The estate sale at Patricia Neal’s house at 80 South Water street in Edgartown had people lined up down the street last weekend. Ms. Neal's daughter Lucy Dahl, who was on hand for the sale, said the house is being updated for rental starting in June. So it seems a good time to recount the strange and interesting story of this home.
Most people know that it was once the home of Capt. Valentine Pease, the supposed model for Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. It was his “retirement home” and he with his second wife Angeline Worth Bunting Pease lived there from his marriage to Angeline in 1848 until his death. It was one of several houses on the west side of Water street belonging to members of the wealthy Worth family. The marriage was the second for both Valentine and Angeline. Valentine’s first marriage was to Prudence Ripley, who died of cancer as a fairly young woman. At the time of the voyage of the Acushnet that was the occasion of the now famous meeting of Herman Melville, a young seaman and Captain Valentine Pease, Master Mariner in 1841, she was the “young wife” whom Ahab had left behind in Edgartown. Sena Jeter Naslund has used this little nugget as the basis for her book Ahab’s Wife.
What most people do not know is that in 1908 Melville’s daughter Frances Melville Thomas and her husband Henry B. Thomas, purchased this house. Did Frances know that it had been owned by Valentine Pease? Frances, according to Laurie Robertson-Lorant in Melville A Biography, blamed most of her troubles in life on her father. She was the only child of Melville to have issue, the descendants of whom are summer residents of Edgartown to this day. Did Frances see the parallels between her father’s anger management issues within the family and those of Captain Ahab with his crew on the Acushnet? Toward the end of his life Melville apparently achieved peace with himself and his wife Elizabeth Shaw Melville. They worked together on the self publication of his last poems. Did Valentine Pease acquire the same inner peace? Was Valentine Pease truly like Ahab? Was Valentine perhaps just the catalytic spark for the creation of one of literature’s great characters?
The late Vineyard Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough certainly knew of the story and wrote his version of it in 1958, of course changing all the names. Moby Dick becomes Bildad’s Locker, and Captain Ahab is Enoch Adams, not Valentine Pease, and Archer Templeton is the famous author. The book is called The New England Story. It is a bit dated but still is one of his better ones.
Frances Melville Thomas and Henry Thomas died in 1938 and 1935 respectively, and Henry Hough may have known them. He and his wife Betty came to the Island in 1920, as the new owners of the Gazette. Henry loved this type of story, as do I. I have a feeling that Patricia Neal did too.