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James Cagney’s Island refuge

The Oscar-winning actor was one of the first celebrity residents on the Vineyard, and today his former Chilmark homestead retains its charming rural character.
BY KARLA ARAUJO
field

Long before presidential limousines rumbled along dusty Island roads or visiting Hollywood celebrities were “packaged” for charity auctions, one of the movie industry’s most highly acclaimed actors lived quietly with his wife and two children on more than two hundred acres in Chilmark.

James Cagney, three-time Academy Award nominee and 1942 Oscar winner for Yankee Doodle Dandy, owned what became known as “the Cagney estate” off North Road in Chilmark from 1936 until several years before his death in 1986 at the age of eighty-six. And while the property has been pared down to sixty-nine acres over the years, it retains its extraordinary privacy and unspoiled rural character. Renamed Holly Farm by its present owners, the land and its historic eighteenth-century house and outbuildings have been on the market for more than three years, prompting conversation about what life was like when Cagney bought it seventy-five years ago.

Though Jimmy Cagney’s Island cronies are now deceased, several of their descendants have childhood memories of long summer hours spent with the iconic actor and his family. Known for his kindness and for his joy in the then-simple Vineyard life, Jimmy regarded his many summers on the Island as precious. In his 1976 memoir, Cagney by Cagney, he referred to the acquisition of the farm – a place he loved “beyond words” – as a fantasy come true, providing freedom and peace unattainable in Hollywood. “Moreover,” Jimmy wrote, “the taxes were thirty-nine dollars a year, which made it an ideal place to land if the movie business ever dropped me.”

Everything about the land and the vintage house (its deed, according to Jimmy, read 1728) charmed him “right out of his shoes,” providing the stuff of dreams as he endured months of grueling filmmaking in California, waiting impatiently for the assistant director on the set to announce the final day’s shooting so Jimmy could book his drawing room on the train bound east. So great was his connection to the farm that he vowed if he had just six months to live, he’d spend them on the Vineyard.

Retired filmmaker, photographer, and writer Sam Low of Oak Bluffs remembers Jimmy frequently visiting his late father, Sanford “Sandy” Ballard Dole Low, a professional artist and director of the New Britain Museum of American Art, at the Low family’s summer home in Oak Bluffs.

“No one bothered Jimmy on the Vineyard in those days,” Sam explains, referring to the 1940s through the mid-1950s. “The concept of celebrity wasn’t as viral as it is today. Everyone let him be.”

A dedicated amateur painter, Jimmy belonged to an artists’ group that often convened at the Lows’ Harthaven cottage. “I remember him dancing soft-shoe in our dining room,” Sam says. “I think I even remember him dancing on the table. He wasn’t shy about singing, dancing, and carrying on.” Beloved visitors, Jimmy and his wife, the former Frances Willard “Billie” Vernon, traced the outline of their hands on the Lows’ door in pencil, signing their names and the date, “August 30, 1948,” a benediction of sorts that remains today in the Victorian family cottage.

“Jimmy appreciated the Vineyard because he was very much not a Hollywood-oriented person,” Sam continues. “He was the opposite. He liked honest landscape. That’s why he came to the Island. He loved simple, working, real, authentic things.” Sam recalls asking Jimmy about the movies during an afternoon sail, a passion the Manhattan-born actor shared with his Island friends. “I never regarded myself as a movie star,” Jimmy told him candidly. “I’m a hoofer.”

“He took great pride in his performances, especially his dancing,” Sam says. “He was tough and athletic, physically and mentally. I remember him as a distinct person. He could fill a room, but never in an ostentatious way. He was unassuming, like one of the guys. He came to our Harthaven clambakes. I have pictures of him with my dad there.”

farmhouse
The simple white shingled farmhouse, repaired and restored during the 1990s, dates from the early eighteenth century.

Sam’s own website features sketches that his father and Jimmy made of one another and of their close friend and Chilmark summer resident, the acclaimed painter Thomas Hart Benton; the relaxed pencil drawings capture a hint of jowls and receding hairlines. “In the evenings,” Sam captions the works, “surrounded by cigarette smoke and liquor of all description, they sketched each other.”

While Jimmy’s emotional attachment to the Island was evident to his friends and family, he recalled the Vineyarders’ initially hostile reaction to strangers, including him, in Cagney by Cagney. Admitting that he didn’t understand the native-born population when he first arrived, he spoke of their deep resentment of off-Islanders, even penning this poem to capture the “deep-freeze” he felt:

“When you give your heart to fair Martha’s Isle

That Queen of insular sluts,

It’s like falling in love with a beautiful whore

Who hates your goddamned guts.”

