So, let’s play Martha’s Vineyard associations. Boston Brahmins, private beaches, lavish homes and wild house parties, presidential retreats, Edward Kennedy’s debacle on nearby Chappaquiddick…the obvious cliches.
But Michael Knox Beran argues in his intriguing book The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy (2001), that the whole idea of Martha’s Vineyard as the decadent playground of the rich is a relatively recent phenomenon. This paragraph from the opening chapter of the book explains:
Islands like Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are extraordinarily illuminating guides to the social history of Protestant New England. This history is nowhere more evident than in the evolution of the islands’ architecture; […] to see how the harsh and unforgiving life of the early settlers gave way to the more opulent civilization of the great sea captains and rich merchants who succeeded them. More opulent, but hardly less severe. The old Federal houses of Edgartown and Nantucket, for all their elegance of design and splendor of proportion, retain still the memory of the austere God-fearing men who built them, men who in the midst of wealth deplored the corruption of their souls, and who in the apogee of prosperity looked into their Bibles to ponder the lesson of Job. In time, however, the gloomy introspection of old New England gave way to the masques and revels of its foppish descendants, and a once-formidable race of Brahmins degenerated into a supine tribe of mere preppies. The Kennedys had the misfortune to infiltrate the old Protestant aristocracy at the height of its decadence. They came too late, and mastered its customs too well.
So, it is with no small curiosity that we board the Island Queen ferry from Falmouth that will take us to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. There are lots of cyclists ahead of us, waiting to board the ferry – Martha’s Vineyard is supposed to be great to explore on a bike. (Although Trip Advisor reviewers have warned serious caution, as once off the bike paths, cyclists have to share the roads with motored vehicles.)
One other reason for excitement – the Obamas are holidaying on the Vineyard!! I am certain we’ll bump into them.
Off the ferry and first impressions of Oak Bluffs strangely do not impress, Despite its own press, the town looks a bit shabby and worn around the edges, especially in comparison with Chatham. The heavy drizzle doesn’t help. So we decide to hop into a private taxi to take us east to Edgartown, the other major town (and that of the posh Federal houses) of Martha’s Vineyard.
An oldish man who calls himself “Spider” is at the wheel and appears to be very knowledgeable about the island. I couldn’t unfortunately hear most of his stories as I was sitting at the back of the van with the kids. I did see him pointing out a place along the way where some kids were going to jump into the ocean as per a scene from the movie Jaws – Edgartown stood in for the fictitious town Amity of the movie. He also tells us the Obamas are staying at Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen’s house up in the tiny town of Chilmark and how the First Family had gone to Oak Bluffs the day before for a meal at the President’s favorite restaurant! His stories made entertaining listening and actually weren’t that far off the mark.
Some later googling told me this: Obama DID stay at Chilmark, just not at Ted Danson’s house. The President instead rented the Chilmark home of a friend, David Schulte, a Chicago-based corporate restructuring specialist who reportedly donated $2,000 to Obama’s re-election campaign.
According to the Vineyard Gazette, “the 5,000-square-foot, contemporary-style home sits on 9 1/2 acres overlooking Chilmark Pond and the Atlantic Ocean,The private master suite has a den, porch, outdoor shower, his and her bathrooms and access to a gym. An open floor plan provides views of the ocean and pond from the living and dining rooms and the kitchen. The home also has a small basketball court.”
This sounds lovely but is still a comedown from where the Obamas stayed in 2009. According to the Boston Globe, home then was “the Blue Heron Farm in Chilmark, a 28-acre estate owned by William and Mollie Van Devender, both donors to Republicans. The property includes a swimming pool, access to a private beach, even a place to whack golf balls.” (Looks like lending your private beach home to the President trumps politics. )
Unfortunately – for the Obamas – that house was sold.
We would have heard more of Spider’s stories if we’d taken him up on his offer to take us around to the four other, smaller, villages on Martha’s Vineyard, which he said had the best beaches, but as we declined, we were dropped off at The Seafood Shanty, one of the best places for lunch with a view, he said.
Since it was cold out, we sat indoors. The view would be pretty good in the summer I reckon. Not to sound like a prat, but this place boasts one of the BEST WATERFRONT VIEWS on Martha’s Vineyard, and even the pictures of the view at its best, on its website, aren’t really all that. The sea view is too flat and featureless in my humble opinion.
Anyway, the place was packed. the food was decent, the seafood fresh. After lunch we wandered around Edgartown a bit – it is indeed a manicured and well-kept town.
We saw a giant pagoda tree, brought from China nearly 200 years old and believed to be the largest in America, down a side street.
Ari and I had a less than stellar shopping experience in one of the stores there, whose staff seemed not to notice our presence, though they managed to see some other shoppers clearly.
Then it was back to Oak Bluffs for a quick look-around.
Still no sign of POTUS or FLOTUS. We then had coffee at a really poky and badly serviced (self-service but with a totally bo chap cashier) coffee joint (that unbelievably boasted Ted Danson’s custom). I took ONE picture that was what I had imagined Martha’s Vineyard would look like, in part. It’s very modest:
It strikes me that “modest” wouldn’t be an inaccurate way to describe our visit to Martha’s Vineyard. Not being a descendant, foppish or otherwise, of a great sea captain or rich merchant, or a friend of the Kennedys or Obamas, our experience of the fabled lifestyle on the island is in the muted colours of the passing tourist. Of surface impressions and public exteriors; and through stories many-times-removed from their source.
Maybe we should have let Spider show us, even from a distance, some of the resplendent homes on far-flung corners of the island.
Then we walked back to the ferry point for our 50 minute ride back to Falmouth and THAT dinner. (See the Falmouth entry.)