Either entertaining comes naturally to you or it doesn’t. Yes, American mores insist anybody can learn anything, but when it comes to hosting 20 guests on your porch in the summer when the table seats 12, tops, and when you’re stationed in your modest kitchen, without even a granite island and an industrial stove, and yet you’re shoveling out bowls of mushroom bisque followed by swordfish flanked by sweet potato soufflé and sautéed French green beans, well then, my friends, either you’re Martha Stewart or Joanna Fairchild — Annie to her friends — and I’ve seen her in action, so there’s no disputing she can fan those flames.
Fairchild — aw heck! let’s call her Annie — grew up on Long Island in the 1950s in a family of nine, dad a science teacher, mom a housewife. When she graduated from high school, she enrolled in Grace Downs Finishing School, where she took a few college courses and manners (as in how to be as elegant as Grace Kelly), whence she sailed off to manage operations with Air Canada. In Montreal? No, silly, on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Marriage to Tim, an insurance consultant, yielded two little girls and a divine stretch of years — 1970 to 2002 — with corporate jobs (Arnold Worldwide, Harvard Planning, UNICEF, and more) in Boston and a condo in Back Bay. Along the way, divorce intervened, but Annie kept right on flying high, steering her daughters to college and exciting careers — Leigh as a teacher of European history, Missy as a dancer.
Family brought Annie to Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1970s: Her cousins Rosemary and Michael Stimola had a house in West Tisbury. The Stimolas, including Joanna’s brother Nick Stimola, along with Annie’s sister Maureen Huson and her husband Peter, bought the Standby Diner, luring hungry customers to that northeastern part of Oak Bluffs facing the Sound. Annie was more than ready to dive into Island culture, and in 1995 bought a three-bedroom (plus downstairs study) house in a 71-lot subdivision off Barnes Road called Vineyard Hills.
Fast-forward to 21 years of living year-round on Martha’s Vineyard: Annie’s home looks as spruce as any well-built and well-tended house should. Oak floors are unscuffed, while paneled doors, moldings, and lintels create a bright accent to pale walls and Claire Murray carpets. The furniture is a mixture of antiques and grandson-ready — and yet still supremely attractive — sofas and chairs.
Once Annie established herself on the Island, she began with a roller-skate store on Circuit Ave. that was good for a summer. Since then she’s engaged herself bigtime in wedding planning, event planning, being a coach and concierge, and real estate, with an office at her old friend Alan Schweikert’s Ocean Park Realty in Oak Bluffs.
And now we leave behind all this glam corporate hanky-panky to find Annie where she truly loves to cool her jets, in her own kitchen. “I love to be around people!” she declares. “I love to cook for a crowd!” And cook she does, whether it’s for her daughter Leigh, Leigh’s husband Derek (IT consultant), and their two boys, Theo, 14, and Tate, 11, now at the West Tisbury School, who lived with her for a spell; five years ago the family swooped in from San Francisco to stay with Mom/Grandma while Mom and Dad looked for a home.
Annie’s MO when family abides with her is to provide a sumptuous Sunday dinner, where all are required to dress up and exercise good manners. “The rest of the week is catch-as-catch-can,” she says with a wave of her hand.
What surprises slatternly types (like this reporter) is that she enjoys all these homey arts. Recently, during a visit to her dancing daughter Missy and Missy’s brand-new husband Kindred in San Francisco, Annie took stock of her grown kids’ apartment in Hayes Valley and ascertained that two month’s worth of wash lurked in a mountain of bags crammed in a closet. No problem for this finishing school deb. She whistled for her daughter and son-in-law to help her wheel the bags down to the local laundromat. There she spent $63 in quarters for a day’s worth of wash-and-dry, making sure everything was lovingly folded before transporting it home.
But back to Annie’s kitchen. During a visit by this reporter and a photographer from The MV Times, Gabrielle Mannino, Annie opens her cabinets to show us seven sets of china, including Spode, Minton Rose, and Waterford, all of it smashingly pretty and blending in hues of pink and green and pink and blue and pink and pink. She keeps her everyday silverware in a wide ceramic container on the counter, a brilliant alternative to the piddly practice of filing forks with forks and spoons with spoons, and so forth, in narrow drawers.
On the narrow counter filled with lovely bric-a-brac for tea time, a fresh apple pie, plump and wavy as anything you’d see in a Park Avenue bakery, sits undisturbed. When Annie offers us a slice, neither Gabrielle or I can resist, and all three of us sit down with pie and coffee in the quaintly appointed dining room.
“I put rum in my apple pie,” says Annie with a smile.
That’s why it tastes so yummy.
We make one last pass at an unexplored part of the house — the sprawling basement, which serves as Annie’s office for her planned parties, and impeccably organized storage for all her professional supplies, such as Mason jars, amenity baskets for weddings, and tea towels. The tea towels she irons; in fact, she irons — with great élan — everything in her queendom, including pillowcases and freshly washed garments of everyone lodged under her roof.
It’s clearly a great way to live, if you’ve got the energy. Joanna Fairchild is a woman about whom it’s safe to say she’s “to the manor born.”