And, You Thought Vineyard Haven Was Boring?
A guide to this town's glam past.
First you clap your eyes on those New Englandy church steeples as you sail into the harbor. It’s quaint. Lots of pretty stores, folks with two-and-three-seater strollers for their expensive broods of kids.
And while the town’s restauranteurs have finally – finally! – been sanctioned to sell wine with their coq au vin– say, did the coq in earlier years need to be prepared without vin as in coq au Shirley Temple? Harder forms of booze are still verboten. That means no bars, no night life, no drunken sailors lurching onto shore to find damsels with high cleavage and low self-esteem. It’s . . . a trifle dull in Vineyard Haven which, for some cockamamie reason, is also-known-as Tisbury. Is it an evil twin thing?
“I love Edgartown!”
“There’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be than Oak Bluffs!”
“Up Island is the country version of up town!”
Yes, we all declare our preferences, and few of us step up to the plate for Vineyard Haven.
But here’s a well-kept secret: VH has always harbored a hidden glamour, a glamour more pronounced than anything that has ever occurred in any other part of the Island.
Well, maybe there’s no topping that shindig back in the late 90s, up at Ted and Mary’s place, with Bill and Hillary as honored guests, a huge security contingent; and hoopla like Christmas on Nantucket; up and down that winding dirt road in an undisclosed part of Chilmark.
Still, some random examples of earlier Tisbury high jinx:
In the 1920s, Islanders were wowed by the Ritz the summer crowd put on. At a mansion on Cromwell Lane, now buried under Midnight Farm, formerly Shirley’s Hardware, Benjamin and Emma Coffin Cromwell gave parties on their lawn fronting the glistening harbor. It was a scene Seurat would have loved to paint: bright umbrellas, women in pastel silk and gorgette gowns. These stunning sylphs wore gloves and cloche hats that matched their high heels. An organ grinder with a monkey was imported from New Bedford (arguably music has grown more sophisticated since then). Servants in livery (think Downton Abbey) scooped strawberry ice cream from frosty cans.
Ooo-wee, baby! The minute a time machine is invented, I’m setting it to August, 1920, Vineyard Haven.
But even back in those ancient times, music had improved beyond organ grinders. That was due to the Victor Talking Machine, which in turn led to phonographs, then tape decks, now ipods with rappers going “Babba, dom, ba, dabba, dom, ba dom.”
That Talking Machine was the invention of a Tisbury native son, young William Barry Owen, dad an Arctic Whaler, Captain Leander Owen. Son William in the late 19th century made a fortune with the music player, and with his start-up company, RCA Victor.
He must have looked around his hometown and decided there was no reasonable and fulfilling way to spend his millions there. He moved to England for five giddy years.
And yet, there was one task that could only be accomplished back in Tis: he admired the handiwork of a particular laundress, and sent his dirty clothes across the Atlantic to be cleaned and re-shipped. (It was also a wonderful means of advertising his own astonishingly successful backside to his old cohort, all of whom may have thought he’d never amount to much.)
To make sure they understood he had indeed amounted, William Barry Owen at last returned to live in VH year-round. He arrived with a white auto, a chauffeur, two fine horses, a coachman, a gardener, an under-gardener (well, the English do have greener thumbs) and a butler named Ruffles (the English being more advanced at buttling).
Like all good precursors of today's 1%-ers, he added on to his ancestral house on William Street, but,= with an eye to the future, he bought acreage now known as Owen Park along the harbor. He had every intention of building a mansion there but, as the poet Robert Burns so ably put it, “The best laid schemes ‘o mice and men gang aft a-gley.”
William Barry cleared away three shanties squatting slummily on the seaside property, and all during that winter, Main Street was tied up with draft horses moving those houses the rolling-lumber way. (Another great advertisement for heemself!) But, even though more and more people were cranking up their Victor Talking Machines to listen to “Bye Bye Blackbird”, the inventor’s money dribbled away. (Was he perhaps at that point sending laundry back to England?). He died in his 50s, his seaside manor a passing dream.
A footnote to this story: Ever seen those adorb old ads for the Victorla with a terrier cocking his ear at the trumpet-shaped loud-speaker? That was Owen’s pet! Nipper is buried beside the stone wall at the old Capt. Leander Owen property!
One last anecdote to give you a final blast from the past of Tisbury’s rich and famous and dead: One day in the fall of 1911, hundreds of islanders thronged the docks to await the arrival of a native daughter. In the 1870s they’d known her as slim young Lillian Norton. That was before the coloratura-in-the-making rose to the rank of the greatest American opera diva of her day. It was said of the young woman that she left the island as Lillian Norton and returned from Europe as Madame Nordica. (She had also put on considerable poundage to belt out those arias). La Nordica had toured the great opera houses, and sung for royalty. And now she’d come back to perform for her own old cohort, at the town hall, topping it off with that grand old crowd-pleaser, “America The Beautifu.l”
Back at the homestead, a mile from the sea, the singer hosted a party for headliners from the opera world and city socialites. Luncheon was served under a cavernous marquee. An expanse of chartreuse lawn faced a 45-man orchestra from the Metropolitan Opera House. And finally, the hundreds of guests, in a climactic triumph of good taste, watched a plump Egyptian woman perform the never-before-seen-on-these-shores art of the belly dance.
Exhilarating times! And this brief look at Tisbury glitterati leaves out Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, Katherine Cornell and all her astronomically famous guests: Somerset Maugham! Sir Lawrence Olivier; don’t get me started here, and the more recent late fame-sters, Artie, Bill and Mike, as in Buchwald, Styron, and Wallace.
Now do you get it? Vineyard Haven happens to be the Island’s most exciting town but, shhh! Don’t tell anyone! It could start the cycle all over again.