At home with Olive Tomlinson

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Olive Tomlinson designed her Oak Bluffs home with comfort and style in mind.

On a recent early March afternoon, Olive meets me and young MV Times staff photographer Stacey Rupolo at Olive’s front door. When I introduce them, Olive glances at the young shutterbug with her fully tricked-out camera and exclaims, “What are you, 12?”

And so it begins, as it always does: nonstop laugh time with Olive Tomlinson of Oak Bluffs, originally of the Bronx (“You got a problem with that?”), and later Park Slope in Brooklyn, “where everybody should live!” she says in a tone which brooks no argument.

Glamorous, stylish, Olive is also devilishly funny, and at the same time insightful: She’s a mix of Lily Tomlin and Joan Rivers, plus the daughter of an Oak Bluffs summer socialite named Cutie Bowles. More about Cutie in a moment, but allow me to fill you in about the time I first met Olive. Our mutual friend, renowned cookbook culinary historian Jessica Harris, organized a dinner party of about 12 ladies at a Brazilian restaurant (now our beloved Thai place) on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs.

Olive sat next to me and regaled us with stories that kept us chuckling. There was the time her car broke down beside a snowy bank during her Meals on Wheels gig. Another was about an elderly friend whom all the others knew; a woman who so loved to talk that, in the opposite vein to Columbo, she would lure you back when it was time to go with, “Oh, one other thing …” And as Olive talked and elicited gales of laughter, I wondered, Who is this witty lady, and how does she do it?

I believe the key to Olive’s comedy is that nothing is spoken as insult — even if in cold, hard print it might appear as such — but is instead generated with pure delight, even TLC. Take the time some 10 years back when she stopped me on Circuit and eyeballed my attire, from sandy sneakers to leggings with black-and-white vertical lines, to cargo shorts, to a pale green T shirt with the logo of a cat from my late (very late) bookstore, all of it topped off with a do-rag of red gingham.

After the visual inspection, Olive said with amused neutrality, “May I ask what inspired you, when you got dressed this morning, to put together those particular items?”

We both laughed our backsides off, as we’ve done through all the years, but there was a takeaway to the encounter. I’ve made an effort to dress better ever since, and I’m always conscious of owing that to Olive. And while “dressing better” on Martha’s Vineyard — especially in the off-season — is a klutz’s paradise, as I face my open closet I make an effort to pull together a superior outfit than I did that day, under Olive’s tutelage. She herself admits she’s staked out a more casual style for herself since moving here full-time in 2000, but she adheres to a basic model of white shirt/black slacks or any variation thereof: “You can’t go wrong with that.”

Meanwhile her charming home in the Highlands of Oak Bluffs — that hilly area on the eastern flank of East Chop Drive — holds to a similar standard of low-key good taste in white walls of narrow wood panels, hardwood floors with matching thick wood trim around spacious windows, and unprepossessing furniture in earth tones. Here and there Olive gets wigglier; consider the leopard-print wall-to-wall carpeting starting with the stairs and continuing upstairs throughout the two bedrooms. Also downstairs, something that strikes me as Olive-ish humor is two lamps with bases of white ceramic monkeys.

The odd part of my visit to Olive Tomlinson’s house last week erupts as I stand in the living room and behold everything in its pure white-and-tan perfection, with hints of color from Cutie Bowles’ and Olive’s paintings: “I’ve never seen your house without a million people in it, which means I’ve never actually SEEN it!”

Every New Year’s Day, Olive throws a party. So many people throng the living room, dining area, den, kitchen, and even sprawl on the leopard-print stairs, that she dare not invite another soul, even a new b.f.f. or a cousin who’s come all the way from Timbuktu. She explains how she’s forced to say no to wonderful, fabulous, kind people who ask to be included; she tells them, “I just don’t have another square inch of space!” I relate my favorite line from the old movie “Charade,” when Cary Grant tries to make the acquaintance of Audrey Hepburn as she sits at an outdoor Swiss cafe alongside the slopes. “I just want to be friends,” he says smoothly. She lowers her maxi-size sunglasses and replies, “I already have such a long list of friends. Unless somebody dies or goes into the hospital, I don’t see how I can possibly include you.” Olive claps her hands and says she’ll use that line as needed.

The backstory: Parents William and Cutie Bowles bought the property on which the present house sits, but themselves lived in a next-door smaller, tidier cottage, and many splendid summers took place there. When Olive was a teenager and already a snappy dresser, she was asked by neighbor and family friend Dorothy West, who, finding herself at a late age suddenly famous, wanted young Olive to help her purchase a new set of clothes. (If you run into Olive, ask her to regale you with the story about her heroic effort, in the cramped dressing room at Brickman’s, to drape a fresh new skirt and blouse over the aged author’s stooped and dowdy figure, all the while trying not to laugh.)

Olive met her future husband, Forest Tomlinson, commonly known as “Joe,” also from the Bronx, at City University. Surprisingly, they were purely platonic pals for a full 10 years, a decade that included a 1959 road trip to San Miguel de Allende, one of Olive’s favorite destinations to this day. “It had an artsy, wild crowd back then,” she says with a sniff, conveniently forgetting she has an artsy, wild quality herself. They married, and Joe pursued a profession on Wall Street, the first African American stockbroker to be hired by Merrill Lynch.

They settled in — where else? — Park Slope. Olive worked in all the boroughs of New York as a teacher trainer and reading specialist. She also found time to raise two sons, Peter, who now resides in the second small cottage on Olive’s property, and John, who with his wife Qinghua and 5-year-old son Forest lives in Manhattan.

Meanwhile, the house that now belongs to Olive lay fallow in the 1980s. “It was empty and creepy,” she says today with a sigh. But she and her husband planned to give it a massive do-over for their own eventual use. Tragically, Joe died before the house was renovated. Olive gamely pursued the course on her own, as her contractor winterized, and filled in the interior with its cottage beams and narrow panels on both walls and ceiling. The “empty, creepy” attic upstairs was raised to accommodate the two bedrooms and a bright and shiny white-tile bathroom.

Olive balked at the sight of the upstairs shower stall, and said, in Olive-speak that comes out funny instead of mean, “How do you expect anyone who weighs more than 60 pounds to fit into that tiny space?” The contractor beckoned to the heftiest man on his team. Then he invited her to join him and the big guy in the stall. “We fit perfectly!” she now says with a delight still filled with wonder. (Author’s note: It IS a really snug-size stall.)

So that’s Olive’s house in the Highlands. And even if you’ve been to every one of her New Year’s Day parties, you haven’t actually seen it, like the forest for the trees, the trees being all the people. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make dates with this highly sociable woman — lunch, picnics, parties, art events; she’s all over the place. And then she goes home to her sanctuary.