“Nights and days came and passed
Margaret Wise Brown – The Little Island
A Stiff Lower Lip
I was relieved to leave behind in our wake the oppressive summer temperatures and humidity of Florida that late spring of 1988. The morning we started to motor our 90 foot sailing yacht Seastar out of Ft. Lauderdale an unexpected noise suddenly stood out over the contented purr of the boat’s twin diesel engines. This immediately got our captain Ingmar’s attention and putting the engines into neutral he asked Jonathan, our South African deckhand to go below decks to investigate. Full of gratitude for being recently hired to join the boat and keen to show my new captain that I too knew something about what to do in this type of situation, I ran right behind the young tri-athlete.
As soon as Jonathan lifted up the hinged steel floorboard we both thrust our heads into the bilge looking around for anything out of the ordinaryl. Seeing nothing unusual Jonathan took off and before I could grip the steel floorboard above me, the heavy metal plate landed with a pronounced thud right on my head. The sudden impact promptly pushed my top two front teeth into the flesh of the bottom lip inside my mouth. Stunned, I ignored the throb of pain starting to take hold in my head and ran to a mirror instead. Horrified, I saw the whites of my teeth poking through slits under my bottom lip. Uh oh! Now I was really frightened.
On land I’d have rushed myself directly to the local hospital ER but now I had too much at stake and didn’t want Ingmar to turn back because of me. We would miss the tide and it would affect our ETA to our destination. I did not consider my physical well-being to have priority over the boat’s schedule. The boat came first. Somewhere in the past this had been made very clear to me.
In spite of the profuse bleeding characteristic of mouth lesions, by dabbing away with copious amounts of toilet paper, I managed to slow down the pesky flow of blood and hurried back on deck.
Verni our Swiss chef was curious about my swelling lip and blood spots he saw on the tissue I had in my hand. I shrugged my shoulders and told him nonchalantly that I must have bit my lip. Thank goodness mouth wounds heal quickly. The next day I had only a swollen welt inside my mouth and to this day when I run my tongue over that raised scar-ridge I am reminded of that zany incident I never shared with anyone else until now.
An Exclusive Hide-away
Islands with no bridges to the mainland are the best. I grew up on an island and know that most islanders are hesitant to subject themselves to ferry schedules. Isolation allows island culture to evolve at its own pace and provides a safe haven from an “outside” world where angst runs rampant. In my opinion, decelerated island time, detachment from mainland mania and a “live and let live” credo is the perfect antidote for postpartum divorce.
Located at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, Fishers Island is two miles off the south east coast of Connecticut. Only 4 square miles in size the eastern two-thirds of Fishers Island are liberally strewn with remarkable holiday estates accessible by a solitary private road. This is the rich man’s hideaway part of the island and the ultimate “gated community”.
The dapper and daring multimillionaire John Nicholas Brown II was influential in making the island a fashionable destination for the society of the elite. In 1938 he built a house there naming it Windshield. Designed by the Viennese-American architect Richard Neutra it was a modern, flat roofed glass building with rubber floors and aluminum window frames. Windshield was a testament to John Brown’s world of brave aspirations and it enticed the wealthy to have fun in a non-traditional playground. It offered an alternative to the starchy hangout of ultra-conservative Newport, RI.
Gauging from photos and stories of John Nicholas Brown, he was quite the character. I’d never met him but the first yacht captain I’d ever worked for on Cottonblossom IV had. John Brown was an avid yachtsman and the captain he had employed to care for and sail his last yacht, Malagueña was a friend of Richard’s. Richard tells the story of visiting the wealthy yachtsman together with John’s captain. I can’t remember all the details of the story but I do have a recollection of the three of them riding around on vintage tricycles in John Brown’s study. Knowing Richard and his friend, the evening was certainly punctuated with copious amounts of gin and tonics and a generous sprinkling of shared yarns, each story more outrageous than the next.
For those unfamiliar with John Nicholas Brown II, his pedigree and accomplishments are impressive:
The Tribe of Old Money
Unlike other high-end resorts, the hamlet of Fishers Island looks and feels like a bygone settlement. It’s got a fire house, a post office, a theatre and a country store where bottles of Moet Chandon are nestled between Miller High Life and Coke. Everyone shops at this store. The narrow little aisles exude aromas reminiscent of the homespun 1950s: an irresistible mix mox of worn wooden floors, freshly cut flowers and . . . . money. The smell of money wafts past you when a du Pont family member leaves a discretely scented trail of expensive perfume. Or you find yourself standing next to one of the great great grand children of the original founder of Corning at the cash register, ready to pay.
The island has a kind of split personality. The hundred or so “real” people who live on the west end of the island are well aware that their prime source of income is from the Tribe of Old Money. The services the locals provide to their well-heeled visitors allow the “less privileged” to live the sedate island lifestyle they prefer. Where else does it take 6.2 minutes to commute to work? No road rage here!
The resourceful locals do just about everything under the sun to keep the mansions, the grounds and the owners groomed and content. In turn, the Tribe of Old Money pays to keep their playground charming and rustic. Many roads are intentionally left unpaved and no mansions are permitted to be visible from the road.
A fringe benefit of this kind of work is that you get to live vicariously in the world of the quasi aristocrat even though you don’t possess Old Money. You listen to their stories, their concerns. You get to be the fly on the wall and play in their playground. You understand that they are living off idle inheritance and have never had to earn their wealth through any kind of personal achievement. Each generation of the gentry carefully manages the money so that they can easily continue in the conservative lifestyle they were raised in.
They aren’t threatened by your presence because you know how to listen, serve, and disappear when asked. At the end of the day you can take a temporary leave of absence and join your own tribe where carrying on airs is not important.
Seastar was tied at the end of the dock at the Fishers Island Yacht Club which wasn’t more than a building large enough to house a dining table and a second building containing a washer and dryer. Our yacht was the biggest one on the island and everyone knew who the owner’s famous business partner was.
Dennis and his wife came to live onboard for the summer while they were having their house built on Fishers Island. These were heady days for me. My job was to serve Verni’s picture perfect “nouvelle cuisine meals” (he had been a sous chef for King Hussein of Jordan), keep our boat clean and tidy, and make sure our late-night-party- happy-girl-chasing Verni was up and out of his bunk in time to prepare breakfast every morning.
Among our distinguished visitors to the yacht were Prince Charles’ polo captain with his family and a very famous rock icon. It wasn’t long before I had acquired an insatiable desire to sip Château Margaux wine every evening and to listen to the Traveling Wilburys’ rough cut of their first album.
The crew never knew who was coming over for dinner. Verni’s talents were not limited to the bedroom and soon we were preparing for dinner parties almost every night.
Exclusive Islands Help Heal
The island itself was perfect for cycling and a nearby sandy beach provided lots of opportunities to go swimming. Since there are no tourists coming here, I had probably the best “time out” milieu where I could simply kick back and think about where I wanted to go next. On island time, I felt no pressure to come up with an answer right away (which I couldn’t). I simply took each day as it came and savored it.
Other boat owners docked at the club often invited me to go sailing with them so that my postpartum divorce blues were practically forgotten. As we were coming close to summer’s end the rumor was circulating that we might sail trans-Atlantic to France where our yacht owner wanted to attend the Cannes Film Festival. In the meantime, however, we were to have a very special visitor to Seastar whose appearance would transport me to a place where I would never look at life the same way again. His visit was the cherry on top of the whipped cream on top of the dessert!