Remembering Tony Lewis

Word arrived earlier today that Anthony Lewis died this morning. In the proliferating obituaries, appreciations, and commentaries, you can read all about his major contributions to journalism, the law, and the intersection of the two, including his influential (and still in print) Gideon’s Trumpet, about the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, and his two Pulitzer Prizes for national reporting.

What you won’t read in any of those places is that if not for Anthony Lewis, I might never have set foot on Martha’s Vineyard. Here’s the story.

Tony and my father, Bob Sturgis, were both Harvard guys. My father was five years older, Harvard class of 1944, but thanks to World War II he and Tony were undergrads at the same time. More, they were colleagues on the Harvard Crimson — Dad told me that he was one of the few Crimson alumni of the time who didn’t go on to a career in journalism. (He became an architect instead.)

Fast forward a couple of decades. In the mid-1960s the New York Times made Tony its London bureau chief, so the Lewis family relocated to the other side of the big pond. They wouldn’t be using the summer camp they owned by the side of a much smaller pond. Somehow or other (Harvard guys of this generation seem to have been connected by a psychic internet whereby each one was aware of what all the others were up to), my father rented it. In late June of 1965 the Sturgis family, two parents, four kids, two dogs, and two cats, settled in on Deep Bottom Cove of Tisbury Great Pond. I had just turned 14.

For the record, I was not happy. My 4-H project, a grade chestnut mare, was due to foal in mid-July. I wanted to stay home with her. My father and I struck a deal: I’d accompany the family, my grandmother (an avid horsewoman herself) would keep an eye on the mare, and in two weeks I could return to Weston and spend the rest of the summer at my grandmother’s. And so it was. I missed the foaling by eight hours. For years I held a grudge against Martha’s Vineyard.

I didn’t warm to the Vineyard till after I started college in Washington, D.C. By then, after several years renting from the Lewises, my father had bought four acres and built a modest, unelectrified camp with Deep Bottom Cove on one side and Thumb Cove on the other. Finally I got to know the Lewises: Tony; his first wife, Linda; and their three kids, Liza, David, and Mia, who were fairly close in age to my younger siblings. Along with other pond-connected families, we sailed and swam and beach-picnicked together, and made frequent excursions to the Movie Museum at the old Ag Hall. (Tony knew all the dialogue from all the old movies, and his kids sometimes had to tell him to shut up.)

This was, you’ll remember, the Nixon era. When Tony made President Nixon’s enemies list, we were all so proud. In 1973, the Senate Watergate hearings dominated summer conversations; by the following summer, impeachment was under way, and finally the word went out: the president was going to resign. There was no electricity and no telephone on the east side of Deep Bottom Cove in those days. Tony rented a battery-powered TV: it was red and considerably smaller than a boombox. Around it we gathered, Lewises, Sturgises, and friends, and watched the whole thing, praying all the while that the battery’s charge would last till the end. It did. It’s still one of my favorite memories ever.

In between the sailing, gathering seaweed for the garden, going to movies, and other vacation activities, Tony worked. I’d never seen anyone type so fast with only two fingers, and on a manual typewriter at that. When he finished a column, he’d hoist the sail on his Sunfish and sail down the cove to call it in from Everett and Ginny Jones’ house — their side of the cove had both phone service and electricity.

Throughout his career Tony did so much to make the law both comprehensible and fascinating, to journalists, to laypeople, and even to lawyers. I will always associate him with this famous exchange from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, which he quoted in his columns more than once. Sir Thomas More is speaking with Roper, his hot-headed son-in-law:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

It’s the most eloquent argument for the rule of law that I’ve ever heard.

After I moved to the Vineyard year-round, in 1985, Tony and I would cross paths at the West Tisbury post office at least once a summer. In recent years I heard he had Parkinson’s and figured that was why I didn’t see him around anymore.

Deep Bottom Cove has drifted to the peripheries of my psychic map. It’s a summer place, and I’ve been a year-rounder for almost 28 years. But the Deep Bottom Cove of the 1970s remains vivid in my memory. I can still see Tony sitting by the window, unruly hair catching the sunlight, the cove rippling below as he speed-types with his two forefingers, and I see a yellow-and-white sail run up the mast, tacking between the sandbars, and beating upwind, all to meet a deadline in New York.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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7 Responses to Remembering Tony Lewis

  1. Wendy Palmer says:

    Beautiful, Susanna. Read it aloud to Alex over coffee.

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  2. Note to early readers: I just corrected the first paragraph. All these years I’ve been thinking Tony won his second Pulitzer for Gideon’s Trumpet. Not so: his second Pulitzer, like the first, was for national reporting. Aside: The bookshelves at the Lewis camp were well stocked with mysteries, which kept me busy during my summers there. Among them was the series about George Gideon of Scotland Yard, written by John Creasey as J. J. Marric. Gideon’s Trumpet thus kept company with Gideon’s Week, Gideon’s Risk, and Gideon’s March, among others.

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  3. Pam Benjamin says:

    Wonderful stories and memories that you have of Tony Lewis. Thank you so much for relating them. We had the great honor of meeting Tony and seeing him from time to time, always a joy..an amazing man of integrity, wisdom and grace. Our world is more illuminated place because of him.

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  4. Eliza says:

    Thanks, Susanna. You have brought back many wonderful memories.

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  5. Hal Davis says:

    I had a brief correspondence with him. In a column disputing, I believe, Newt Gingrich over the Book of Jonah, Lewis quoted God rebuking Jonah over his egotistical snit. When I got home, I looked up the passage in Abraham Heschel’s “The Prophets,” saw that Lewis got it right, and enjoyed Heschel’s elaboration on Lewis’s sermon. I sent a Lewis a note and he responded graciously.

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  6. pam says:

    I read Gideon’s Trumpet in high school. It left such an impression. I still remember it and know it’s why I so love nonfiction writing — GOOD nonfiction.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Shirley says:

    Susanna – thanks for letting us know about Tony’s death. I also knew Tony and Linda in the early days, but never got to know their children – they were on the fringe of a group of us, and I remember that Linda left him to marry an Englishman, got cancer and died many years ago. I never knew his second wife. In 1991 Tony wrote me a nice letter after I had a Letter to the Editor published in the NYTimes – I’m sure I still have it – somewhere. He was a good man……

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