In the southeast corner of Massachusetts, six miles off
the coast of Cape Cod, lies the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
At the eastern end of Martha’s Vineyard lies another, much
smaller island called Chappaquiddick.
The island takes its name from the Wampanoag Indian
words tchepi- aquidenet, literally “a place or island apart.” At
various points in its history— in the wake of Hurricane
Bob in 1991, for example, or after a powerful nor’easter in
2007— Chappaquiddick has been a true island.
More often than not, however, it has been a peninsula—
connected to the rest of Martha’s Vineyard by a long slender
strip of beach called Norton Point.
This is the story of a man who suffered great hurt and
came to the island to find safety, seclusion and solace. It’s
about a woman who lost nearly everything— only to find her-
This is the story of Claire and the Hermit of Chappaquiddick.
the hermit of chappaquiddick
No one knew his name. Everyone called him the Hermit. He had lived on Chappaquiddick Island for as
long as most people could remember. Not that any-
one could recall precisely when he had arrived. Perhaps he
rode in on the tidal wave of summer folk, which swells the
population of Martha’s Vineyard from fifteen thousand year
round residents to more than a hundred thousand in August.
He certainly didn’t look like the typical beachgoer who
rode the Chappaquiddick ferry. His silvery gray hair tumbled
past his shoulders. A beard as wavy as eelgrass plunged halfway
down his chest. The man wore a faded flannel shirt— even in
summer— and his jeans had been mended so often, you couldn’t
make out where the denim ended and the patches began. His
feet were clad in lug boots— even in July. As for the color of his
eyes, no one could tell: he always kept them downcast.
The man boarded the ferry as he always did— a few steps
behind the other passengers. He placed his ticket on the binnacle rather than handing it directly to the deckhand. His orange ticket identified him as a year- rounder, but no ferry
captain could quite recall selling him a commuter book. The
tourists gathered at the front of the boat— a pastel swirl of Lily
Pulitzer and Polo— with sunburns that turned pale New England flesh the electric orange of boiled lobsters. The Hermit
stood at the stern, his faded clothes blown by the wind, an is-
land unto himself.
If the Hermit had a car, the ferry captains had never seen
it. Nor a bicycle or moped. Invariably, he would arrive at and
depart from the ferry landing on foot, a worn backpack patched
with duct tape over his shoulder. He’d walk Chappaquiddick
Road- - the one paved road, the only paved road on the island—in a slow, loping gait, oblivious of the joggers and cyclists, unhurried as if lost in thought.
Despite his unvarying route, no one could say for sure exactly where the man lived. Not the ferry captains. Not the
FedEx driver or Angie, who delivers the mail in a cherry red
Jeep. Not the young woman who runs the tiny Chappy store,
the island’s sole retail business, open only in July and August.
Not even Gerry Jeffers, rumored to be the last surviving Wampanoag Indian on Chappaquiddick.
This uncertainty as to the Hermit’s domicile was remark-able on two accounts: first because Chappaquiddick is such a small community— fewer than seventy families live here year- round. And second, because everyone on Chappaquiddick obsesses about real estate— whether or not he or she would admit it. Chappaquiddickers are keenly aware who owns each parcel
of land and deeply paranoid that the wrong person will buy the acreage adjacent to theirs. After all, you don’t move to an island with three- acre zoning— without a single hotel or restaurant—
unless you want to maintain a healthy distance from your neighbors.
So who first called him the Hermit of Chappaquiddick?
Perhaps it was Patrick, a twenty- year veteran of the Chappy
ferry. Patrick was the quietest of the captains who piloted the
On Time II and On Time III—a pair of green and white barges
scarcely big enough to carry three cars and assorted bicycles
and foot passengers across the 527- foot channel of water that
separates Chappaquiddick Island from Edgartown and the rest
of Martha’s Vineyard. Patrick’s mild demeanor hid a wicked
sense of humor. He had a nickname for everyone who took
the ferry on a more or less regular basis, and no one escaped
If there was a question as to who coined the Hermit’s nick-name, there was no doubt as to why. He never attended Chappy Island Association meetings or ice cream socials at the Community Center. He never appeared at Cleanup Day at the Mytoi Japanese Garden or participated in the Derby— the fishing
competition that paralyzes Martha’s Vineyard in the waning
days of September. He never showed up at the celebrity- studded
Possible Dreams Auction or at the July Fourth parade down
Edgartown’s Main Street. The fact is, in the ten or fifteen years
the Hermit had lived on the island, he had never been seen in
the company of another human being.
