Ever since the filming of the movie “Jaws,” Martha’s Vineyard has been a magnet for vacationing celebrities, presidents and, increasingly, corporate billionaires. A former editor of the Vineyard Gazette, Phyllis Meras is a standard bearer for the natural beauty and values of the older island lifestyle, which she celebrates in her new book, “In Every Season: Memories of Martha’s Vineyard,” illustrated by artists Thomas Cocroft and Robert E. Schwarz.
‘I think the old Vineyard is passing away. Islanders are selling their land. They can’t afford the taxes. It’s very expensive to live here now.’
Q. Why did you write this book?
A. People come here because they like the blueberries and the beaches and the moors, and then they build their McMansions and destroy what they came for. This is about the eternal aspects of the Vineyard that should be cherished.
Q. Are you an islander?
A. No. We’re now in our fifth generation summering on the Vineyard but you have to be born on the Vineyard to be an islander. I became a full-time resident when I became managing editor of the Vineyard Gazette for six years starting in 1967. I had been an editor at The New York Times and James B. Reston, the revered columnist and editor there, had just bought it from Henry Beetle Hough, who had owned it for 60 years.
Q. What was it like running the island paper?
A. I was interviewing important people such as [Washington Post publisher] Katharine Graham, Richard Nixon, and [Israeli diplomat] Abba Eban. Summer resident Alfred Eisenstaedt, who took the the iconic D-Day photo of the sailor kissing the girl, took the author’s photo for my first book.
Q. How have the summer residents changed?
A. The wealthy people when I was young were artists and intellectuals like James Cagney and Katherine Cornell and Thomas Hart Benton. I would meet them at cocktail parties given by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Garson Kanin who collaborated on the production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” People are much richer now, and it’s corporate money. There’s less discretion and more conspicuous consumption. Now you can pay tens of thousands of dollars for a key to a gated ocean beach. Henry Beetle Hough was the single most important force for conservation on the island, and after he died someone who works for Goldman Sachs tore down his house, which I tried to save, and put up a huge mansion for three months a year. They cut the trees down, too.
Q. Why the change?
A. Two things. The filming of “Jaws” and Ted Kennedy going off the bridge at Chappaquiddick, which happened at about the same time, brought notoriety to Martha’s Vineyard. Before that, Nantucket was much better known. Developers started looking up deeds and buying land.
Q. What will you be remembered for on the island?
A. Writing features . . . and obituaries! I know the people who are dying off and their relationship to the island. I wrote one for Walter Cronkite and one for Beverly Sills, who was very warm and outgoing. I just finished one for Gladys Widdiss, who was the president of the Wampanoag tribe from 1978 to 1987, when they acquired the Gay Head Cliffs and cranberry bog. At 97, she was still making pottery from Gay Head clay.
Q. Is this book a eulogy?
A. I think the old Vineyard is passing away. Islanders are selling their land. They can’t afford the taxes. It’s very expensive to live here now. Many of the jobs like house painting and cleaning are now done by Brazilians, who live many to a house and work in shifts. The college kids who used to do the summer jobs can’t afford the rents anymore. The old farms are going and you can get a lot of money for family land and live happily ever after somewhere else.
Q. There’s a saying that, at bottom, Manhattan is a real estate story. Is Martha’s Vineyard also a real estate story?
A. I would say so. It’s the “in” place to be two months a year. Too bad for the rest of us.