Every new generation is convinced it alone invented nudist beaches and sex with anyone you haven’t bothered to marry. But when you read about the antics of people from any time in history, with the possible exception of the Plymouth Pilgrims in the 1620s, and the bishops of Nicaea of 325 AD, you’ll find to your scholarly delight that sexy fun was around even before the time of Hugh Hefner.
People who read the tabloids, yet who’ve never actually visited our Island, think we’re Tinsel Town East with cocaine sliced up by butlers and brought out to cocoa-oil slathered cuties lounging beside Olympic-sized pools flooping Infinity fountains into the ocean. Well, eat your hearts out! That’s exactly what we do here! Just foolin’.
Those of us who’ve been on Island a while know that there is virtually no such thing as a wild party on Martha’s Vineyard. And unless I personally have been kept out of more swinging circles, I’m going on record to say that nothing outrageous ever transpires here socially other than a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist smashed on gin-and-tonics informing Bill Clinton his book could have benefited from a 350-word trim.
We’re New Englanders, after all (even those of us who were originally neurotic Cosmo-subscribed Valley Girls). Toss an off-color joke our way and, while we may find it funny after a full two-and-a-half minutes have elapsed, we’ll first raise an eyebrow – something we’ve practiced in the mirror before receiving a Massachusetts driver’s license – then clear our throats while we process how many letters to the editor will arise from chuckling at this questionable piece of entertainment. By then we’ve gone on to an intense debate about how the German banking system legislated debenture bonds in Athens.
If it sounds like I’m bored, I’m not! Really!
But back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, one summer estate on Martha’s Vineyard was the site of weekend bashes that were far and away more larky than any of the parties any of us have attended in the past forty or fifty years.
Katharine Cornell, called “Kit” by friends and neighbors, the reigning queen of 20th century theater in America, owned a waterfront peninsula in Vineyard Haven called Chip Chop, out in the fabulous vicinity where Lake Tashmoo sloshes into Vineyard Sound and vice versa.
Kit may have had a few friends who happened not to be famous, and they were undoubtedly tired of being left out of lists of weekend visitors, but they were lost in the shuffle of the likes of Lawrence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, Somerset Maughm, for crying out loud!, Noel Coward, Pearl Buck, James Cagney, Ralph Richardson, and Martha Graham. And this is just a partial inventory of the past century’s R & F’s (rich and famous) who were bf’s and bbf’s of La Cornell’s – you’d get woozy reading more names.
And what did these Chip Choppers do that was so outlandish? Well, honestly, the times were freer and easier and poor hard-working R & F’s could roister till the beams fell down around their heads. For example, Kit’s kitchen windows faced the pool, so the chatelaine installed blinds. This way her guests could skinny-dip without the staff watching Sir Larry belly-flop naked, splashing the gorgeous bosoms of Gloria Swanson and Tallulah Bankhead.
Also, this had to be a hoot: the hostess passed out marking pens to all her famous guests, and told them to affix their names and witty graffiti to the wall of the downstairs loo.
Wouldn’t this sheetrock of precious signatures look great in the lobby of the Vineyard Playhouse? What became of it? Well, Ms. Cornell died at Chip Chop in 1974, and some time in the 80s the property was sold to a nice couple from . . .Connecticut? There must have been a micro-moment between the syllables ren-o-vate when the guest bath walls were gutted and carted away before anyone realized Noel Coward had scribbled in turquoise ink, “Darling, I hear you aren’t wearing panties in Cleopatra?!”
The problem with trophy homes today – and today’s Island celebs are forced to inhabit them – is you can’t have that kind of fun within those bleached plumwood bead-board walls. You hesitate to leave sodas on the Chilean jade-baked ruby-embedded corian counters, so you’re damned well not about to write on the bathroom walls or perform nude, splashy cannonballs into the special pool with mineral waters flown in from a river in Tuscany.
But back in the Chip Chop days, even the R & F’s thought their homes need look no better than aged summer camps in the Adirondacks. Hot damn! That had to be fun! You could short-sheet the other guests’ beds, and wait for them to freak out at two in the morning after a group bender on mimosas in and out of the pool, and a hilarious swap of theater stories, followed by sloppy good night kisses, and English, knighted movie stars wandering off to their rooms to cry out “Bleeding hell!” when their feet jammed in the sheets with their knees up around their necks -- this is so funny when it happens to anyone but you!
And just imagine John Gielgud’s legs stuck in a perfectly-pied bed – “divine” as a word doesn’t quite do the scene justice!
Harvey Wallbangers for breakfast, anyone? Those were jolly good times.