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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?”

Mathea Morais (Editor) August 21, 2012 at 10:41 PM
Bloodyrue Andrue, I was just telling Margaret that African Queen is one of my favorite movies. She said I restored her faith in "the younger generation!"
Bloodyrue Andrue August 21, 2012 at 10:41 PM
"The-Time-of-Their-Lives" - Abbott and Costello
Bloodyrue Andrue August 21, 2012 at 10:43 PM
Katherine Cornell is focused on every time I video a Tisbury Selectman Meeting. I use the wall just above her bust to white balance the camera.
Martha Magee August 22, 2012 at 12:16 AM
"The Time of Their Lives" - Abbott and Costello - OH my God. I LOVE that movie! .................." MELLLLLODEEEEEEEEEEE.............." Wow! Thanks for that!
Holly Nadler August 22, 2012 at 01:10 AM
A'ight, guys, but if I had to pick one Hepburn, it would be Audrey!
Michael West August 22, 2012 at 11:48 AM
Martha, I will give you Citizen Kane (maybe) and Casablanca (definitely), but that's it. Nobody gives a hoot about all those other classics.
gg August 22, 2012 at 10:09 PM
I see James Cagney and Ingrid Bergman everytime I go on "The Great Movie Ride" at Disneyworld. I love it, especially Casablanca. My father is buried there. He was pilot, shot down in WWII, before I was born. A HERO.
Martha Magee August 22, 2012 at 10:43 PM
A classic is a classic. "Nobody gives a hoot about": It's a Wonderful Life? Miracle on 34th Street? The Wizard of Oz? Gone with the Wind? Yankee Doodle Dandy? Tracy and Hepburn? Cary Grant? What planet do you live on? Unless you've recently been elected the official spokesman for all the citizens of Earth, I would stick to saying how you feel about things rather than speaking for everyone else.
Martha Magee August 22, 2012 at 10:59 PM
Wow, gg.. That's amazing! My uncle's spitfire went down in WWII also over England when he was only 19. My heart goes out to you losing your father before you were born. How beautiful that he died a HERO.
Mathea Morais (Editor) August 23, 2012 at 12:53 AM
I'm going to have to weigh in with Martha here. My three year old (and 10 year old and 13 year old) knows all the words to Wizard of Oz!
William Waterway August 23, 2012 at 11:05 AM
I personally knew Jimmy Cagney, and spent time with him on his Morgan horse farm in New York State. The scene that you refer to, Michael, was not scripted. Cagney and Mae Clarke often argued on the set while acting in Public Enemy. Jimmy and Mae were having a real argument when Jimmy grabbed a grapefruit and shoved it in Mae's ear. This was after many takes of the same scene - and Cagney was truly angry with Mae. The camera's just happened to be rolling when Cagney lost his temper, grabbed the grapefruit, and let Mae have it.
William Waterway August 23, 2012 at 11:08 AM
Yes, Holly - what you say is correct. When I visited Jimmy and Billy Cagney at their horse farm in New York State, their house was small, as were the rooms. In their kitchen was a soapstone sink they relocated from their Martha's Vineyard home in Chilmark.
Holly Nadler August 23, 2012 at 12:15 PM
You know what this back-and-forth reminds me of? The time on Sex And The City when Carrie admits to this cute new guy she's dating that she doesn't like jazz. Jazz, old movies . . . we may actually love them, and it's also hip to love them, but make way for people who are honest enough to admit they personally happen to be not so delighted.
Martha Magee August 23, 2012 at 01:44 PM
I agree with you Holly. And I LOVE Sex and The City! Have just been doing a marathon. (It helps me..;-)) I remember that episode. Totally great. When Carrie admitted she didn't like jazz, I found it liberating. But she was speaking for herself, not everybody else. This is the planet of free will. Everyone is entitled to their own thoughts and feelings and I celebrate that. I draw the line when someone tries to throw the baby out with the bathwater (in this case, Michael) with a global statement about how "nobody cares about that" etc. I found it shaming at worst, short sighted at best. Life is an abundant smorgasbord. There's enough wonderfulness that we can each pick what we like. You know, you go through the line. I like rice pudding, I take the rice pudding, somebody else doesn't. They go for the chocolate pudding. If I don't like chocolate pudding, what would happen if I said, " Why is this chocolate pudding even here?? I hate chocolate pudding...it's old fashioned...nobody else likes it either...." Do you see? Daring to knock an icon takes guts, I'll grant you that. And your personal opinion is of course valid because it's how you feel. You weren't speaking for anybody else. But be prepared for those of us who love her to rush to her defense! Same goes for classic movies. The good news is a classic is a classic because it's earned that status by its own earned merit. And like it or not, that is unassailable.
