Island Of The Discreet Shudder

by Jane Ahrens

Sports Illustrated, September 06, 1965 | Volume 23, Issue 10

A scraggly eight miles of island just off the coast of Connecticut and seldom publicized, because that’s the way its residents want it, is a vacation hideaway for some of the country’s biggest and wealthiest names. Fishers Island makes Newport and Bar Harbor sound common.

by Robert H. Boyle

Score one point for yourself if you have ever heard of Fishers Island. Score two points if you know where it is. Score three if you know someone who has been there. Now forget about going yourself because the people who go there do not need to score points.

Fishers Island—or Fishers, as it is called simply by those in the know—is an eight-mile strip of woods, beach and golf green at the head of Long Island Sound. It is, Cleveland Amory once wrote, the last resort of the big rich, and they want it kept that way. Fishers, in fact, is so exclusive that it is not even mentioned in the official federal guide to New York State, and John Hay Whitney, a prominent summer resident and publisher of the New York Herald Tribune , once rejected a poem that an islander submitted on the grounds that lyrical allusion might prove ruinous.

To Fisherites the worst disaster ever to hit the island was not the 1938 hurricane but the 1951 visit of Amory, who came over to scout the good life for a chapter in one of his books. Although Amory was generally complimentary, Fisherites were so incensed at being done up in print that they promptly exiled the chap who had invited him over. “We don’t want any publicity,” the Reverend Dr. Arthur Lee Kinsolving, rector of posh St. James’s in New York and a confirmed Fisherite, says with a discreet shudder. “Publicity ruined Newport and Bar Harbor.”


Among the summer residents are the Roger Firestones, the Jerrold T. Bryces, the Jansen Noyeses (senior and junior), the Grant Simmonses (“she’s Horlick’s malted milk and he’s beds”), the Cass Canfields and a dozen du Ponts (including Pierre S. III, Reynolds, Willis H., Mrs. George de F. Lord Jr., Mrs. W. F. Harrington and Mrs. Richard E. Riegel). To such folk Fishers offers a respite from the cares of capitalism. Once, many years ago, when Lammot du Pont Sr. was stricken with a heart attack, a doctor was rushed to the house. Seeking to render aid, the doctor asked, “Where’s your nitroglycerin?” “Why,” murmured du Pont, rousing himself, “we always keep that at the factory.”

For the big rich, Fishers is also a place where the children can grow up and meet and eventually marry their own kind. Any number of summer romances have blossomed into matrimony, capped by the inevitable Lester Lanin wingding, and the interlocking kinship between some families is enough to befuddle the most dedicated genealogist. As a mating ground, Fishers is a sort of Episcopal Grossinger’s.

Fishers lies only five miles off New London, with which it is connected by ferry, but through historical fluke the island is part of New York instead of Connecticut. Fishers was first settled in 1644 by John Winthrop Jr., a governor of Connecticut, and for years that state claimed jurisdiction. In 1879 New York, which based its claim on a 1664 grant to the Duke of York, finally wrested control (though Connecticut is now exploring ways to buy the island back from New York). In return, Connecticut then received full title to the Fairfield County panhandle, which intrudes intoNew York’s Westchester County.

For more than 200 years Fishers—the name, incidentally, is of unknown origin—was the personal fief of the Winthrops. In 1863 a family named Fox bought the island outright and farmed it until 1878, when they sold part of the western end to a friend, George Bartlett, who had been shipwrecked there. Several years later friends of Bartlett, Edmund and Walton Ferguson, bought most of the rest of the island.

Up until this year the Ferguson family had been the principal landowners, but recently they sold off the bulk of their holdings, which included the electric company, the telephone company, the waterworks, a construction firm and one of the two gas stations on the island, to a syndicate composed of a number of the prominent families who summer there. The syndicate, known as the Fishers Island Utility Company, is not likely to utilize anything at all. Fisherites like the island the way it is now. “We want it kept a quiet resort place,” says Lee Ferguson, the head of the Ferguson family. “We don’t want a mass of people.”

The multimillionaire John Nicholas Brown was a prime factor in making Fishers a fashionable place for society. Once known as “the world’s richest baby” (he was supposedly raised on milk from a cow given distilled water thrice daily), Brown started spending his summers at Fishers after meeting Anne Kinsolving, the reverend doctor’s sister, whom he married in 1930. The 1938 hurricane flattened their home, Windshield, but they erected a new house of glass, also named Windshield. Not long afterward the senior Lammot du Pont bought the adjacent hill and built a house that cut off part of the Browns’ view. Some Fisherites jokingly dubbed the du Pont house Windshield Wiper, but the house was no joke to Brown, who later packed up and moved back to Newport, where his mother had a home.

