartown and Oak Bluffs allow liquor stores. The summer and year-round crowds are separate, too, more so than in the old days, and so are the ethnic communities, less so than in the old days—there are more cross-cutting ties of old classmates and the like, now—but more than one might imagine.
Among WASPs, West Chop is Boston Brahmins and still ostentatiously abstemious. Edgartown, centered around the Yacht Club and the lawns of the old whaling captains’ houses, is more spiffed-up. Oak Bluffs has had, since Harlem Renaissance days and especially in August, a special attraction for the Black elite, with its own culture centered on Inkwell Beach, made particularly vivid in the writing of Dorothy West. The largest foreign-born population is Brazilian, by best estimates about 3,000-strong, often from Minas Gerais, drawn here from a Lusophone population dating back to Azorean fishermen who first arrived in whaling days. Signs like the ones telling us to practice social distancing are often bilingual in English and Portuguese.
Most important are the Wampanoag, original inhabitants of an island called Noepe. In all the questions of who belongs here, their claims come first. According to Wampanoag tradition, a giant named Moshup, creator of the landscape and teacher and protector of the Wampanoag people, lived with his wife, Squant, and their family beneath the clay cliffs at the westmost end of the island, in a place called Aquinnah. The cliffs are red from the blood of the whales he smashed before he ate them. At the time of contact, having warned of new people with new ways, Moshup vanished under a dune, where he is said still to reside.1 As the Wampanoag and the English settlers under Thomas Mayhew negotiated and renegotiated their relationship through the 17th century, the island avoided the carnage seen elsewhere in New England. Yet encroaching settlement pushed Wampanoag to the periphery of the island, and particularly to Aquinnah, named Gay Head by the English, whose boggy soil made it ill-suited for farming. In 1870, the Wampanoag finally gained full citizenship and Gay Head became a town of its own. The Rural Electrification Administration lit Gay Head only in 1952; in the early years of the last century, the roads were so bad, Gay Headers in search of supplies found it easier to sail to New Bedford than to travel overland to Edgartown. As new residents moved in—the first non-Wampanoag selectman was elected in 1975—and the American Indian Movement encouraged native identities, the tribe pushed for federal recognition, which finally arrived in 1987. In 1997, the town of Gay Head was renamed as Aquinnah. Now the controversy is over a small casino, deep in the woods on tribal land. After a long legal battle with the town, the tribe won permission to build it. Given the location, it is hard to see how it will be a financial success. Construction is paused as the courts wrangle over whether it needs building permits from the town. The tribe is divided. Those who live in Aquinnah largely oppose it. The majority residing off-Island favor it, and have prevailed.
The pandemic has largely spared Martha’s Vineyard, which has recorded only eighty-five cases and no deaths. Norms around masks are good; the biggest flare-ups are at the Steamship Authority, the one place where so many social strata find themselves in such close proximity. There’s testing for everyone available at the high school. It took some good island pluck to coordinate, but the only reason the Vineyard, so little affected, has received this largesse is that the CEO of Quest Diagnostics has a place here. The most interesting island connection comes from Jaws, filmed here in 1974 just as development heated up. The infamous scene with the mayor desperate to let ‘er rip was filmed at the circle behind the Gay Head Cliffs, sacred ground for the Wampanoag and now the site of the powwow every September, adding a settler-colonial frisson to a scene that now reads as prophecy.
I am, to use a term of art, a lifelong seasonal resident. I made my first crossing on the much-missed Islander2 at three months. The next summer, everybody clapped when I toddled all the way across the foredeck of the Naushon, the last steamship on the East Coast. I’ve never stayed here all winter, however, which puts me in my place. My grandparents first came to the island in 1963 and stayed at the Harborside in Edgartown. Two years later, they headed to Chilmark, whose old sheep farms had begun to divide into summer houses just in time for the generation of Jews that had gone off to war, made it in the professions or in businesses built from peddlers’ carts and scrap heaps up to the medium-big time, and now wanted a place of their own to escape. In 1974, they bought three acres of land on Prospect Hill for what now seems a song, and built this house.
