Sum­mer­ing at “The Vine­yard”

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Heller Mcalpin


“To the New Own­ers,” Madeleine Blais’ evoca­tive mem­oir about her fam­ily’s deep con­nec­tion with Martha’s Vine­yard, was trig­gered by the 2014 sale of the beloved prop­erty that her in-laws bought on Tis­bury Great Pond in the 1970s. It joins a flotilla of ele­gies to by­gone sum­mer homes, in­clud­ing Ge­orge Howe Colt’s mem­oir, “The Big House” (2003), and Nick Fitzhugh’s doc­u­men­tary, “Star­board Light” (2014). In each case, fi­nan­cial re­al­i­ties and prac­ti­cal­i­ties spurred a heart­break­ing sale, which in turn un­leashed a high tide of bit­ter­sweet nos­tal­gia.

Blais comes to her sub­ject with two ma­jor ad­van­tages: She’s a deft and witty Pulitzer Prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist, and her hus­band’s par­ents were well­con­nected pow­er­houses. Ni­cholas de­belleville Katzen­bach served as U.S. at­tor­ney gen­eral in the mid-1960s. His wife, Ly­dia King Phelps Stokes Katzen­bach, was an im­pos­ing psy­cho­an­a­lyst.

In her por­trait of the Vine­yard, Blais du­ti­fully trots out the names of fa­mous peo­ple who have sum­mered there, in­clud­ing Jackie Onas­sis, Lil­lian Hell­man, John Belushi and the Clin­tons and Oba­mas, though few get more than a pass­ing men­tion. For­mer Washington Post pub­lisher Katharine Gra­ham rates a whole chap­ter. A high point of each sum­mer was their shared meal, al­ter­nat­ing houses. Blais writes that Mohu, Gra­ham’s 218acre es­tate in Lam­bert’s Cove, “felt like the set of a Katharine Hep­burn movie, one in which the hero­ine shows ver­bal spunk and ath­letic grace in equal mea­sure.”

Blais makes no bones about how un­happy she is about her ex­pul­sion from the fam­ily’s sum­mer Eden, but she is well aware of the dangers of writ­ing what could come across as a “Lament of the One Per­cent.” To put her sad­ness in per­spec­tive, she re­calls her strict Catholic up­bring­ing by a wid­owed mother of six, and cites salient sources of global suf­fer­ing in the sum­mer of 2014.

The book’s snappy tone is ex­em­pli­fied by Blais’ wry com­par­i­son of her hus­band’s old WASP fam­ily with her own Ir­ish Amer­i­can back­ground. “They are be­fore the Mayflower, mine is be­fore the potato famine,” she writes, also con­trast­ing “pri­vate view­ings of the movie ‘PT 109’ at the White House” with “all-you-can-eat spaghetti sup­pers in the church base­ment. … John’s fa­ther was mythic be­cause he was part of his­tory; mine was mythic be­cause he was dead.”

At the heart of Blais’ book is its eu­logy to a cul­ture of “pur­pose­ful mod­esty.” Her in-laws built their sin­gle-story sum­mer house down a two-mile dirt track “be­fore the word ‘Mc­man­sion’ even ex­isted, at a time when peo­ple were still mind­ful of what the neigh­bors might think,” she writes. Like the shack they re­placed, it had a “pick­ledin-time qual­ity,” with no dish­washer, heat, AC, tele­vi­sion or In­ter­net. For years it didn’t even have elec­tric­ity or tele­phone service. Main­tained with what she calls “a strat­egy of be­nign ne­glect,” by the time the fam­ily put it on the mar­ket, “de­cay was gen­eral: Shin­gles had de­tached from the ex­te­rior like a self-peel­ing ba­nana.”

Blais’ ini­tial sur­prise at the rus­tic shab­bi­ness re­minded me of my own baf­fle­ment at the thread­bare rugs and mis­er­able an­cient horse­hair mat­tresses at my hus­band’s grand­par­ents’ Adiron­dack cot­tage, where meals were served for­mally on chipped china. She com­ments, “The idea of a cer­tain kind of cheer­ful self­ab­ne­ga­tion in gor­geous set­tings was new to me, the no­tion that patched el­bows, fray­ing hems, and chipped dishes throw per­fect vis­tas into re­lief and also the no­tion that the less your sum­mer set­ting re­sem­bled the heavy bag­gage of your win­ter set­ting, the bet­ter.”

A self-de­clared ar­chiv­ist, Blais re­lies heav­ily — some­times too heav­ily — on ex­ter­nal doc­u­ments for her por­trait of the Vine­yard. These in­clude many ar­ti­cles from the Vine­yard Gazette quoted at length, and even a fam­ily friend’s col­lege ap­pli­ca­tion es­say about what she learned about the less priv­i­leged from her sum­mer job at the lo­cal Stop & Shop.

Ex­cerpts cherry-picked from the log­books in which visi­tors were re­quired to write add more color. These logs helped to fix mem­o­ries in “ver­bal as­pic,” but also to dis­tin­guish be­tween, say, “the Sum­mer of All Fog” and the sum­mer of no wa­ter. The en­tries in­clude recipes, warn­ings, celebrity sight­ings, dog tales and what she dubs “the art­ful com­plaint,” often about the peren­nial paucity of fish.

Some of the wit­ti­est com­ments are by her sis­ter-in­law, Anne. (“Elec­tri­cians came. Elec­tric­ity didn’t.”) Fa­vorite re­peat guests Phil- ip Ca­puto and his wife, Les­lie Ware, a long­time Con­sumer Re­ports edi­tor, clev­erly rated each year’s visit in CR style. Ly­dia Katzen­bach’s log­post in 1993 pre­sciently flagged “de­light­ful vis­its and fun with the Clin­tons at Kay Gra­ham’s,” where she and her hus­band “came away from din­ner es­pe­cially im­pressed with HRC, feel­ing with her in­tel­li­gence, wit, and warmth she could eas­ily be pres­i­dent her­self. Maybe she will be.”

Blais writes, “I am so grate­ful we per­sisted in tak­ing notes on our­selves. In a cul­ture that wor­ships the delete but­ton, there was some­thing com­fort­ing about the in­deli­bil­ity of these words.”

“To the New Own­ers” sparkles when Blais fo­cuses on her fam­ily’s fre­quently funny ex­pe­ri­ences in­stead of try­ing to cap­ture Martha’s Vine­yard with an is­land tour and a run­down of its off­sea­son ac­tiv­i­ties. I won’t di­vulge what even­tu­ally tran­spires with the Katzen­bach prop­erty, though I can say that the book has an edge. New own­ers — with your cen­tral air-con­di­tion­ing, lap pools, saunas and screen­ing rooms — take note! Blais point­edly show­cases the sim­pler, more mod­est and, alas, rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing old Vine­yard she loves. Un­for­tu­nately, the changes she mourns are hap­pen­ing ev­ery­where. Which makes records like this all the more valu­able.

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