Martha's Vineyard: Hollywood's East Coast Hideout

The appealingly hard-to-get-to island is a summer destination for industry types seeking anonymity (and trophy real estate).

It hit the sleepy island community like a rogue wave when the rumor began to swirl in the fall: Lady Gaga was buying property on Martha's Vineyard, the famed Massachusetts playground of presidents, Pulitzer Prize winners and producers alike. By December, media outlets had begun reporting that the pop temptress had settled on an estate on Chappaquiddick, the small island off the eastern end of the Vineyard. The reports, which relayed that Gaga was building a home not far from Meg Ryan's house, threw residents into a tizzy.

One problem: There's no truth to the rumor, say a source in the singer's camp and several island real estate agents. But the fervor over the alleged deal says a lot about the Vineyard's real estate market. Although sales volume is down this year, several high-profile Vineyard owners have listed their homes, including former 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, director Peter Farrelly and Pulitzer-winning writers Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz. And some new industry names are moving in as well.

But trying to get locals to talk about the dealings is another thing altogether. Residents are famously bent on protecting the privacy of big names on the 87-square-mile island, accessible mainly by ferry and puddle-jumpers -- only in the spring did JetBlue begin direct service from New York -- and composed of six small towns harboring 15,000 year-round residents.

"Yes, people are very protective of celebrities here. The tendency has been to say, 'No comment,' " says real estate agent Mark Jenkins, who was willing to discuss -- and debunk -- the alleged Gaga sale because the property the singer is said to have purchased is owned by an investment banker Jenkins represents.

The latest high-profile deals were made in the fall and winter, typically a busy period because buyers often prefer to have their summer residences sorted out in advance of the season, which attracts tens of thousands of vacationers, swelling the Vineyard's population to -- by some accounts -- more than 100,000. Among the bigger transactions, the Walter Cronkite estate in Edgartown was sold by his heirs for $11.3 million to a London-based financier, and Tony-winning director/librettist James Lapine and his wife, screenwriter Sarah Kernochan (9½ Weeks, What Lies Beneath), purchased a $4.5 million residence adjacent to the Edgartown Golf Club.

Meanwhile, Michael J. Fox and wife Tracy Pollan sold their Aquinnah home to retired NHL star Cam Neely for $2.35 million. And actress Amy Brenneman and her husband, director Brad Silberling, paid $4.3 million for a five-bedroom waterfront home in West Tisbury.

Perhaps most famous for its Kennedy clan association -- the family maintains a compound in Aquinnah -- the Vineyard has been a summer getaway for the Clintons (President Clinton is a fan of the beloved Black Dog restaurant) and more recently the Obamas. This summer, the president will vacation with his family at the Blue Heron Farm, where they have stayed each summer since 2009, according to real estate sources. The compound rents for $35,000 a week, though sources say the Obamas pay less. The 29-acre Blue Heron property, which features a five-bedroom main house, is situated on the Tisbury Great Pond and offers the sort of seclusion many of the island's celebrity estates provide. But last year, the first couple was seen ducking out of State Road, a farmhouse-style restaurant whose investors are said to include part-time island resident Peter Chernin. (The former News Corp. president's spokeswoman declined comment.)

Producer Jeffrey Kramer, another longtime Vineyard vacationer -- his grandfather founded brokerage Cronig's Real Estate there in 1917 -- says everyone from movie stars to presidents appreciates that the Vineyard affords them a chance to be left alone. "There were always stars there; they are not hassled," says Kramer, who co-executive produced Ally McBeal and The Practice and had a small role in Jaws, which was filmed on the Vineyard.

Indeed, Spike Lee, David Letterman, Carly Simon, James Taylor and Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer are among the high-profile property owners on the island. Another regular is Larry David; one of the island's hot new eateries, 7a Foods, tweeted recently that he visited two days in a row.

For those interested in buying in, Wallace, who is said to be ailing, has listed his home in Vineyard Haven for $7.8 million. The 1.4-acre, six-bedroom residence has a private beach.

Another waterfront property on the market is the three-bedroom Farrelly residence, listed for $5.5 million. It features custom woodwork, reclaimed chestnut flooring and antique French limestone fireplaces imported from Provence. Listing agent Francine Agnoli of brokerage Priestley Smadbeck & Mone Real Estate declined comment.

The home that Brooks (who won a Pulitzer for her novel March in 2006) and Horwitz (a Pulitzer winner in 1995 for national reporting while at the Wall Street Journal who is now an author) are selling has serious Vineyard pedigree. Built in the mid-19th century, it was once home to prominent whaling captain James Lawrence Smith.

The three-story Vineyard Haven house includes seven bedrooms, a country kitchen and ocean views. Says Jenkins, an agent with Wallace & Co. Sotheby's International Realty who has the listing, "It has this feeling of a very grand house -- it's a landmark property."

It's also the sort of property that might interest a Hollywood player in search of a summer respite. Jennifer Belushi has been vacationing with husband James on the Vineyard for years and says the island's "very unpretentious" nature is a draw. "I think that's the great thing about Martha's Vineyard: It's not Hollywood," she says. "It's not the Hamptons, and it's not Aspen. People go there and hang out."           

Data from real estate analytics firm the Warren Group show that the Martha's Vineyard market has slowed this year, though prices are on the rise

  • June 2010: 27 houses sold | $530,000 (median price)
  • June 2011: 14 houses sold | $706,520 (median price)

From an old standby to up-and-comers, these are the Vineyard's dining hot spots (in alphabetical order)

  1. l'Etoile, 22 N. Water St.,Edgartown
  2. 7a Foods, 1045 State Road, West Tisbury
  3. SideCar Cafe, 16 Kennebec Ave., Oak Bluffs
  4. State Road, 688 State Road, West Tisbury
  5. Sweet Life Cafe, 63 Circuit Ave., Oak Bluffs