The extraordinary longevity of the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes made Mike Wallace feel familiar to Americans of every stripe who planned their Sunday night suppers around the show. On the Vineyard, his familiarity was more than an illusion, and his death last week was a genuine loss to the Island.
You knew it was August when you started seeing Mike Wallace casually dressed but still dashing on Main street in Vineyard Haven or attending some up-Island event. And you knew that meant others were also here. The literary crowd, as they were known. Bill and Rose Styron, Art Buchwald, James Reston, Henry Grunwald, Katharine Graham, Lillian Hellman, John Hersey. The list went on. All came to the Vineyard because it was a place where they could be out of the harsh glare of the public spotlight and live simply — swim in the clear ocean water, play tennis, go downtown to the hardware store to buy light bulbs in comfortable clothes. Islanders treated them like the old friends that they were and welcomed them back every summer.
Someone once said what makes the Vineyard different is that the people who come here in the summer, famous and otherwise, are not simply on vacation but live part of their lives here. It’s an important distinction.
When a place is your home, part-time or full-time, you want to nurture and protect it. Among other things, Mike Wallace and others in his crowd could be counted on to use their celebrity to support the Island. Art Buchwald’s involvement in the Possible Dreams auction for Community Services every summer turned a charity fundraiser into the social event of the season.
The Vineyard still attracts celebrated residents, seasonal and full-time, and many are just as active and invested in the community as their legendary forbears. The fabric of their connections to each other and to the Island, however, does not seem to be so tightly woven. Perhaps it was just a different, simpler time, but we miss the feeling that we all — seasonal and year-round residents — shared a secret treasure. That sense that we all possess a vital common interest in sustaining what we love about the Vineyard seems to have eroded like so much coastline over the last few years.
Maybe we need to stop trying to replicate the past. As we look ahead to the summer and the dizzying calendar of fundraising events, we wonder if we need a whole new model for community development and involvement. Event fatigue is the new normal for ten weeks of the years, and it is harder to find the peace and anonymity that has traditionally attracted people to the Vineyard instead of some tonier alternatives. Has the pie been cut too many times, the Vineyard sliced too thinly and none the better for it? It seems that way at times.
In a piece he wrote for Peter Simon’s book On the Vineyard II that is published on the Commentary Page today, Mr. Wallace described the Vineyard as a sort of Goldilocks story, a just-right, not-too-hot, not-too-cold place. “Why the Vineyard? Possibly because the alternatives aren’t as appealing,” he wrote. “Nantucket somehow seems a trifle more self-conscious, and the Hamptons are New York city once removed; too trendy and incestuous. And the Cape is just too crowded. The Vineyard fortunately, is protected because it’s less accessible.”
In one of the last interviews we did with him, Mr. Wallace told the story of buying his Hatch Road house and what a wreck it was and all the work they had to do on it. But then he paused and said: “Even as I talk I can see it and smell it and feel it . . . when the sun slants down from behind the house in the summer and you see the ferries coming by and the boats looking golden in the sunset, and you’re looking at the Sound — Mary and I sit there on the porch and think how lucky could we be?”
The Vineyard was lucky to have Mike Wallace, and we may not see the likes of him again. But the spirit of the Vineyard that he described endures for many of us. Let’s make his legacy finding new ways to preserve it.