He soon found, however, that his warm, down-to-earth nature defrosted his neighbors’ skepticism about his presence. When tourists sought directions to Jimmy’s farm, they were generally met with either flat-out resistance or deliberate misinformation, assuring the actor as much privacy as the Island could grant its internationally acclaimed newest resident.

Denny Wortman of Vineyard Haven grew up in what he remembers as the warm glow of the Cagney family. Born in New York City in 1938, Denny spent three summers on the Island before he and his parents moved full-time to Chilmark in 1941. Heading off for college and career, he returned in 1996 and served as Tisbury selectman from 2006 to 2009. Denny’s father, Denys, a prolific and highly regarded newspaper cartoonist, met Jimmy in New York City through the Players, a social club founded in 1888 to foster interaction among actors and esteemed members of other professions – bankers, journalists, lawyers, industrialists, architects, and other artists.

“My dad met Jimmy in the late 1920s,” Denny says, delighted to share the stories he heard throughout his childhood on the Island. In the early 1930s, according to Denny, the actor experienced contractual issues with Warner Brothers, resulting in one of several walkouts he staged in an attempt to achieve what he considered a fair salary. Known as a tough negotiator in Hollywood and by then a top box office star, he established the power of the walkout as leverage, setting an example for other actors in the industry. Looking for a place to hole up far from the studio’s reach, Denys suggested that the Cagneys borrow his vintage Chilmark home.

“There was no phone and no electricity,” Denny recalls, “but Jimmy fell in love with our house on Middle Road. He loved rural life and horses, so the Vineyard was perfect.” Finding an available property nearby, Jimmy purchased it in 1936.

“When the Cagneys arrived for the summer, they came over immediately,” Denny says. “And, since the Wortmans already had one kid,” he chuckles, “they [the Cagneys] got two of them, adopting Jimmy Jr. and Casey, one year apart. They were a second family to me.”

Denny says he still has home movies his mother shot in the early 1940s of the three kids at water’s edge, daughter Casey toddling on the shore, the two boys learning to row. “I remember playing baseball with my dad in our front yard. Jimmy would come over and join us. He was very athletic and could throw with either hand.”

While Denny spent each summer of his youth sailing, swimming, and playing with the Cagney children, come winter he would watch Jimmy’s blockbuster movies with his parents at the Capawock Theatre on Main Street in Vineyard Haven.

“The Cagneys were just another family to me,” he says simply. “I was never in awe. They were just friends of Dad. They were part of my family and I felt like I was part of theirs. Jimmy might have been the Island’s first major celebrity resident, but they treated him as just someone who lived here. No one made a big deal. He went out to dinner. He loved his lobster at the Home Port.”

Although he developed a legendary screen persona as a tough, swaggering Irish-American gangster drawn from his hardscrabble days on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Jimmy’s real-life personality was far gentler and more introspective. By all accounts, he was a competent painter, poet, sailor, animal lover, and family man – married from 1922 until his death sixty-four years later.

“The kids loved their dad and he loved them. As a couple, the Cagneys weren’t demonstrative but you knew they loved each other. He was happy with his family.”

Denny remembers the Cagney estate replete with horses and chickens, a gentleman’s farm. In addition to the main house – an antique cape with low ceilings and doorways through which a growing Denny had to duck – there was a separate kids’ house out back. “Jimmy Jr. and Casey were raised by a Japanese woman named Betty, along with her daughter Patty. The kids’ house was two stories and situated about two hundred feet behind the main house. We didn’t play in the main house,” Denny says. “Jimmy was far more comfortable with the kids. Mrs. Cagney was much tougher on them. I got the feeling that she thought the kids came between her and Jimmy. She was a caring, good person but very strict.”

One of Denny’s favorite memories surrounds a brand new black 1955 Thunderbird convertible – no surprise coming from the mind of a seventeen-year-old boy. Recounting the story, his voice still conveys youthful enthusiasm: “After Jimmy made the film Mr. Roberts in 1955, he appeared in a skit that parodied the movie with co-stars Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda on The Ed Sullivan Show. The sponsor, Lincoln Mercury, gave each actor a Thunderbird as a thank-you. When the Cagneys showed up on the Vineyard that summer, it was in the black Thunderbird with a black and white interior and white top. Jimmy Jr. and I sat in the car, but he didn’t have his driver’s license yet. I was one year older. Jimmy looked over at us and tossed me the keys. ‘Take it for a spin,’ he suggested. We drove all over Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, so thrilled to be seen in that car.”