Through dumb luck, I get to live out the old dream, spending all summer here, as family members come and go, and when I can staying on into the glorious fall. Though my grandmother, German Jewish, selected all the midcentury modern furniture, my grandfather, Russian Jewish, added the final flourish. From the shtetl to Martha’s Vineyard, a cousin had said to him, in one generation! And so he hired a sculptor, who took that cliché of midcentury Jewish assimilationist anxiety and made a weathervane. There he is above me now, the fiddler on the roof, surveying the sweep from Nomans Land across to Cuttyhunk, in homage and warning.
Ronald Dworkin, who for decades summered on Chilmark Pond, argued that rights trump. On Martha’s Vineyard, claims to island-ness trump—but those claims must be carefully cultivated. More to the point is Nicole Galland, a playwright whose etiquette column in the Martha’s Vineyard Times offers the most infallible guide to the Vineyard’s Versailles-complicated social structures: “The tried and true Vineyard MO is passive aggressiveness.”
Observers not long versed in island ways tend to make two assumptions, each catastrophically wrong. Either they look at all the bold-faced names and assume that the rich people must call all the shots, or they watch the easy familiarities and assume that everyone is equal. Money, power, and status interact in complicated ways on the Vineyard, giving all sorts of privileges to year-rounders—even as folks here all winter face the problems of patching together both jobs and housing. If you want to earn your stripes, it will take time, measured in years if not decades. As well-heeled recent arrivals are told but often fail to comprehend, throwing your weight around is a bad strategy. You’ll get talked about at potlucks. Lots of loyal volunteer work that involves actually showing up, favors to neighbors generously bestowed, maybe time spent serving as a judge at the Ag Fair, and then you’ll start to get somewhere. Special points when you show some skill in the old island ways: mending net, gutting fish, bailing hay, repairing antique machinery.
Island social structure follows a consistent pattern. Vineyard natives come above washashores (those who have moved here from away—and a particularly fraught term), who come above seasonal residents, but probably below those who’ve moved away, especially if they’ve kept up ties, who come above summer people who come and go, who come above renters, who come above the dreaded day-trippers. Among summer folks, many of us are now the children and grandchildren of those who got when the getting was good. For some, keeping the house is a stretch, so they rent out the place for the summer and come in the shoulder season. In many cases, Martha’s Vineyard goes along with a certain bien pensant downward mobility. Ties are longstanding. As of 2015, two-thirds of houses in Chilmark had their last arm’s-length sale before 1980.
Access to scarce resources, on the Vineyard theory, should be determined not by money or by merit in a public way but by local knowledge, whether of where to buy the best fresh eggs, when and where the stripers are biting, how to avoid the nasty intersections, or where to take a particularly lovely walk (that I’ll divulge: Cedar Tree Neck, though good luck getting there). Knowing these tricks, in turn, marks one as a proper Islander, to whom good things can be doled out. I mentioned to a gruff bus driver once the intersection “where Humphrey’s used to be.” Instantly, he opened up, explaining exactly who was who in the family feud that drove the beloved doughnut shop from its original home. The Ag Fair, the most important event on the island calendar (and sadly virtual this year), moved from the Grange Hall into its new space, raised in a fine old barn-raising, in 1995, but no self-respecting islander, including those who never went to a Fair at the Grange Hall, would dare call it anything but “The New Ag Hall.” The corollary is a certain exasperating quality, because Vineyarders do thing their way and on their timetable. Good luck getting anything fixed in the fall, when everybody wants to fish the Derby. And that is as it should be, because fishing the Derby is what matters on an island.
If you want to show a certain in-the-know Vineyard defiance, then fly the gull flag. In the late ’70s, when the islands lost their guaranteed representation in the Massachusetts House of Representatives3 as it downsized from 240 to 160, a movement arose for secession. Vermont evinced interest, and the towns all voted in favor at Town Meeting, but, with no approval from the state legislature and no appetite for any unilateral declarations, it fizzled. Still, the flag designed then endures, a white gull set against an orange sun and a blue sky, a symbol of pluck and maybe even solidarity. In the parking lot at Alley’s a few weeks back, a pickup truck had bumper stickers with a gull flag, and a raised fist.
