A long time ago a man called Harry, with arms like bourbon barrels and a laugh imported straight from an Irish pub, motored up in his putt-putt outboard to the rocks on a spit of land in northern Massachusetts and dug into his cooler. He offered up to my friends, Andrew and Mary, and myself, a fistful of fresh-caught scallops. It was the first time I had ever quaffed raw seafood so sweet and fresh, plucked minutes ago from the ocean. Later that night Harry fired up his hand-built sauna and I sat with a bunch of naked strangers barely covered by towels, drinking Aquavit and listening to their small-town patter. When we were done with our schvitz we slipped into the icy cold Atlantic to refresh and then called it a night.
Mary Wittkower, a British-born WWII codebreaker and artist, passed away this spring quietly at the age of 91, after enjoying one last whisky from her beloved vantage point high above Folly Cove. Mary emotionally and spiritually inhabited the 1791 house that she and Andrew have occupied for most of my life.
I first met this family in 1982 when I roomed with their son at film school in L.A. On the day he moved in I recall about eight people piling out of a rented station wagon on South Rampart Boulevard, across the street from the original Tommy’s Burgers. There were grandparents and siblings, maybe a dog, definitely wine and cheese. A relationship was born. I’ve been going to Folly Cove ever since. I had the best years of my first marriage in Rockport, brought my first child home to one of Andrew and Mary’s cottages (built 1812), and considered these people my second family for most of my life.
Mary showed in New York and Boston and London, but the nucleus of her artistic talent was a 200-year old barn overlooking the ocean, where she sat and painted through the hot humid summers and often into the frozen winters, without heat. While the breadth and depth of her works crisscrossed many a subject, her trained eye returned again and again to the ever changing waters of Folly Cove.
When her day’s work was done, Mary would amble back up to the main house where Andrew would have a massive log fire sparking and erupting and a whisky or wine waiting on the low coffee table, along with a hunk of pate, a baguette and perhaps a gooey French brie. I can conjure those winter nights like they were yesterday, even in the dead of a still, hot NYC summer’s eve.
They say artists are best remembered in death, but Mary emanated love and affection in her every living, breathing day. Her work was inspired by her travels all over the world, but her impact was felt beneath the low beamed ceilings of that 200-year old home. Anyone who had the good luck to enjoy an evening with her left feeling a bit lighter, inspired, touched, and also educated in classical music. She spoke so softly, but her words and paintings left images that I will never forget.