The Benchleys of Nantucket

The “first” Robert Benchley was the one I thought I sort of knew, as much as you can know someone who died 11 years before you were born. He wrote brilliantly and hilariously for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, won an Oscar and, by all accounts, acquitted himself with distinction at the Algonquin in New York. Up there with Dorothy Parker, et. al.

Among his more self-deprecating bons mots:

“It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”

We should all be so lucky. Few could be arguably as skilled.

R.B. is buried in the family plot on Nantucket. My partner, Nancy, and I didn’t visit there this past weekend, in our time on Nantucket. We were with a living Benchley, Rob (the third) and his lovely wife Carol, and we didn’t talk about literature or the family tree much at all. We were too busy enjoying the present tense … good food, long walks along the sand bluffs in Sconset, the bustle of an island household, Rose the tennis-ball fixated dog, skinnydipping in the Atlantic and stops in town to visit boutiques where Nancy would like to sell her fiber artist clothing creations … mostly scarves and ponchos, but she’ll make about anything if someone gets her going and wants something specific. Benji’s Boutique, a new place on Easy Street, took all of her scarves and wants more, besides. And that was the point of the trip, which made it a happy one in every way that it could be.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. I hadn’t really had any idea about the Benchley family tree. “A lot of cousins,” the present day Rob said, laconically. Which was plenty to go on, when I got home. There was a lot of begatting in the Benchley family. They include the writer and actor Nat and also Peter, most famous for writing Jaws … Peter and Nat’s dad, Nathaniel Benchley wrote children’s literature, was a biographer of Humphrey Bogart’s and wrote the novel on which the 1961 movie The Russians are Coming was based.

There are probably more famous Benchleys. That is as far as I got.

It is Rob III and Carol, though, who have made their mark on Nantucket island as much or more so than any of the clan, and not really because Rob is an extraordinary photographer for the local papers and sometimes for the Boston Globe. It is more because they are real islanders, deeply involved in the local community and passionate about the preservation of the natural beauty that surrounds them.

I met an older fellow on the ferry going back to the mainland who is another “real” islander, and asked him if he knew the Benchleys.

“Of course,” he said. “Rob is a real icon on the island.”

“People say the darnedest things on that boat,” Rob responded, when I told him in an e-mail about the comment.

The summer people, those from New York and Connecticut who swell Nantucket’s population fivefold in July and August, are privately referred to, with only a little rancor, as “the entitled ones,” in reference to them taking so much for granted, and treating the island as a personal playground. They are bothered when they can’t have what they want. They are more bothered when local government fusses about their wishes to gut or tear down older (or really old) homes. They can get positively irate at the prospect that their summer homes and mansions on the bluffs will not last forever, that the Atlantic is reclaiming Nantucket fast enough to make everyone jittery.

Rob Benchley was raised in Connecticut and, as a boy, maybe he was one of the “entitled ones.” He fit the profile. But now — he has been an islander for a long time. He doesn’t feel the same way about the erosion as do the New Yorkers and the Connecticut folk. Because he cares about the island, not the houses, and that makes all the difference.

He told me about some famous scientist who spent some time studying Nantucket a few years ago.

“The guy said, ‘In five hundred years, this will all be gone.'”

It is hard to imagine, back here on the mainland. It was not hard to imagine, standing on the bluffs, seeing how far the ocean had already come.

Nancy and I talked all the way home about how we, too, might live on the island … perhaps wintering there, housesitting for the “entitled” while plying our crafts. Perhaps it is just the fantasy of starving artists. But there was a vibe there we really liked. Part of it was Benchleys. Part of it was boutiques. And probably, part of it … was the ocean coming in, a sense of urgency, that there are important things to do.

Below is sunset over Nantucket as seen from Rob and Carol’s front yard … I’m sure Rob has better sunset photos than this, but this one’s mine.

Sunset from Sconset, Nantucket

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