All the Fault of Peter Fink

(Nancy Gibney is the Mother of Eleanor Gibney, the immediate past President of the Society. Before moving to St. John in the 1940s Ms. Gibney was a Vogue Magazine editor. Our newsletter of November 2006 included one of her articles which appeared in the October 1, 1948 issue of that magazine—“A Report from Paradise…The Virgin Islands.” Following is a first in a series of articles. Eleanor explains: “…In 1978 and 1979, my mother wrote a series of short memoirs. She was dying, and a large part of what she wanted to get down was cathartic and never intended for publication, or any eyes outside her closest family. Some of it she said she wrote directly for me; a lot was about my flawed and beloved father (who had died in 1973) and his friendships, and has little to do with St. John. Four pieces, all portraying more-or-less public figures, were published before her death in various venues; the remaining “chapters” were not publishable without heavy editing of the intensely private content, but I have finally begun that process…)

On a dank afternoon in November 1946, wearing my usual work clothes—Traina Norell suit, Tatiana du Plessix hat with ostrich plumes that had set me back $50 wholesale, Bonwit opera pumps, chinchilla stole— I went for a drink at the Plaza with a debonair young man named Peter Fink. Peter was the advertising manager for the perfume house of Lucien Lelong. For some time I had been augmenting my pay as a Vogue editor by writing fragrant copy for him.

Nancy Gibney wedding photo Nov, 1946
(photo courtesy of Eleanor Gibney)

Now I informed him that I was quitting all my jobs (on the side I had also been reviewing books for the New York Times: I was twenty-five years old and very healthy, cheerful, good-looking, very sure of myself and of easy success). On November 30, I was going to marry Robert Gibney, a brilliant, mixed-up friend of mine with whom I had lived off and on for the past three years. We were going to spend the winter in Haiti, where Gibney would be so happy that he would rise above all his hang-ups and write the great novel expected of him, and I would do nothing except aim to please.

“Most glamorous, sweetie,” Peter Fink said, “But never Haiti. You’re mad. I went there last spring Too scaring.”

“Truly? But everyone says Haiti is fascinating. Dirt cheap? And Gibney can spout French there?”

“Well. If you can stand those drums. All night, darling. I promise you. Not a wink. Now, if I were you and wanted my mate to get some real work done, I’d go to Caneel Bay.” “Where’s that?”

“St. John. Virgin Islands. Divinely beautiful. Absolutely unspoiled. Just a few ratty cottages spang on the beach. Nothing to do. No one around. Like the tomb. Purest heaven.” “Umm,” I said, not paying much attention, not ready to retire quite that far.

Nevertheless, on a hot blue morning three weeks later, Gibney and I approached Caneel Bay, on the hoof. Haiti had been fascinating enough for a few days, but not at all the ticket for the winter. The drums we could endure: they seemed no more menacing than juke boxes. But we were unnerved by the teaming overpopulation, the crushing poverty. And only sharks dared swim in the sea off of Haiti, and Gibney hadn’t come to the Caribbean to paddle around in a piscine. We decided to look for an easier island.

On St. Thomas, which was still somnolent, decorous, undeveloped, we consulted a real estate agent, a hard-bitten fugitive from New York. Nothing doing, she told us. No furnished houses for rent for the winter anywhere near a beach.

I heard a faint echo of Peter Fink’s shapely tones. “Then what about St John? Canal Bay? Canaille Bay?”

“Caneel Bay.” Yes, she agreed, disagreeably. There was a little cottage colony over there, mostly a summer resort for rich Puerto Ricans. It belonged to the Trigo brothers, who owned the local airline, Caribair. But Caneel would be pretty expensive for the entire season. The one-bedroom cottages went for $100 a week—maid service thrown in, but you had to buy your own food. “You wouldn’t like St. John, anyway.” She assured us. “Dead as a doornail.” This was no way to discourage Gibney, who loved total inaction. “And there’s nothing else on St. John? Just the one Puerto Rican clip joint?”

