Celebrities fit right in on Martha's Vineyard

When then-undercover couple Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal strolled holding hands and playing with her children on private Lucy Vincent Beach here the summer before last, Jeffrey Ross debated whether to snap a photo of the stars with his cellphone.

"I could have sold it to the tabloids for hundreds of thousands of dollars," says the regular Martha's Vineyard summer visitor and former TV production executive. But of course, he didn't.

Though celebrities are fixtures on the low-key island south of Cape Cod, they're generally not hounded. "You respect their privacy," says Ross, 57. The late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sheltered from paparazzi on her remote compound on the western side of Martha's Vineyard and shopped unbothered at Alley's General Store.

Bill Clinton raised the Vineyard's profile in the '90s and keeps returning. (He was spotted this week.) Last month, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. escaped to his summer retreat in racially diverse Oak Bluffs here after police in Cambridge, Mass., mistook him for a burglar in his home.

Now the spotlight is shining even brighter on the 23-mile-long, summer-home haven: President Obama is due to arrive Sunday for a week's family vacation at a rented estate.

Some locals are dreading the traffic and media mania surrounding what has been dubbed "Obamarama." But many are excited.

Even the rich have cut back on spending this year, says Susan Mercier, manager of Edgartown Books, a genteel shop in a former whaling captain's home on Main Street. She hopes increased exposure will bring more visitors to the Vineyard. "It has been a hard year."

Obama T-shirts already are on sale, threatening the Black Dog Tavern tees emblazoned with a proud canine as Martha's Vineyard's souvenir status symbol. Amid the hoopla, Mercier, 45, hopes prospective visitors understand that the Vineyard — named for a 17th-century British explorer's daughter but bereft of wineries since Chicama Vineyards closed last summer — is "a very down-to-earth and normal place to be."

Indeed, the island is no Hamptons. Velvet ropes, flash, franchises and traffic lights are virtually non-existent. There's not even a Starbucks. Many residents never lock their doors. While "McMansions" have gone up, typical Vineyard digs are discreet gray-shingled houses near bicycle trails, ponds and beaches. Visitors are expected to follow island customs such as paying on the honor system for flowers or produce at unmanned roadside stands.

Jan Pogue, co-founder of the Vineyard Stories publishing firm and a transplant from the mainland, understands the appeal for celebrities. "The island's so special, and the people are special. You come for your privacy, because the Vineyard will give it to you."

Stars who have sought that seclusion have included former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who died last month; John F. Kennedy Jr., who was killed in a crash while flying to the island 10 years ago last month; and comedian John Belushi, who is buried here in Abel's Hill Cemetery. Princess Diana quietly visited.

Not that the Vineyard doesn't have a grapevine. In fact, it's active. There's talk that Oprah Winfrey is on the island, and stories persist that Chelsea Clinton may marry her longtime beau here.

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