Letter from the Vineyard, Part 2

The news sinks in.

Published July 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The radio says they've just found the bodies of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister, Lauren. This morning they found JFK Jr.'s body in the fuselage of his wrecked plane. There's a palpable sense of relief among people on the Vineyard at the news. With the rest of the nation, we've been saddened by this tragedy and are glad there is now some sense of closure. But on a more immediate note, everyone on the island's relieved that now we'll be rid of the media swarm.

"I'm old enough to remember when JFK was shot. I was a junior in high school," said Boston native Mary-Grace Duffy. "And there wasn't as much media coverage of his death as there's been of JFK Jr.'s." Everyone here is ready to move on as soon as the media departs -- and the sooner, the better. The deification of JFK Jr. and the Diana-fication of his death have cast an ugly pall over Martha's Vineyard.

For the first couple of days after news of the accident seeped across the island, and with the first barrage of media crews, the Vineyard went into "auto" mode. No one talked about the latest tragedy to hit the Kennedys on the island. Just as when Princess Diana was on island a few summers ago, everyone here may have known exactly where she was staying, but when prying TV crews tried to find out, they were greeted with a look that said "Diana who?"

Now that the bodies have been found, though, and the human element of the story has sunk in, people are talking amongst themselves. Vineyarders can live without the celebrity angle, but the human element of the accident has broken the ice. "It's just so sad to see anyone so young die in such a beautiful place, whoever they are," said frequent vacationer Eleanor Edmunds.

At the JFK birthplace in Brookline, Mass., at Arlington Cemetery and outside John and Carolyn's apartment in New York, a sort of mirror image of the homage to Princess Diana outside Kensington Palace is unfolding. But here, the familiarity of the accident site and the recognition of familiar people and places on television and in the papers have brought the accident almost into the realm of the personal.

Last summer saw the first murder on Martha's Vineyard in over 20 years. A well-known islander was stabbed to death in still-unclear circumstances by a man down from Boston. The victim's father, the patriarch of a large island clan, died of a heart attack after arriving in the hospital parking lot.

The island was stunned. There may be poverty here, and even a little bit of crime, but we all like to think of the Vineyard as a place apart, untroubled by the stresses and darkness of the real world, which we characterize as "off island." Events like last summer's murder and the Kennedy plane crash bring the real world thundering into our paradise.

The media's insatiable lust for celebrity has brought the Vineyard a lot of unwanted attention over the last decade, and how long it will take us to overcome the notoriety of these latest deaths is impossible to tell -- probably until the next media-ordained "Princess of Hearts" or "Crown Prince of America" meets some untimely end and the TV crews scramble elsewhere.

At least, everyone I've spoken to says they're glad to hear the family intends to bury John Jr. at sea. That way he'll get some peace and quiet. There's an unspoken shame here about the one celebrity grave we did have, that of John Belushi. Some years ago, his widow, Judy, was forced to move her husband's remains to an unmarked plot. A train of self-styled "party animals" insisted on saluting the late hard-living comedian with nighttime toasts of drink and drugs.

None of us would wish such perverted tributes on anyone. "The sea was down today," lifelong summer resident Annie Lee commented this afternoon. "It makes a more dignified grave than he'd get around here with all the media."

Soon, blessedly, the helicopters and the hype will depart for New York, Washington or wherever the next "event" is taking place, and life will get on here almost as before -- but not quite.

The Vineyard may have a better handle on celebrity than most of small-town America, but the local loss of life hits the same as it would anywhere. As islander John Little put it, "It might sound sentimental, but I think there will always seem something kind of sad to me about those spectacular Gay Head sunsets now."

Still, we're looking forward to some tranquillity -- unless, of course, there's any truth to that little rumor doing the rounds that the Clintons are headed back up this way in August.

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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