G is for Grapevine #AtoZChallenge

The Grapevine was the name of a Vineyard weekly that preceded the 1984 birth of the Martha’s Vineyard Times. There was no official connection between the two, but into the 1990s people sometimes referred to the Times as the Grapevine. The connection was Gerry Kelly, the editor of the Grapevine who went on to become the lead reporter for the Times.

Come to think of it, G is for Gerry as well as Grapevine. The late Robert Potts, a journalist himself, called Gerry “the greatest one-man band in the history of journalism.” Not only was Gerry an investigative reporter of a kind not seen on the Vineyard since, he also turned out book, restaurant, and art reviews almost every week.

When I was features editor, he saved my butt regularly: if a stringer didn’t come through with a piece or an ad was pulled at the last minute, Gerry could fill the space with less than half an hour’s notice. He could turn out prose like yard goods — and I say that with huge admiration because I can’t. Yes, his prose generally needed editing, but that’s what I was there for. I can edit on the fly, but I still can’t write that way, at least not on the computer. This is why I do my first-drafting in longhand, with fountain pens.

A Google search just turned up this New York Times story from January 17, 1982, that refers to both Gerry and the Grapevine. The firing of Edward Hanify as administrator of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and its aftermath were still being discussed when I became Gerry’s colleague several years later, and if you dip into either island paper in 2018 you’ll notice that the administration of M.V. Hospital is still somewhat tumultuous.

Gerry died in 1996. He was originally from Wisconsin, though he had no love for it, and had no biological family he would lay claim to. The M.V. Times staff was his real family, and his ashes took up residence at the Times office. One afternoon, IIRC in early 1997 but don’t quote me on that, several of us were sitting around the newsroom and someone came up with the idea of taking Gerry’s ashes to the places he loved best. A supply of pill vials was quickly procured and Gerry’s ashes decanted into them, and over the following months vials of Gerry made their way to Mexico (probably his favorite place of all), Spain, and other locations I can’t recall now.

Since in those years I was a regular at WisCon, the feminist fantasy/science fiction convention, I took Gerry to Madison. One vial of ashes I scattered on Lake Mendota and the other I buried in the dirt under a hedge near the state capitol. Gerry did not love Wisconsin, but he did love politics and rooting out scandals, so I think he would have approved. He would have had a field day with current governor Scott Walker.

Anyway, the Grapevine was well named, and not primarily because of the Vineyard’s obvious association with grapes. The masthead depicted one head speaking into the ear of the next with several more waiting eagerly down the line to hear the news. As a summer visitor I acquired an orange Grapevine T-shirt with this design, and one of my great regrets is that around the time I moved here year-round it went missing, never to be seen again.

Then as now, news got around the island before it appeared in print. Only recent arrivals got their news from the newspapers or the radio. After you’d been here a while, you got it from the grapevine, and if you were reasonably discerning you developed a feel for who was reliable and who wasn’t, and which stories smelled of haste or old grudges. Now much of it happens on Facebook, specifically the Islanders Talk group, which has more than 11,000 members. I refer to it as “the grapevine on steroids.”

My own initiation into how news travels on Martha’s Vineyard was greatly accelerated once I went to work for the M.V. Times. Of course several tendrils from the grapevine ran through the Times office: both reporters and editors depend on tips, and tips generally come from the grapevine. Before long, I knew a lot more than ever got into the paper, and I was incurably fascinated by how word gets around — and doesn’t.

This fascination plays out in both Mud of the Place and Wolfie, though in different ways. Reporter Leslie Benaron is a point-of-view character in Mud. She works for the Martha’s Vineyard Chronicle, whose first-floor layout looks a lot like what the M.V. Times office did in the late 1990s. (The upper floor is very different, and there’s no overlap between the staff of one and the staff of the other, but when readers praise the newspaper scenes for their authenticity I’m very happy.) The story she’s chasing is also developing just out of her reach, in part because she’s not well connected to the grapevine and doesn’t know what to look for.

No reporters or newspapers appear in Wolfie. Here the challenge for the characters is to figure out what’s going on with the Smith family when no one’s talking and what clues there are, are few, ambiguous, and inconclusive. You’ll sometimes hear Vineyard people say that everyone knows everything about everybody, but it’s not true.

Note: Here’s the obituary Gerry Kelly wrote for his good friend and frequent source Betty Ann Bryant, who died only a year and a half before he did. Betty Ann was as well connected to the grapevine as anyone I ever knew, and I dedicated Mud of the Place to her for “showing me where to look.”

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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3 Responses to G is for Grapevine #AtoZChallenge

  1. Jennie says:

    So interesting! Way to go, Gerry.


  2. Perfect pic for the letter du jour. Two Gs.


  3. Go, Gerry! What a tribute to a Renaissance Man!


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