The problems of Martha’s Vineyard are endemic ones. Housing costs too much, and employment is too precarious. “The Vineyard shuffle,” wherein year-round residents must vacate their winter housing when prices go up in the summer and move somewhere more cramped or less salubrious, is a way of life. Three-acre zoning on most of the island restricts supply. Then add in the high cost of materials that must arrive by boat or barge. Because the island has no ordinary housing market, the solution simply to build more would be a disaster. It would open the way for more summer houses used as investment properties, arranged in big developments. The result would further suburban-ify the island. Too many spread-out houses pollute the groundwater, since only the three downtowns use anything beyond septic fields, and in short order drain the aquifer, as most of us rely on well water. Still, landscapes remain threatened as big parcels get chopped up. Since 1986, the MV Land Bank has taken a 2.5 percent tax on real-estate sales to buy open space, but as its portfolio grows, so does the cost of maintenance, squeezing out acquisition.
What we need instead is serious production of multifamily housing in existing town centers, and a year-round rental market. House lots for long-term residents, the current solution such as it is, feel nice, a throwback to the back-to-the-land days, but offer no real solutions. But the towns have little incentive either to solve the problem on their own, or to cooperate. A real-estate transfer tax on high-value sales that funded affordable housing would help substantially, but would need approval from the state legislature in Boston. Off-island real-estate interests seem likely to block it.
Toward the top of the market, new houses go for things alien to the old Vineyard: swimming pools, central air conditioning, fancy indoor showers over the true and genuine pleasures of an outdoor shower. In 2013, Chilmark voters, at Annual Town Meeting, restricted house size on three-acre lots to a hard maximum of 6,000 square feet. When the Zoias, fortune in hedge-fund and private-equity recruiting, bought a place on Nashaquitsa (aka Quitsa) Pond from the family of Gilbert Harrison, who bought the New Republic from Chilmark neighbor Michael Straight and then sold it to Marty Peretz, and proceeded to construct a monstrosity with an indoor pool, gym, and spa, their next-door neighbors the Iscols—the Ken Iscol who was emcee for the Larsen’s 50th—protested bitterly, and even though the various town boards backed the building inspector’s decision to issue permits, the ensuing contretemps led to the new bylaw, which passed 162–51. “If you want suburbia,” one Chilmarker asked, “what in the world are you doing here?”
“The other island” offers a useful contrast. On Nantucket, further out into the Atlantic, flatter, and even foggier, the hierarchies are clearer than on the Vineyard. Nantucket attracts a more corporate crowd, often flying in, with new wealth far more conspicuously on display. Summer nights in Town are a high-preppy bacchanal. Armadas of late-model Range Rovers prowl the streets. No ratty T-shirts to show old-time cred, floppy pants, or flowing, undyed hair, the key elements of up-Island style; everybody is perfectly turned-out, no matter their ethnicity, trying to ape the classic Nantucket look. The big houses separated by perfectly trimmed hedges, with lawns designed for cocktail parties, outdo one another in their matching hydrangeas. In contrast to the Vineyard, the year-rounders know their station. “Those who can afford a second home on Nantucket are mostly spared any class resentment,” the Boston Globe explained a few years back. Nantucket takes preservation seriously. Often by mandate and otherwise by norm, new construction apes the style of the whaling heyday.4 Back in the dot-com days, a friend told me the story of a man who had illegally installed a hot tub on the widow’s walk of his house in the historic district. The town issued a cease-and-desist order with a fine of a thousand dollars a day until the removal of the offending hot tub. The next day, the owner walked into Town Hall with a check for thirty thousand dollars, and said, “Here’s the first month.” The Vineyard, save for a few blocks in downtown Edgartown, has no such mandates. Our archaism goes deeper than that, to the public weal that gives life to the landscape. And so the essential irony that between these islands it is twee Nantucket, so outwardly concerned with its traditions, that under its weathered patina has embraced the excesses of our time.
The long association between the Vineyard and the left-liberal elite in various guises traces back to Barn House, on South Road in Chilmark, where starting in 1919 intellectuals—Walter Lippmann, Felix Frankfurter, Max Eastman (then in his New Masses phase), Roger Baldwin, Thomas Hart Benton—would gather every summer to talk and drink bathtub gin. Conditions were often rustic. Acres of land, barren and used only for sheep farming, would change hands over the poker table. Baldwin and Benton, who was joined for several summers by the young Jackson Pollock, stayed in Chilmark for decades; Eastman was one of the first non-Wampanoag to build a house in Gay Head. Summer people and year-rounders socialized more in those decades than they do now, as islanders work three jobs to stay here, and summer folk come and go. Trace the connections that brought summer folk up-Island in the next few decades, and Barn House is often the source, in my grandparents’ case a degree of remove and a generation later.
