Friday, July 29, 2011

Mimi Beman's Nantucket: A Eulogy

It’s a common story: lovely small town or coastal community (Nantucket is both), languishes for years as the slightly seedy refuge for old money and new hippies, until the new rich people discover it, and start turning it into a warped version of their own gated communities in Summit, New Jersey or Houston, Texas. Eventually, they ruin the charm that brought them to the place … and they move on. Corrupting an unspoiled place with money must be like stomping through new snow in big muddy boots: painlessly destructive fun that lets you leave your mark on the landscape. For the people who actually live in the community, the process can be a painful one, and sometimes a single iconic event brings the whole sad down-spiral into focus. For some people on Nantucket, it was the saga of the Dreamland theater, a lovely old venue that was originally a meeting house that was floated down harbor and installed in town. Decades of kids saw their first movie there, or worked the concession stands. A whole era of the theaters existence was lived in the shadow of a potential sale. Few Nantucket families can resist the urge to cash in, but the tragic thing is that the theater could have been sold to the town or the Land Bank or some other civic organization and preserved in all its faded glory. But no, The place went to the highest bidder and has been passed from owner to owner, all of whose grandiose plans for it fell though.

Now the Dreamland is owned by a foundation under the control of Wendy Schmidt, wife of the Google CEO. She is the latest in the line of town saviors – it goes back to the seventies and Walter Bieneke. For Wendy, the Dreamland is a ‘game changer’ – soon to be a cross between corporate headquarters and major arts center, drawing talented people from all over the country, turning Nantucket into a hub of creativity and innovation. Yeah, well, Thanks, anyway. We just want the old Dreamland theatre back. We liked Nantucket as quiet little town. The new theater is almost twice the size of the original. It looks like a grotesque landlocked ocean liner, dwarfing the buildings around it, totally out of proportion to the town it's intended to rescue.

So that’s kind of sad and a lot of people are upset about it. But my feelings didn’t really crystallize until last Sunday’s memorial service, held in the library garden across the street. The deceased was our beloved bookshop owner, Mimi Beman. She died suddenly of cancer more than six months ago, and the funeral was private. Many people wished for a more public memorial and finally two wealthy women organized the ceremony.

I attended. I got the invitation several weeks in advance and was told that people were going to speak about her – kind of an open mike. I spent the days thinking about my old friend and preparing my remarks. I knew Mimi would want me to say something.

But the service was not what I expected and not what Mimi would have wanted. A select group of famous and prominent people paid their respects and then it was over. Apparently there was a list of approved speakers. I wasn’t on it, and was never told about it. Neither were many of the other old friends who wanted to say few words about this extraordinary woman.

The irony was caustic. To hear people speaking so poignantly about the old Nantucket and the changes they had weathered with Mimi’s support, during a service during which only the celebrated and prominent were allowed to speak – in the very shadow of the grotesque new Dreamland theater, icon of the worst excesses of new money Nantucket, was enough to make you cry for Mimi all over again. Does that really sound like her tombstone: “Only the famous matter.”? For her, it was just the opposite. If she was in heaven watching she would have been furious. I can just see her -- spitting out her mocha latte and lighting another smoke just to calm down.

So, Mimi, here’s what I was going to say:

Well … you finally got me out of my painting clothes. But I knew you’d disappointed if I turned down an opportunity to talk too much. I can vouch for Nat Puilbrick’s story: I carried hundreds of boxes of his books down to your basement over the years, and you hand sold every one of them. When I heard Mimi had died it was a horrible shock. She was as much of an institution on this island as the Atheneum itself. It was like walking into town and seeing a vacant lot at the corner of India and Centre Streets. It just seemed inconceivable that she could be gone. There’s so much to say about her. But I should start by saying – she was hot. She was a wildly attractive, charismatic woman with her big hugs and her smoky tenor voice and I had a major crush on her for years. She was a good friend. She hand sold hundreds of copies of my little self-published thriller, she let me barter for books by lugging the boxes downstairs. Her recommendation letter got me into graduate school. She was tough and shrewd about the business. When I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t sell my memoir, she said bluntly. “What did you expect? You’re not famous.” I didn’t go in to her store every day, and I don’t go into the Atheneum every day, either, But Nantucket would be different place without the library, and the world is a different place without Mimi Beman – not as much fun, not as interesting, not as exciting. There’s a quote she loved from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast:

In Paris during the springtime the only problem was where to be happiest and if you could void making appointments, the days had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness, except those few who were s good as the spring itself.

Well she was one of them and I miss her. This is around the time when she’d be telling me to shut up, so I will.

What can I say? This was a memorial service built in the image of the wealthy matrons who could afford to pay for it. The town is being rebuilt the same way. Wendy Schmidt saved Mitchell’s Book Corner, too, leasing it to one of Mimi’s old assistants, just as she paid off the mortgage on the Basket Museum. I suppose we should all be grateful.

But I think of the lovely old house on the corner of Gardner and Main Streets, sold by the venal new heirs of a family which owned it for generations. The inside was gutted completely because the old ceilings were too low for the faux-antique furniture the new owners had purchased. Now the whole building is a faux antique, though it still boasts its Nantucket Historical Association plaque, endorsing the falsehood that anything remains of the original structure and its stubborn, shabby spirit. I guess the old house was 'saved', too. But it's hard to be grateful.

It deserves better. The Dreamland Theatatre deserves better. Nantucket deserves better.

And so does Mimi Beman.

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