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'To The New Owners: A Memoir Of Martha's Vineyard'

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'To The New Owners: A Memoir Of Martha's Vineyard'

'To The New Owners: A Memoir Of Martha's Vineyard'

'To The New Owners: A Memoir Of Martha's Vineyard'

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Martha's Vineyard has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Scott Simon talks to Madeleine Blais about her new book, To the New Owners, a memoir and a tribute to the popular island.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Madeleine Blais' in-laws bought a house on Martha's Vineyard in the 1970s. It had no electricity or modern plumbing, but it did have mice and an ocean view. They built a new house - a little more comfortable but not fancy - and accumulated a lot of memories over the next five decades until the family parted with the house three years ago. Madeleine Blais' new book is "To The New Owners: A Memoir of Martha's Vineyard." It's a family memoir but also a chronicle of a place that's gone from hosting sand crabs to political heavyweights and Hollywood celebrities. Madeleine Blais, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, joins us now from the studios of New England Public Radio. Thanks so much for being with us.

MADELEINE BLAIS: Well, it's my pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: Can you recreate for us in a sense, like our town does, a summer day at that house you loved?

BLAIS: Basically, people woke up as early as they could, as close to dawn. Everyone was kind of on their own once the kids got older and could take care of themselves to fix something for breakfast and start the day however they wanted as long as they were busy.

There was no television, barely a radio. And it would be tuned into very infrequently, generally when the Red Sox were playing. And all you got were scratchy sounds anyway. People were left to just, I guess, invite the outdoors into their hearts and their souls.

SIMON: You write at one point the vineyard, quote, "sometimes feels like a club with secret rules that no one appears all that eager to share, filled with hierarchies." How so?

BLAIS: Well, Martha's Vineyard has a lot of secret beaches that lurk behind, say, an innocuous blue mailbox. And if you don't know that at that blue mail box there is a dirt road that leads to a parking lot that leads to a path that leads to a beach, if you haven't somehow been taught that by somebody, there's no way to suspect that would be the case.

There are hierarchies in terms of who's been on the island the longest. And if your phone number has a 693 exchange, that means you've had your phone for a longer amount of time than someone who has a 696 exchange. So there's a kind of little bit of prestige involved with that.

SIMON: Can you see where people on the outside, particularly in this day and age, get a little irritated by the Martha's Vineyard crowd?

BLAIS: I think there's a lot of what's called varsity socializing on the island. In the book, I mention that one time I heard a little boy trying to get his father's attention. This is fairly recently. And the child was saying, but Daddy, I'm sick of going to your movie sets. I hate going to your movie sets. And the man was on his phone, very absorbed in his mobile device. And he just basically said, we can't talk unless you stop whining. And I thought, boy, that's a conversation that you didn't hear on the island 50 years ago.

SIMON: You have a litany of celebrity sightings. I'll rattle off a tenth of the names - Walter Cronkite, Bill Murray, Ted Kennedy, JFK Jr. buying a sandwich, Donald Trump docking his yacht. But I want to ask you about, quote, "Alan Dershowitz on his cell phone at the nude beach." Where did he store his phone between calls?

BLAIS: I only observed this from a distance, thank God.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Alan Dershowitz is a fine legal scholar. He's welcome on this show any time. But in any event, one had to make note of that. Way before Steven Spielberg and "Jaws," did - what's still called the Chappaquiddick incident in which a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, died when she was in the back of a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy, went off the bridge at Chappaquiddick. Did that bring the worst kind of attention to the vineyard?

BLAIS: I think that that was when people first started to think about - see, the vineyard entered the world stage because of Chappaquiddick. And this kind of remote island that was a secret in many ways became not a secret. It was about three or four years later, I think, in '73, that Spielberg decided he wanted to film "Jaws." And the vineyard came up as a setting because it was so authentic, although that word's kind of annoying these days. But it was so authentically weather-beaten and New England-y (ph).

And Spielberg had looked at some places on the West Coast, but a lot of the beaches there in the background might have a high rise. They were developed in some ways. This was an extremely undeveloped part of the world. It's tried to remain undeveloped, though now it seems as if almost every house there has a swimming pool. A friend of mine once said, and I quoted this, that "pretty soon, the island will be a donut."

SIMON: Pretty soon the island will be a donut.

BLAIS: In other words, there'll be land surrounded by a hole filled with water.

SIMON: Oh (laughter). Is it hard for you to go back to Martha's Vineyard as a visitor?

BLAIS: We went back a year ago, June, for a wedding of a young woman who'd been one of the children who had kind of grown up at our house. And going to that wedding really helped me feel a lot of peace about the island and about no longer having the same purchase on it because I realized that my psychological purchase is as real - maybe not as real as owning a piece of property, but it has a great deal of reality for me. Basically, I think that when the house was being sold, I was just so - I found that summer of 2014, I was in a state of what I call extreme mixed feelings. I felt very sad about losing the house.

And then I felt sad that no one would know what the house actually had meant, which really became the impetus for writing this book, that I wanted to share the human history that that piece of property had entertained over the course of almost a half a century so that the new owners or people even going by on a boat, if they looked over and they saw that little spit of land, they might know something of the density of life that had been led there.

SIMON: Madeleine Blais. Her book - "To The New Owners: A Memoir of Martha's Vineyard." Thanks so much for being with us.

BLAIS: Thank you, Scott.

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