Island Profiles

Profile: Hamilton Fish V finds an Island not named Martha


PETER BOODY PHOTO | Hamilton Fish V at home on Menantic Road.

When he’s on Shelter Island, Hamilton Fish V is a soft-spoken yet lyrically passionate sailor with a white farmhouse on Menantic Road where tomatoes grow by the pool and beach towels dry on the line in the side yard.

His 30-foot wooden yawl, Eliza, moored in Coecles Harbor, is named for his middle daughter. It was made by his boat-builder cousin Nat Benjamin, of the famed Gannon and Benjamin shop in Vineyard Haven.

Based in Manhattan, he and his wife Sandra discovered Shelter Island only a couple of years ago through friends in the city who have a house near South Ferry. After he’d spent years slogging from New York to Martha’s Vineyard on weekends to get to his boat, he learned there was a beautiful place a couple of hours away where the sailing is great and the concentration of Gannon & Benjamin boats is larger than anywhere outside Vineyard Haven.

“Sandra saw this house online,” said the bearded, curly-haired scion of a legendary New York political family, looking comfortably shaggy in jeans and well-worn black polo shirt and considerably younger than his 60 years.

“We didn’t even spend any meaningful time investigating it. We came out one winter day and just pounced on it. Last winter was our first. The experience of being here when the leaves are off the trees and every vista is a water view opened my eyes to how spectacular winters really are and we loved it from November to April.”

Google the name and scores of entries pop up including a substantial Wikipedia biography of Mr. Fish and of the former Hamilton Fishes. The current holder of the name is publisher of the Washington Spectator, a twice monthly political journal; a film producer; a fundraiser for progressive causes; a founder of an institution to support independent investigative journalism; an environmental advocate; a past congressional candidate and a “social entrepreneur” — as the Wikipedia entry describes him.

It seems he’s a man who has as many irons in the fire at any one time as some people do in a lifetime, all of them to serve progressive causes.

As he talked at the picnic table behind the house he and Sandra are renting form Maria Maggenti, Mr. Fish eventually revealed a few of his current projects: developing plans for celebrating the 150th anniversary in 2015 of the Nation magazine, the venerable journal he published for a decade after gathering the backers to revive it when he was in his mid 20s; the restoration and digitization of the 1976 film “Memory of Justice,” a documentary he co-produced about the Nuremburg trials and their relevance to the American experience in Vietnam; and an eight-part TV series he’s been working on with a team that includes former 60 Minutes producers about climate change called, “The Years of Living Dangerously,” which Showtime will broadcast this winter as “the first mainstream TV treatment of anthropogenic climate change,” he said.

He’s also in the midst of planning for the debut in New York this fall of “The Marfa Dialogues,” an art-based “public conversation,” as he put it, “exploring social and political themes” (climate change will be one theme) that he founded about eight years ago in collaboration with an arts center near his adobe home in Marfa, Texas, his wife Sandra’s native state. A lifelong gardener and market grower who has been delighting in the farm stands of the North Fork, Sylvester Manor and the Island’s weekly Island’s Farmer Market, she founded a regional farmers market herself in Marfa in 2005.

The first Hamilton Fish, born in 1808, was a U.S. congressman and senator from New York, the state’s governor, and U.S. Secretary of State under U.S. Grant. That Hamilton Fish’s father, a Revolutionary War major who married a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, had named him after his dear friend Alexander Hamilton, for whom he’d refused to serve as a second after Aaron Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. “He thought it would be suicide,” said Mr. Fish, as if passing on some family intelligence fresh from the parlor, “and it was.”

His ancestors, by the Civil War, were abolitionists and members of the new Republican Party. His Republican congressman father, who had three more kids in his Washington-based family to send to college, warned Hamilton V when he was a student at Harvard that there wouldn’t be any more financial support after graduation, nor a legacy of wealth.

“I think it was a helpful factor for me not to have inherited any money but I did have this inheritance, which is the name, and I’ve tried to deploy it for the various things I was trying to do,” he said.

He ran as a Democrat for Congress from Westchester in 1988 and tried again in 1994 from Putnam County. But that was the year of Newt Gingrich’s Republican sweep. Why the party switch? With a smile, he said his stalwart Republican relatives “needed some event to blame” and Harvard “was on the list.”

But it was more complicated than that. He came of age in an era of rebellion and protest. His opposition to the Vietnam War, and support for civil rights — for black Americans and women — inspired a commitment to political activism. He noted that the Republican Party used to be a progressive force, born in the fight for black emancipation and civil rights in the mid-19th century. A century later, his father cast the deciding vote to impeach Richard Nixon. “He was a Republican from a very conservative district in upstate New York for 26 years but his name is prominent in the history of civil rights legislation,” he said, adding that he is especially proud of his father’s work in favor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he believes has had a fundamental and lasting effect on American society.

After his own unsuccessful runs for Congress, “I went down a different path” from those chosen by the four previous men named Hamilton Fish, all of whom served in elected office.

Just recently he recruited some investors to try to buy the licenses of moribund public television stations — unlike National Public Radio, he said, PBS stations in most markets are doing a poor job and facing extinction — to create a new network that could counteract Fox news. “We failed” because the FCC wouldn’t allow it.

A relaxed conversation with Mr. Fish ranges far and wide, but tends to focus in the end on the American knack for forgetting history, such as the lessons of the Vietnam War. “The lines for the invasion of Iraq were laid down long before 9/11,” he said, “and it was well known the younger Bush felt the business of his father’s presidency had gone unfinished.” The media, the ownership of which by then had been concentrated in a few corporate hands, “was complicit” in leaving unchallenged the falsehoods on which the invasion was predicated.

Shelter Island, which he said “has such transcendent beauty,” is for recharging one’s spirits. As soon as they arrived on Shelter Island on Saturday, Hamilton and Sandra took the Eliza out for what he called a “blissful” sail on Gardiner’s Bay.