Naturally, no one knew what the man did for a living. You
might see him with a wire clam basket in Caleb’s Pond from
time to time, or with a fishing rod at the Gut. Or wading in the
shallow waters of Drunkard’s Cove— site of a Martha’s Vine-
yard bootleg operation during Prohibition— to gather periwinkles and scungilli. He owned a skiff, which he sometimes rowed
on Cape Poge Bay. Early mornings in July, you might see him
picking blueberries in the meadow at Wasque Point. But he
didn’t seem to be a commercial fisherman, and no one had ever
seen him bring produce— either foraged or cultivated— to the
local farmers’ market.
When the Hermit felt sociable— that is, when he was willing to run the risk of encountering other people— he gigged
for squid off the ferry dock late at night or caught crabs with
a hoop net baited with fish scraps. Most often, he kept to himself.
He’d build simple weirs in Chappaquiddick’s salt marshes to
catch eels that slithered liked sea snakes. He had set up a series of sluices and pans in a neglected corner of Poucha Pond, where he evaporated seawater into salt crystals. No one on the island had any inkling of the latter activity, for despite his ungainly appearance, the Hermit possessed a singular ability to blend into the landscape.
On the rare times when spoken to—“Nice weather” or
“How’s it going?”— he responded in such a low voice and in
such vague terms, you had the impression you were talking to
yourself. Not that anyone was aware of these evasions, for the
Hermit did them in such an unassuming manner, no one paid
them any heed.
The truth is that the Hermit managed to achieve the ultimate goal of any recluse. Thanks to his perpetually hunched
shoulders and perennially downcast gaze, even his fellow Chappaquiddickers had long since ceased noticing him.
If you’re quiet and self- effacing enough, you become
invisible— perhaps even to yourself.
definitely served straight up
Here’s to a bad hair day,” said Claire.
“Ouch,” said Sheila, forcing a laugh.
They clinked glasses and Claire sloshed some
chardonnay on the afghan covering her legs.
The women sprawled on a Stickley couch in front of a crack-
ling fire in a raised fireplace in the Feinblat cottage. A cold front had swept through eastern Massachusetts, and although it
was mid- July, the thermometer outside the bay window showed
fifty- five degrees.
Elliott had taken Annabel and Nate to see a movie at the
Edgartown Theater. Sheila and Claire were having a girls’ night
out at home.
Sheila’s bad hair day began that morning, when a cold gray fog settled over the island, turning her flamboyant red curls
into a henna- hued cloud of frizz.
Claire’s bad hair day began after the first round of chemo-therapy in April. Her scalp was as bare as an eggshell and she kept it wrapped in a kerchief.
She poured herself and Claire another glass of wine.
The “cottage”— as such structures were called when built
on Martha’s Vineyard at the turn of the last century— was a
gray- shingled, gambrel- roofed mansion perched high on a bluff
on North Neck Road. Sheila wasn’t bashful about her summer
home’s pedigree or its cost.
Claire knew, for example, that the architectural firm of
Frederick Law Olmsted designed the house for a wealthy Boston
podiatrist who invented the world’s first deodorizing foot
powder. That Sheila and Elliott had paid three million dollars
for the property, plus another million for the renovation— the
latter done by a dyspeptic contractor from West Tisbury, who
frowned whenever Elliott asked him for an estimate or a price.
“Around here, people usually ask ‘How soon?’ not ‘How
much’?” the contractor said.
The money, Claire was well aware, came from the royalties
of Elliott’s most recent book, It’s Your Responsibility—twenty-four
weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. The
Manhattan psychiatrist earned vast sums writing about responsibility and facing the consequences. Naturally, his work
sparked controversy in an age when failing students blame their
teachers for not educating them better and when criminals sue
prisons for the discomforts of their incarceration.
Of course, his frequent appearances on Oprah didn’t hurt
either, Sheila wasn’t shy to observe. Claire’s friend wasn’t bashful
Claire thought of her own husband, a now unemployed
college professor. Well, at least one of us married well, she
The women had been college roommates at Columbia University. Claire Doheney, the Irish Catholic from South Boston, and Sheila Feinblat, the Jewish princess from the Upper
East Side in New York.
Their friends called them the Rebbetzin and the Nun.
