TO THE NEW OWNERS: A MARTHA’S VINEYARD MEMOIR
By Madeleine Blais
Atlantic Monthly Press, $26, 278 pages
In his important 1989 book “The Great Good Place,” Dan Oldenburg gave us the term “a third place,” by which he meant a special and vitally important social place other than home or work. For some it could be a park, a club (like a neighborhood tavern or a Moose lodge) where one winds down after the workday before heading home, a spot where you enjoy a sense of place and belonging because you feel welcome.
For Madeleine Blais, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (“The Heart Is an Instrument: Portraits in Journalism”; “In These Girls, Hope is an Instrument: A True Story of Hoop Dreams and One very Special Team,” and “Uphill Walker: The Memoir of a Family”) for decades her third place was a beat-up house with no modern conveniences, but on a pond and the water in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. The house belonged to her husband John’s parents who’d bought it for $80,000 in 1970 and did little to it.
But how bad can it be if it’s on a pond and the water in Martha’s Vineyard?
Well, she tells us. “What I saw was a shack, three or four rooms the size of big closets hammered to one another without any architectural foresight.” The shower was outside, connected to a big tree, and an outhouse took the place of indoor plumbing. Water came from a hand pump in the kitchen “as temperamental as a sleep-deprived teenager.”
Green garbage bags covered the ceiling, initially catching the rainwater that leaked through the shingles, but eventually collapsing their contents onto who-or-whatever was below.
The surprising thing about this casual approach to interior decorating is that Madeleine Blais’ father-in-law was the justly famous lawyer and public servant Nicholas (“Nick”) DeBelleville Katzenbach, the well-born lawyer who was No. 2 in Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department and whom JFK sent to Alabama to confront George Wallace when the governor tried to resist integrating the University of Alabama.
Ms. Blais’ family vis a vis Katzenbachs? “[T]hey are before the Mayflower, mine is before potato famine; Princeton University and Bennington College, the College of the Holy Cross and Bridgewater Teachers College. One carefree summer, John toured Europe with his father and his older brother in a Triumph TR-3 sports car. My family routinely piled into my mother’s wheezing Nash Rambler station wagon and stuck to nearby errands. John’s father was mythic because he was part of history; mine was mythic because he was dead.”
The couple, both young reporters for The Trenton Times, started going to the house while they were dating, kept going there, for two weeks at the end of every summer, after they married and had children, and, just as had happened with the senior Katzenbachs and their other three children and grandchildren, they fell in love with the old shack (and with the Vineyard) and saw no reason to make improvements.
Then, in 2012, Nick Katzenbach died and Lydia was no longer well enough to travel. Facing the prospect of buying the now-beloved third place, the four Katzenbach children had to face the reality of what one guest called “Mr. Market.” Mrs. K. wanted the kids to sell the place and use the money for such realities as college tuition. Which is what they did, but not without copious tears for what had been.
Ms. Blais, a fine writer of nonfiction, set out to memorialize the place, and the result is a highly readable valentine to a much loved — for them and their relatives, families and friends — dwelling that had been the site of so many good times.
There’s an awful lot of name-dropping in the book, but that’s excusable if you really know the people behind the names, and the author does. So we find fascinating portraits of such eminences as the late Katherine Graham and the couples’ good friend, the writer Phil Caputo (“A Rumor of War”), plus cameos of Art Buchwald, William and Rose Styron, many stories about Lillian Hellman, doyenne and dragon-lady on Martha’s Vineyard for decades, and walk-ons by Alan Dershowitz, Princess Di, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan and a sighting of Donald Trump’s yacht.
But most of the book is comprised of quotes from the special-ordered visitors logs so faithfully kept over the years by friends and family.
In 2014, the “shack” sold for $3 million, “minus $17,000 for our share of their new roof.” A while later, a friend of the author’s wrote, “Ah, I hate to tell you, but yes, your wonderful camp is no more. And in its place, a 5,000 [square foot] one-floor (meaning very long) high-end home shoehorned into the wetland boundaries with 5 bathrooms and are you ready a lap pool.” R.I.P. shack.
• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.
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