Maria Thibodeau


Looking Ahead

Even with a memoir under her belt, poet, author, and activist Rose Styron never dwells on the past.

Rose Styron is a woman of many hats: that of an acclaimed poet, journalist, human rights activist, and wife of Pulitzer Prize–winning author William Styron, to name just a few. A renowned hostess, she’s entertained political, literary, and entertainment royalty, including Frank Sinatra, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein, the Kennedy family, and Philip Roth. As a founding member of Amnesty International USA, she spent time in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, war-torn Bosnia, communist Cuba, and apartheid-era South Africa. But for all her adventures, the Island has always held a special place in her heart. Martha’s Vineyard Magazine recently caught up with the ninety-five-year-old Styron to discuss chance real estate encounters, a changing Island, who she would invite to one of her legendary dinner parties, and her recent memoir, Beyond This Harbor: Adventurous Tales of the Heart (Alfred A. Knopf).

Martha’s Vineyard Magazine: You first came to the Island in the early 1960s when you and your late husband bought a summer home in Vineyard Haven.

Rose Styron: Yes, we bought it in 1963. We had been renting for about three summers before that. We rented all over the Island. 

MVM: And you still live in that first house?

RS: You got it. We bought it sight unseen and totally furnished. The owner had died the day before.

MVM: How did you hear about the house? 

RS: I had been working for the last couple of summers with a real estate agent, [Carlyle] “Carly” Cronig, to rent for the next year.…When I walked into his office, he was on the phone. I heard him say, “Oh, Mrs. Eells, I’m so sorry your husband died this morning. Of course, I’ll sell the house….”

Completely unplanned, I asked, “How much does she want for it?” [He] said, “$75,000.” I said, “Bill and I don’t have that, but if you wait, I’m going to call my mother and my brother and see if they can loan it to us.” He said, “If you can do that, it’s a deal.”…The next morning I made out the check as I was told to and I got a call from Carly Cronig. He said, “Oh, Mrs. Styron, I’m so sorry you didn’t get the house.” I told him, “I thought we finalized the house last night?” He said he got a better offer.

MVM: How did you end up getting it?

RS: Well, I called Mrs. Eells and said how sorry I was I didn’t get the house and good luck….The woman on the phone said, “This is not the Mrs. Eells you want....If you bring that check right away, we’ll put it on the mantel. Agnes [Eells] has gone to the hairdresser to look pretty for you for when you come at nine, so why don’t you hurry over now.” I hurried over…Agnes arrived…and we had a celebratory glass of tomato juice as she was saying, “I’m so glad to have somebody to buy the house who has children. We’ve had it here for decades with our children and grandchildren.”

Then Carly Cronig came in the back door and saw the three of us…He said again, exactly the same words, “Oh, Mrs. Styron, I’m so sorry you didn’t get the house.” But this time Agnes Eells said, “What do you mean, Carly? Of course she got the house. We have her check right here.” Carly said, “Oh, Mrs. Eells, I have a much better deal for you, a client who would pay twice as much, $150,000.” 

Agnes Eells said, “Wait a minute, we settled this last night. How did you get another offer after 11 p.m.?” And he said, “Well, Mrs. Eells, when you left last summer…they looked in the windows of the house and found a way in to get in the back door and he said, ‘If this house ever comes on the market, I want to buy it.’” Carly Cronig said that he had called him last night and he was on his way now. And Mrs. Eells said, “Carly, no commission for you! The house belongs to Mrs. Styron!” 

MVM: After fifty years living on the Island in the summer, you made it your year-round home about ten years ago. Has that changed your perspective of this place? 

RS: I was quite surprised that I didn’t mind living on the Island alone, or basically alone, all year. Of course, I have four children and eight grandchildren and friends, so I’m not pretending I was always alone. I had a very good time and I love, love, love the landscape and swimming and tennis and walks on the beach and what everybody else loves about the Island all year long, even the good restaurants. 

MVM: Your neighborhood in those early decades earned the name “Writers Row” because of the proximity of you and your husband, Art Buchwald, Lillian Hellman, John Hersey, and Mike Wallace. What was your impression of that time, when the Vineyard was just beginning to gain some outside attention?

RS: Well, we got to know Lillian Hellman and John Hersey and a little later we got to know Art Buchwald and Mike Wallace. It was a wonderful place to be. We’re right next door to the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club, where I played tennis every day and learned to sail. It was a wonderful, quiet place in the beginning. It’s not so quiet anymore – and I love it. I love it when all the kids are sailing in the summer and parking their boats on our beach. I unfortunately haven’t played tennis since I was ninety-two, but I love to watch my daughter and daughter in law and son play next door. 

MVM: You’ve said you like to only look forward. That’s difficult to do with a memoir. Have you changed your views?

RS: I have not! Even though looking forward looks like a disaster now. I look forward, but I am glad I’m safe on the Vineyard because the news is depressing. I still look forward, but not with the confidence I had my first eighty-five years….

A relief that I have is that I’ve had such a long and lucky life. When I was a little girl in World War II, I thought that when it was over, America and the world were going to be fine forever. I certainly learned a lot since then. When I began with Amnesty International, around 1969, I thought the human rights problems were international. That’s why I traveled so much for them. It took me a long time to realize the incredible human rights problems that are in the USA.

MVM: You began writing your memoir during the pandemic. If the global shutdown hadn’t happened, would this book have come about?

RS: It never would have. I would have been running forward somewhere or having lots of company. 

MVM: Indeed, you are well known on the Island as a great hostess. So, let’s end with something fun. If you were to throw a dinner party on the Vineyard, who would you invite and what would you serve?

RS: Oh my God! (Laughs). Who would I invite? Well, [professor and historian] Skip Gates said I gave the best dinner parties. I would invite people from different generations and talents. Now, for what I would serve...always a salad first and always dessert. 

MVM: What’s your favorite dessert? 

RS: Croquembouche.

MVM: A cream puff tower? 

RS: Exactly! A fudge sundae would be the next choice.