David Behnke and Paul Doherty have been together as a couple for 32 years. “Thirty-two LONG years,” groans Paul, handsome, with an acting background in addition to the successful art advisory business long conducted with David. David doesn’t bother to respond, but if he did, and if he were, let us say, Tony Soprano instead of the hugely successful equity fund manager that he happens to be, he might treat his husband to the thousand-yard stare. “We bicker a lot,” explained Paul with a chuckle.
We’re sitting on one of the many sylvan-view porches of their glamorous historic William Street house in Vineyard Haven. It’s a sunny Saturday morning as two pony-size, brown, floppy-eared Gordon setters, Chester and Cooper, join us in companionable silence save for the occasional basso yodel typical of the breed.
David allowed me to download his narrative story in a matter of minutes: He grew up in Haddonfield, N.J., outside Philly. He first followed the bliss of becoming an opera singer, and studied at Yale. “Do you sing arias around the house?” I asked with pleasurable excitement. Paul shuddered: “God no!” David climbed the university ladder to Yale Business School, jumped into Wall Street and thrived. Down the road apiece, he discovered the pure joy of introducing gorgeous art into plush downtown offices. At the same time, he kept — and still keeps — a hand on the tiller of his own private equity fund, headquartered in Connecticut, but with global outreach that takes him traveling to the four corners of the Earth.
Paul’s story is much more picaresque. He grew up in Brockton, and attended UMass Amherst, with Russian-language studies at Smith College. No sooner had he graduated when he charged pell-mell to L.A. to become an actor. His timing had its good and bad elements: He found himself in the midst of a Screen Actors Guild strike. Casting directors were glad to receive fresh recruits, and Paul, with his white-bread good looks, garnered 13 commercials before the strike ended, and he found himself on the blacklist. Oops!
One of his casting directors advised him to take commercial acting workshops as a way of exposing himself to a variety of key figures in the biz. One of the keys required a man to portray a Russian fisherman for a 1978 documentary. Bingo! The casting director would be hard-pressed to find anyone else with Paul’s capacities. The lucky situation entitled him to a Taft-Hartley signed letter to clear him from jobs undertaken during a union strike.
Other times Paul’s manner of speaking failed him. An old pal from high school days tried to wrangle him onto a new show called “Cheers.” They needed someone with a Brockton accent. It was a no-go: Paul had worked diligently with an “elocution Nazi” in L.A. who ironed the Brockton out of his dialect. He was no longer “pawkin the cah at Linder’s.”
Another of his early supporters liked his film clips — a woman who invited him out to ABC headquarters in New York. She introduced him around, and the roles poured in, including work in every iteration of the “Law & Order” series, “30 Rock,” “The West Wing,” and many more.
But backing up a few clicks, Paul told me, “I met David on my sixth day in New York.” The kismet setting was a gay bar called Beer Blast at 78th and Columbus. It was love at first sight — not that they necessarily knew that at the time — when Paul saw David at the far end of the bar, elegantly turned out in a tuxedo.
Differences in personality often work well romantically — think Hepburn and Tracey, or Burns and Allen — but Behnke and Doherty, although, as stated, they bicker a lot, are completely united in their taste in art. “We don’t argue about art,” each of them said at different times in our conversation.
In the art they’ve introduced to millionaires’ and billionaires’ offices, as well as the art in their sprawling house on historic William Street, and the objets in their new gallery at 538 Main Street, just next door to CB Stark, the word to describe their shared taste, both unavoidable and benevolent, is “eclectic.” From ancient Laotian stone foo guard doors at the bottom of the front steps to a gilt Tang dynastic tapestry circa 700 A.D., to American ornamented stoneware from the mid-1700s, to American Impressionist painters, to the Ernest Lawson Ashcan School painting depicting rural upper Manhattan, the only unified field element is this one: Each piece of art must be gorgeous. It’s all gorgeous, room after room, and in all of the front rooms upstairs and downstairs looking out at Vineyard Haven Harbor.
The house was originally owned by the madcap William Barry Owen, inventor of the Victrola Talking Machine, otherwise known as the first working record player. (You’ve seen the old advertisements with a terrier named Nipper, who cocks its ear at a trumpet-shaped loudspeaker. David told me it was a local myth that Nipper is buried in a backyard rimmed with a high stone wall fronting Franklin Avenue. “William Barry bought the ad from a London PR firm, and presented the terrier to his public as his own pet,” said David.)
In the early 1900s, Mr. Owen bought the original house on William Street, in addition to acquiring the two cottages in front of his lot, abruptly carting them away to open up his view. Somehow or other, his plans fell through, and he changed houses handy-dandy to a former whaling captain’s manor facing his first lot on William Street.
Before Paul and David bought their present home, they enjoyed a luxe journey from a penthouse apartment on Central Park West (“With a 1,200-foot wraparound deck,” sighs Paul in a burst of nostalgia), to a manor house in Washington Depot, Conn., where the couple had an in-town gallery, as they now do here.
Their house on William Street sits on a nearly acre-size lot manicured to a fare-thee-well, right down to the original swath which William Barry Owen cleared of view-blocker cottages, insuring a wide emerald green lawn with its grand nod to the harbor.
The interior walls are painted a subtle gray-green as background to the palette of beige, brown, and a multitude of other neutrals against swaths of indigo and purple. The kitchen is sleek and more moderne than modern — as in slightly deco — with cherrywood cabinets, black granite counters, and a stainless steel Sub-Zero fridge.
To the front and left of the house sits a lovely guest cottage with another one of their gleaming cherrywood Steven Swift beds (found in each of the six bedrooms in the main house), Charles Cajori and Bao Lede paintings, a wood-carved, life-size rock python, and more glorious views of the harbor. I asked David and Paul if they might permit me to rent the cottage. They grinned, and said the list is long. I persisted: “Don’t forget I love Chester and Cooper, so that should get me an asterisk after my name!”
While David is off private-equitying and traveling for work, Paul has steeped himself in the community. He volunteers for Vineyard Village, which gives lifts to elderly shut-ins. He’s on the board at the Vineyard Playhouse, and he sings with the Community Chorus.
Following the house tour, we bundled up our carryalls and walked down the long front lawn onto Main Street, with a right-hand turn, lots of tourists in town, up to the middle of Main, and across the street to the new Behnke Doherty Gallery. Paul told me a fun anecdote: Just the day before at the gallery, a woman told her friend, nodding at a pair of silver-bronze Chinese cranes priced at $12,000, “Gladys, don’t touch those! I saw the same set at T.J.Maxx for $14.95!”
A nice young woman named Caroline Curry presided behind the counter. A back room displayed Paul’s reflective abstract photographs of beach stones and sea glass.
I left the gallery and the guys’ company feeling art-saturated, in that good way, just as we might sag a bit after a couple of hours spent at MOMA in New York. It was a unique treat meeting David and Paul and Chester and Cooper, and the lavish art on all their walls and in their gallery.