The agent sighed. Well, yes, she did know of two other slight possibilities. A little cottage on the beach at the edge of the village of Cruz Bay. It belonged to a woman from the States named Helen Payne; she sometimes rented it and lived on her boat. Only $45 a month, but no plumbing or electricity, of course. And then there was a big house with its own beach, Trunk Bay, up the north shore. The owner, Mrs. Boulon, had been working as manager at Caneel; she might consider renting us Trunk Bay for the winter. We could go to St. John and ask her, if we wanted some exercise, ha ha. There was usually a boat over in the morning. With luck, it came back in the afternoon.

“Should we telephone her first?” No telephones on St. John. “So we just go over there and rent a car? Take a taxi?” No cars on St. John. No roads on St. John. “So, what do we do? Teleport ourselves?”

The agent, sniffing: “You go out to Red Hook. East end of St.Thomas. If the boat’s running, you go to Cruz Bay, St. John. You look at the Payne cottage.” She looked at me. ”If that’s not fancy enough to suit you, you walk to Caneel and try to find Erva Boulon. If she wants to rent Trunk Bay, you walk to Trunk Bay and see if you want to rent it. Bet you won’t—it’s the end of the world. Then you walk back to Caneel. The afternoon boat leaves from there. If it leaves.” “Golly,” I said. “That sounds like a lot of walking. How far?” “Six-seven miles. And it’s all uphill.” She smiled, spitefully, at my high-heeled Saks sandals. ”Frankly, I think you’re wasting your time.” If so, Gibney and I wasted a lifetime.

The long tropical honeymoon was my idea. Gibney, a native New Yorker, was miserable in New York, I thought that was why he couldn’t work there. He was thirty-one years old when I married him, a large powerful graceful masculine man, with a large powerful graceful masculine mind adamantly set against itself.

At Columbia University in the 1930’s Gibney had met his peers and made the friends of his life. Among them were the poet Robet Lax, the painter Ad Reinhardt, the incipient Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the writer Seymour Freedgood. Blessed with their own specific, focused talents, this group considered Gibney a Leonardo. He was a skillful painter, sculptor, writer, theorist, linguist; a genius talker and joker; a master of devising things and building things and fixing things. A Universal man. A universal handyman.

After World War II, he had come back to New York, and held–in contempt– a series of short-lived editorial jobs with various magazines.

In the summer of 1946, I took a month off from Vogue and rented a house in Bermuda, inviting Gibney and Robert Lax to come along. (I had been friends with Lax since I was 14, he had introduced me to Gibney but I have never held that against him.) In Bermuda Gibney was happier and healthier than I had ever seen him. He discovered a new talent: he was superb at the then-avant-garde arts of skin-diving and spear fishing. All his real and imagined physical ills disappeared.

“I have just spent ten minutes watching a lizard stalk a fly, marveling at his patience until I marveled even more at my own.” Gibney wrote in his journal early in 1947. We had rented the little Payne cottage in Cruz Bay and moved in on December 17th.

On our first footsore tour of inspection, Gibney had fallen hard for St. John. I had tacit misgivings; I knew I’d be bored, but I knew I could stand it for a few months, in a good cause. And surely it was an island of heart-breaking beauty, with a tradewind sky blowing above it, and wild green mountains folded down to dazzling empty beaches, dazzling sea. No over-population or visible poverty here: most of the seven hundred inhabitants lived the life of landed gentry on twelve thousand acres of gorgeous bush.

Caneel Commissary c1950, now the front desk area.
(photo courtesy of Eleanor Gibney)

Luckily for our finances–$100 a week was a steep rent in those days—neither Gibney nor I liked Caneel Bay at all. The seven wooden cottages were as rundown and overgrown as they were overpriced. The Commissary featured a blare of Puerto Rican soap-opera on the radio, a few rusty canned goods, a few distressed onions and bananas. The whole seedy installation seemed an insult to its lovely setting.