William Waterway August 23, 2012 at 02:20 PM
Jimmy was never a "gangster." However, he and his older brother were part of an Irish gang in the Lower East Side of Manahattan. Even though Jimmy was sickly as a child, he learned to be a street fighter to survive the gangs in his neighborhood. Once while having dinner with Jimmy and his wife, Billy, he proudly showed me his hands with all the scars from his street fights. Cagney said, "My brother and I were the two toughest street fighters in our neighborhood. Nobody messed with the Cagney brothers." On a gangster reality note: Cagney didn't like the way the movie industry treated actors, who had no rights. So, Cagney started the an actors union, which evolved into today's Screen Actors Guild (SAG.) One of the movie industry moguls didn't like the problems Cagney's actors union created, so, he put out a mob hit on Cagney. The hit man was supposed to make it look like an accident by dropping a big stage spotlight on top of Cagney. However, another movie industry mogul, with whom Cagney was friends, heard of the hit and used his own mob connections to intervene.
William Waterway August 23, 2012 at 02:22 PM
On that note, Martha - in 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Jimmy Cagney as eighth among its 50 Greatest American Screen Legends.
William Waterway August 23, 2012 at 02:24 PM
Yeah, I how what you mean - how about that song, "Occupied" by Michael West - that's a keeper.
William Waterway August 23, 2012 at 02:28 PM
Holly, were you here when Audrey Hepburn gave a solos one act performance at the Vineyard Play House in the 1980s? Audrey was dying of cancer at the time. One line she spoke touched me deeply, "Money! You struggle all your life to have money! You work long hours, you scrimp and save and do your best to survive. But, in the end, all you can do is think about giving it away."
Martha Magee August 23, 2012 at 02:29 PM
Hey William, I remember when he received the AFI Life Achievment Award in 1974: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXxZCrM04uI&feature=youtube_gdata_player How remarkable you got to spend time with him! Did you arrive on horseback? xoxo
Martha Magee August 23, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Poor Charlie Allnut didn't know what hit him!
Margaret Carroll-Bergman (Editor) August 23, 2012 at 02:52 PM
Holly, you are an agent provocateur! What about old radio? Do you like Jack Benny and Fred Allen?
Martha Magee August 23, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Cagney is a classic. A classic is timeless, immortal, lasting, ageless. Never goes out of fashion. ( I bet his angel ears are burning with all these accolades..;-))
Michael West August 23, 2012 at 07:08 PM
Ok, Gone with the Wind? When was the last time you rented that? I do agree about the Wizard, tho, and you do realize I am being a little bit teasing about all of this...?
Martha Magee August 23, 2012 at 07:39 PM
I'm all for teasing..as long as no one gets hurt.  "Gone with the Wind", also directed by the great Victor Fleming ("The Wizard of Oz, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Captain's Courageous") won 8 Oscars and is considered to be the most enduring well loved historical epic film of all time.  And believe it or not, I just watched it a few months ago, along with a friend (in his 50's) who had never seen it! So, put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Holly Nadler August 24, 2012 at 12:20 PM
Okay, have we all said our piece? Can I put up the chairs on the tables and turn off the lights?
Michael West August 24, 2012 at 12:40 PM
Martha is right about the venerable (not to say over-the-hill) movie classic GWTW. In face according to this website, GWTW is the 3rd most watched movie on the planet. Which planet he doesn't say. http://www.squidoo.com/mostwatchedmovies
William Waterway August 24, 2012 at 12:40 PM
Hey - that fat lady has yet to sing.
Martha Magee August 24, 2012 at 03:10 PM
That's right...Look....here she comes now!
Martha Magee August 24, 2012 at 03:25 PM
Well, Michael, I give you credit for coming around. Truth be told, "Gone with the Wind" is not my cup of tea. But it is what it is. I don't dare reveal here what my favorite movie of all time is, because for me it is sacred ground. My element is music. To me movies are magical. And I love magic, from any era, from any genre, that takes me out of time and into possibility. I love creation that inspires, and uplifts. Like music, movies move me! I am an appreciator of greatness in any form.

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