For a long spell Windshield was on the market at the bargain price of $135,000 (it had cost $300,000), but last year, in a gesture of goodwill, Brown sold it to the Fishers Island Country Club for the nominal sum of $1. Now the club gets $50 or $100 a day for rooms.

Ordinarily Fisherites will go to great lengths to keep peace with their neighbors. Laurance Rockefeller, who summered on the island until three years ago in a house now owned by the William Campbells, was all set to chop down a tree on his property until Jock Whitney, who lived nearby, supposedly protested. Whitney liked looking at the tree, the story goes, so Rockefeller spared the ax. Whitney himself has one of the more opulent houses. Severely modern, it cost upward of $500,000 to build, and the grounds were once equipped with a seaplane ramp. ( Whitney has given up his seaplane, as well as his private PT boat, and now commutes to the island in his own turboprop jet.) Strategically placed about the grounds are 50 recessed sprinklers. Despite an abundance of such knickknacks, Fisherites are fond of insisting that theirs is the simple life. When a guest once asked Mrs. George Hardy why her 12-bedroom house had 13 bathrooms, Mrs. Hardy solemnly replied, “My dear, you can’t expect my husband and me to share a bath?”

Fishers has 2,500 summer residents, excluding servants. The younger families usually reside around the Hay Harbor Club on the western end of the island, where they can rent cottages for $2,000 a month or more. The youngsters sail Weasels in the harbor, while the parents golf at the club’s nine-hole course by the sea or loll about the beach. The only public bars are The Harbor and The Pequot Inn, which the summer residents rarely frequent, and older teen-agers are sometimes driven to pass the time by painting signs on the macadam road that runs the length of the island: THE PHANTOM STRIKES, RIPPY PIPPY, REPENT BROTHER and, most fittingly, SWEAT NOT. “When it rains,” sighs a girl, “there is absolutely nothing to do.”

The central section of the island is marked by a sign warning that trespassers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Beyond the sign are the great houses and estates of the solidly established older crowd. Until three years ago the Fishers Island Country Club owned a mammoth Tudor-style structure of stone, brick and slate that served as the hub of social life. When the clubhouse began to lose money at a rate exceeding $50,000 a year, the members decided to blow it up, In September 1963, in a ceremony worthy of a battleship launching, Mrs. Pierre du Pont pushed down a dynamite plunger that sent the northwest wing satisfactorily skyward. Before she pushed the plunger Mrs. du Pont complained mildly, “Why isn’t it a du Pont detonator?”

Otherwise life at Fishers is sedate. Ladies on the beach are usually seen in dressmaker-style bathing suits. “No bikinis,” said one matron firmly. And as for gold-thonged sandals and gold lam� beachwear, well, as one young lady put it, “At Southampton, yes, but at Fishers—oh God, no!” “No one on Fishers has to put on airs,” says a social observer from Watch Hill ( R.I.), just a brisk sail across the water. “What the hell, they’ve got it made.” On Fishers the merest hint of pushiness is enough to damn anyone. According to one story—which Lee Ferguson says is false—a socially ambitious couple once rented the late Sir Samuel Salvage’s gabled manse now occupied by Lady Salvage’s nephew, David R. Wilmerding. Every afternoon they hopefully hoisted a cocktail flag. No one came. They left friendless at the end of the season. Fisherites still shudder at the thought of them.

Although practically all the summer residents are Republicans, a snub administered to Robert Barry, a former Congressman from Westchester, may have hurt Nixon in 1960. Just before Nixon was nominated, Barry gave up his rented cottage in Hay Harbor to buy a home on the eastern part of the island. When the presidential campaign began, Barry was supposed to join Nixon’s staff. As an experienced Republican who had campaigned with Willkie, Dewey and Eisenhower, Barry would have been a knowledgeable member. But Barry stayed away from the campaign to fight gossip that he was “too aggressive” to be a member of the Fishers Island Country Club. No matter how he tried to correct the impression, it proved futile, and he was not admitted to the club.

Now and then Fishers’ exclusivity is a source of merriment. Perhaps the most celebrated story has to do with a Swiss baron who decided to sail the Atlantic alone after the war. The baron made a remarkable voyage and, after 58 days at sea, he spotted what he took to be the Connecticut coast. In sheer exhilaration, he paddled ashore in a rubber boat. Shore turned out to be the Fishers Island Country Club beach, and as the baron waded happily through the surf the club members retreated en masse. It was not until a venturesome Swiss governess spoke to the interloper and established his identity that club members returned.

