You Can Go Home Again

Denys Wortman finds you really can go home again.

The problem with modern living is that the ancestral manse is dead as a dodo. Kids grow up and flit away to wherever the job takes them. And that modest family home purchased in the 1970s for $80,000 is worth several million today. Who can sit on a chicken’s egg after it has turned to pure gold? Sell it, bank the profit, and don’t forget to forward your new address to the kids.

For most of us these days, the old family home is nothing more than a distant memory. So it was with Denys Wortman, away at college, when in the spring of 1961 his mother sold their home on the shore of Hine’s Point on the Lagoon of Vineyard Haven. Brokenhearted, Denny refused to accept that the house was lost to him for all time. Like Scarlett O’Hara, who raised a turnip in a dirty fist and cried, “As God is my witness . . . I’ll never be hungry again!” so did Denny vow that one day he would buy back the Wortman homestead.

Denny’s father, Denys Wortman (the name has received a dynastic workout – Denny himself is the eighth in the lineage), was a nationally known cartoonist and artist. In 1913, the father’s painting “Bermuda Waterfront” was displayed in The Armory Show in New York. The artist drew inspiration from skies over Bermuda, street scenes of Lower Manhattan, and the littoral of Gloucester. But his primary love was cartooning; he was best known for a pair of philosopher-hobos named Mopey Dick and the Duke. During the course of Wortman Sr.’s career, over 9,000 cartoons were published in the New York World, the New York Tribune, and The New Yorker. He was the first cartoonist inducted into the National Academy of Design.

Wortman Sr.’s roots on Martha’s Vineyard went back to 1890, when his folks bought a house on Waban Park in Oak Bluffs. In 1933, five years before the birth of their only child, Denys and Hilda Wortman purchased a sixty-three-acre farm on Middle Road in Chilmark. After Denny was born, the Wortmans spent summers in the farmhouse and winters in what is now best known as Susan Branch’s house at the T-shaped intersection of Spring and Franklin streets in Vineyard Haven. Some of Denny’s first memories revolve around wartime Vineyard Haven, when blackout curtains flanked the windows and people painted black half-moons over automobile headlights.

In 1948 the Wortmans rented out the Chilmark farm and bought a year-round residence on the boot of Hine’s Point. Reached by a narrow road winding up from Five Corners and around the Lagoon, the point is barely wide enough to support a waterfront house on each side of the road. On the final jut of the point into the Lagoon, the Wortman cottage nestled on the property like a lighthouse, with water views in every direction.

What Denny recalls from his Hine’s Point childhood belongs in one of his father’s paintings. Ducks, chickens, a dog, and a cat cavorted over a lawn the size of a meadow. A wartime mentality of self-sufficiency lingered on the Vineyard, and Denny’s mother planted a post-Victory garden. Denny’s friends romped in the house and fished from the pier. Denny skippered his dad’s twenty-four-foot motorboat and sailed small sloops. “I don’t remember when I learned to sail because I can’t remember when I couldn’t sail,” he says. His parents threw cocktail parties in the summer and holiday parties in the winter for as many as 150 guests.

And then there was his father’s coterie of famous pals.

Wortman Sr. enjoyed a close friendship with another celebrated Island artist, Thomas Hart Benton of Chilmark. The two men immortalized their friendship in Benton’s 1953 portrait of Wortman at his easel painting Benton, and Wortman’s simultaneous rendering of Benton painting Wortman. Reproductions of the twin canvases hang side by side today in Denny Wortman’s study; the originals hang in the New Britain Museum of American Art.

Another close family friend, whom he met at The Players Club in New York, was James Cagney. The cartoonist introduced the movie star to the Vineyard in the summer of 1934, when Cagney was locked in bitter negotiations with Warner Brothers Studio. When Cagney confided to Wortman he hoped to make the studio executives nervous by disappearing for a spell, Wortman said: “Come to Martha’s Vineyard. No one can find you there!” In short order he bought his own Chilmark farm not far from the Wortmans’.

Shortly after Denny’s sixteenth birthday and the obtaining of his driver’s license, Cagney crunched over the gravel of the Hine’s Point drive in a ’55 Ford Thunderbird, black with a white top, and loaded. “Here, kid,” said Cagney, “you want to take this for a spin?” With Denny at the wheel, Cagney and the actor’s teenage son rolled along Vineyard roads for hours past dinnertime.

Denys Wortman Sr. died in 1958 at the age of seventy-one. In 1960 Denny left for college, and in 1961 his mother sold the Hine’s Point house. She retired to the farm in Chilmark. Denny graduated and went to work as a stockbroker in Boston, commuting from Sudbury. There Denny met his future wife, Marilyn. After the couple married in 1979, Denny adopted Marilyn’s three children from a previous marriage. They have six grandchildren.

Denny’s mother died in April 1992, and Denny inherited the Chilmark farmhouse. A tall man, he had never felt comfortable in the eighteenth-century home on whose lintels and low beams he often smacked his forehead. “It was a charming home,” says Denny, “but totally impractical for us, and by that time it needed a lot of work.” On a visit a few years after his mother’s death, hunched unnaturally under the upstairs ceiling, Denny asked his wife, “What would you do with this property if I died tomorrow?” Without hesitation Marilyn replied, “I’d sell it the next day.”

But Marilyn did admit to a deep longing to live on the Vineyard. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could retire here?” she asked. “Only if we could buy back my old house,” Denny answered, sighing.

That evening they returned to their hotel in Edgartown and opened the Vineyard Gazette. An ad in the real estate section jumped out at them: the old Wortman cottage on Hine’s Point, owned by Tom and Ann Hale in the intervening years, had been placed on the market. Denny sprang into action and called a Realtor. His heart sank when he learned the house was already under agreement. But that deal fell through. Denny sprang again and made an offer. The parties sorted out the details. The house was Denny’s. Again.

It was 1996. Thirty-five years had passed, but Denys Wortman had realized his childhood dream to buy back the Hine’s Point property.

Nothing can be exactly as it once was, of course. The Hales had added a wing, and Anne Hale had established a garden of daylilies – some of them hybrids unique to the property. Denny and Marilyn expanded and remodeled the kitchen into a radiant white space with a central island and tall windows overlooking the northern sweep of the Lagoon and Vineyard Haven harbor. Upstairs, two bedrooms became one master bedroom, and Denny’s original boyhood room is now an upstairs den and bridge to a newer wing. The Hales’s aviary became a sun room with Jacuzzi. A deck was added, along with a boathouse, a guest house, and a workroom for Denny.

The one part of the house that looks the same is Denys Sr.’s studio on the third floor, with the original splintered, pine-paneled walls turned dark red with age. Northern light filters in through skylights and windows, an antique red-leather desk chair rests beside an old drafting table, and file cabinets spill over with original cartoon drawings on twelve-by-seventeen-inch acid-free pages. Although Wortman Sr.’s furniture, filing cabinets, and much of his inventory was restored to this attic space decades after his death, there’s an uncanny impression that the artist stepped out only a moment ago to fetch a glass of water.        

Denny and Marilyn, now in their early sixties, live in the ancestral home full-time. Marilyn works in the personnel office for the town of Edgartown. Denny is the chairman of the board and president of MVTV. Both volunteer for nonprofit groups on the Island.

The ducks and chickens are gone, the house is changed, but many mornings, when the sun rises over the eastern fringes of the Lagoon, or sets in a way that dapples an endless lawn with golden light, Denny is transported to the days of his childhood, when the world was young and he could shape his life to his heart’s desire. And Denys Sr.’s paintings cover the walls of every room of their house.