Louise Aldrich Bugbee, whose columns about the Island she so loved enlivened the pages of the Gazette for more than 30 years, died on Sunday in Crystal River, Fla. She was 94. She expressed that love in her writing about cooking, cats, nature, her neighbors on Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs and in the Camp Ground — and in virtually anything else that captured her fancy.
Over the course of three decades, Mrs. Bugbee wrote some 1,500 On Circuit Avenue and All About the Town and On My Mind columns. As recently as three years ago, she was still writing them, remarking tartly (but with tongue in cheek) that she was jealous of the Louise Aldrich Bugbee Orchid that her orchid-growing son had named for her.
“I’ve worked hard, committed no crimes, accepted a few favors, but never asked anyone to earn my living for me — then that parasite stole my name and will keep it long after anyone remembers me,” she wrote on her typewriter. Though the computer age had long since arrived, she continued to use a typewriter as long as she wrote. Only after much cajoling, indeed, had she given in to using an electric typewriter.
Mrs. Bugbee first came to the Vineyard in June of 1954 with her infant son, Ed. A friend in Connecticut introduced her to the Island. As she made her way up the long Oak Bluffs wharf that first time, struggling with her baby and her luggage, the late Lawrence DeBettencourt gave her a hand, and then and there, she decided that Vineyarders were friendly and that, one day, the Vineyard would be her year-round home.
She stayed for just a week that first summer, however, renting a room at the Narragansett House just a block away from the Circuit avenue about which she would write so devotedly for so many years.
“It was home,” she later said of that stay, “and I had to find a way to live here permanently. It took me a few years, but I did it,” she delightedly continued. Not until 1970 was she finally able to make Oak Bluffs her year-round residence, but meanwhile it had become her summer place.
She first rented, then bought a Camp Ground cottage on Merrill avenue. The cottage she bought, it turned out, was the oldest building in the Camp Ground and had been a cook house where meals were prepared for Camp Meeting attendees.
The first summer job she found was as a cashier at Giordano’s Restaurant on Circuit avenue. Her next one, which continued for 10 years, was selling popcorn and wintergreen, chocolate and vanilla popcorn bars and colorful saltwater taffy at Darling’s, the Old Popcorn Store on the other side of Circuit avenue from the restaurant. When seven months ago, Mrs. Bugbee’s failing health forced her to move to her son and daughter in law’s five-acre Florida orchid farm, she left the Vineyard she so adored resignedly, but very sadly.
Her first writing for the Gazette was poetry. Then, when the Gazette’s late editor Henry Beetle Hough needed an Oak Bluffs Social Notes columnist, he proposed that Mrs. Bugbee take over that post. She did, and continued to write Oak Bluffs Social Notes until — according to her version — she was fired. Henry Hough, however, vehemently denied it. “Don’t talk of being fired except in jest,” he wrote her. “The Gazette needs you!” (He blamed what she thought was a firing on a column that had not been used because it had gone astray.)
But she really wanted to write more than social notes anyway. “People would have parties with 17 guests and I’d have to spell every name correctly. Then sometimes I would have to spend half an hour to get an inch of news at the rate of five cents an inch.” And so it was that by mutual consent with Henry Hough, her On Circuit Avenue and All About the Town column was born. It wasn’t long before it was one of the Gazette’s most popular columns. Far more readers, surveys showed, read Louise Aldrich Bugbee’s sometimes tart, sometimes, funny, sometimes warm and generous — but always immensely captivating — column than read Gazette editorials.
Letters to the Editor praised her “candid and refreshing style.” One correspondent noted that “the Vineyard Gazette, great paper that it is, is not complete without Mrs. Louise Aldrich Bugbee’s column, On Circuit Avenue.” Her columns appeared, too, in the Binghamton (N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin, in the Montrose (Pa.) Independent, the Vancouver Columbian in Washington, the Cracker Barrel in Wilmington, Vt., and Women’s Circle Home Cooking magazine. Prolific Mrs. Bugbee also was the author of three books, There Is an Island that Owns Me, Slap Dash Cookery and Confessions of a Difficult Dame.
Louise Aldrich was born on Jan. 11, 1914 on a dairy farm in Brooklyn, Pa., to Edwin Milton Aldrich — a schoolteacher as well as a farmer — and his wife, Alberta Blackburn Aldrich. As a child, she had collected eggs, washed them, brought in the cows and ridden a horse to school.
Although the 300-acre family farm supplied milk to customers in New York state as well as Pennsylvania, it did not bring in enough money by the time Louise was of college age, to enable her to attend college. But she read with enthusiasm — Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain were among her favorites — and began writing, she said “as soon as I could hold a pencil.” When she was 19, however, she married Donald Bugbee, a law enforcement officer, and moved with him to Binghamton, N.Y.
Then World War II came and the Bugbees moved to Vancouver, Wash., where they went to work for the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company that was building aircraft carriers. Mrs. Bugbee proudly remembered in later years how she had been trained as a draftsman there and then had been selected to be an inspector. Although she was not a collector of memorabilia, she always kept the identification badge she had been issued enabling her to enter the Kaiser plant in wartime.