Sheila had big hair, sensuous lips, a prodigious bust, and a
personality that not only filled a room, but also barged into it.
In Peter Paul Rubens’ day, she would have been a pin- up. Her
wardrobe ran to man- tailored shirts over Lycra leggings,
extravagant scarves, and dangly earrings. Imagine Queen Latifah
as a white woman with a voice like Bette Midler’s. If Sheila
were a cocktail, it would be made in a blender and festooned
with a maraschino cherry and a paper umbrella.
In healthier times, Claire had had fine chestnut hair that
fell in a limp pageboy around her high cheekbones, slender
nose, and delicate mouth. Her fashion tastes ran to knee length
pencil skirts and sweater sets in the pale gray green of
her eyes. Claire possessed the calm of Jodie Foster and the
self- deprecating charm of Diane Keaton. If she were a cocktail,
it would be stirred, not shaken, and definitely served
Claire would accompany Sheila to Passover seders in the
Schwartz apartment in Manhattan, where she was adopted
with noisy enthusiasm. She’d read the four questions in English
after one of Sheila’s nephews or nieces recited them in
Hebrew. She learned to eat gefilte fish, dosing the horse radish
sauce with a heavy hand.
Sheila would spend Christmas with Claire and her mother
and three sisters in their apartment in Southie, where she discovered simnel cake and colcannon. Sheila’s mother would
frown at the thought of her daughter being in the same house
with a Christmas tree. “Your poor grandmother,” the woman
would say, “is turning over in her grave.”
After college, the girls became interns at the same publishing house and roommates in an apartment in the East Village.Thirty years later, they still worked in publishing and were
still best friends— survivors between them of divorces, illness,
miscarriages, and corporate mergers and downsizings.
Claire worked for Apogee Press— recently acquired by the
German media giant, Humboldt. She edited a highly successful
biography series called Men of Action. Sheila ran the children’s
books division at Simpson & Smythe and had written
several of the company’s bestselling kids books herself.
“Well, I hope after the James Tait Black Prize, they gave
you a raise and corner office,” Sheila said. She was referring to
Britain’s oldest literary award— this year bestowed on Radiant,
a book Claire edited on the life and work of Marie Curie.
Claire shrugged at the mention of the prize and the notion
of a promotion. “I’m lucky they give me a key to the bathroom,”
she said. “And with my treatments, I need it.” Her voice
grew serious. “Actually, since the merger, Beidermann has been
trying to push me into early retirement. It seems the bean
counters in Berlin don’t like granting sick leave to patients with
Sheila shook her head and lamented how the industry was
being ruined by MBAs like Beidermann.
“You, at least, should be secure after the Disney deal with
Miss Millipede,” said Claire. The latter was a children’s book
Sheila had written about her daughter Annabel’s bug doll—
recently optioned for an animated movie.
“Honey, no one is secure in publishing these days,” Sheila
said. She drained the straw- colored liquid from her glass. “So
what’s the latest with Harrison?” She forced her voice to sound
casual. It was a little game they played. Claire pretended not
to want to discuss her impending divorce, and Sheila pretended
to be discreet about inquiring.
“Well, it’s about time!” Claire laughed. “You’ve only been
dying to ask me since we left Manhattan.”
“Well, you know us Chosen People: we don’t like to be
nosy,” said Sheila.
“You were born nosy and you’ll die nosy— and all the rhinoplasty done on Park Avenue won’t change that,” said Claire.
“If you must know, Harrison’s being a perfect prick,”
Claire said. “He actually threatened to sue me for alimony.”
“That bastard,” said Sheila.
“It gets better,” said Claire. “The regents at Barnard have
put him on administrative leave without pay pending a sexual
harassment investigation. Turns out my beloved husband has
been bedding a twenty- year- old student with boobs out to
here.” Claire thrust her arms out from her chest. “Her name
is Jennifer—Jennifer, for Chrissake— and she comes from Hay
Claire didn’t mention that the girl spoke with an odd clicking lisp— the result, she had learned, of a tongue stud.
“The buxom Jennifer has an equally buxom underage sister,” Claire continued. “Apparently, Harrison left voice mail
messages suggesting that a little late- night remedial reading as
a threesome might help improve a less- than- stellar grade.
Other girls have come forward. The Faculty Ethics Committee
is having a field day.” She was quiet for a minute. “How could
I not have seen it?”