As in so much of American life, the postwar decades form a golden age, no matter the reality. Land was still cheap enough for the chattering classes, and things slowed down enough that it was easy for movers-and-shakers to stay for a spell.5 The Vineyard appealed as a respite to a certain kind of hard-charging, high-modern Cold War–era liberal: Robert McNamara; David Lilienthal; Kingman Brewster; Ed Logue. Off-Island, they wanted to grab society by the lapels, pour concrete, drop bombs. Here, every summer, they embraced the opposite. While head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lilienthal rented a house without electricity.
When the Attorney General—his boss, LBJ, needled advisors about heading to “that female island”—Nicholas Katzenbach, a hero of the civil rights struggle, defended the Vietnam War before Congress, an open letter from his fellow summer residents in the August 25, 1967, edition of the Vineyard Gazette announced that “We consider your testimony to be the most dangerous sort of legalistic subterfuge.” Signers included John Hersey, Lillian Hellman, Philip Rahv, Philip Roth (not otherwise a figure in Vineyard chronicles), and William Styron. McNamara had a place at Windy Gates, just across the road from Barn House, in the ‘70s, when he was running the World Bank. A man—identified by the Gazette as “a West Tisbury artist”; Vineyarders know, but won’t say—tried to push him off the Islander into Vineyard Sound. He clung onto the wire mesh railings and survived. (My mother tells the story of a long line to get onto the boat at Woods Hole. She spied McNamara a couple feet behind her. When the line circled around a corner, there he was already on the gangway. “And that,” she adds, “is why he was McNamara.”)
McNamara later moved to Edgartown, and the Clintons stayed at his house in 1993. Bill Clinton had come here first in the summer of 1969, having crashed a reunion of Eugene McCarthy staffers plotting next steps for the antiwar movement. Though Clinton’s glad-handing ways won him fans, the “Vineyard loves the Clintons” talk is probably truer for the summer crowd (Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a leading PUMA of 2008, has a place in Edgartown) than among year-rounders. All six towns voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016. Post-presidency, the Clintons started vacationing in the Hamptons, and since then they’ve passed through only briefly.
The Obamas stayed in Chilmark, and ventured out less, function both of personality and expanded security envelope around the President. The last three years of his presidency, they rented up the road from us, deep in the Menemsha Hills, with a single road in and out. (The pest exterminator who was trying to get mice out of our basement also serviced the Obama rental; the place was, he said “Unbe-fucking-lievable.” At 8,100 square feet, it could no longer get built.) At the end of the road, past the Obama rental, lies an old brickyard, now reachable via a trail through the Menemsha Hills Reservation, with a precarious chimney and an old waterwheel the remnants of once-thriving industry from the nineteenth century. Especially as the shadows grow long, the mind wanders from Obama to Ozymandias.
To get home, we had to pass through a Secret Service checkpoint, set up in front of a dilapidated red barn from sheep-farming days. Further in on Gosnold’s Way, they looked for explosives under every car. His last summer as President, the last morning before the family headed home, on one of those unspeakably gorgeous days one gets late in August, Obama had the neighbors over for a photo, to thank us for putting up with the inconvenience. I stare at it from time to time, as if the multigenerational portrait in summer-casual might offer lessons of what Obama achieved and what he didn’t.
It takes a lot of vehicles to support POTUS, and up and down Prospect Hill Road they ran all day, bevies of Suburbans with beefy Secret Service agents and golf carts with fresh-faced aides on walkie-talkies. In a detail that seemed to befit a pharaoh, a water truck plied the road to tamp down the dust. It seemed the perfect metaphor for the imperial presidency. It was paid for, I learned when our road association met, by the private-equity tycoon with the best view on Prospect Hill.6 A different metaphor, that.
