’Sconset Days: Excerpts from a Life

GETTING TO ’SCONSET: BOATS

The boats, ah, the boats. In those days, we took the Nantucket, the Martha’s Vineyard, the New Bedford, and the Naushon to Nantucket. We spent the night in New Bedford, and boarded at 8 a.m. or so, and sailed four hours with stops at Woods Hole and Oak Bluffs. What a wonderful feeling to tie up at those ports, watch the little engines at work boarding luggage and other goods, smell the wonderful odors of the wharves, watch the people joyously (it seemed)meeting the boats, and know that we were going on to the end of the line. It was magical the way they loaded and unloaded all those cars at the side of the ship, not the stern and aft as today, with much backing and filling, and nary so much as a scrape of the paint. And make no mistake: they were great boats (never call them ferries). They had a comfortable welcoming feeling. Staterooms with big varnished doors and large keys were like something out of nineteenth-century England, and, if memory serves, you could have a sit-down meal at tables on the New Bedford. Nothing like today’s hulks. My parents took the Gay Head in, I believe, the teens, and my grandparents. . . . Lord knows what ships they took. I should know.

AUTOGRAPH COLLECTING

My teen years and even before were a time of my autograph-collecting days. I still have them, and the fun, of course, was meeting the people who kindly gave me their autographs. John Steinbeck was one, whom I called on when he rented the first house down from Sankaty, called Footlight. Paul Webb another, the cartoonist of “The Mountain Boys,” who was a good friend of my parents-in-law to be. I bought a car from him for $25, fixed it up, and sold it for $100. A. J. Cronin, who rented a house off Cliff Road. Lucille Bremer, who stayed in the Sea Cliff Inn during a run, probably at the Straight Wharf Theatre. Robert Benchley, Nat’s father and Rob’s and Peter’s grandfather, was a good friend of my grandfather. I remember vividly both of them sitting on the back porch of my grandparents’ rented house without shirts on and eating raw clams dipped in butter. My grandfather was the Bishop of Iowa. Two different people you couldn’t imagine—the Bishop and Bob Benchley—and they had a wonderful time together. Strangely, I don’t have Benchley’s autograph. But I have Clifton Fadiman’s, and Patricia Collinge’s, a lovely woman and much-respected actress who lived a few doors down from my parents, and who was married to Jim Smith, or, as John Salvas always called him, Smit.

SUMMER LIVING

What a wonderful place to spend summers. George Rogers taught me how to fish with a conventional reel, not a spinning reel. We played in the gully next to the A&P (now Claudette’s). My family went to the beach faithfully, and kept our beach umbrella in the dunes from day to day, pitching it underhand into a valley between dunes. In those days there were showers and a dressing area at the foot of the steps leading down from the Beach House. We always had dinner in the middle of the day. We rode bikes, we played various games, and as my friends and I grew older and braver, we got into various sorts of troubles. Jesse Eldridge, the special policeman in ’Sconset, never quite caught up with us, but I think he knew who Danny Bixler, Wade Green, Mo and George Thomas, Roger Block, and I were. The late teens brought more sophisticated parties among the “in” young people of ’Sconset. Beth Wagley, Janet Perdun, Pete Dalton, and others. And every once in a while I was invited to big doings at the Yacht Club, where I always felt uncomfortable and out of place with the Hulbert Avenue crowd.

’Sconset then was very much a family town. There were cocktail parties, but they were low-key affairs. Houses cost $10,000. My parents bought their six-bedroom, fully furnished house on the south bluff for $5,000 in 1944. Dinner at the Chanticleer (no liquor license) was $3.95 or so. The long verandah at the Beach House played host to Clifton Fadiman and others of that ilk. Now and then a movie star would stay there, and the bright but spare dining room served delicious meals, and everyone wore their best informal clothes, of course. I learned to play golf, or play at golf, with my father at Henry Coffin’s Old ’Sconset Course. My folks never belonged to Sankaty or the Casino, alas, and I have been heard to say what a big mistake I made in not joining Sankaty when it was possible.

COOKS, MAIDS, AND BUTLERS

The local maids, cooks, and butlers were beloved fixtures year after year, and I came to know them all. Will was Mrs. Lucas’s butler, and a fine friendly gentleman. I can’t remember the name of Mrs. Finnell’s butler and chauffeur (she of the Peruna fortune; Peruna was a late nineteenth- century- patent medicine of high alcohol content). They lived in what was then the grandest mansion in ’Sconset, and perhaps the only one built of brick. He was a proper Englishman, and came to the square each day dressed in his uniform, minus the jacket, but always with the butler’s striped waistcoat. And in the crook of each arm was a Pomeranian. Pat Collinge’s and Jim Smith’s chauffeur and man of- all-works was Jim. It was a sad day when I discovered him in his car, dead, after he ran off the Milestone Road. It was my duty to tell the Smiths, who were heartbroken.

WORKING

As a teenager, I worked for just about everyone there was to work for in ’Sconset, and some in town. I pumped gas and drove a cab for John Salvas, or John the Barber (because he was just that), for four years and met my wife, Nan Dempster, there when she came to call her brother (with whom I worked) for lunch one day.

I worked for John’s daughter and son-in-law, Gordon and Aline Winslow, in the ’Sconset Market. It was fun to prepare orders for local customers’ groceries, which they or their cooks had phoned in that morning. The orders would go in bushel baskets and be lined upon the floor, and were delivered to houses throughout ’Sconset, but mainly on the north bluff.

I worked for Ray and Catherine Wiley in the Chanticleer, busing and peeling potatoes. I worked for Lou Scagliarini in the Book Store, hauling boxes up from the dungeon-like basement, and for Lou DeBarros in the Casino, sweeping up and listening to the story of his life as he reached into his bottom drawer for a strange bottle that contained what he called sustenance (what a character!).Mrs. Bulkley owned the Beach House and was another character. I bused, bell hopped, and did the same, as well as a little bar waiting, for Clemand Myra Reynolds in the Old ’Sconset Inn and Moby Dick.

Marty Finnegan (the New England accent changed that to Matty) yelled and screamed at me in his strange way of talking as I cut lawns, and Phil Morris hired me to make special deliveries. Now there was a postmaster of the old school! I know I worked for Clem Penrose, but can’t remember what I did for that tall, gaunt gentleman who was never without his cap with the long shiny peak. I helped Warren Rogers with his duties in the ’Sconset Chapel. I helped Albert Brock run the projector for the Casino movies. I worked for myself painting houses. I had conversations with Roy Larsen about what I might to do help his efforts on behalf of ’Sconset after I graduated from college. And there were probably other jobs I can’t remember.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

’Sconset was quiet. The friends of my parents in those days would hardly recognize the place today. They were quiet, distinctive, assured, thoroughly lovely people who were sure of their place in the world, and didn’t need all kinds of outside activities beyond fishing, reading, walking, and dinner at Chanticleer to validate their existence. Their houses, while attractive, were anything but ostentatious. The fun we had was, by and large, what I would call good clean fun. As far as I know—and I would have—there were no drugs beyond alcohol.

What am I trying to say about those days vis-à-vis today? I’m not entirely sure, except they were halcyon, simple days suffused with warmth and joy.

One can live as one did in the old days, but it takes a lot more work. It’s still a wonderful and unique place, and I love it.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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