Love is blind, Sheila thought, but she didn’t say it out loud.
“Anyway, Casanova has no income, so he figures he’ll go
Claire got up and walked outside to the wraparound deck,
with its unobstructed 180- degree views of Edgartown, the outer
harbor, and Vineyard Sound. Off in the distance she could see
glimmering lights from Cape Cod. No wonder this place cost four
million dollars. Claire shivered in the night air, but the vista
brought her rare inner calm.
Sheila joined her friend on the deck and refilled their wineglasses.
“So how’s Molly taking all this?” she asked.
“Oh God, Molly,” Claire said. “Where do I begin?” She
took a larger sip of chardonnay than she’d meant to. “My dear
daughter has shaved the hair off the sides of her head. Dyed
her Mohawk cobalt blue and driven a safety pin through her
septum. You should see the guys she goes out with: each one
grungier than the last. And to top it off, the assistant dean
called last week to ask me if there are any problems at home—
apparently she’s flunking out of NYU.”
“Ah, the joys of motherhood,” Sheila said. Earlier that day,
Nate had taken a Magic Marker to Miss Millepede. His sister
had a meltdown.
“So what’s Molly say about Harrison?” Sheila asked.
“He can do no wrong in her eyes,” Claire said. “She blames me for the impeding divorce. Says if I didn’t have my nose in manuscripts all the time, Dad wouldn’t have wandered.”
“And what’s Harrison say?”
“Harrison, stellar father that he is, thinks it’s a good thing
for a young girl to have a lot of sexual experiences. You should
hear the two of them talk. It sounds like a regular Kinsey Report.”
“Ouch,” Sheila said.
“Ready for the best part?” Claire said. “Harrison has announced that he wants to move back into the apartment. Seems
his funds are running short at the moment. Or maybe the winsome
Jennifer has second thoughts about sharing a bed with
the subject of a sexual harassment investigation. My lawyer says
that I can’t prevent him from returning without obtaining a
restraining order. Both our names are on the deed— hell, legally,
I can’t even change the locks.”
“Shit,” said Sheila.
“Yeah, shit,” said Claire. “Going back to all that is the last
thing I need.”
Sheila forced herself to sit upright. “Hey, why don’t you stay here? Once school starts for the twins, I’m stuck in New York,
and Elliott is supposed to spend October on a book tour in
“That’s very kind, Sheila, but I couldn’t,” said Claire. “You
and Elliott have already been so generous—”
“No, it’s perfect,” said Sheila. “With a phone and a DSL
line, you can work anywhere. Molly and I will come visit.”
“Hum,” said Claire.
“Okay, just me,” said Sheila.
“What about my treatments?”
“Well, New York isn’t such a far drive, or if you prefer,
Elliott has an oncologist friend at the Beth Israel Hospital in
Boston. You could hire a car ser vice from Woods Hole and I’d
fly up to meet you.”
“I barely have a job now with all the time I’ve missed.
Beidermann has threatened to fire me if I don’t finish the Reich
book by January.”
“To hell with Beidermann,” said Sheila. “Imagine how much
work you’d get done in a quiet place like Chappaquiddick.”
“What would Elliott say?”
“I’m sure he’d be thrilled to have someone we know watching the house.”
“Chappaquiddick off- season? That sounds about the right
speed for my love life.” She thought about it some more. “Well,
there’s one bright spot.”
Sheila looked at her quizzically.
“At least I don’t have to worry about finding a hairstylist,”
When Elliott and the kids returned home, they found two
empty bottles of Elliott’s prized 2001 Chassagne- Montrachet
and two grown women passed out on the couch.
The next morning, nursing coffees and hangovers, Sheila
informed Elliott about their fall house guest.
As she’d suspected, the idea of having someone besides the caretaker to look after the cottage pleased him. He called his
friend at the Beth Israel. Yes, they could continue the treatment
protocol in Boston. As it turned out, the oncologist had trained
with Claire’s doctor in Manhattan. Sheila found a car ser vice
that would take Claire to Boston and back every three weeks.
As far as Elliott was concerned, there was just one final
detail to attend to. When the women went shopping in Edgartown
later that week, Elliott moved the remaining bottles of
Chassagne- Montrachet to a locked cupboard in the basement.
He put some less pedigreed chardonnay where the women
would find it for their next girls night.
Elliott was a giving man, but there were limits even to his