The recent death of Beverly Sills from lung cancer was a severe loss to the American performance world, but it also brought deep grief to the island of Martha's Vineyard. The Vineyard has lost a number of its more celebrated summer residents over the past months, including William Styron in November and Art Buchwald last January. All were members of a close island friendship that for years included Jules and Jenny Feiffer, Mike and Mary Wallace, Sheldon and Lucy Hackney, Rose Styron, and, before they died, former President of Yale Kingman Brewster, Philip Rahv, John Hersey, and Lillian Hellman. Not a few of this dead circle of friends now rest in a small cemetery in West Chop, overlooking the Vineyard Sound. I once suggested to Rose Styron that she buy more than one plot there so she could visit.
Her husband Bill died last year after a long and painful illness, marked by cancer, depression, and strokes. He had been a resident of the island for over forty years, and wrote most of his great books there. A native of Virginia, he had no particular love of the ocean and was rarely seen on the beach, but he was a familiar figure in Vineyard Haven, taking his morning walk with one of his "dawgs." He owned a number of these animals over the years, mostly Labrador retrievers and almost all of them named after island locations, like Tashmoo and Aquinnah. The main streets of the Vineyard seem empty these days without him and his "dawgs."
Art Buchwald was a native of Washington for most of his life after spending his early years as a humorist in Paris writing for the International Herald-Tribune. One of the most beloved men in America, he was held in special esteem by natives of the island, even those who didn't often cotton to summer people. He returned their affection through annual stints as an auctioneer on behalf of the Martha's Vineyard Community Services, always appearing before the mike in some outlandish cowboy hat which, he declared, was not for sale (it was, of course, and generally fetched a very large sum). Buchwald's liver began to fail in January of 2006, but he refused to undergo dialysis or change his unhealthy eating habits. Instead, he entered a hospice in preparation for death. To everyone's surprise, he lived another year in relative comfort, and even wrote a book about the experience (Too Soon to Say Goodbye). It included an appendix of obituaries he solicited from his friends.
Beverly Sills was not seen much on the island in recent years because of a hectic schedule as administrator for the Met, the City Center Opera, and Lincoln Center. But she and her late husband Peter Greenough had been Martha's Vineyard fixtures for decades. The first house they built was burned down by some crazy cult group. But this was soon replaced by a lovely home with a splendid view of Lamberts Cove, which included a tennis court for the use of their many visitors. Beverly Sills' graciousness towards family and friends, usually realized through epic dinner parties, was legendary. She was a lady of great gifts as an artist, and great heart as a human being, and irreplaceable to American culture.
The island's literary and cultural population has been sadly diminished by these deaths, not only numerically but emotionally. The few who remain are in their seventies and eighties, most of the dead residents having been replaced by Hollywood personalities, media stars, and masters of the universe. At Art Buchwald's memorial, I ran into the octogenarian Mike Wallace and told him, "We have to stop meeting this way."
"We will," he replied.