Ralph Graves, the former editor of Life Magazine, a novelist and longtime summer resident of the Island, died in New York city on June 10 after a period of declining health. He was 88.
An old-school editor with a blunt demeanor, he had a lasting love affair with the Vineyard that began when he was a teenager and spanned some seven decades. Whatever the subject, Ralph Graves never hesitated to speak his mind. “If there were still a weekly Life Magazine and I was the last editor, I would certainly have done a story on the celebrity invasion of the Vineyard,” Mr. Graves told the Gazette in an interview in August 2001. “I think there are two classes of celebrities on the Vineyard: the longtime celebrities who fitted in so perfectly and accepted the Vineyard as it really is. And then there are the big-time, big-spending, don’t-give-a-damn-about-the-Vineyard celebrities who are here because it’s an in-place. And I see nothing in the near future that’s going to slow down the celebrity invasion and the extravagance of what they do when they get here.”
He had already written his first novel when he was hired by Life right out of college, and he wrote 10 more in his lifetime although he never really saw himself as a novelist. “I was published and I therefore thought I was a novelist and I kept writing novels ever since,” he told the Gazette. “But what I really am is an editor.”
He was born in October 1924 in Washington, D.C., the son of Ralph Graves, the founding editor of National Geographic, and Elizabeth Evans. After his father’s death his mother married Francis B. Sayre Sr., who became the High Commissioner of the Philippines and was a summer resident of West Chop. Mr. Graves began visiting in summers in the late 1930s. He served in Army Air Corps in the Pacific in World War II as a cryptographer, and returned to attend Harvard College where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He got the job at Life through the placement center at the college which had arranged a blind interview. “I got to the appointment wondering whether it would be Random House or Doubleday, and it was this guy from Life Magazine,” he recalled. “Very nice guy. He said, ‘Tell me why you would like to work for Life Magazine?’ And I said, ‘I wouldn’t’”
It was the beginning of a 35-year career at the iconic weekly magazine that had a place in every postwar American middle class household alongside the news magazines Time and Newsweek. Mr. Graves became managing editor, the top post at the magazine.
In June of 1969, just weeks after he had taken the helm, the magazine published Faces of the Dead, showing the 243 faces of every American that had been killed in Vietnam the previous week. The article was a strong antiwar statement that stirred public opinion around the country.
His career was formed during an era in American journalism that is all but forgotten today. In a talk he gave on the Vineyard in the summer of 1994 for an event sponsored by the Nathan Mayhew Seminars on the American Dream, Mr. Graves recalled: “When I became a reporter for Life 40 years ago, the press observed an unwritten rule. Today it sounds naive, but we never ran a picture of a politician with a glass in his hand. Most politicians drank, and some of them drank a lot, but we never showed this in a picture. This was a freely extended courtesy.” In the winter of 1953 Mr. Graves spent a weekend marooned in a snowstorm on the Vineyard while Life photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, another longtime Vineyard summer resident, was shooting a piece about the Island in the off season. The Life team earned a good-natured poke in the ribs from the Gazette, which reported that they “bore up bravely under the ordeal. Vineyard fans, they maintained that they did not really mind the weather.” After the weekend, in a personal letter to Gazette publishers Henry and Betty Hough found in the newspaper’s archives, Mr. Graves wrote: “Never quite expected to be caught in a snowdrift on the way to South Beach . . . here’s one more vote for the Vineyard in winter.”
Mr. Graves presided over the closing of Life magazine in 1972, and then became Editorial Director at Time Inc., a job he had until his retirement.
In 1950 he married Patricia Monser with whom he had two children. The marriage ended in divorce. In 1958 he married Eleanor MacKenzie Parish, also divorced and with two children, who also worked at Life and eventually became executive editor of the magazine. They had two children of their own. His enduring love affair with Eleanor was affectionately detailed in his later book Objects of Desire.
The couple spent summers on the Vineyard, first in a small rented house off Lambert’s Cove Road and later in the house they built in 1967 off Middle Road in Chilmark. The Graves home was a gathering place every summer for the large family of children, grandchildren and dogs. Mr. Graves was active in the Island summer community and was a frequent speaker at lectures, seminars and other events.
He had a special fascination with and love for Stonewall Beach, where his family had owned some beachfront since the 1930s, and he wrote about it more than once in the Gazette.
His books were an eclectic ramble that included Martha’s Vineyard: An Affectionate Memoir, a coffee table book and collaboration with the Edgartown painter Ray Ellis, and Champagne Kisses, Cyanide Dreams, a mystery where seasonal resort celebrities are murdered. Mr. Graves had great fun with the subject. “I see nothing wrong, by the way, with killing them off,” he told the Gazette. “I got rid of four of them in this book and if the book is successful, I’ll write another and I’ll knock off another half dozen.”
But peppery Mr. Graves also had a softer side, especially when it came to the Vineyard and its preservation.
His affection for the land was noted by Anne W. Simon in a 1986 review for the Gazette of his novel August People. “Appreciation of wild grass and bull vine alike emerge from the pages of August People to recall the beauty of the Island which happily was not destroyed by whosoever may choose to live on it,” she wrote.
When he retired he became active in conservation affairs on the Island, serving on the board for the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation. In 1994 he and his wife donated a piece of land off Middle Road in Chilmark to Sheriff’s Meadow, which granted a view easement for what is now the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Middle Ridge preserve. He was an avid backgammon player. He was a member of the Edgartown Reading Room, the Dutch Treat Club in New York, where he served as president, and The Century Association in New York. He was a member of the board of directors for the Gazette from 2002 until 2007. From 2005 to 2007 he wrote a column for the newspaper called Summer People. In the 2001 interview, he said: “I really cherish what I think of as the real Vineyard and that includes people as well as land and water. And there’s still so much of the Island that to me remains unspoiled. I just hope as many people as possible would try to preserve it.”
He is survived by his wife Eleanor, their six children and 11 grandchildren.
His ashes will be interred at Abel’s Hill Cemetery in Chilmark sometime this summer.