COUNTRY EDITOR: HENRY BEETLE HOUGH AND THE VINEYARD GAZETTE
By Phyllis Meras
Images from the Past with the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, $21.95, 205 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA
This is the kind of book one is tempted to call “charming,” but to do so would be damning with faint praise. In fact, to quote a U.S. president not much admired by the book’s subject, that would be wrong. Phyllis Meras’ “Country Editor,” while definitely a loving biography of a man for whom she once worked as a reporter, is no hagiography.
What it is is — to quote another U.S. president — a surprisingly full, given its relative brevity, and quite candid account of a most interesting life filled with accomplishments, all marked by a man’s singular love for the land and the people closest to him. And it’s all here, from the tributes of the many young reporters he and his wife Betty turned into bonafide journalists to the frustrated local developer who referred to Hough as “that elitist son of a [expletive].”
As Ms. Meras makes clear, Hough could be recalcitrant to the point of cranky — the point, apparently, where his wife started — but he was capable of great charm, as well as great righteousness, when it was needed to save a bog or a road or a tree or some creature’s habitat, which he did with consistency over a very long life span.
To the extent that Martha’s Vineyard is still beautiful, and in the introduction the author expresses her doubts on that score, that is the legacy of Henry Beetle Hough. Not bad for a “country editor.”
Born in 1896, Hough lived almost 90 years, 65 of which were spent on, and on behalf of, his beloved Vineyard. Before that, however, young Henry did time in New York City, where he studied journalism at Columbia, which 70 years later honored the Class of 1918 graduate with a doctorate in humane letters for his work as “a country editor, essayist, and pioneer conservationist.”
Much as he liked going to plays in Manhattan, Hough was uncomfortable and unhappy in the big city. Nor did he like Chicago any better, where he spent several years writing various apologias for the American Institute of Meat Packers, which had been trying for over a decade to recover from the revelations in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”
In Chicago, however, Henry had the great good fortune, for a budding journalist, to work for a man of conscience: “He schooled me,” Henry wrote years later, “in the art of reasonable reply, with facts, good temper, recognizing the point of view of the critics, assuming their good faith, considering broadly and humanely how to respond.” (Talk about a lost art!)
But Henry’s heart was not in his work, and he didn’t appreciate it when a Columbia alumni publication described him as “Apologist Extraordinary for dollar-and-a-half steaks.”
In 1920, Henry’s journalist father, the editor of the New Bedford [Massachusetts] Evening Standard, gave Henry and Betty, his bride-to-be and a fellow Columbia journalism graduate who had been working for Henry’s father while he toiled for the Meat Packing Institute in Chicago, the Vineyard Gazette as a wedding present.
The course of Henry Beetle Hough’s life was now set. He would follow the creed of the Gazette’s previous owner, who had written of the job of editor of a country paper, “Indeed, an editor must be all things to all men … or all men will be nothing to him.”
The small weekly and the town and area it covered soon became the young couple’s life. Purposely childless, they raised the Gazette instead. But Henry loved writing even more than he loved reporting and editing, and eventually he was producing books as well as newspapers, over two dozen in all.
In 1959, armed with a contract, in ten days he wrote 150 pages of what he thought of as “a textbook on publishing a country newspaper.” He didn’t expect it to have much of an appeal; he was wrong. J. Donald Adams, an influential New York Times reviewer, said the book was “one of the most delectable books of the year,” and another New York reviewer said that reading it he could “smell the sea breeze blowing across the harbor,” and put it on his ten best books of the year list, along with “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Native Son.”
Henry Hough cared deeply for the land, and just as deeply for the language. Ms. Meras writes that in his Gazette style sheet Hough cautioned, “There must be vigilance against the trite and repetitious … Vogue words must be avoided. ‘Trigger’ and ‘spark’ used as verbs are to be shunned … Never write groom for bridegroom; a groom is a horse’s attendant …”
While Henry set the tone, Betty Hough set the pace, and took care of such quotidian details as collecting the bills. When the head of the local electric company turned slow pay, Betty wrote, “We paid cash for our refrigerator. Now send us a check for your ad.” Ms. Meras says a lot between the lines, and one gets the distinct impression that Betty, heart of gold or no heart of gold, was one tough old bird.
Together, the Houghs saved any number of trees and roads and animals, not to mention a few stone walls and quiet beaches, some places quite well known, such as the Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary in North Tisbury and Sheriff’s Meadow in Edgartown. After his wife’s death, Henry even managed to keep McDonald’s from opening an outlet on the Vineyard.
Not every battle ended in a victory. One of the lost fights was waged on behalf of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Nantucket Sound Islands Trust Bill. But as the author points out in some detail, they always fought the good fight.
In “Sale of the Gazette,” one of the book’s most interesting chapters, Ms. Meras chronicles how it came to pass that the famous New York Times columnist and executive editor James “Scotty” Reston bought the paper and contributed to the continuation of the legacy of George and Betty Hough. Older journalists, and some young ones too, will find it an instant fantasy.
Betty Hough died in 1965, and while some friends feared Henry would be lost, he in fact managed quite well. As Ms. Meras writes, “With Betty’s death, a new Henry emerged. He had always been a formidable opponent of the destruction of the wild green Vineyard they both loved … Now, with the Gazette sold, the responsibility as the Vineyard’s caretaker was no longer his, but Betty would not have wanted him to give up just yet.” And he did not.
At the age of 83, Hough remarried. His new wife, Edie Blake, was three decades his junior and had written for the Gazette for about that same length of time. Always philosophical, Hough wrote to Scotty Reston:
“Our marriage will make no difference at all in our lives. She will live in her immaculate and perfectly appointed house and I will live in my relaxed and determinedly comfortable one. What we are doing is simply to protect a friendship which has become valuable and necessary these past years. Bob Nevin once said that loneliness is, in itself, an illness …”
On June 7, 1985, Henry Beetle Hough died.
He was quite a man, and this biography, in its own understated way, is quite a book.
John Greenya is a Washington writer.