When Celebrities Could Disappear Here
James Cagney’s Chilmark Years
Before I sat down to write this story, I called my 28 year-old son Charlie in LA, film grad, aspiring screenwriter, and standup comic.
“Not to put you on the spot,” I said, “or to, God forbid, make you feel ignorant, but do you know who James Cagney was?”
“I’ve . . . heard of him,” he said doubtfully, then he added, “Don’t think I could pick him out of a lineup.”
That happened to be an unintentional pun since James Cagney (1899-1986) was known for being a gangster. A movie gangster, that is. The Irish lad from the mean streets of Yorkville in New York grew up to be a three-time Academy Award nominee, and winner of the 1942 Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy (I’ll bet you Charlie’s never heard of that picture either; excuse me, Boston University College of Communications, could you have ponied up for one lousy movie classics course?).
What Jimmy Cagney’s mostly famous for on Martha’s Vineyard is for being famous on Martha’s Vineyard, and living in his 1728 farmhouse off Tea Lane in Chilmark without cadres of paparazzi camped out in his yard; the yard, in fact, that wrapped around the chicken coops.
Can we even imagine this scenario today – an actor of Cagney’s magnitude, and this would be a George Clooney or a Brad Pitt -- buying land up island, without shutterbugs planted in surrounding woods, draped with telephoto lenses longer than Casey’s bat, with an occasional drone swooping low with heat-seeking video cams?
On Cagney’s first visit to the Island in 1936, he really did need to get seriously lost, to truly disappear. He had staged his own private actor’s strike against Warner Brothers over a classic wage dispute: A Cagney picture enriched the studio with millions of dollars, while the studio doled out to Cagney, and indeed to all its top money-makers, a few thousand a pop.
Until the dust had settled, and the lawyers had their day in court, Cagney preferred to play hooky. Major hooky.
Where better to achieve this than off this dirt road, then this smaller dirt road, then this mere donkey trail in the wilds of Chilmark? While there, he fell in love with an antique, admittedly dumpy farmhouse on a hundred acres. When his wife, Willie (Frances Willard Vernon), a diminutive chorus girl, saw the place (after James had plunked down the full $7,500 for it), she too found it beyond dumpy, actually at first, depressingly dumpy. But she soon fell under that old black magic of the Vineyard spell, just as Jimmy had.
An initial bit of movie star nonsense occurred.
Nothing like today, not with the National Inquirer shelling out forty thousand dollars for a photo of Katie Holmes leaving the gym. But one morning, in the summer of ’36, when Mrs. Cagney was alone at home, some kind of misguided gaggle of fans knocked on the door demanding to see the star of black-and-white movies himself in living color.
Mrs. Cagney pretended to be the cook and shooed the folks away, but later when her husband learned about the episode, he went as ballistic as he ever had in Little Caesar or Public Enemy. He spread the word that trespassers would be shot. He’d played enough gunnies for people to find this threat wholly believable. One taxi driver, in fact, refused to convey his customer up the winding Cagney driveway. Spenser Tracy had to shuffle along the dusty road on foot to the front door.
No one shot him.
Hang on a sec: I need to call Charlie and see if he’s ever heard of Spenser Tracy. My call went straight to voice mail. Guess he’s avoiding me: Wonder why?
Funnily enough, it took some time in the late 1930s for Chilmarkers to warm to Mr. Cagney. This was long ago when your neighbor was not some random billionaire, but instead an actual sheep farmer or fisherman whose single trip off island had consisted of a weekend in New Bedford when he and the little woman had scraped together enough money. And they hadn’t truly enjoyed themselves, thank you very much.
To these islanders, a movie star dropped in their midst was about as welcome as a spaceship. Still, these crusty Chilmarkers eventually took a shine to the actor, known far and wide to be genuinely nice and quietly, unpretentiously charming. “I’m not a movie star, I’m a hoofer,” he liked to tell folks.
Oh, and this will kill you! It killed me when I read it! Back in the 1930s and 1940s, James Cagney paid $39 a year in property taxes for his hundred acres in Chilmark! Is it possible to die of a case of Vintage Prices Envy? There must be just such a psychological disorder written up in the DSM, because I myself am feeling it acutely at this very moment! Thirty-freaking-nine dollars! The movie star thought that if the bottom fell out of his high octane Hollywood career, he could always come and manage his horses and vegetables on his Chilmark patch of ground. He confided to friends that he would actually prefer to do that, but show biz never obliged him: He enjoyed a last big bang-up role in Milos Forman’s 1980 movie, Ragtime.
So the story goes that James Cagney sold his Island farm a few years before his death because he was demoralized by the paving of the streets. Please. Dirt Roads R Us in Chilmark, and the Cagney property, now whittled down to a mere 69 acres, is still picturesque, albeit much less of the shambles that had first dismayed Cagney’s bride.
But this amazing actor and hoofer set the tone for a Very Vineyard way of being famous here, which today’s TV stars, and rappers, and sitting presidents have more or less adopted, most of them trying to find ways to be barefoot, and fancy-free, and even, at times, invisible.
And now I have a bone to pick with my son who presumably doesn’t know Barbara Stanwyck from Bette Davis! I intend to call him up, and put this question to him: How will he feel when, in forty or fifty years, he asks a young person if he has ever heard of Tupac Shakur?
I’m thinking the guy will mumble, “I’ve, um, heard of him, vaguely. Wasn’t he . . . someone in some . . . business?”