Carol Craven: An appreciation

Carol Craven was known Island-wide for her smile. She's shown here at a 2013 Sheriff's Meadow event. –File photo by Laura D. Roosevelt

Carol Craven had many passions. She was crazy for opera and a devotee of the stage. Having been an actress, she had season tickets to several theaters when she lived in New York. She adored movies, and knew everything about film. Sometimes she went to two movies a day on the Vineyard, and because she was a judge for the Academy Awards, every year she was sent — and watched — all the nominated films.

Like me, Carol loved peonies, but she didn’t have enough in her garden to pick as many as she wanted, so every year I’d bring her a couple of armloads of mine, which she pronounced “divine.” She loved designer clothes, crazy socks, cashmere, and what she called “mah jools,” and even back when she’d lost her hair and so much weight, she always dressed to the nines and looked fabulous. She had a sweet tooth like nobody’s business. There was always a bowl or two of candies in her living room, tubs of ice cream in her freezer, and peppermints in the bottom of her purse. When she was a smoker, she smoked unabashedly. She was an excellent cook. My mouth waters just thinking about the stuffed mushrooms and crisp, buttery potato gratin she brought to our Thanksgiving table. She loved junk food, and after years of eating muffaletta panini together (with chips) at the Little House Café, she and I moved to the airport’s Plane View restaurant, where without fail we ordered grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches (with chips).

Of course, Carol was passionate about art and artists. Her entry into the art world came in 1973, following her divorce from her first husband, when she was a single mother needing a steady income. While she once told me that she didn’t remember ever wanting to be anything but an actress, we on the Vineyard benefited from her shift of path. I loved visiting her gallery. She had on her walls enough pieces by big-name artists — Alexander Calder, Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis — to make the place feel like the closest thing on the Vineyard to an art museum. She also showcased and championed many Vineyard artists, including Kib Bramhall, Richard Lee, Cindy Kane, and Jules Feiffer, and her openings were always packed, with people spilling out into the parking lot, where the wine and cheese table was set up and a live band played. When I wrote a profile on Carol for The MV Times many years ago, she told me that owning her own gallery made her feel “like a kid in a candy shop: I’ll have one of those, and one of those …” She explained that the work in her gallery was eclectic, because that was her taste, but she noted that it was largely figurative and held together by a strong narrative theme; her years in the theater and her love of movies went hand-in-hand with a love of story, and she felt that the pictures she hung gave viewers a chance to make up their own stories about what they saw. The work in her gallery was all related, she said, adding, “It’s not really apples and oranges — it’s all fruit.”

When Carol was a girl growing up in Tennessee, she had a full head of curly blonde locks and a pair of wide and twinkling eyes that reminded people of Shirley Temple. Perhaps that comparison fueled her early certainty that a life “on the boards” was what she wanted. When she was just 17, she spent a summer hosting a local children’s TV show called “Tot Time” while the regular hostess was on vacation. When she told me this, she added in an exaggerated Southern drawl, “It probably helped that I was going out with Billy Lancaster, because his daddy owned the TV station.” After graduating from Yale Drama School, Carol performed in off-Broadway plays, appeared on soap operas like “As the World Turns” and “The Secret Storm,” and played the part of what she called “the average, middle American housewife” in TV commercials for disposable diapers and Tide detergent. Her last major acting gig was in 1989, when she recorded voice-overs for Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War,” but she more recently did a number of play readings on Martha’s Vineyard, and I remember her being deliciously good (along with Tony Shaloub, Brooke Adams, and others) in one of James Lapine’s at the Vineyard Arts Project.

But Carol’s greatest passion in life by far was people — her loved ones. She absolutely worshipped her son Michael and his family, and when I ran into her in Up-Island Cronig’s the day before she died, she told me how much she was looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with them. She had legions of very close friends, and after her beloved husband Dick died in 2001, she kept away loneliness by having regular lunch, dinner, and movie dates with us, not to mention keeping up a prolific email correspondence.
She had a wonderful way, when you were with her, of making you feel that there wasn’t anybody in the world she’d rather be with at that moment than you. She wanted to know all the details of your life, what you thought of Trump’s latest outrage, and of course, if you’d heard any juicy gossip. In a thread of emails exchanged by a group of Carol’s friends after her death, I told everyone that about 10 years ago, when Carol made one of her classic saucy comments to me like, “If that man doesn’t behave, I’ll spank his bottom!” I said to her, “Good Lord, Carol, you sound like a German dominatrix.” And she said, quite seriously, “I’d probably be a pretty good one.” From that point on, I called her Helga, and she, claiming that I was a relative innocent, called me Gretl. Our emails were generally written in bad German accents – “Gretl, mein liebkin, yoo vant to meet at zee hairport for zee grillt chiss?” This story elicited a spate of responses about everyone else’s nicknames with Carol. She was “Meerkat” to a group of similarly African animal–named pals who’d visited mutual friend Charlayne Hunter-Gault in South Africa. Barbara Kassel called her “Dumpling,” and she called Barbara “Pumpkin.” She and Davis and Betsy Weinstock called each other “Snookums” and “Sweetie-Pie.” Carol made every one of her friends feel special and deeply loved.

She was a giving friend. Although I got the distinct impression that she didn’t consider me a serious artist, she came to my first opening, and bought one of my pieces. For a woman whose house was crammed with excess art, who didn’t (I’m pretty sure) much like my abstract pictures, this was generous indeed. When she got sick, she repeatedly suggested that I come over and pick out some things of hers I’d like to have after she was gone. I never did that; I couldn’t, because it would have felt like acknowledging that she could actually go.

A friend of mine who knew Carol as a passing acquaintance wrote that she’ll miss Carol’s laugh. I thought, Which one? She had so many — her raucous cackle, her naughty chuckle, the girlish giggle that accompanied her big hugs — they were all delectable and infectious. I have realized in the days since Carol’s death that I can hear her voice in my head as clearly as if she were sitting next to me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that voice. I suspect this is true for many others who knew Carol. It is a comfort that we can always have her with with us in this way, along with our many memories of all the fun we had with her, a deep and abiding respect for the passion with which she approached life up to the very end, and the knowledge that we loved, and were loved in return.