Talking to John Alley in his dining room in West Tisbury, I feel like I’m in a Norman Rockwell painting — either that or in a Pepperidge Farm commercial. An old Regulator clock ticks away on the wall, John’s top hat sits on the table, and John, with his distinctive Down East accent, sits back in his chair and tells the story about how he became a justice of the peace.
Back in the ’70s, John Alley worked at the general store in West Tisbury that bears his family’s name. “People were always coming in to get documents notarized,” he said, “so I decided to find out what it took to be a notary public, and maybe save people some aggravation.”
Alley says he was on his way to the courthouse in Edgartown when he came upon his friend and neighbor Allen Whiting thumbing a ride. Allen was about to get married, and he said that he and his bride-to-be Lynne wanted to hold the wedding at his father’s house on State Road in West Tisbury, where the Whitings currently live.
Only problem, as Alley explained, was that the JP in Edgartown didn’t want to make the trip to West Tisbury. Alley told Whiting that he was heading to the courthouse to get his notary public license, and Whiting said, “Well, why don’t you get your JP license and you could marry us?”
Alley went to the courthouse and saw Joe Solito, the clerk of courts, and they put the paperwork in motion. But it’s one thing to be certified to be a justice of the peace, and it’s another thing to actually know how to officiate at a wedding ceremony. The Whitings’ wedding was coming up soon, so Alley decided it was time to do his homework.
“Today,” Alley said, “you can search the Internet and find all sorts of services to use from a template, but back then about all I had to draw on was one book in the West Tisbury library.” Undaunted, he gave it his best shot.
But at the time, Alley confesses to having a bit of trepidation. He’d never performed something like this in public, so for the two weeks leading up to the nuptials, Alley went to the Whitings house and stood in front of the bay window in the living room, and practiced projecting his voice like Demosthenes, to make sure everyone assembled could hear him.
Only problem was that when it came time for the actual ceremony, Alley felt that his voice was weak; what he hadn’t taken into consideration was that a room filled with people soaks up the sound, but given the normal volume of Alley’s voice, I’m sure everyone could hear just fine.
I asked Alley if he was wearing his signature top hat and morning jacket at his very first wedding.
“I actually did,” he said. “Allen asked me if I would wear the hat that I wore to his father Everett’s wedding. Before Everett’s wedding I had gone up to Boston and bought an opera hat for five bucks, and I borrowed a cane and a tux jacket — for some reason I thought I’d go to the wedding as Fred Astaire. That was the hat Allen wanted me to wear, and I obliged.
“A couple of weeks later, I actually did a second wedding over at Mill Pond, but I didn’t wear the top hat. It wasn’t until six or seven weddings later that I wore the hat and tails again,” a look that he has maintained ever since. Alley added, “In close to 40 years on the job, I’ve worn out a lot of hats.”
Since the Whitings wedding in 1979, Alley has performed more than 2,500 weddings — 2,502, to be exact. Back in the ’70s, he was lucky if he did three or four a year, but then in the ’90s the Vineyard burst onto the scene as one of the more popular wedding destinations in the country; these days he performs 25 to 30 ceremonies a year. He used to advertise, but now his reputation and top hat precede him, and most business comes to him via word of mouth. And in at least one case, it has also become a family tradition. “I married a couple 20 or so years ago,” said Alley, “John and Cynthia Farrington, and three years ago I married their daughter.”
The great majority of the weddings Alley officiates at are here on the Island; however, over the years he’s occasionally traveled to Boston, Woods Hole, and Falmouth. The way Alley creates the actual ceremony varies. If the couple are off-Island, he will often work out the details remotely by email or telephone, or he will sometimes work with them at the rehearsal dinner, to get a feel for the couple so he can personalize the vows, if that’s what the couple would like.
Elliott and Emmy Tholen were married by Alley last fall, and they visited him at his house beforehand. The Tholens had high praise for Alley. “John wrote a guideline,” said Elliott, “and it was perfect.”
Emmy said, “He even had a great quote from John Lennon he thought we might like — ‘A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.’“
Alley’s family and the Tholens go way back together; in fact, Alley and Elliot’s grandfather were close friends. “I had a lot of fun at that wedding because I went to the reception, which I rarely do, and I knew so many people,” Alley said.
But generally speaking, Alley doesn’t go to the receptions, not since the “mashed potatoes incident.”
“I remember I did a wedding up in Chilmark,” Alley said, “and I went to the reception, and let’s just say I had a little too much bubbly. When I came home, my wife Anna and my daughter were at the dining room table, and my daughter said, ‘Dad, you’re drunk.’ They left me there alone, and then the next thing I remember I woke up in the middle of the night and I thought I was blind. I had fallen asleep face-first into the mashed potatoes, and they got in behind my glasses, and it took a little while for me to realize that I hadn’t lost my sight after all. I try to stay away from the receptions now.”
Alley said that for the most part, there are traditional elements that are woven into the wedding script, however experience has taught him to leave one of these elements out: “If any of you has a reason why these two should not be married, speak now or forever hold your peace.”
“Years ago there was a sunrise wedding at the Edgartown Lighthouse, and I got to that part of the ceremony, and this guy raised his hand and was about to say something when his wife or girlfriend or whoever it was elbowed him in the stomach and he collapsed onto the beach, so I just went on with the service. I finished up and people started heading out, and I leaned down and said to the guy who’d been elbowed, ‘Hey, are you all right?’ and the woman looked at me and said, ‘Just leave the sucker alone!’
“When I got to my truck he was still face-down … after that I decided to take the ‘any objections’ part out of the service.”
Boats and lighthouses are both popular locations for weddings on the Island. Alley has performed services at every lighthouse on the Vineyard, including the one out at Cape Poge. “That was a haul,” said Alley. “And when there are weddings at the West Chop lighthouse, the Coast Guard sends out two people.“
In some cases the wedding will be held on the lighthouse grounds, in other cases it will be held in the lighthouse itself, with wedding guests lined up on the stairs. But perhaps the most unusual wedding performed by Alley was at 2,000 feet. The bride was a pilot, and she and the groom sat up front. “It was a beautiful day, and when we got up to altitude,” Alley said, “the bride put the plane on autopilot, and everyone stood up and I performed the service.”
Often people will reserve Alley’s time up to a year in advance; other times it’s more impromptu. “Years ago, a couple knocked on my door looking to get married, and I was having lunch,” Alley said, “and I told them that I didn’t have any shoes on but that I could put them on, and we went out in the backyard and I married them.”
Or the time that Alley was home for the evening when a woman called him up and said, “Can you meet me the Ag Hall [what is known as the Grange Hall today] in 20 minutes?” The fair was going on at the time, and the woman wanted to get married up on top of the staircase that went up the exterior of the building at 10 o’clock. John and the couple stood at the top of the stairs with the wedding party below them, with the fair going on in the background. “I didn’t ask any questions,” Alley said, “I just did what I had to do.”
With the cost of weddings on the Island skyrocketing, Alley charges a flat $150, unless there’s travel involved. The price is set by the state. “I tell people that I’m the cheapest thing they’ll have to pay for at their wedding,” Alley said.
And he could very possibly be one of the most memorable as well.