Martha’s Vineyard: The Left Bank of the U.S.A


Let’s call those who flock to our shores ‘Ex-Pats.’

Now that a number of city dwellers — from New York, Boston, and elsewhere — have opted to make the Vineyard their home for more than just the summer months, I think it’s time to reassess the nomenclature for the non-native born. 

To me the word “washashore” — so liberally applied to Vineyard transplants no matter what their story — conjures up images of debris drifting from afar to soil our pristine Island. Okay, some of you may think of those of us who can’t trace our Island roots back to colonial times that way, but many of the 20th and 21st century pilgrims who have made the Vineyard their home have truly enriched the cultural life of the Island and added more to the mix than just supersized homes and organic, free-range, non-GMO food options in local supermarkets.

So I propose the word “ex-pats” for our new neighbors from near and far. 

People often associate that term with the group of American writers who relocated to Paris after World War I. The Lost Generation, as these European transplants are referred to, included such literary luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. I would argue that the Vineyard has been blessed during the second half of the 20th century and early years of the 21st, with an equally illustrious group of relocated residents who continue to shape the cultural landscape of our tiny Island.

It might be going too far to call the Vineyard the “Paris of the U.S.” — but maybe the “Paris of New England” or, okay, the “Paris of Cape Cod.” In any event, the similarities abound. As for iconic landmarks — Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and we’ve got five — count them five — lighthouses to their one tower. Paris can boast Notre Dame while we’ve got the Whaling Church — maybe not quite as imposing or architecturally impressive, but still. Père la chaise is eternal home to such literary lions as Balzac, Proust, and Oscar Wilde, but the Island lays claim to the burial site of the Chicken Lady, who should perhaps be thought of as the Island’s first poet laureate. (Or not. Check out some of her verses sometime.)

So, as the 21st century rolls into its second decade, why not think of the Vineyard as the epicenter of the new Roaring Twenties? It’s not so far in the past that a stretch of upper Main Street in Vineyard Haven was referred to as Writers’ Row due to the density of literary talent to be found there. John Hersey, William and Rose Styron, and Lillian Hellman all shared the neighborhood and its views of the harbor. Imagine the conversations to be had between Jules Feiffer and the late Bill Styron — our own Hemingway and Fitzgerald, during the Writers’ Row heyday. During the 1960s and 70s, Hellman was considered the consummate (if cantankerous) hostess of the Island’s literati, making her the perfect stand-in for Gertrude Stein with her legendary salons. 

Rose Styron could be considered a modern day Zelda. She’s certainly the equal to Fitzgerald’s wife in beauty and charm — but minus the crazy and with a wealth of brilliance and talent thrown in. Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West not only set her acclaimed novel The Wedding on the Vineyard, she wrote it while staying in her family home in Oak Bluffs. 

And while Writer’s Row and the Oak Bluffs Highlands are no longer the mecca for literary talent that they once were, Martha’s Vineyard continues to be home to a number of luminaries in many of the arts. One can’t help but be inspired by breathing the same rarified air as the winners of Pulitzers (Geraldine Brooks, David McCullough, James Lapine), Tonys (James Lapine, Tony Shalhoub), Oscars (Spike Lee, Peter Farrelly, Sarah Kernochan, Mary Steenburgen, Carly Simon) Emmys (Ted Danson, Larry David, Tony Shalhoub), Grammys (Carly Simon, James Taylor, John Forte), Peabodys (Amy Brennerman, Amy Schumer), and the list goes on. 

To add a few (gratuitously referenced) names to this list, our former President and part time Vineyarder, Barack Obama, not only has a Nobel Prize, but two Grammys — yes, Grammys (for spoken word recordings) — to his credit. Michelle Obama also won a Grammy, as did both members of Island power couple Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Although “Grammy winner Hillary Clinton” or “Grammy winner Barack Obama” may not be the best choice of introduction for either politician, it’s still quite an honor.) 

You may not find any of the above sipping Absinthe or munching on a Madeleine at a little outdoor cafe, but it’s not unusual to spot a writer of renown passing the time on the porch of the Chilmark store, perhaps eating gluten-free pizza and drinking Smart Water, while mingling with the locals. 

Speaking of the Island born, we certainly have our own homegrown cast of characters to add plenty of charm to the scene — though maybe not the charm of the Parisian variety. Vineyarders (both natives and transplants) have their own unique sense of style. You won’t see many women sporting heels and stylish hats, or men in ascots, but, like their “American abroad” counterparts, visitors to our shores have a tendency to try to emulate the local look by sporting baseball caps and duck shoes (look it up). 

One sure sign that you’ve joined the ranks of the ex-pat community (no longer a mere visitor but someone who has truly adopted the Island as their homeland) is a fluency in the language. You know you’re a true ex-pat when you start speaking passable Vineyardese. Mispronouncing Island place names is a dead giveaway, as well as a potential source of embarrassment (“There once was a girl from Aquinnah,” if pronounced correctly, does not work as the bawdy limerick lead in.)

According to Wikipedia (the reference source of choice for lazy journalists like myself), “The Lost Generation came to being as ‘a collectivized recognition of the aimlessness, confusion and grief experienced by the survivors and civilians of the war.’” While Americans haven’t just endured the horror and confusion and grief of a world war, the past few years (four to be specific) have certainly proved a very trying, if not terrifying, time for many of us. If the Vineyard can be thought of as a sort of independent country (and some Islanders are actually in favor of secession from the U.S.), it’s no surprise that a number of informed, concerned Americans have chosen our Island as a sanctuary from the chaos and divisiveness plaguing our country today. An equally compelling migration motivation may be the opportunity to take a break from obsessive news monitoring and enjoy the relative isolation of the Island. 

Whatever it is that our newest neighbors are seeking, they play a very important role in defining the human landscape of the Vineyard. How do you recognize a true ex-pat? They tend to be open-minded, accepting of any and all cultures, respectful of the environment, philanthropic, and are likely to be involved in both civic and/or national/international causes. All in all, many of our new neighbors are the type who would make great additions to any community. So, let’s embrace these ex-pats — and maybe even invite one over for tea and a typical Island bitch session. 

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