Kay Tweed

A longtime Vineyarder known for publishing books and for her photography reminisces about her life around the world and on the Island.

Katharine Winthrop Tweed has been a Vineyarder since 1956, living cheerfully with her dogs, many Toby jugs, and a collection of owls in one of two homes on her property overlooking Lake Tashmoo. There, among other endeavors, she founded Tashmoo Press in 1972, and oversaw the publication of two dozen Island books. And in her darkroom above daRosa’s print shop in Oak Bluffs, she worked with artistic delight to perfect her photographs of Island children and personalities. But before that, her exotic life had taken her from Manhattan to Paris, to Trieste, to a castle in Czechoslovakia, to Tehran, to Beirut, to the countryside in Scotland, and to the east and west of this country.

She has had two husbands: the first was President Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson Archibald and the second, Dr. Robert Blackwood Robertson, a Scottish psychiatrist, adventurer, and writer. She has one son, Tweed Roosevelt, now living in Boston, who was born in Berkeley, California, on September 9, 1942 – the day San Francisco was hit in the only air raid on mainland America during World War II. And she has two grandchildren, Amanda and Winthrop Roosevelt, who also live in Boston.

This past fall, in the smaller of her two houses (“This was the garage when I bought the property from the cartoonist Denys Wortman”), Kay Tweed, nearing ninety, reminisced about her life.

Her father, Harrison Tweed, was a New York lawyer, she began.

“There were only two Tweed families in New York in the 1920s. One was ours and the other was Boss Tweed’s – the colorful, infamous, Tammany Hall, Democratic crook [who died in 1878]. It was very embarrassing to have him around, and we always said he was no relation. But that wasn’t really the case, we found out later, when a cousin doing a dissertation discovered that both Tweed families had come from the same town in Scotland.”

Kay’s family had other relatives of note. “On Daddy’s mother’s side, there was Max Perkins. He was some sort of cousin and was Thomas Wolfe’s editor at Scribner’s. He was often called Wolfe’s spiritual father and really made Wolfe into a writer.”

As for her father himself, Kay – lounging beneath a portrait of a French landlady she once had and looking out at a squirrel attacking her bird feeder – remarked philosophically: “Daddy was a handsome playboy. That’s what he was. He didn’t work when he was at Harvard, but my grandfather promised that if he graduated from law school, he’d give him a polo pony. He did graduate and he got the polo pony. Later on he bought a house at Montauk that Stanford White, who was the society architect of the day, had designed.

“Daddy bought the house to be contrary, because everyone in society in those days was supposed to have a summer place in the Hamptons, so instead, he went out to the end of Long Island, to Montauk. Anyway, he could fish and sail there, and he had a yacht, and it was aboard her that I first came to the Vineyard. Daddy was a great pal of the Francis McAdoos, who had a place in Vineyard Haven. One of the McAdoos was secretary of the treasury under President Wilson and married a Wilson daughter. Anyway, I fell in love with the Vineyard when I was eight.”

Kay’s mother was Eleanor Roelker, from a wealthy Rhode Island family. Because she suffered greatly from hay fever, spending autumns anywhere that ragweed was plentiful was impossible for her. And so it was that Kay’s exotic life began. “In the middle of August, from the time I was about four, our little expedition – Mamma and my sister, [Eleanor] ‘Cully,’ and I – would board an ocean liner for Europe to escape the ragweed, and Mamma would rent an apartment in Paris for us.”

And then there came a winter in the late 1920s when their mother wanted to stay on. Her marriage was shaky and there was no reason to return to New York. Little Katsie (Kay’s nickname then) was enrolled in Le Couvent des Petits Oiseaux (The Convent of the Little Birds), “where this little bird,” Kay says with a chuckle, “learned to read and write in French and then taught herself how to read and write in English on school vacations.” Meanwhile, her older sister, Cully, attended school in London.

Before long, Eleanor Roelker Tweed had a new beau – Paul Palffy. He was a dashing Hungarian count. In the way of much European nobility of that day, he needed money to maintain his family estate. He was seeking a rich bride and found one in Eleanor Tweed.

“He had the family castle – Palffy Castle – in a village named Budmerice outside Bratislava,” Kay says. “Cully and I called him Uncle Pip. He raised Lippizaner horses and had a silver fox farm and a pig farm. And he kept a huge eagle in a wire cage, and on holidays when Cully and I were there from school, we used to go to watch Uncle Pip’s gamekeeper feed it live things. We had some marvelous times at the castle. I had my own horse, and we would be pulled everywhere in carriages by the Lippizaners. Sometimes Uncle Pip’s son, Johnny, from a previous marriage, would be there with us and we liked him a lot.”

