His Cause May Be Already Lost, but Henry Beetle Hough Still Toils on His Beloved Vineyard
—Soundings at Sea Level
Henry Beetle Hough is in the ninth decade of his life. Graham, who is 7 years old, is the fifth in his succession of collies. Daily at sunrise the two companions begin their ritual walk to the Edgartown, Mass., lighthouse. Passing through Sheriff's Meadow, where, depending on the season, the wild roses cluster or the air may be fragrant with bayberry, Hough listens for the song of warblers while Graham streaks off after rabbits. The pair crosses the yacht club storage yard, then ambles along North Water Street, past white-painted mansions built by seafaring captains of another era. Several early-morning joggers gasp greetings, each drawing a nod of friendly recognition from Hough.
At this time of day, before the streets of Edgartown are clogged with tourists and commerce, the Massachusetts resort island of Martha's Vineyard is exactly the way Hough likes it—serene and sparkling. But Hough is not deceived for a moment. He ponders the changes time has brought to so simple a pleasure as a stroll at dawn: "You can't cut across empty lots anymore. There just are no more lots—only cars and houses and more houses. I've known the best of it, and I liked it better before," he says with a sigh. "I've no regrets about being 83."
Perhaps America's best-known country newspaper editor since Kansas' legendary William Allen White, Hough is also a prolific author and essayist, an ardent naturalist and conservationist, and the flinty conscience of the Vineyard for the past 60 years. There is no indication that his passions are waning. Only last spring he published Soundings at Sea Level, his 23rd book, a ringing indictment of those he believes are despoiling—all in the name of progress—the unique character and traditions of life in his small corner of America.
His fellow Vineyarders are of at least two—and probably many more—minds about Henry Hough. Novelist William Styron, a close friend, likens him to a prophet of old, "fighting for the land and the sea and ecology." But prophets in their own time are nettlesome, and some islanders question the wisdom of Hough's staunch commitment. They wonder if he is not too stubbornly resistant to change—too deeply rooted in the past that he cherishes. "He's the beautiful but incurable romantic who screams for the status quo," says Edgartown hotel owner Arthur W. Young Jr. "You have to love him for it, but as a younger man with a growing family and business, I can't agree with him."
History records no Martha, nor any memorable vineyard either, on this 100-square-mile island five miles off Cape Cod. The place was named, it is thought, according to the fanciful whim of an early explorer. In the 19th-century whaling epoch, the Vineyard was overshadowed by Nantucket, its sister island 15 miles to the east. More recently, the Vineyard stood in for Long Island as the setting for the movie Jaws. But ever since President Ulysses S. Grant visited the place a century or so ago, the Vineyard has been a uniquely appealing resort—one that has drawn heavily on the pastoral longings of summering writers and artists. Nowadays regulars on the Vineyard cocktail circuits may hover over the same onion dip as cartoonist Jules Feiffer or author Lillian Hellman, singer Carly Simon, World Bank president Robert McNamara or anchorman Walter Cronkite. Jacqueline Onassis recently bought 300 acres in the village of Gay Head and is planning to build both a house and guest quarters there. Every summer, with the arrival of the ticks and the tourists, the island's year-round population of 11,000 swells to nearly five times that number.
Though the name Henry Beetle Hough is almost synonymous with the Vineyard, he was born on the Massachusetts mainland, the younger son of a New Bedford newspaper editor. His family roots, however, run deep on the island; one of his grandfathers was a country doctor there, the other a whaling captain. During childhood Henry summered annually on the Vineyard. "One of the delights of those days was walking two miles over the hills and through the woods to meet the mail stage at the North Tisbury post office," he remembers. "While my brother George and I waited, we'd buy jelly beans from Lily Adams, who kept a bit of a store there—the kind where, if you bought Grapenuts, there were usually weevils in them. Then we'd hear the stage galloping up, and they'd rein in the horses and put on a fresh pair. All that was very wonderful for a kid."
Both Henry and his late brother George chose newspaper careers in emulation of their father, a warmhearted curmudgeon who preferred his breakfast eggs laced with garlic. At 17 Henry enrolled in the new Columbia University School of Journalism and was a member of its second graduating class. One year behind him was Elizabeth Bowie, whom he married within a year of their meeting. The elder Hough, casting about for a suitable wedding present for the young couple, finally settled on a little weekly tabloid called the Vineyard Gazette, which be bought in 1920 for $5,000. Founded in 1846, the Gazette was already elderly, but hardly distinguished; its circulation was less than 600. "The office was upstairs over a meat market," Henry Hough remembers, "and the type was all hand-set. About the first thing we did was to buy a Linotype, and we rented half of Ed Nichols' Sanitary Barber Shop to set it up."
