"No one ever called them Vineyarders"

Life on the island in the wake of JFK Jr.'s crash.

Published July 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Just when we thought we were finally going to get a summer out of the spotlight -- what with the Clintons supposedly vacationing somewhere in New York -- up came the latest Kennedy tragedy, and with it the attendant locusts of the media. As always with these things, the Vineyard was the last place to find out about the new event hurtling our 100-square-mile sand patch onto the world's TV screens. Realtor Patty Kendall first heard the news on Saturday morning when the Associated Press rang her phone off the hook in a desperate quest for housing, transportation and local photographers. "They couldn't believe I didn't know what they were calling about," she said.

Within hours, though, it was impossible not to know what was going on. With the discovery of some luggage from the plane on Gay Head's Philbin Beach, the search parties and the TV crews closed in. Scraps of wreckage, reports said, were being found all along the southern shore, from off Gay Head light house in the west all the way to Edgartown Great Pond at the island's eastern end. The search planes, TV choppers and rescue boats seemed to encircle the whole island.

Of course, this sort of hubbub could happen anywhere, but the local reaction to it was pure Vineyard. Off island, in New York, Boston and Washington, the Kennedy plane crash was all anyone could talk about, but here there was nary a peep. West Tisbury summer resident, Nell Broley, who spends her winters in that well of gossip which is the nation's capital, commented, "It's bizarre, no one is mentioning it. You turn on the TV and see the mainland stations from Providence and Boston, and it's all they're running. But no one here is talking about it, beyond perhaps saying how sad it is."

One Harvard faculty member I spoke with was dining Saturday night with a national magazine editor, an acclaimed Washington novelist and a smattering of other Vineyard A-list types, and reported that the Kennedy crash was not even alluded to.

Martha's Vineyard cherishes its reputation as a place where the famous can congregate unmolested. Nobody bats an eyelid when Mike Wallace walks into Leslie's Drugstore on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, or Carly Simon cruises back and forth between her Midnight Garden shop and her fairyland Lambert's Cove estate. I've been picked up hitchhiking by James Taylor and seen Alan Dershowitz actually relaxing without a phalanx of TV crews and bright lights.

The Vineyard is about as nonplussed by celebrity as anywhere can possibly be in this era of the cult of celebrity. People take a quiet pride in their nonchalance. Tuesday's national papers were full of stories about the crash, but the feature story in the day's edition of the twice-weekly Vineyard Gazette was an in-depth report on the problems cormorants are wreaking on the island's fish and osprey populations.

This island is all about that unique Yankee brand of inverted-snobbism. Roll up in a stretch limousine and islanders will roll their eyes; putter up in a beat-up old station wagon and you'll be invited to the most select cocktail parties. Automotive magnate Ernie Boch is the butt of many a joke for his Gatsbyesque mansion on Edgartown Harbor, all lit up 365 days a year. The Hamptons this is not.

There's an adage here that the Vineyard has the authors, academics and academics, while its sister island, and rival, Nantucket gets the CEOs. Readers from beyond New England may not appreciate just what a stinging put down this is to "the other island." Stars have been retreating to the Vineyard for years. James Cagney, Lillian Hellman and Katherine Cornell all kept houses here. What is new is the media attention celebrity has come to generate in the last decade.

Martha's Vineyard first hit the international spotlight with the antics of another Kennedy. It was 30 years ago Sunday that JFK Jr.'s uncle Ted had his little mishap on Dyke's Bridge out on Chappaquiddick. Chappy, as it is known here, may be just a sandy bar of land off Edgartown, but it catapulted the Vineyard to center stage. That torpedo into the hull of the Kennedy mystique, and Ted Kennedy's shifting story about it, were long celebrated by the Annual Ted Kennedy Swim Race across the channel between Chappy and Edgartown.

Since then we've seen a host of "media events" unfold here. In the last five or six years alone, we've seen Princess Diana, multiple visitations of Bill Clinton and the QE II running aground out in the Vineyard Sound. Every summer our little island seems to stumble into the papers. The Chamber of Commerce may thrive off the notoriety, but for the rest of us, the annual media invasion has become a little old.

Gay Head resident Jeffie Butler called me Tuesday morning. "It's just crazy," she said. "It's like we're living in Vietnam or something with all these helicopters buzzing us. You can't even sleep at night with all the noise." At least, I think that's what Jeffie was saying. It was hard to hear her above the drone of helicopters over her house. "The media's turned this small town upside down over this tragedy. You don't even dare to leave the house because you'll be jumped by the media."

Gay Head is the remotest part of the island. Barren and scrubby, the town, recently officially renamed Aquinnah, is the headquarters of the island's Wampanoag Indians and various others who cherish their solitude. If you forget to buy the milk at the grocery store, you've got a 20-mile round trip to the nearest shop. It was just this remoteness that inspired Jackie Onassis to buy the old Hornblower estate in 1978. Her first years were a little rough. There were legal problems with the Wampanoags, and the beach buggy-driving goons patrolling her beach were thought to be positively un-Vineyard. Gradually, though, she worked into the island's fabric. It is a sad irony that her son's death should have occurred so close to her estate.

With her death, the estate was briefly put on the market, but then withdrawn, and in recent years her son, JFK Jr., was a frequent weekend presence. He was up here the weekend before the accident, and it is said that it was here he injured his foot, an accident which some have speculated was a contributory factor in his final accident.

Perhaps had JFK Jr. lived he might eventually have become a part of the Vineyard, but to many, the family were still outsiders. Every summer at the Harborside Hotel in Edgartown we have the Possible Dreams Auction, overseen by syndicated humorist Art Buchwald, and benefiting the island's community services. People bid jubilantly for the chance to have Carly Simon serenade them, or go sailing with old salt and longtime Edgartown resident Walter Cronkite or even catch an off-season tour of the Washington Post with owner Katherine Graham. Even new Vineyard seasonal residents, like Ted Danson, kick in generously. The Vineyard gives these celebrities a place to lead a normal life, and in return they give our disadvantaged a chance to lead a normal life. Fair deal. These people are a part of the Vineyard community.

But the Kennedys never fit this mold. John Jr. may have been a frequent visitor -- often seen having breakfast at the Aquinnah Restaurant with its panoramic views over the very spot it appears his plane went down -- yet Art Buchwald never auctioned off a morning's in-line skating down Moshup's Trail with John Jr. As third-generation summer resident Brewer Schoeller put it, "They may have had a house here, but no one ever called them Vineyarders."

This being Massachusetts, of course, the Kennedy aura still holds some cachet. Year-round resident and super-chef Susan Doherty put it to me this way, "Everybody's really sad about what happened, but people here on the Vineyard related to the Kennedys more than the Kennedys related to the Vineyard. I never heard of them socializing with any island people."

And so the latest installment in the curse of the Kennedys will only add to the notoriety of this once sleepy island. What will happen to the Kennedy estate is an open question. Somehow the Vineyard has weathered the attention of the '90s so far, but people here are ready for a little peace and quiet. Cab drivers and moped renters might prosper from the new wave of ghoulish sightseers this latest tragedy will surely bring to our island, but most people would just like to spend a summer without TV reporters shoving microphones in their faces. Yet again, the Vineyard will have cause to breathe a huge sigh of relief come Labor Day and the end of the silly season.

By William Mullins

William Mullins is a writer and researcher who spends his time between Cambridge, Mass., and West Tisbury, on Martha's Vineyard.

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