Besides being a social haven, Fishers is a sporting haven. In mid-spring sea-run brown trout on their way to mainland streams sometimes put in an appearance, and in the late summer striped bass feed offshore in schools and blue-fish abound. Indeed, Edward C. Migdalski, a Yale ichthyologist, considers The Race, the stretch of water between Fishers and the Gull Islands, “one of the world’s best areas for bluefish.” Otis Horn, the gun-dog trainer, once donned Aqua-Lung equipment and searched out the deep holes along the shore where the larger stripers lurk and, as a result, he knows where to catch fish almost at will. During one night of fishing he landed 24 stripers, the largest of which weighed 55 pounds, and he confidently expects someday to break the world record of 73 pounds on hook and line. There is also excellent largemouth-bass fishing in the freshwater ponds on the island. And for the benefit of Fisherites who like to shoot, the island is stocked with thousands of giant pheasants, which, when not being shot at, swarm like barnyard turkeys along the roads and over the fairways of the golf courses.

For the most part, however, present-day Fisherites eschew field sports for tennis and golf. The courts are jammed but, as one summer resident wistfully laments, “We haven’t produced a Davis Cup player in 50 years.” Whether soft or hard, life on Fishers is pleasant, if one happens to have the necessary cachet and wherewithal. Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the actor, passed his boyhood summers on the island (his mother was Alma Gluck, the opera singer, his father the concert violinist) and, as Zimbalist recalls it, “life was simple and grand—as in Chekhov.” Dr. Robert M. Hutchins, the deep thinker now with The Fund for the Republic, also used to summer on Fishers, and he takes pains to deny that he ever found the island intellectually stagnant. “I always had a delightful time there,” he says.

Fishers has a permanent population of 450 “natives” who by and large provide the labor force for the summer residents. Some of the natives feel as though they are kept in a state of economic subjection, dependent as they are on 10-month-absentee landlords. None of the natives cares to speak out publicly, but a reporter who happens along is shuttled about like a downed Allied flyer amid the French resistance. “This is the last Latin American island in North American waters,” one native complains.

Several years ago the natives hoped that Fort Wright, the abandoned artillery base at the western end of the island, would be developed as a middle-income resort after the government auctioned it off. But then a group of regular summer residents banded together to buy the fort for $350,000, and the barracks and quarters have, with few exceptions, been slowly going to rot.

In the summer the chief native recreation is to watch the ferries to and from New London. “It’s something to see,” says a native. “It’s ‘dahling’ this and ‘dahling’ that.” Another adds, “I’d never miss the Labor Day ferry. There are the chauffeurs, the dogs, the children, the luggage. You’d think with all the carrying on they’d at least be going toEurope instead of New London, just 40 minutes away.”

In an effort to improve their lot, natives occasionally come up with ideas that could do Fishers and themselves harm. One scheme, for instance, called for the local airport to be refurbished to handle international jet traffic when Idlewild was shut down by weather. A sounder proposal has been put forward by Mrs. Frank J. Clark, a year-round resident, a member of the Fishers Island Country Club and daughter of George Bartlett, who bought part of the western end back in 1878 and later invited his friends, the Ferguson brothers, to the island. Mrs. Clark would like to see a private school or college established on Fishers. “It would make the island,” she says.

Without doubt, Mrs. Clark is the freest spirit on the island. A widow, she rises at 4 in the morning to write marathon novels that she dispatches to a select circle of friends abroad. “I don’t care about society or protocol,” she says. “I once locked a Marine general in a chicken coop, and he was a Biddle of Philadelphia at that.” In her youth Mrs. Clark rode with the Warrenton Hunt, and she once led a cavalry charge down Pennsylvania Avenue during a suffragette parade. If a film were ever to be made of her life, Margaret Rutherford would be an obvious choice for the lead. When the Fisherites at the big-name part of the island placed a sentry in a booth by a wire fence, she told him off and stomped on through. Shortly thereafter the guard was withdrawn and both booth and fence demolished. During the day Mrs. Clark watches birds, paints landscapes, reads Angela Thirkell and Georgette Heyer novels, denounces Administration tax policies and looks after her holdings around Hay Harbor.

Not long ago a visitor to Mrs. Clark’s home expressed surprise that she was planning to sell. “Sell? Sell?” said Mrs. Clark. “I’m not planning to sell.” Her attention was directed to a for-sale sign at the foot of the driveway. “Oh, mercy!” she exclaimed. “That’s just up to attract people. You should see the characters I meet!”

Featured Photo

USCG Eagle passing the Race early morning March 18, 2023 on her return from the Chesapeake Bay . Photo Credit Marlin Bloethe

A Fishers Island Community Center Program and the accompanying Fog Horn eNewsletter serve as the communications resource for the Fishers Island community. The content – news, calendar, links and photos, milestones, ads, and more create a clear image of Fishers to those on and off the island.

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