Armed only with their little newspaper and a sense of mission that would remain undimmed through the years, co-editors Henry and Betty Hough took on the job of protecting the Vineyard, while recording faithfully its lore and its ways. "When someone bought an old house, the story was very likely to be on the front page," Hough recalls. "We had more seasonal and animal stories then, more intimate Vineyardish stories. The old standbys were the opening of the trout season or Cranberry Day." Only occasionally then was the island's sturdy isolation challenged, as when the great hurricane of 1938 devastated the fishing village of Menemsha and drowned one of its residents. "The water came into her house first to the ankle, then to the waist," Hough says. "Everyone left, but she couldn't make it."
One of Hough's earliest books, appropriately titled Country Editor, made the 1940 best-seller lists and spread his fame beyond his native New England. "Smallness was one of that book's themes," Hough observes. "In those days the Vineyard was full of individuals, but now television has brought such conformity. People used to say, 'Did you see that sunset last night, or that funny-looking boat?' Now it's 'What show did you see?' There's too damn much transportation and communications." Hough has kept his own ancient black-and-white Zenith at bay by allowing it to break down 20 years ago and never taking the trouble to have it fixed.
Paradoxically, despite the Gazette's relentless preoccupation with local matters, its subscription list became increasingly cosmopolitan. Visitors to the island read the paper, enjoyed it and had it sent home. (The Gazette's current circulation ranges around 11,000 and includes subscribers in all 50 states and some 20 foreign countries; it appears semiweekly in season, weekly the rest of the year.) Hough's editorial war against indiscriminate development struck a responsive chord off-island as well as on, and the New York Times' James Reston, for one, began to see the Vineyard as America in microcosm. How the island coped with its problems of growth, he suggested, could point the way for the rest of the nation.
In 1965 a chapter in Vineyard history ended with the death of Betty Hough. Three years later, since the couple was childless and Henry Hough was concerned about their newspaper's future, he agreed to sell the Gazette to Reston and his wife, Sally, for a substantial profit over what his father had paid for it. Hough stayed on as editor for nine more years, then stepped down—while retaining the title—in favor of Reston's son Dick, a former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent, and his young wife, Jody. Hough continues to write some of the Gazette's editorials.
Ironically, nothing during Hough's 48-year ownership of the Gazette brought the island the gamy publicity that an automobile accident did the year following its sale. Until 1969 the name Chappaquiddick designated only a sandy swatch of land separated from Edgartown by a swift-running channel. Then Sen. Edward M. Kennedy drove off the Dike Bridge with his passenger, and the island became a political buzzword. "Someone said to me once, 'I suppose that was the biggest story the Gazette ever covered,' " says Hough. "I said, 'No, it didn't really affect the lives of the Vineyarders—except for all the people who came here.' " Nor has it affected the islanders' political loyalty to Kennedy, though souvenir hunters still visit the bridge site to scavenge for splinters. The Vineyard has supported the senator in two elections since Mary Jo Kopechne's death and in this year's presidential primary.
Coincidentally or not, the notoriety of Chappaquiddick preceded a dramatic upsurge in land speculation. Inexorably, the Vineyard was dotted with new houses and plans for development. After a Boston engineering firm warned that the island was threatened with "terminal environmental cancer," Ted Kennedy proposed an Islands Trust Bill that would have severely restricted land use on both the Vineyard and Nantucket. Hough fought furiously for the legislation in editorials and at public meetings, but ultimately the bill died in Congress. "All I see in prospect now is uninhibited development," Hough predicts gloomily. "I can't see any consequence but that the Vineyard will be built up and built up."
Yet he has not surrendered to time or despair. Though he rarely leaves his island, and jokingly refers to the 45-minute ferry trip to the mainland as a "sea voyage," he defiantly shuns other forms of isolation. Last winter he married divorcée Edith Sands Blake, 54, a fellow environmentalist and Vineyard photographer whose book-length illustrated account of the filming of Jaws has sold 300,000 copies. Intellectually, he remains a voracious reader who pores through piles of newspapers, magazines and books. His hunt-and-peck typing barely keeps pace with his alert mind, and his crusader's instinct has never been stifled. Last year he was honorary chairman of the "No-Mac Committee" that helped persuade the McDonald's hamburger chain to drop its plans for an outlet on the Vineyard, and he is currently battling a local hotel owner who wants to build houses in a wetland area along the route of Hough's morning jaunts with his collie.
Still, Hough has lost too many fights to harbor illusions. "The great one we lost, of course, was the battle of growth," he says. "I suppose we had to lose it. The island has to grow. But there's a quote from scientist René Dubos that I think is apt. 'Even in areas that have been plowed, bulldozed and built upon,' he says, 'there persist some peculiarities of the place that enable it to retain its identity...an awareness of the past despite the disappearance of landmarks and monuments.' " Hough pauses a moment and looks around him. "So that's the best we can hope for," he says. "Whether he's right or not, God only knows."
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