In Search of Nancy Luce

Last week I made a spur of the moment decision to rent a car and drive up to Martha’s Vineyard for a day of research into the life and poetry of Nancy Luce. The timing was tricky, as I will be flying to Scotland for Sarah’s final PhD concert on the 23rd of February, and then straight to Dallas to work with Arts District Chorale and Constantina Tsolainou on the 3rd of March, all before my move back to Michigan on the 10th of that month. I am so glad I made the trip, as it proved to be a necessary component of the creative process behind the composition of this exciting new work. I welcome anyone who finds the following story compelling to consider participating in the commission consortium at

This is "Pinky," the wooden chicken I inherited from my step-grandfather, which accompanied me on the trip.

I chose probably the worst possible day to drive up to the island; as I prepared to leave Philadelphia on Wednesday, the weather turned to freezing rain and the streets became extremely slippery. Fortunately, the temperature rose throughout the day, though the sheets of rain did not let up once on the entire drive. After passing through New York City (I have no idea why anyone would regularly drive in that place if they could avoid it), the rest of the drive was quite enjoyable. At this time of year, New England has a kind of stark beauty to it that is strangely compelling – one thing I took note of was the change in vegetation after New York, something that has become a considerable influence on the direction of the new choral work. More on this later.

I arrived in Falmouth, MA after dark, parked the car and boarded the shuttle to the ferry dock, just in time to make the boat at 6:15 PM. Though I grew up on the shores of Lake Superior, the largest lake in North America, us Yoopers rarely have to deal with boat schedules or indeed the massive vessels themselves. It’s something Sarah and I talked about in January, when I was visiting her and her family in the Pacific Northwest; she grew up on Bainbridge Island, WA, constantly having to contend with the ferries’ scheduled departures to Seattle. It may seem like a small detail, but this type of upbringing shapes people in a way that I never fully understood until this year. The residents of Martha’s Vineyard know these schedules back to front – they understand that after the last boat sails, you are isolated on the island with no way off. Some people I spoke to found that idea slightly scary, but most actually appreciate the fact that after dark you no longer have to worry about the folks from off-island.

Dan Waters and I at the Martha's Vineyard Museum. 

Dan Waters, the talented local artist whose linoleum print block of Nancy Luce inspired this project, greeted me in Vineyard Haven. Dan had agreed to shuttle me around to the various places I needed to visit for research on the island. We immediately hit it off. He was a remarkable guide and a good man, and easily the most valuable resource for me on this trip – he explained a great many things that proved to be vital to my understanding not only of Nancy Luce, but of the life of an islander in general. I was exhausted from the stormy drive, and so after checking in at the Harbor View Hotel (I highly recommend, wonderful place) and bidding Dan goodnight, I turned in early to rest up for the long day ahead.

The view from just outside the Harbor View Hotel. 

Thursday dawned cold but undeniably beautiful. Because I arrived after dark on Wednesday, much of the beauty of the island was lost on me until morning. The Harbor View is situated only a stone’s throw from the path to the Edgartown Harbor Light, and after hot tea and a smoked salmon bagel I made the short walk down to the water’s edge. It struck me then how fortunate I was to be on the island in the off season; in the summer months the population swells from a mere 15,000 people to well over 100,000, making the solace of deserted scenes like this hard to come by. When Dan picked me up a few minutes later he explained to me that permanent residents in many ways live for the deep winter, when they get a chance to catch their breath and take in the scenery of their island.

Nancy's house as it stands today. 

At this point I was anxious to get to West Tisbury to pay my respects at the grave of Nancy Luce, but first Dan took me down a side road to where her old house was located. The landscape on the south side of the island is dramatically different from the North, caused, as Dan explained, by the combination of strong southerly winds and the wedge-shape of the island. The trees here are stunted, unable to grow to any great height given the constantly lashing winds. In observing this I made a crucial connection between Nancy Luce and the land that she inhabited, as her own physical stature was affected greatly by the geography and weather of this portion of the island. The shawl that she was so often pictured wearing was not chosen for its aesthetic qualities but out of necessity, as it protected her oft-ailed head from the elements. The house itself is privately owned and has been renovated in recent years, but in Nancy’s day it certainly would have been a bleak place to make one’s existence, especially in the winter months.

After a short walk through some nearby woods to observe the stunted vegetation, we returned to Dan’s car and drove to the West Tisbury cemetery. As we neared our destination, a familiar feeling of nervous restlessness came over me. I identified it immediately as the same feeling I had when I approached the memorial to the Italian Hall disaster in Calumet, Michigan when I was composing A Childs Requiem. In taking on this type of project that involves memorializing a historical person or group of people, the artist bears a certain amount of responsibility to the memory and legacy of the chosen individual(s). Nowhere does this responsibility come crashing down more forcefully than at the grave. It’s uncomfortable, overwhelming, even terrifying at times. But I feel this visitation is an incredibly important part of the creative process as it creates a bond, no matter how subtle, with the person who once walked the same ground.

The grave of Nancy Luce, surrounded by the chickens that people have left for her over the years. 

By contrast, the gravestones of her beloved chickens...

Nancy’s grave is visible from a stretch of road known as Dead Man’s Curve. She is surrounded by graves dating back to the early 1700s at least, with many other headstones bearing the surname “Luce” dotted throughout the small cemetery. Her headstone is a plain white, paling in comparison to the beautiful marble stones she had made for her chickens when they died – these are now housed in the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. What is remarkable though, are the many stone, ceramic and even plastic chickens that well wishers have left by her grave in years gone by. It may be hard to imagine without seeing it in person, but to a small and very devout group, Nancy Luce is a serious folk hero; a lonely, eccentric woman who somehow managed to scratch out a living while caring for her beloved chickens.