Ultimately, the Obamas bought, from another private-equity baron (Bain Capital), on Edgartown Great Pond, in Katama on the outwash plain and not the terminal moraine. They fell in love with the house, they said. It has privacy and is closer to golf, but the landscape is flat and dull compared to the windy wilds up-Island. The neighborhood has even been compared—dramatic pause—to the Hamptons. If Obama’s post-presidency suggests a certain upper-middle-brow, high-net-worth, play-it-safe celebrity, complete with the Netflix deal, the new house—and, from Chilmark, this may be truly the narcissism of small differences—fits with the story.
The liberal elite is less coherent in American life than it was half a century ago, and so it is here. The boundaries are more ragged; people come and go more often. “The summer crowd” no longer works so well as a clean descriptor. There are more souped-up events like book festivals now, which people like me tend to avoid. Still, it’s hard to avoid the sense of just how small it is and still how concentrated here. Yes, Alan Dershowitz, he of the “shunning,” really does lurk around the Chilmark Store at lunchtime, and yes he’s as loud as everybody says, and yes he used to play nude volleyball on Lucy Vincent Beach. Now, a year with no cocktail parties means no chance to exchange stories of Dersh sightings.
When Vineyarders talk, as they inevitably do, about the “rural character of the island,” they mean more just the roadside vistas, more even than farming and fishing at the heart of, to quote the citation for the Mrs. Emma Mayhew Whiting award at the Ag Fair, “the traditional way of life of this island community.” Focus also on “character.” At one level, there are the island characters, in a place unusually tolerant of eccentrics and free spirits. But there is also, in that old Yankee way, a deep concern about public mores, a sense that, amid all the carefree days, the island still has lessons about nature and community to teach. “Perhaps,” Yale’s Kingman Brewster once wrote in much this vein, “my deepest attachment is to that island. It stands for the essential harmony and eternity of the world to me.” All the back-and-forth, all the nostalgia for the old Vineyard, and even the Vineyard before that, feels like a long rear-guard action against the inevitable. Make everything easy, iron out all the idiosyncrasies, and the island will still have a story to tell, but we’ll have nothing left to teach. Martha’s Vineyard will be just another dot on the circuit for the global rich.
Last summer, Caroline Kennedy put her 340-acre spread in Aquinnah on the market for $65 million. Her mother had bought it from the Hornblowers, who had owned it since sportfishing days in the first Gilded Age, for $1.1 million back in 1978. Red Gate Farm is unquestionably the finest property in private hands on the island, maybe even, as Kennedy said, “the most beautiful place on earth,” with woods and pond and an exhilarating stretch of dune, shimmering in sunlight and seductively mysterious in fog, reaching down to a mile of beachfront at Zacks Cliffs. Still, if to be a billionaire or close to it these days is to get whatever you want, then having to negotiate with the town (a non-trivial share of whose taxes come from the property), the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and possibly the Tribe can’t be too alluring. No way you can build a helipad. The reason to buy the property is altogether different.
Zacks Cliffs is where the giant Moshup is said to have vanished just at the time of contact. In 2009, during her senior year in college, Rose Kennedy Schlossberg made a documentary about “The Legends of Moshup.” Her siblings made appearances, and narration came from Adriana Ignacio, a member of the tribe. “When we see the fog coming up the cliffs, which happens almost daily,” Ignacio explained as the film ended, “we say that Moshup is smoking his pipe. Us Wampanoag people, we smile at that, because we do believe that that is Moshup, still in our presence today.”7
She’s even the subject of a children’s book: Shirley W. Mayhew’s Islander: When the Circus Came to Martha’s Vineyard. ↩
The state House incumbent, Dylan Fernandes, a winsome former aide to Elizabeth Warren, hails from Woods Hole, on the Cape. At a meeting a few years back, when the questions homed in on one topic, complicated because one must cross waters or airspace controlled by the federal government, to get here, he laughed that “You Vineyarders do love your marijuana.” Tellingly, after a bust of backyard plants a few summers back, the tabloid Martha’s Vineyard Times, catering to the year-rounders, put the news above the fold, while the broadsheet Vineyard Gazette, more precious, ignored the story. ↩
Should you find yourself on the other island, be sure to visit the Whaling Museum. Read the wall panels closely and you’ll learn a labor-history saga that’s rather, shall we say, subversive. ↩
It’s full disclosure and a piece of the story that I have since joined the board of the Prospect Hill Association. There’s ample drama, but I will withhold it, lest the neighbors read this article and find secrets spilled. ↩