As Jimmy grew older and less able to handle the Mary Ann, his forty-three-foot Chesapeake Bay bugeye ketch, Denny became his skipper for three summers. “He was a very good sailor but he needed help,” Denny explains. Jimmy kept the Mary Ann at a pier on Lake Tashmoo, one of several other properties he’d purchased around the Island, including an in-town Edgartown residence on South Water Street adjacent to the Harborside Inn. Sometimes, Denny recalls, they would take the renowned stage actress Katharine Cornell out for a sail, but often they would go alone. He remembers one cruise with Jimmy and another famous actor whose identity escapes him. “I took lots of pictures of them with my camera,” Denny says. “They were having a great time, clowning around for the photos. When I got home and told my mother, she insisted that I give the film to Jimmy. ‘It’s an invasion of his privacy,’ she maintained. I gave the roll to Jimmy next time I saw him but now, of course, I wish I’d kept it.”

One weekend Denny and Jimmy set out from Tashmoo, the helmsman asking the captain where he wanted to sail. “Frank Sinatra was in town,” Denny says. “He’d chartered a one-hundred-foot yacht, the Island was going crazy, and he kept trying to get in touch with Jimmy. When I asked Jimmy where he wanted to go, his answer was succinct: ‘Wherever Frank isn’t.’”

artists group
An informal artists’ group: from left, Louis Fusari, unknown (standing), Irving Katzenstein, (standing), James Cagney, and Walter Korder. (Courtesy Sam Low.)

Jules Worthington, a Chilmark resident and professional artist, also remembers the Vineyard’s Cagney era fondly. Like Denny, Jules shared a close friendship with both Cagney children. Jimmy Jr. crewed for him on his sailboat in the 1950s and Jules spent time with the family in their Beverly Hills home.

“Jimmy was a very nice man,” he says. “He told stories, great stories. He was a gentle man.” Jules’s tone grows more melancholy as he reflects on the family’s later years. “It’s a sad story. Both Jimmy Jr. and Casey are dead. She had illnesses, health problems. There were family complications initiated by [their parents’] caregivers. I hate to say anything. It’s just sad what happened to the Cagneys.”

While Jules lost touch with Jimmy Jr. and Casey over the years, Denny remained friends with both until their deaths, in 1984 and 2004, respectively. Today he stays in contact with Casey’s daughters and her ex-husband, all residing in California.

In 1955 Jimmy purchased a 120-acre farm in Dutchess County, New York, where he raised cattle and Morgan horses. Ninety miles from the city, it was more easily accessible by car, train, and air. He and Billie began to spend more and more time there as life for them on the Vineyard began to change. By 1958, Jimmy’s closest Island friend, Denys Wortman, had died; Sandy Low followed in 1964.

“Jimmy started to lose his Vineyard friends to old age and illness and was winding down his film career,” Denny explains. Contradicting the myth that Jimmy found tourists on the Vineyard too intrusive, Denny believes he was simply ready for a change and as he aged, the New York property, dubbed Verney Farm, was more convenient. Over the years, Jimmy expanded the estate to 750 acres, living in a simple stone cottage that was as humble as his Vineyard cape. He held the Chilmark farm until the early 1980s, then turned it over to his son, who had become a boat and auto mechanic in Newport. But Jimmy Jr. couldn’t afford to keep it. By that time, according to Denny, the Cagney parents were estranged from both their children due to the overzealous intervention of caregivers who isolated Jimmy and Billie from their children and friends.

“Jimmy Jr. and I made a last trip out to the farm before he sold it,” Denny says. “By the time we got there, his father’s caregivers had stripped the buildings of furniture and family belongings, even down to the cedar paneling from inside a closet. Jimmy Jr. was in tears. It was his history, gone. It was tragic.”

By the mid-eighties, the much-loved Cagney farm had been sold. The paper trail regarding ownership becomes complicated at this point but the new residents were a communal group whose members included Thomas Hart Benton’s daughter, Jessie Benton. Jessie was among the founders of the Boston-based commune known as the Fort Hill Community, which had achieved national notoriety in the 1970s amid allegations of drug use, violence, intimidation, and mind-control tactics. The estate became one of a handful of properties scattered across the United States acquired by the family collective. Its nucleus was Mel Lyman, a charismatic Boston-area folk musician and writer whose controversial lifestyle and outspoken philosophies were sensationalized in a two-part Rolling Stone magazine cover story in 1971 likening him to the notorious California cult figure Charles Manson.

