Ordinarily Fisherites will go to great lengths to keep peace with their neighbors. Laurance Rockefeller, who summered on the island until three years ago in a house now owned by the William Campbells, was all set to chop down a tree on his property until Jock Whitney, who lived nearby, supposedly protested. Whitney liked looking at the tree, the story goes, so Rockefeller spared the ax. Whitney himself has one of the more opulent houses. Severely modern, it cost upward of $500,000 to build, and the grounds were once equipped with a seaplane ramp. ( Whitney has given up his seaplane, as well as his private PT boat, and now commutes to the island in his own turboprop jet.) Strategically placed about the grounds are 50 recessed sprinklers. Despite an abundance of such knickknacks, Fisherites are fond of insisting that theirs is the simple life. When a guest once asked Mrs. George Hardy why her 12-bedroom house had 13 bathrooms, Mrs. Hardy solemnly replied, "My dear, you can't expect my husband and me to share a bath?"
Fishers has 2,500 summer residents, excluding servants. The younger families usually reside around the Hay Harbor Club on the western end of the island, where they can rent cottages for $2,000 a month or more. The youngsters sail Weasels in the harbor, while the parents golf at the club's nine-hole course by the sea or loll about the beach. The only public bars are The Harbor and The Pequot Inn, which the summer residents rarely frequent, and older teen-agers are sometimes driven to pass the time by painting signs on the macadam road that runs the length of the island: THE PHANTOM STRIKES, RIPPY PIPPY, REPENT BROTHER and, most fittingly, SWEAT NOT. "When it rains," sighs a girl, "there is absolutely nothing to do."
The central section of the island is marked by a sign warning that trespassers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Beyond the sign are the great houses and estates of the solidly established older crowd. Until three years ago the Fishers Island Country Club owned a mammoth Tudor-style structure of stone, brick and slate that served as the hub of social life. When the clubhouse began to lose money at a rate exceeding $50,000 a year, the members decided to blow it up, In September 1963, in a ceremony worthy of a battleship launching, Mrs. Pierre du Pont pushed down a dynamite plunger that sent the northwest wing satisfactorily skyward. Before she pushed the plunger Mrs. du Pont complained mildly, "Why isn't it a du Pont detonator?"
Otherwise life at Fishers is sedate. Ladies on the beach are usually seen in dressmaker-style bathing suits. "No bikinis," said one matron firmly. And as for gold-thonged sandals and gold lam� beachwear, well, as one young lady put it, "At Southampton, yes, but at Fishers—oh God, no!" "No one on Fishers has to put on airs," says a social observer from Watch Hill ( R.I.), just a brisk sail across the water. "What the hell, they've got it made." On Fishers the merest hint of pushiness is enough to damn anyone. According to one story—which Lee Ferguson says is false—a socially ambitious couple once rented the late Sir Samuel Salvage's gabled manse now occupied by Lady Salvage's nephew, David R. Wilmerding. Every afternoon they hopefully hoisted a cocktail flag. No one came. They left friendless at the end of the season. Fisherites still shudder at the thought of them.
Although practically all the summer residents are Republicans, a snub administered to Robert Barry, a former Congressman from Westchester, may have hurt Nixon in 1960. Just before Nixon was nominated, Barry gave up his rented cottage in Hay Harbor to buy a home on the eastern part of the island. When the presidential campaign began, Barry was supposed to join Nixon's staff. As an experienced Republican who had campaigned with Willkie, Dewey and Eisenhower, Barry would have been a knowledgeable member. But Barry stayed away from the campaign to fight gossip that he was "too aggressive" to be a member of the Fishers Island Country Club. No matter how he tried to correct the impression, it proved futile, and he was not admitted to the club.
Now and then Fishers' exclusivity is a source of merriment. Perhaps the most celebrated story has to do with a Swiss baron who decided to sail the Atlantic alone after the war. The baron made a remarkable voyage and, after 58 days at sea, he spotted what he took to be the Connecticut coast. In sheer exhilaration, he paddled ashore in a rubber boat. Shore turned out to be the Fishers Island Country Club beach, and as the baron waded happily through the surf the club members retreated en masse. It was not until a venturesome Swiss governess spoke to the interloper and established his identity that club members returned.
Besides being a social haven, Fishers is a sporting haven. In mid-spring sea-run brown trout on their way to mainland streams sometimes put in an appearance, and in the late summer striped bass feed offshore in schools and blue-fish abound. Indeed, Edward C. Migdalski, a Yale ichthyologist, considers The Race, the stretch of water between Fishers and the Gull Islands, "one of the world's best areas for bluefish." Otis Horn, the gun-dog trainer, once donned Aqua-Lung equipment and searched out the deep holes along the shore where the larger stripers lurk and, as a result, he knows where to catch fish almost at will. During one night of fishing he landed 24 stripers, the largest of which weighed 55 pounds, and he confidently expects someday to break the world record of 73 pounds on hook and line. There is also excellent largemouth-bass fishing in the freshwater ponds on the island. And for the benefit of Fisherites who like to shoot, the island is stocked with thousands of giant pheasants, which, when not being shot at, swarm like barnyard turkeys along the roads and over the fairways of the golf courses.
For the most part, however, present-day Fisherites eschew field sports for tennis and golf. The courts are jammed but, as one summer resident wistfully laments, "We haven't produced a Davis Cup player in 50 years." Whether soft or hard, life on Fishers is pleasant, if one happens to have the necessary cachet and wherewithal. Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the actor, passed his boyhood summers on the island (his mother was Alma Gluck, the opera singer, his father the concert violinist) and, as Zimbalist recalls it, "life was simple and grand—as in Chekhov." Dr. Robert M. Hutchins, the deep thinker now with The Fund for the Republic, also used to summer on Fishers, and he takes pains to deny that he ever found the island intellectually stagnant. "I always had a delightful time there," he says.
Fishers has a permanent population of 450 "natives" who by and large provide the labor force for the summer residents. Some of the natives feel as though they are kept in a state of economic subjection, dependent as they are on 10-month-absentee landlords. None of the natives cares to speak out publicly, but a reporter who happens along is shuttled about like a downed Allied flyer amid the French resistance. "This is the last Latin American island in North American waters," one native complains.
Several years ago the natives hoped that Fort Wright, the abandoned artillery base at the western end of the island, would be developed as a middle-income resort after the government auctioned it off. But then a group of regular summer residents banded together to buy the fort for $350,000, and the barracks and quarters have, with few exceptions, been slowly going to rot.