On Martha's Vineyard, imported celebrities fade into woodwork

August 27, 1998|By John R. Broderick

THE ONE recent move that President Clinton made that should surprise absolutely no one was his decision to travel to the island of Martha's Vineyard for rest and, of course, to try to avoid the media questions about Monica Lewinsky and Osama bin Laden.

If there is one place on Earth right now where the Clinton family might actually be able to blend into the woodwork, it is this Massachusetts island. About seven miles off Cape Cod, the island is accessible only by boat or by plane.

The Clintons, in fact, are following a long tradition of the rich and famous -- or is it infamous? -- who seek respite from the outside world by vacationing on this isolated strip of land.

The island's beauty and appeal have been well documented for more than 300 years, thanks in part to an incredible amount of attention from media and celebrities. Yet celebrity status is not a big deal on the Vineyard. Maybe because everyone there thinks they are special, especially the 10,000 year-round natives. After all, where else could CBS icons Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace spend their summers and actually have listed phone numbers?

Presidential tradition

The president's summer visit almost coincides to the day when the first sitting president to go there explored the beauty, splendor and tranquillity of Martha's Vineyard.

After reading several articles in magazines documenting the multicolored Gay Head cliffs and the Gingerbread Cottages in Oak Bluffs, President Ulysses S. Grant decided in August 1874 to come and see firsthand what all the fuss was about. Now, politicians, heads of state, entertainers, professional athletes, you name it, call it home.

One of President Clinton's film heroes, the legendary James Cagney, became one of the first high-profile types to find a home-away-from-home on the Vineyard when he purchased a Chilmark farm in 1936 for $7,500. As one might suspect, word traveled fast of Cagney's arrival. Soon fans were coming in droves in hopes of catching a glimpse of their hero. It has been told that Cagney became furious about the possibility of losing his anonymity and let it be known in community circles that he carried a gun and was prepared to use it against trespassers.

To understand and appreciate Martha's Vineyard, the Clinton family must become acquainted with the Vineyarders. Here are a few topics they should avoid:

Finding John Belushi's grave site. Becoming annoyed with fans seeking the burial place of the "Saturday Night Live" star, several Vineyard merchants wore shirts that said: "Yes. I am a native. No. I don't know where John Belushi is buried."

Locating a "Big Mac." McDonald's attempt to place one of its establishments on the island drew ire and protest back in 1978 that made everyone's national newscast. The corporation received so many letters of complaint that it backed away from the plan.

Saying nice things about Massachusetts politicians. The island's six communities considered leaving the commonwealth in 1977 after the state's redistricting efforts left Martha's Vineyard and neighboring island Nantucket without their own state representative. The lack of representation triggered a secession movement in which islanders were courted by Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

The big blitz

The president should be happy to learn the love-hate relationship islanders have with tourists and state government is nothing compared to their dislike of media scrutiny. That scrutiny -- even compared with his current visit -- reached an all-time high back in following the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Kopechne, 28, was found dead beneath the Dike Bridge in a car registered to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Hundreds of national and international reporters descended upon the tiny courthouse in Edgartown to learn more about this story. The Dike Bridge, a dilapidated wooden structure, soon became as familiar to Americans as the Golden Gate Bridge by the time the media left.

Actually, the president, Hillary and Chelsea should feel completely comfortable during the time they spend in their Oyster Point compound. They are in one of the most exclusive parts of Edgartown, and their close friends, Vernon and Ann Jordan, are only a few doors away. Singer Carly Simon, who already greeted the first family at the airport, perhaps will stop by to sing a few songs (preferably not "You're So Vain"). Maybe even Mr. Cronkite, once called the most trusted man in America, could stop over and offer some tips on how to regain some of the credibility the president has lost during the Lewinsky scandal.

Air of tolerance

Rest assured, the mood on the Vineyard will remain tolerant and protective of the first family's rights to maintain privacy. Besides, Labor Day is around the corner, and with it comes the knowledge that many of the tourists go away for another year. Even the Clintons. The Clintons, though, may hear a slight sigh of relief when Air Force One departs for Washington, but shouldn't take it personally.

Islanders will be holding their collective breath in hopes that Monica, Madonna or Michael Jordan won't show up and spoil fall.

John R. Broderick is a Providence Journal columnist.

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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