Re­mem­ber­ing a beloved va­ca­tion home

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By John Greenya John Greenya is a Wash­ing­ton-area writer.

TO THE NEW OWN­ERS: A MARTHA’S VINE­YARD MEM­OIR By Madeleine Blais At­lantic Monthly Press, $26, 278 pages

In his im­por­tant 1989 book “The Great Good Place,” Dan Olden­burg gave us the term “a third place,” by which he meant a spe­cial and vi­tally im­por­tant so­cial place other than home or work. For some it could be a park, a club (like a neigh­bor­hood tav­ern or a Moose lodge) where one winds down af­ter the work­day be­fore head­ing home, a spot where you en­joy a sense of place and be­long­ing be­cause you feel wel­come.

For Madeleine Blais, Pulitzer Prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist (“The Heart Is an In­stru­ment: Por­traits in Jour­nal­ism”; “In These Girls, Hope is an In­stru­ment: A True Story of Hoop Dreams and One very Spe­cial Team,” and “Up­hill Walker: The Mem­oir of a Fam­ily”) for decades her third place was a beat-up house with no mod­ern con­ve­niences, but on a pond and the wa­ter in Martha’s Vine­yard, Mass. The house be­longed to her hus­band John’s par­ents who’d bought it for $80,000 in 1970 and did lit­tle to it.

But how bad can it be if it’s on a pond and the wa­ter in Martha’s Vine­yard?

Well, she tells us. “What I saw was a … shack, three or four rooms the size of big clos­ets ham­mered to one an­other with­out any ar­chi­tec­tural fore­sight.” The shower was out­side, con­nected to a big tree, and an out­house took the place of in­door plumb­ing. Wa­ter came from a hand pump in the kitchen “as tem­per­a­men­tal as a sleep-de­prived teenager.”

Green garbage bags cov­ered the ceil­ing, ini­tially catch­ing the rain­wa­ter that leaked through the shin­gles, but even­tu­ally col­laps­ing their con­tents onto who-or-what­ever was below.

The sur­pris­ing thing about this ca­sual ap­proach to in­te­rior dec­o­rat­ing is that Madeleine Blais’ fa­therin-law was the justly fa­mous lawyer and pub­lic ser­vant Nicholas (“Nick”) DeBelleville Katzen­bach, the well­born lawyer who was No. 2 in Bobby Kennnedy’s Jus­tice De­part­ment and whom JFK sent to Alabama to con­front Ge­orge Wal­lace when the gov­er­nor tried to re­sist in­te­grat­ing the Uni­ver­sity of Alabama.

Ms. Blais’ fam­ily vis a vis Katzen­bachs? “[T]hey are be­fore the Mayflower, mine is be­fore potato famine; Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and Ben­ning­ton Col­lege, the Col­lege of the Holy Cross and Bridge­wa­ter Teach­ers Col­lege. … One care­free sum­mer, John toured Europe with his fa­ther and his older brother in a Tri­umph TR-3 sports car. My fam­ily rou­tinely piled into my mother’s wheez­ing Nash Ram­bler sta­tion wagon and stuck to nearby er­rands. … John’s fa­ther was mythic be­cause he was part of his­tory; mine was mythic be­cause he was dead.”

The cou­ple, both young re­porters for The Tren­ton Times, started go­ing to the house while they were dat­ing, kept go­ing there, for two weeks at the end of ev­ery sum­mer, af­ter they mar­ried and had chil­dren, and, just as had hap­pened with the se­nior Katzen­bachs and their other three chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, they fell in love with the old shack (and with the Vine­yard) and saw no rea­son to make im­prove­ments.

Then, in 2012, Nick Katzen­bach died and Ly­dia was no longer well enough to travel. Fac­ing the prospect of buy­ing the now-beloved third place, the four Katzen­bach chil­dren had to face the re­al­ity of what one guest called “Mr. Mar­ket.” Mrs. K. wanted the kids to sell the place and use the money for such re­al­i­ties as col­lege tu­ition. Which is what they did, but not with­out co­pi­ous tears for what had been.

Ms. Blais, a fine writer of non­fic­tion, set out to memo­ri­al­ize the place, and the re­sult is a highly read­able valen­tine to a much loved — for them and their rel­a­tives, fam­i­lies and friends — dwelling that had been the site of so many good times.

There’s an aw­ful lot of name-drop­ping in the book, but that’s ex­cus­able if you re­ally know the peo­ple be­hind the names, and the au­thor does. So we find fas­ci­nat­ing por­traits of such em­i­nences as the late Kather­ine Gra­ham and the cou­ples’ good friend, the writer Phil Ca­puto (“A Ru­mor of War”), plus cameos of Art Buch­wald, Wil­liam and Rose Sty­ron, many sto­ries about Lil­lian Hell­man, doyenne and dragon-lady on Martha’s Vine­yard for decades, and walk-ons by Alan Der­showitz, Princess Di, Michele Pfeif­fer, Meg Ryan and a sight­ing of Don­ald Trump’s yacht.

But most of the book is com­prised of quotes from the spe­cial-or­dered vis­i­tors logs so faith­fully kept over the years by friends and fam­ily.

In 2014, the “shack” sold for $3 mil­lion, “mi­nus $17,000 for our share of their new roof.” A while later, a friend of the au­thor’s wrote, “Ah, I hate to tell you, but yes, your won­der­ful camp is no more. And in its place, a 5,000 [square foot] one-floor (mean­ing very long) high-end home shoe­horned into the wet­land bound­aries with 5 bath­rooms and … are you ready … a lap pool.” R.I.P. shack.

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