The commune, which referred to itself as a family collective, repeatedly denied all claims of wrongdoing but retreated from the public eye, reemerging in the 1980s (following Lyman’s death at age forty in 1978) for interviews with People magazine, The Kansas City Star, The Boston Globe, and The Boston Herald, among other publications. By then, two decades after its inception, the commune had raised a generation of children and forged a reputation for legitimacy as operators of Fort Hill Construction, respected builders and remodelers of homes in California, New York, and Boston.

Jessie Benton’s son, Anthony Benton Gude, is a professional artist who divides his time between Kansas and Martha’s Vineyard. He remembers helping restore the Cagney farmhouse in the early 1990s. “We brought it back to its original condition,” he explains. “We discovered old stencils and used antique paints to match, refinished the floors, and redid walls.” The house, he recollects, was built on the Island’s south shore and moved to the north shore in the early 1800s. He remembers too that once as a young boy he was urged by his grandmother to come to her home in Aquinnah. “Jimmy Cagney used to be good friends with my granddad [Thomas Hart Benton]. He used to come over for drinks until he was too old to enjoy it. My grandmother called one day to say that if we wanted to meet Mr. Cagney, we should come up to the house. He looked the same as in those old black-and-white movies we used to watch – sparkling blue eyes and that wonderful smile.”

In 1992, longtime Chilmark residents Hope and Brock Callen rented the former Cagney estate from the collective. “We rented the property for four years until the commune wanted to use it again,” Hope says. “It had great karma. The buildings and the land felt warm and welcoming.”

According to the Callens, members of the commune were friendly and helpful. Hope describes the house as “wonderful, with warm rooms, low ceilings, original beams, and wide plank floors.” Otters, she recalls, popped through the ice in the pond in the winter.

Every night, she would secure the gate on the picket fence surrounding the house and each morning she would go outside and find the gate mysteriously open, she recalls. “The Fort Hill people said there was a ghost on the property named Rebecca,” Hope explains. “She was rumored to be the daughter of the owner of the old brickyard nearby. They claimed she died in the guest room of the main house at age eighteen many years ago.” Friends of hers, Hope adds, said they always sensed a presence there. But Rebecca, other than opening and closing the gate, seemed content to remain a quiet guest.

Ownership of the Cagney estate shifted in recent years to another generation from the family collective. Husband and wife Geordie and Heather Gude, who lived on the property as children, are now two of the co-owners and are full-time residents there, along with their three sons. Geordie works in residential construction and Heather is a private chef. Like Jimmy Cagney’s son, they have decided to sell the farm.

“It’s a very special place,” Heather says, a bittersweet tone in her voice. “I think it will sell to a specific type of buyer – someone who loves old Chilmark and has a connection to the land. It’s an incredibly diverse property with rolling meadows, a roaring brook, old trees, access to the historic brickyard beach, untouched woods, and intact stone walls. There are no houses in sight.”

The estate includes the main house, a barn, a caretaker’s house, a studio, and a garage, all of which have remained as close to the original character as possible, with repairs and updates made as needed. The town of Chilmark, Heather says, takes great pride in the property. “It’s one of the last untouched farms,” she adds. “I think they’d like it to stay that way. We’d love to see someone buy it, maybe build a new family home on the hill with partial water views, keep the existing buildings intact, and put some land into conservation.”

The property is on the market for $11.5 million, down from a $22.5 million asking price three years ago. Listing broker Jill Hobby Napior of Tea Lane Associates acknowledges the challenge of finding the right buyer. “People in this price range often expect water views,” she says. “But the property will appeal to someone who truly appreciates Chilmark – someone who values privacy and beauty. I’d like to see the Land Bank or a conservation group get involved. Or a buyer who ‘gets it.’”

Today, some seventy-five years after Jimmy Cagney “got it,” his recollection in Cagney by Cagney captures his love for the Island: “I couldn’t think of anything more satisfying, more life-fulfilling, than living on a farm surrounded by salt water. This is what Martha’s Vineyard allowed me to do....I loved it beyond words.” u


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(Originally published in the May-June 2011 edition of Martha's Vineyard Magazine)

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