Kay had her own personal maid, who would empty the ashes out of the ceramic stove in her bedroom each morning and fill the stove with fresh wood to assure that the room would be warm enough when Kay got up. Once up, she and Cully would go out to watch the ten young girls whose job it was to rake the gravel in the castle driveway each morning.

In the beginning, the sisters had a German governess. “But she was besotted with our stepfather, who had already had three wives. She swallowed a bottle of aspirin in lovesick despair. We were miles from anywhere where she could get medical help, but happily she survived.”

Hunting seasons, when the finest hunters of the area would pay to come to the castle for partridge and pheasant or hare shoots, were especially exciting times for the two girls. “Once, in a single day, 1,500 hare were killed,” Kay remembers. “Uncle Pip was renowned as the best shot in Europe, and you could ride for three days and still be on his land.” It was land that had been in his family’s hands since the days of Charlemagne. The hunters would all be put up at the castle, which had a staff of at least eighteen house servants at all times.

Another delightful time for castle visits was at Christmas, when a tree that was two stories tall would be decorated in the hallway. “And Mamma always had presents for everyone in the village, and they all came to the castle on Christmas Eve and sang and danced, and then we walked to the church with all of them following us for midnight Mass.”

Once their mother had remarried and moved to Budmerice, Kay and Cully were enrolled in a convent school in Trieste, Italy, to be closer to her. Trieste was an overnight rail journey, which the girls would make alone during winter school holidays. In summer, they traveled alone back across the Atlantic to be with their father in Montauk.

“In those days – this was the 1920s – it took a lot of time and many changes to get from where we were in Europe to Montauk. Once, we left Trieste for Paris and were supposed to be met there and taken to the boat to New York, but no one showed up for us. Happily Cully, who was four years older than I and very grown up and efficient, found some family friend who put us up in an apartment until the day the boat sailed. We were never quite sure which direction we were going to in those days.”

By the early thirties, Kay’s father had married Blanche Oelrichs, a childhood Rhode Island friend of Kay’s mother. She was the aspiring actress and writer whose nom de plume was Michael Strange, and she had previously been the wife of actor John Barrymore. “Cully and I were absolutely gaga over that. Even though we were never introduced to John Barrymore, his ex-wife had become our stepmother, which was certainly better than nothing!”

In 1935 Kay’s father enrolled her in Milton Academy in Massachusetts. He had had enough of her European education after she wrote to her Yankee Episcopalian father that she wanted to become a Catholic, and probably a nun, and then decided she wanted to join Mussolini’s black-shirted children’s corps, to which many of her classmates belonged.

After Milton came Sarah Lawrence College, a progressive school in New York of which her father, in time, was to become the president. “He was so attractive. Everyone fell in love with him,” Kay says. “They actually built a building there and named it after him.”

But long before that, after only two years at the college, Kay met Archibald “Archie” Roosevelt Jr. “He was great fun, Harvard summa cum laude, a Rhodes Scholar, and almost as emotionally immature as I was.”

They married in 1940 when Kay was twenty. In the Roosevelt family tradition, Kay and her husband headed west to Spokane, Washington, where Archie became a reporter on the Sportsman Review, a Spokane paper, while Kay studied English and American history at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit school where, Kay was delighted to learn, crooner Bing Crosby had studied a little before her time.

Then the young Roosevelts moved to California, where their son, Tweed, was born. By that time, World War II had broken out and Archie joined the intelligence branch of the Army and was sent to the Middle East. Kay and her son returned to New York. There, they shared an apartment with Kay’s Milton and Sarah Lawrence schoolmate Florrie Dalton Perry. Her husband, Lewis Perry Jr., a longtime seasonal West Chop resident, was overseas in the Navy. Kay also returned to Sarah Lawrence to complete her degree.

“Archie was gone for almost two years,” Kay recalls. “You don’t know your husband or wife when they’re away for that long when you’re young the way we were. When he came back, because he was just about the only person in intelligence in the Army who spoke Arabic, he would go for years on end to assignments in the Middle East. Archie was a very restless young man.

“But together, we did go first to Tehran and that was ghastly. He was assistant military attaché there. Then we went to Beirut and that was divine. Then he was the head of intelligence, and being in Beirut in those days was like being in the south of France.”

