From The Wall Street Journal, Monday, November 24, 1975
Down East Maine,
The Cranberry Club
Is for Brahmins Only
* * *
And if you Want to Be Privy
To the 'Most Unique' Club,
'You Can Just Go Fish'
By Liz Roman Gallese
GREAT CRANBERRY ISLAND, Maine -- Washing dishes isn't necessarily what makes Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller happy. But when she was a guest of Mrs. Vincent Astor at the Cranberry Club here in August, she of course followed custom by pitching in with the cleanup of the chowder bowls.
Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal
Meantime, the Vice President napped on a pillowed bench nearby. He had declined a car ride from the boat that brought the Rockefellers to the island, preferring to walk the 2½ miles to the small, rustic clubhouse at the other end of the island's only road.
"Roughing it" is de rigueur for members and guests at the exclusive women's club, and folks like the Astors and Rockefellers have been roughing it there in summertime for some 80 years. Former Harvard President Nathan Pusey and entertainer Gary Moore have been guests there ("You go in your sailor pants, but it's stuffy," says Mr. Moore), and the membership of only 25 is obviously highly selective.
Indeed, the Cranberry Club is "the most unique club in the world," says Mrs. John Simonds of Peterborough, N.H., the club's president.
But its unique features are carefully guarded from the outside world. Thus, although this island of 200 residents is just 2½ miles off Maine's large Mount Desert Island (which includes such posh resort villages as Bar Harbor and Northeast Harbor) few Mount Desert Island residents have ever heard of the Cranberry Club.
Lobbying for Silence
So protective are Cranberry Clubbers of their privacy that when they learned of plans for a newspaper story about them, they began to lobby for this paper to call off the story.
And women with Mayflower-type names began slamming down telephones when they found the voice at the other end was a reporter. "You can just go fish!" said Mrs. Malcolm Peabody of Cambridge, Mass., the mother of former Massachusetts Gov. Endicott Peabody.
Mrs. W. Rodman Fay of New York City showed considerably more restraint, if not cooperation: "Oh! I know who you are, you're that reporter." she said when reached by phone. "You sound like a lovely person. But I won't tell you anything, or my name would be mud."
The reception was even cooler at the clubhouse itself, which now is closed for the winter. A reporter trying to peer in the club's windows was ousted from the property by a mustachioed man who identified himself as Great Cranberry Island's constable.
The decidedly unpretentious clubhouse is but a three-room gray-shingled cottage perched on a knoll overlooking the sea. Woodlands surround the cottage, which is reached by a dirt road leading 100 yards from the island's only paved road.
In the clubhouse kitchen, only recently provided with hot running water, is a tub sink and a tiny refrigerator. There's also a tiny bedroom and a larger living room, furnished haphazardly with wooden tables, cane chairs and cushioned benches. Over the fireplace is a "Cranberry Club" sign, and portraits of unsmiling dowagers peer down from the walls.
The clubhouse is little changed from its humble beginnings in the 1890s, when a group of matronly birdwatchers used to picnic on the rocks overlooking the ocean and thought it would be a nice spot to have a shelter from the rain.
A set of club rules adopted in the early days still is posted by the fireplace, local residents say, admonishing members not to leave crumbs behind, not to rearrange the furniture, and to sign the club's datebook and inform the caretaker if they should want to engage the clubhouse for a private party.
"Members like things the way they were," Gail Colby, the club's caretaker, told a reporter before club officers imposed a gag rule on her.
Says Robert Pyle, president of Mount Desert's Chamber of Commerce, "It's a bastion of a way of life not currently in vogue. But it's a closed club; it has its mysterious aspects." Mr. Pyle, who is also the librarian of the Northeast Harbor Public Library, says many of the Cranberry Club members are also board members of the library.
Local folks say the club members hold weekly meetings, and one ritual is for the women to make presentations, usually chronicling trips they have taken. Designated members bring various dishes to make a lunch, and "wildflower committee" members gather centerpiece blossoms.
Although the membership typically fends for itself at the meetings and lunches, Mrs. Colby sometimes acts as cook. And for the annual meeting each August, she makes fish chowder. Mrs. Colby also keeps busy cleaning the cottage and chauffeuring guests.
When she went to meet Mrs. Astor's guests at the public marina in August, Mrs. Colby was swept aside by Secret Service men as Vice President and Mrs. Rockefeller set off to walk the length of the island to the clubhouse. "He seemed just like a neighbor," an elderly resident says. Actually, the Rockefellers are practically neighbors, as they have a summer place at nearby Seal Harbor.
Most residents of Great Cranberry Island either smile about the Cranberry Club or ignore it -- but maybe that's because they're almost never asked to join. One resident was asked to join, but local savants suggest that it was because her family was from Northeast Harbor, the most exclusive of the resort villages on Mount Desert.
Indeed, it's suspected here that new members aren't even considered these days unless they're at least summer residents of Northeast Harbor. "Mrs. Astor moved (her summer residence) from Bar Harbor to Northeast Harbor just so she could join," one person familiar with the club maintains.
Women whose mothers are members have a much easier time of it. The prevailing wisdom is that a daughter automatically inherits her mother's membership upon the mother's death. But this rule tends to create a generally older membership.
A resident remembers Mrs. Fay once saying in the library that it was "so nice that Josephine could finally join." Josephine, who is in her sixties, became a member a few years ago when her mother died.
The club nowadays combats the geriatric image by inviting a few youngsters into the club for a single season, after which they are evaluated for permanent membership. Chosen chiefly from "The Red Book," an unauthorized "who's who" of Mount Desert's summer society, prospective members must come from proper backgrounds and also have "something intellectual" to offer, it is said.
Invitations to join are ardently sought by the aristocrats of Mount Desert Island, and refusals to join are almost unheard of. But one fortyish Philadelphia initiate stopped going after a few meetings. "It's supposed to be a great honor," she says, "but I don't like snooty things. They wore hats and dresses, and I wanted to wear blue jeans. I felt as if I was just wasting beautiful sailing days."