The war over, the Bugbees returned to the East. They were living in Halstead, Pa. where Donald Bugbee became police chief, when Louise Bugbee’s love affair with Oak Bluffs began and she and her young son began spending their summers on the Island. Winters, she was a proofreader in Binghamton, even though she would laughingly say she could never spell.
It was when she was working at Darling’s open-air candy store with a wide view of the comings and goings along the main street in Oak Bluffs that she began her On Circuit Avenue column. Sometimes she would write about the shopkeepers there, and had running friendly feuds with the late Norman Freedman who owned the Corner Drugstore and with the late Manuel Francis who had the OK — 5 & 10 next door. But more and more as time went on, she would write — as she named her later column — whatever was on her mind.
In one 1997 column she remembered the old days on Circuit avenue when she might not have known everyone’s name, “but I spoke to everyone and everyone had the time and the inclination to speak to me. If I tried that now, my sanity would be questioned.” She was, she said, beginning to feel like a stranger on her beloved avenue.
Meanwhile, down through the years, after she became a permanent resident, she was working either as a cook at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, or later, at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging.
She was hired to cook in the kitchen at the hospital after taking a course in institutional cooking that was offered at the regional high school. She remained at that job for 20 years. Next she moved to the council on aging, from which she retired as assistant director in 2002. For 18 years. she had helped senior citizens there with their problems.
But she had always helped people with problems.
“She was the friend you would go to when you didn’t have any other friends,” one longtime acquaintance says. “She was nonjudgmental. She took the alternative view and was ever-supportive.”
She had a soft spot in her heart for the Vineyard Players and when its members were down on their luck and in need of support and a good, hot meal they were sure to get one at Louise Bugbee’s. Meanwhile, all the while she was writing.
In 1973, she and her son (by then, she and her husband had divorced) bought a house near the fire station on County Road. There, in a back bedroom piled high with newspapers and magazines and odds and ends, she set up an office for her writing. Her topics continued to be anything that caught her eye or her imagination. She wrote of her distaste for housework and of how she liked keeping the cobwebs year-round to cut down on the cost of buying Christmas decorations. The cobwebs could simply be spray-painted at Christmastime. She might write of her cats.
“I’ve been bossed around by my cats all my life. I know this and the cats know it. It’s an honest relationship,” she wrote.
She wrote of her friend Mark Lovewell’s singing of sea chanteys, of health care, depression, the grim future she foresaw for an over-developed, over-populated Martha’s Vineyard. Henry Hough had advised her to steer clear of politics in her columns and she largely did.
In the living room of her house, she would sit near the fire in a high-backed wing chair that supported her back which, she said, frequently pained her. She would watch the birds (cardinals were her favorites) light on the feeders she kept filled outside. Wreathed in the smoke of Parliament cigarettes, which she was smoking until only a few weeks before her death, she would play with her cats. There was always more than one.
She would chuckle about her smoking habits and suggest that the tobacco lobby should get hold of her as an example of the good tobacco could do. After all, she was still going strong in her nineties — and still smoking.
And she was also always indulging in chocolate. Once Darling’s was gone, fudge from Hilliard’s became her favorite. But if it wasn’t fudge she was enjoying, it would be another chocolate confection — perhaps a rich chocolate cake. And, of course, there was always a jar of her beach plum jelly on a kitchen shelf.
Over the years, when times were hard, she had made and sold beach plum and rose hip jelly — gathering the berries along the State Beach in the fall and selling her jelly in North Tisbury at the Humphreys family stand.
Old-fashioned jelly-making and the dimples in her cheeks notwithstanding, dark-haired, cat-loving Louise Aldrich Bugbee always insisted that she was a witch — not a bad witch, but a kindly one. She could, however startle those unacquainted with her habits with her bluntness and sharpness of tongue. She took great glee in not being tactful. But witch or not — by her myriad friends and admirers Louise Aldrich Bugbee will be long and fondly remembered.
“Every newspaper needs a Louise Bugbee, someone who reacts with disdain and candor to all pretense in life. And better yet, she always did it with a twinkle in her eye,” said Gazette publisher and former longtime editor Richard Reston this week. “She was our champion of the little guy on the Vineyard, the guy who washed dishes in the hospital kitchen or swept out the Oak Bluffs senior center after the crowd left.”
She is survived by her son, Edwin A. Bugbee of Crystal River, Fla and his wife Lyn; her granddaughter, Emily Alice Neel of Sun Ray, Tex., and two great-grandsons, Donald and Thomas Winters of Sun Ray. She was predeceased by her daughter, Donna Lou Bugbee Neel.
A memorial service will be held in Oak Bluffs this summer at a time to be announced. Contributions in her memory may be made to Featherstone Center for the Arts, Box 1145, Oak Bluffs MA 02557, to encourage poetry and creative writing.