In that romantic climate, with a husband who was busy most of the time, Kay made the acquaintance of a Scottish psychiatrist who would become her second husband. He had gone to Beirut as director of the Lebanon Hospital for Mental Diseases. “It all began at the St. George Bar. It was the hub of everything going on in the Middle East in those days, and it was perfectly okay for me to go to the bar alone. This time, this guy sits down beside me and before we know it, we’re off to the beach together.”

The love affair took time to turn into a marriage however. Dr. Robert Blackwood Robertson returned to Scotland and then went off to Antarctica as the doctor responsible for the health and welfare of some 650 Norwegian and Scottish sailors embarking on a whaling expedition. Scientist Robertson soon became author Robertson, writing engagingly of the whaling expedition in a 1954 best seller called Of Whales and Men.

In 1950, Kay and Archie Roosevelt amicably divorced and by then Dr. Robertson and his Scottish wife had been divorced too. “So Robertson and I got married. We lived for a while in a little house I had in the Berkshires, and then we moved to Scotland and traveled all over the border country while he wrote Of Sheep and Men and I took all the pictures for it.”

Kay Tweed had become enamored of photography when she was six and her father had bought her a Kodak box camera. “If I say so myself, in time I was taking fabulous pictures. For seventeen years, I did portraits commercially and all my own darkroom work.

“Anyway, Robertson and I lived in a shepherd’s cottage and wrote and photographed the lives of the shepherds and shepherdesses of the village of Tweedsmuir, which he called Lanzier in the book.” Among the shepherdesses, it turned out, was Isabella White, who, in time, Kay brought to the Vineyard, and she helped Isabella set up the Scottish Bakehouse in Vineyard Haven.

However, when the Tweed-Robertson marriage foundered in the mid-fifties Kay returned to New York. There, her expertise as a photographer helped her to become art editor at Viking Press, where she edited a series of coffee table picture books of past photographs from Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines. She remained there for a decade; then she left and joined Florrie Dalton Perry again – this time on Martha’s Vineyard, where Kay had been vacationing seasonally since she bought her property in 1956.

“I decided I wanted to finally be on the Vineyard. Florrie and I went out looking for a house for me one afternoon, and we saw this and I said, ‘This is it.’ At first, it was only summers that I was here, but then I decided I would move here permanently. ‘What in the world are you going to do on Martha’s Vineyard in winter?’ all my New York friends asked. I said I didn’t know, but I was sure something would turn up.

“In the beginning, I did photographic portraits of children. Then I was asked to take photographs of some of the important Gay Headers of the time – Napoleon and Nanetta Madison and Leonard Vanderhoop were among them. Those pictures are up on the walls of the Wampanoag tribal center now.”

But in 1965, wanderlust sent her off again with her two Yorkshire terriers on a cross-country trip. They went in a camper she named The Flying Turtle, because it so closely resembled that amphibious creature. The idea of the journey was to produce a picture book of fine houses that owners had decorated themselves. It was to be a sequel to an earlier picture book she had done for Viking called The Finest Rooms by America’s Great Decorators.

“When I came back, someone suggested that I start my own little press, and that’s just what I did. I started Tashmoo Press and we did twenty-four books – the last one was Far Out the Coils, the last book that Henry Beetle Hough, the longtime Gazette editor and publisher, wrote.” Kay says, “It was he and I together who also started the Island’s SPAY program,” in an effort to limit the number of stray cats and dogs on the Island by encouraging neutering and helping to make the service affordable. (Today through fundraisers, SPAY continues to help year-round Vineyard pet owners, providing coupons worth $50 to $110, depending on the operation. In addition to accepting the coupons, some Island veterinarians also reduce their charges by 10 percent.)

Kay published books that covered a wide range of topics. “There was Where the Birds Are by East Chopper Mabel Gillespie and The Crimson Cage by West Chop dog officer Margaret Tuttle. It was about rescuing unwanted puppies and was popular all over the English-speaking world. We had four reprints of it. Then there was The Scottish Bakehouse Cookbook after Mrs. White got her bakery under way, and many children’s books. Connie Sanborn wrote a history of West Chop for children.

“But now I’m tired,” Katharine Tweed says. “Remember, dearie, I’m almost ninety years old now, and I’ve told you a very, very long story. It’s time for me to stop. Come on Muffin,” she calls to her twelve-year-old bichon frisé and Shih Tzu mix, hospitably inviting the dog to climb up on her lap to keep her company. 

Editor’s Note

As the Not Summer 2009-2010 magazine was on its way back from the printer, we learned that Kay Tweed passed away. An obituary ran in the Vineyard Gazette on Friday, November 13.