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12.1.16

Unstoppable Cynthia Riggs

The author, poet, sailor, fencer, polar adventurer, and accidental romantic celebrity has no intention of reefing her sails.

Cynthia Riggs has already written her obituary. That might not seem too surprising for an eighty-five year old, but the mystery writer, West Tisbury innkeeper, and all-around Renaissance woman is hardly planning to head into the hereafter. Her mother, beloved Island poet and best-selling author Dionis Coffin Riggs, lived to the ripe old age of ninety-eight. Why shouldn’t she?

“I simply didn’t want others to have to bother,” she says.

There would, it’s worth noting, be plenty of research for an obituary writer to do beforehand. Cynthia Riggs, the descendant of generations of whaling captains and their fiercely independent wives, possesses an indomitable, can’t-stop spirit. In 1948 she earned a qualifying place on the Olympic fencing team. She’s crossed the Atlantic twice in a thirty-two-foot O’Day sailboat. A 1970 National Science Foundation grant took her on her second trip to the Antarctic, where she says she became the seventh woman to set foot on the South Pole. She held a U.S. Coast Guard Masters License for 100-ton vessels for twenty years, and a string of water-related jobs too long to list. On the Vineyard, where she was born, she worked as a rigger at the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard and as assistant Oak Bluffs dock master. She has hosted more than 300 interviews on the community television station with more coming. And she hasn’t slowed down since then.

Today, Riggs continues to write her celebrated mystery novels – the thirteenth of a planned twenty set on the Vineyard will be released in 2017. She runs the Cleaveland House Bed & Breakfast out of her ancestral home in West Tisbury, which she established with her mother in 1988 for poets, writers, and other creative types. A master gardener, she maintains the gardens and oversees seven compost heaps on the premises. Friend Arnie Fischer mows the grass and delivers a truckload of manure in the spring, she says, “but I love to dig, and I do the digging.” She also gives weekly lectures during the summer onboard American Cruise Line tourist ships; shepherds two Vineyard writing groups; serves as godmother and hostess to the Cleaveland House poets, an iteration of which was started in the 1960s by her mother; and is the doting grandmother of her five children’s thirteen grandchildren. And, of course, she is the accidental star of a romance that went viral in 2012.

Riggs rides on the shoulders of her mother, the poet and author Dionis Coffin Riggs, at Quansoo in 1933.
Courtesy Cynthia Riggs

Naturally, she’s written a book about that, too, which will be released next year. Howard and Cynthia: A Love Story recounts her improbable reunion with Dr. Howard R. Attebery, whom she met in the summer of 1950, when an eighteen-year-old Riggs spent a summer sorting plankton at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Attebery was ten years her senior, and while there was no immediate romantic connection, they did become friends. He defended her against lab bullies. She passed him notes on paper towels written in code.

That seemed to be the end of their story until sixty-two years later, when Riggs received a packet of the carefully preserved paper towels with no return address, just longitude and latitude coordinates. Inside were the coded notes she had long ago written, as well as a new one, on which Attebery had scrawled: “I have never stopped loving you.” Calling on her well-honed sleuthing skills, Riggs tracked down Attebery and began a seven-month correspondence, first by mail, then e-mail. Next came a trip to his home in San Diego. Hours later, he proposed. She was 81. He was 90. They married on the Vineyard in May 2014 and now manage the Cleaveland House together.

The story caught the attention of NPR, CBS, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, and The Daily Mail, among other outlets – not only for its second-act happily ever after, but for the serendipity that seemed to guide the reunion. First, there was the manganese nodule, a rock concretion formed at the bottom of the ocean, that Attebery sent her during their correspondence. It’s a very rare item, but Riggs, who majored in geology at Antioch College, had a whole sack of them on hand that she’d gathered while working for the Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center. “I sent him four, but I made sure they were smaller,”
she says.

Next, he sent her a CD by his composer son, called Cactus on Mars. Riggs’s son-in-law was a geophysicist studying research proposals for the planet, she told him. He sent her a glass etching made of Kokopelli, the Hopi god of fertility, not knowing her father had been adopted by the Hopi tribe. The coincidences kept piling up. Some of them were painful, like the discovery that each had experienced the death of an adult child, at around the same age and the same time. Some of them were just bizarre. At the time she was writing a mystery novel called Bloodroot, set in an Island dentist’s office. It took shape before she learned that Attebery had served for many years as a public health dentist in California. 

Riggs’s romantic life up to this point was one of disillusionment. Her first husband had been seriously disturbed and abusive, and she vowed never to marry again. Now her story was being shared around the world as proof that you can never predict what lies in store. Moviemakers came calling with offers. They’re still considering an offer from Hallmark Hall of Fame.

In 1948 Riggs qualified for a place on the U.S. Oympic fencing team.
Courtesy Cynthia Riggs

“It changed my life,” she says. “It taught me about the amazing things that can lead to intimacy.”