Trunk Bay was very handsome, but also far broken-down, and so remote and unmanageable that I was relieved that Mrs. Boulon wouldn’t rent it to us; she’d decided to try opening a guest house there herself.

Small as it was, unplumbed, unelectrified, unrefrigerated as it was, the Payne cottage was neat and airy. Cruz Bay was an almost imperceptible village, so quiet and in such perfect taste that it seemed no intrusion on nature. There were more peacocks than people on the dirt road that ran up from the dock. (The peacocks belonged to a stately lady named Miss Andromeada Keating, whose house served as St. John’s only inn, restaurant and post office. The first time I met Miss Meada, I was stupid enough to ask her why she kept peacocks. She gave me a chilling smile. “For beauty, madam”.) The Cruz Bay beach was clean and white; the harbor, seldom sullied by more than one native sloop, as clear as Vichy water. A rowboat came with the cottage and we spent our days fishing for our dinners, Gibney overboard with spear and mask, I in the boat with handline.

Gibney was enchanted with his new life underwater, and he had plenty of other reasons for good cheer. He liked St. John better than any place he’d ever been, liked the dignity and harsh wit of the St. John people, liked the total absence of intellectual pretension.

On January 12th, Gibney noted in his journal: “After lunch Bastian came with a piece of lamb.” Robert Bastian was his great new friend, a St. John native as tall and strong and opinionated and full of suppressed violence as Gibney himself. Mr. Bastian served as the caretaker for two beautiful absentee-owned north shore estates, Cinnamon Bay and “Hognest”, as it was spelled on the maps at the time. (When we bought it in 1950, we confirmed from the old land records that the proper spelling was Hawksnest.) Bastian raised pigs and goats and sheep. On Saturdays he would butcher one of his animals and walk all over the island with a bloody burlap sack, dispensing chunks of flesh to the favored few. We were among the favored. Sometimes he also brought eggs or bitter little fluted tomatoes.

Gibney’s journal continued on January 20: “Bastian has had two goats killed by dogs and has spent the week in litigation…Of Albert Sewer, Bastian says, roughly: ‘Man leave here and come back, no one speak to him.’

This harsh judgment of Mr. Bastian’s was directed against a dashing, handsome young man who had just come home to St. John after some years spent working in the New York garment district. Albert Sewer’s brother, Victor, equally handsome and dashing, was one of St John’s most respected boat captains. It was later whispered by “continentals” that Captain Sewer was a racist, this because he was never polite to white passengers who were rude to him.

In January Gibney began inviting everyone he knew to St. John. He wrote to Seymour Freegood: “I have consistently underrated everything in letters so as to not arouse excessive envy, but everything is wonderful except perhaps the bathroom facilities…”

“In arranging for this visit, remember the mail difficulties. Mail is brought here from St. Thomas Tuesday afternoon and Friday morning. There is no telegraph…… At the moment there is no transportation of any kind. All the boats are broke.”

The twenty-five-year-old Nancy Gibney had to contend with great ambivalence and increasing boredom in those first months in Cruz Bay; missing her friends and career– but meeting Julius and Cleome Wadsworth on the boat from St. Thomas one afternoon opened the next chapter of her life on St. John:

In time I surely would have found the strength to detach myself from it. But alas, toward the end of March we rented a beautiful old estate called Denis Bay on the north shore of the island, and I too fell in love with St. John…

To be continued…

Nancy Flagg Gibney


  1. Cindy K Haun Says: July 14, 2015 at 9:29 am

    This is wonderful. I feel like you have filled in the blanks. When I started coming in 1986 it still felt remote, but not this remote. I want to hear about the Christ of the Carribean too. I copied the Vogue magazine pictures of the Denis Bay house. It has inspired me to work on my own 1928 house on Cape Cod.

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