Paul Bunyan the lumberjack. John Henry the steel-driver. Giacomo Casanova the womanizer. And Zeb Tilton the schooner captain.
That last name may not be as well recognized as the others, but for many who have heard the stories of the famed mariner, Capt. Zebulon Tilton is the Vineyard’s own folk hero. He was very much real, as was his vessel the Alice S. Wentworth. But in the first half of the 20th century, accounts from newspapers all along the Northeast coast made him out to be larger than life.
Every legend needs a movie. Fifty-eight years after his death in 1952, Captain Tilton will have his: Zeb — Schooner Life premiers June 26 at the Capawock theatre in Vineyard Haven. The documentary, produced by Edgartown’s Detrick Lawrence Productions, sprinkles Zeb’s biography throughout a vast history of schooners, whaling, the Vineyard and the world in which Zeb came to fame.
His story is an adventure. Like Bun-yan, Zeb was strong. Stories of his strength were widely told along the waterfront, producing headlines such as this — “Cap’n Zeb Fears Suit; Struck by Car, It’s the Machine That’s Hurt” — found in a 1942 issue of the Gazette.
Like John Henry, he resisted adopting the technology of the day, preferring the older methods and outmaneuvering steamboats with the power of his sails.
“Nothing short of a gale keeps his schooner in port,” the Gazette wrote of him in 1927. “Men who have sailed with him declare that he can see through fog.”
And like Casanova, well, as the film euphemistically puts it, Zeb was “open to new people.” The filmmakers admitted that some stories didn’t make it into the movie, their content not quite appropriate for a general audience.
But Zeb was certainly colorful and funny. Papers loved him, approaching him for stories of his adventures whenever he stopped ashore. They published the words straight from his mouth, inflating his legend.
“Cap’n Zeb Tilton... is good for at least one anecdote daily if he can be overhauled at the proper moment,” the Gazette wrote in 1934.
Those stories that made their way into the film came to life in the captain’s words, voiced by none other than the film’s director and producer Gordon Massingham.
“I was sort of the last resort,” Mr. Massingham admitted from his office in Edgartown. Of course, there was the problem of determining what Zeb’s voice sounded like.
“We never really came up with an answer. The guy’s been dead 50 years now,” said Mr. Massingham, a resident of Vineyard Haven. “Not many people can remember what a guy’s voice sounded like 50 years ago. We just had to use our imagination.”
So he conjured a salty and playful voice that matched the quotes he had come across in his research. While the screen slowly zooms in on old photos of Captain Tilton’s wrinkled, cross-eyed face, Mr. Massingham’s impersonation explains why the captain figured he’d fought in six wars:
“Well, I sailed a vessel in the Spanish-American War; I had one in the last war, and I’m still going strong in this one,” the voice of Zeb says in the film, quoting a 1942 Gazette article. “Added to that I’ve been married three times — that makes six, doesn’t it?”
Sitting in front of the sailboat pictures that crowd the wall above his desk, Mr. Massingham resembled his film in a way; a man so obsessed with history that, while talking about Zeb, he couldn’t help but veer off on tangential, semi-related anecdotes, eager to describe the world surrounding his subject, with no rush to return to the original story line.
This project is a welcome change for Mr. Massingham. Usually his production crew travels as far as Texas and North Carolina to create training videos on topics such as terrorism response, fire and rescue, or hazardous materials. So when Island author Polly Burroughs pitched a documentary about her 30-year-old book, Zeb, Celebrated Schooner Captain of Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Massingham relished the idea of working close to home.
Mrs. Burroughs’s book shows that the story of Captain Zeb can’t be told without featuring a cast of Island characters from the era, including Zeb’s equally famous brother, George Fred Tilton, actor Jimmy Cagney, and painter Thomas Hart Benton. It makes sense that the documentary would tell the story through interviews with a slew of contemporary Vineyard faces, most notably CBS newscaster Mike Wallace along with the captain of the Shenandoah, Bob Douglas, photographer Louisa Gould and Gazette journalist and folksinger Mark Alan Lovewell.
They and others tell the Vineyard story from the days of Moshup, the Wampanoag legend, to the rise of the whaling industry, to the recreational use of schooners today. They, like the newspapers almost a century before them, tell the story of man born to a family already a staple of the Vineyard, who went on to capture the imaginations of the public on and off-Island, solidifying his place as a local legend.
As the New Bedford Standard Times put it in 1931, “Zeb and the Wentworth represent something; call it what you like; and seeing them still up and coming with smooth sailing ahead is like finding out that there really is a Santa Claus.”