Martha’s Vineyard could be viewed as having a split personality. Regular folk live here year-round, going about the business of making a living and raising a family just like in any community, and they do it mostly anonymously, at least as far as the rest of the world is concerned. And then summer arrives bringing with it not only a swelling population of tourists not that dissimilar from Island residents, but also a rarefied class of movie stars, CEO’s, academic rock stars and politicians.
But despite wide differences in economic means and celebrity wattage, the two groups have traditionally found common ground here through their shared love of the Island and its way of life. On a midsummer day, it’s often tough to distinguish from attire or attitude a year-rounder from a longtime summer visitor. Many Vineyarders, both full-time and seasonal, say this co-mingling of classes is one of the things that has made the Island so special. Two men died this week who personified this particular Vineyard phenomenon; the farmer Elisha Smith and the journalist Anthony Lewis.
Elisha Smith was born in Oak Bluffs in 1923 into a family that had lived on the Island since the early 17th century. Elisha’s father died when he was three and afterwards he was raised by his father’s uncle. Mr. Smith began farming at the age of six and did not stop until he died. He was the president of the Agricultural Society for more than two decades and it was through his perseverance and bargaining skills that the property was acquired on Pandhandle Road where the new Agricultural Hall was built in 1992.
Anthony Lewis was born in New York city in 1927. He graduated from Harvard College, wrote a column for the New York Times for 32 years and won two Pulitzer Prizes. Mr. Lewis first visited the Vineyard in 1950, eventually buying a home on Deep Bottom Cove in West Tisbury where he spent as much time as his schedule allowed.
Some Vineyarders knew Mr. Lewis personally, and many more felt they knew him through his books and columns. He was one of ours, just as all of the bold-faced names who spend time on the Island become a part of the Vineyard family, even if we have never spoken to them face to face.
On the surface Mr. Smith and Mr. Lewis appear to be drastically different men, and in many respects they were. And yet at heart they were both men who cared deeply about people and found something in the Vineyard that sustained them. Mr. Smith was known to nearly everyone on the Island. After his 80th birthday it took him two days to go through his cards, a Gazette article reported. Mr. Lewis spent much of his career writing about causes that affected the democratic rights of the individual. His book Gideon’s Trumpet focused on the Supreme Court’s decision to grant defendants a right to counsel, no matter their financial circumstances.
Both men also loved the Vineyard and wanted to preserve the special character of this place.
In a 1971 article in the Gazette written by Mr. Lewis’s first wife, Linda, she described their house this way: “We live on the shore of a pond in a camp, as do many of our summer neighbors. We prefer to be without electricity and would feel deprived of something precious if we had to have a telephone. We live this way by choice.”
That two men of special character, but very different circumstances should love the Island in similar ways is not uncommon. The spirit of this place is powerful. It is, after all, what binds us all; Islander, washashore, summer person and daytripper.
Death brings with it a certain finality and yet the lives and accomplishments of Elisha Smith and Anthony Lewis will continue to echo loudly into the future.
We hope one legacy will be the endurance of the special respect Vineyarders accord each other for having the good sense to love the Island, whether life allows them to live here full-time or not.
We will miss these exceptional men.