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Vineyard Roots

When Mike Wallace died this spring, he was the last of a trio of media amigos who for decades dined regularly at the Le Grenier restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard, where Wallace and humorist Art Buchwald had summer residences and novelist William Styron and his family lived most of the year.  Styron died in 2006, and Buchwald a year later.

“Mr. Wallace was a very polite man,” says Le Grenier chef-owner Jean Dupon, an evaluation that may surprise those who saw only the combative side of Wallace as chief interrogator on 60 Minutes. “Mr. Buchwald – well you know he had a voice that carried.” But it was Styron that Dupon knew longest and best.

“I was in the magazine Paris Match three times because of Bill Styron,” Dupon remembers, “The French loved him.”  Indeed, French President Francois Mitterrand invited Styron to his first presidential inauguration in 1981 and later made him a commander of the Legion of Honor in 1993. Dupon says writers and photographers for the publication descended on Martha’s Vineyard to profile the novelist, taking photos of him at Le Grenier.  “At the end of the four pages, they said, ‘At the end of the day, Bill Styron loves to have a cocktail at the restaurant of his good friend, Jean Dupon.’”

Wallace, Styron and Buchwald shared a love of good talk, food and drink.  And all suffered from severe bouts of depression, which they often discussed to perhaps morbid excess, even calling themselves “The Blues Brothers.” For them, Le Grenier was a convenient watering
hole, except they had to carry their own “water” as the town of Vineyard Haven until recently permitted alcohol in restaurants only on a BYOB basis.

Vineyard residents – even summer people who are frequently on island – have prided themselves in not disturbing celebrities in public, whether politicians like the Kennedys or entertainers such as long-time Vineyarders Carly Simon and her ex-husband James Taylor.  Dupon extended that philosophy to Le Grenier, where the staff discouraged diners who showed an alarming desire to know if that was indeed Wallace or Styron or Buchwald at an adjoining table.

“We want to protect everyone’s privacy here,” Dupon says, “although lots of local people who knew them would stop by.”  Dupon, with his trimmed Gallic mustache and no-nonsense eyeglasses, applies the policy to himself and insists on keeping some of his best stories about the three luminaries off the record. “They would sometimes send a glass of wine back to the kitchen,” he says.  “Not everyone knows, but I’m shy and used to hide in the kitchen.  If I didn’t come out to say hello, if I got busy, they would ask, ‘Is Jean okay?’”

Of the three friends, Styron’s depression was best documented with the publication in 1990 of his autobiographical Darkness Visible, subtitled A Memoir of Madness.  My wife and I once sat a few rows behind the Styrons and Carly Simon and her then husband, writer-businessman James Hart, at the Capawock, the ancient, wooden-floored theater in Vineyard Haven, during a Woody Allen movie that referenced Styron’s depression in a humorous manner. The Styron group, anticipating the line, roared.

The last time I saw Wallace on the streets of Vineyard Haven was in summer 2006 when he was asked by Rose Styron to deliver the public eulogy for her husband in the green gardens behind the public library. 

With Styron and Buchwald dead and Wallace then in a nursing home, the Wallace family last October sold their Vineyard home to Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia.  In the truest sense, it was Wallace’s last home.

“You get so much from the Vineyard,” he told the Vineyard Gazette in 1993 when he was 75. “We do. I do. Peace. Joy. Friendship. And in a strange way, roots. I don’t know why. My home is Brookline. I’ve lived in New York for 40 years. But I feel more roots in Martha’s Vineyard than anywhere in the world.”

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