If Cynthia Riggs isn’t ready to let time slow her down, neither is the character she created. Victoria Trumbull is ninety-two years young, strikingly tall, and hardly ready to relegate herself to a rocking chair by the fire – not your typical mystery series protagonist. Riggs modeled the character after her plucky, close to six-foot mother, Dionis, both as a tribute and a way to fight the ageism that assumes anyone in their nineties is too decrepit to be a good sleuth.

“My mother was an extraordinary woman,” says Riggs. “I admired her greatly. She had a keen sense of right and wrong, an amazing tolerance of others, flexibility, a sense of humor that snuck up on you, and a passion for life.”

That passion for life didn’t fade with age, a lesson Riggs learned well. Ageism, she says, “is as bad as sexism, maybe worse. After a certain age, one is considered half-witted and is consistently called ‘dear.’” Riggs started the mystery series while completing a Master of Fine Arts degree at Vermont College, which she undertook at the age of sixty-seven. Deadly Nightshade, the very first of the was published in 2001 when Riggs was seventy. Another has arrived almost every year. Her latest mystery manuscript, Trumpet of Death, is due in 2017.

Like most of the others in the series, Trumpet of Death takes its name from what she has grown familiar with in her garden (in this case, a mushroom). Riggs says she picks the titles because, like Deadly Nightshade, the name is creepy, or because, in the case of Death and Honesty, “I like to poke fun at my venal town assessors, fictional, of course.” Seed catalogs, plant lists, garden books, “and every research tool possible that will seduce me away from my job at writing” lead her to new titles.

On an expedition to Antarctica in 1970.
Courtesy Cynthia Riggs

The broader setting for the mysteries is always Martha’s Vineyard, where her family has lived for eight generations. In 2010, she published Victoria Trumbull’s Martha’s Vineyard, an insider’s tour guide of places that serve as the background to her series, from the Gay Head Cliffs to Oak Bluffs harbor. A new series is in the works, based on her experiences as a houseboat resident on Washington, D.C.’s Potomac River. Murder on C-Dock came out in 2014, with more planned. But she’ll likely never be done with the Island.

“The Cleaveland House has always been my Island home,” she says, even though she grew up in New Jersey and has traveled the world. The house got its name from Riggs’s great-grandfather Captain James F. Cleaveland, a whaling captain who traveled the world with his wife on a five-year voyage. After retiring in the mid-1800s, he opened its doors to boarders and placed a sign on the roof announcing the Cleaveland House. The name stuck. Riggs’s mother chronicled the story in her best-selling 1940 book From Off Island.

Like many, Riggs bewails the Island’s discovery by the rich and famous, which has led to an exodus of Islanders who can no longer afford the astronomical “jack-up” of the assessed value of family lands. Nor is she a fan of the growth of summer traffic. For the most part, though, she marvels “at the fact that so much of the Vineyard has retained its beauty, tranquility, history, and charm, and admire[s] our townspeople who’ve worked so hard to preserve those values.”

And she’s done her part to share it, both in her books and in her relationship with Attebery. Following their engagement, he crossed the country in a camper with his son to start a new life on the Island. The couple held a commitment ceremony at the Cleaveland House shortly after his arrival, followed in May by a wedding at the West Tisbury First Congregational Church, and in July by a community potluck celebration. Seemingly the whole Island showed up to toast the happy couple and share a piece of cake bearing a recent quote from Attebery: “Love is a great place to spend the rest of your life.”

A great place indeed. And, as Riggs might have added, a deliciously mysterious and long-lived one as well.

Comments (5)

stephen caliri
One of the finest humanbeings I have had the privledge to know.
November 29, 2016 - 9:33am
Susanna J. Sturgis
West Tisbury
Cynthia is amazing. Something this excellent profile doesn't touch on is her incredible generosity. I'm in one of the two writers' groups that meet weekly at the Cleaveland House. Cynthia provides not only the space, the roaring fire (in season), and the wine, juice, and popcorn, but her keen interest, editorial expertise, and encouragement. I feel so lucky to have been caught up in her circle!
December 3, 2016 - 8:29pm
Jeanne Gehret
Rochester, NY
Cynthia's love story and her campaign against ageism delight me, since my own father turned 100 this year. As a gardener, I love her plant themes. And as the author of a book about the island (The Truth About Daniel), I can't get enough of her island scenes. So glad another book is coming out!I must tell my local librarian to stock more of her series and Victoria Trumbull's Martha's Vineyard.
December 11, 2016 - 8:17am
Pauline Loewenhardt
Ann Arbor, Michigan
A grand summation of a unique literary and adventurous woman. I had the opportunity to spend a morning in Cynthia'a delightful presence in 2014 on a Bookwoman trip. I still have a feather from one of her guinea hens and many wonderful memories of my time on Martha's Vineyard.
February 2, 2017 - 12:32pm
Cynthia Riggs
South Africa
What an outstanding person.
February 7, 2017 - 2:22pm