When I first learned of Nancy’s story, I saw her intense love for these animals as little more than a curiosity. As we pulled away from the cemetery (equally difficult to approaching the grave, is leaving it), we began talking about whether Nancy had in fact exaggerated her adoration for her chickens to help sell herself as a tourist attraction. It is well known that she played up her eccentricities to attract curious travelers and sell her goods from the shop in her house, and I had always wondered if the chickens were a part of the character that she played. Dan explained his belief that there were, in a sense, two Nancy Luces: the public Nancy Luce who created a persona that would aid her in surviving her bleak existence, and the intensely private Nancy Luce, whose desire for kindness and love of her animal charges was true and uniquely beautiful. In fact, she had a cellar dug out underneath her tiny home to house the hens in wintertime – she called this subterranean den her “Little South America,” and it seems to me that it was here that the true Nancy Luce resided.

Stunted stature and a sense of the subterranean. Things were truly coming into focus.

One of the machines in Dan and Hal's shop - incredible!!

The next stop was a visit to Dan’s shop at his home in West Tisbury to see how he created the print that inspired this project, as well as to meet his charming husband, Hal. The two of them have carved out a niche for themselves that satisfied the steam-punk side of my brain immensely. I had no idea how involved the process was, nor the sheer size and complexity of the machinery involved in Dan’s creative process. In addition to the linoleum print block side of the shop, they also operate a linotype machine for lettering that involves molten metal and enough gears and wheels to make my head spin. It’s a remarkable process and I feel so fortunate to be given a brief tour.

Examples of the highly detailed books that Nancy gave as gifts to people who were kind to her.

The moment when I struck gold...

After a lovely lunch with Dan and Hal at the Little House Café in Vineyard Haven (also highly recommended – the fish tacos are excellent), we drove the eight miles or so back to Edgartown to visit the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The museum is currently in the middle of moving to a much larger facility at the old Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven, and so much of the collection was packed up and unavailable for public viewing. Thankfully, I had made contact with research librarian and veritable fountain of information Bow Van Riper, a lovely man who was very interested in the project on the phone and agreed to show me what they had on the subject of Nancy Luce.

It was much more than I expected. My one regret on this trip was not budgeting enough time to pore over the many letters, original documents and poetry that concern Nancy Luce at the Martha’s Vineyard museum – I only had an hour and change, and so I set to work immediately, carefully sifting through Nancy’s beautiful hand-written materials for anything that might give more insight into her life and poetry. I was also on the lookout for texts that might be suitable for the libretto, and thankfully I was able to make some invaluable discoveries that will undoubtedly surface again in the final version of the new work. I even found some passages that will aid me in composing this piece as a companion work to Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. One of these passages reads as follows:

Haste, sovereign Mercy, and transform,
Their cruelty to love;
Soften the tiger to the kid and lamb,
The vulture to a dove and hens.

Unfortunately, my time was up, and I was unable to get through every slip of paper in the Nancy Luce file, though I dearly wanted to. However, I do think I will have enough to be going on with, especially with the resources from the Brown University collection that Carand Burnet has sent me. Carand has written a new book on Nancy Luce that I very much look forward to reading, and she agreed to send me some of her research for the purpose of this project. With all these combined resources, including the overall experience of being on the island, I feel confident that I will be able to produce a compelling work that does justice to Ms. Luce.

Next, I bade farewell to Dan for the day and met with Peter Boak at the Federated Church of Martha’s Vineyard, just around the corner from the museum. Peter is the director of the Island Community Chorus, and yet another lovely person I met on this trip (you may start to see a theme here – every single islander I met was both kind and interesting in equal measure). After reminiscing about our time at Westminster Choir College (it turns out we are both alums, though he graduated before I was born!), we discussed the project and the logistics of making it a reality. I am very, very pleased to say that the Island Community Chorus, which is a remarkably accomplished choir given the small population of the island, is on board to be one of the commissioning ensembles of the new work. I feel so fortunate that the work will find a home here in the initial run of performances, as this island and its residents truly are at the epicenter of the project.

Finally, after leaving the church I walked a few blocks North to the Edgartown School to meet Laura Walton, the new conductor of the Martha’s Vineyard Children’s Chorus and a new friend. Laura is not originally from the island, but it was fascinating to get her perspective on the community and the project, as she is a relatively recent addition to the small group of people who live there year-round. We hope to have the Children’s Chorus involved as well, though there are some logistical things to work out before an announcement is made. More to follow soon.

The Edgartown Light on the morning of my departure. 

I fell asleep shortly after returning to my room at the Harbor View. The next morning Dan drove me back to the ferry terminal in Vineyard Haven, where I thanked him for all his help and boarded the boat back to the mainland. It’s funny how even after spending only a day and a half in a place, you can feel some sort of attachment to it and a reluctance to leave. Nancy’s story is alive and well there, after over a century has passed since she last walked the land near West Tisbury. It was a short time to spend among such admirable people – I will be back.

It was an exhausting trip, but one that led to a profound change in my perspective on the project – the story is so much deeper, and emotionally richer, than I could have imagined. It also led to a self-realization about why I choose the projects that I choose and compose music in the way that I do – after all this time I have realized that I am, more than anything, a musical storyteller. I just hope that I can create a piece that tells the remarkable story of Nancy Luce in a way that does her justice and kindness, two things that she did not experience much of in her troubled life.

Until next time,

Thomas LaVoy

Thomas LaVoy2 Comments