Pies, cakes, art, and Richard Lee

Richard’s Dessert Gallery was one-of-a-kind.

A smile traces the lips of Toni Cohen as she thinks back on a certain Halloween in 1977.

“There were about a dozen people in the dining room and Richard (Lee) was out in the kitchen,” she said, “when suddenly there was a loud banging on the door, ‘Boom,’ ‘Boom,’ ‘Boom.’ We yelled into the kitchen, ‘Richard, there’s someone at the door’ and Richard appeared dressed for Halloween as an upstairs maid. He wore a short skirt, high heels and brandished a feather duster. He walked across the room and slowly opened up the door. Standing at the entrance was the West Tisbury police chief, George Manter.”

The two made for an odd couple. Chief Manter was a police officer cut from the mold of Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke, tall, barrel-chested, laconic, and exuding authority. Richard was diminutive, garrulous, and well … dressed as an upstairs maid.

“We couldn’t hear exactly what was going on,” Cohen said, “We just saw Manter talking and Richard solemnly looking up to him and nodding his head. Then Manter walked away, Richard turned to the room with his finger held up to his lips saying ‘Shhhhhh.’” The room was totally silent and then after a few beats, everyone erupted in laughter. Richard, not one to impose behavior on others said to the group, “I guess we’re going to have to be a little more quiet.”

Richard Lee, proprietor of Richard’s Dessert Gallery in West Tisbury, was not an obvious choice to be operating a restaurant on the Island. “The only foods he liked,” Bob Gothard, a friend of his said, “were pasta — with no sauce — any kind of ice cream, chocolate, and cereal.”

Lee, who died in 2012, was born in 1933 in Pullman, Washington. His interest in the arts prompted his hardscrapple grandmother to say, “I don’t know where you get your ideas Ritchie, but it ain’t from us.” Lee excelled at dance and received a dance scholarship to Bennington College in the first class that admitted men. He studied there with Martha Graham. From Bennington he went to New York, earned his living dancing and began to seriously pursue painting. He then became a “pioneer” dance therapist at a hospital for the mentally ill (as it was known in the 50s) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

In the 60s his paintings were widely shown in Paris and Munich. He returned to the states in 1975 and soon met Island jeweler Cheryl Stark who convinced him to come to the Vineyard where he could pursue his painting career. His entry into the restaurant world was accidental.

Julie Sturgis and Eleanor Pearlson, from the real estate firm Tea Lane Associates, bought the house across the parking lot from Alley’s General store in West Tisbury that was formerly home to Crane’s Chocolates, which had a tea parlor in the back. Pearlson and Sturgis wanted to keep their zoning variance alive so they asked Lee if he would operate a restaurant there. He agreed to do it but for only one season as he would have to get back to his painting.

But Lee was not one to do things half-heartedly. He put his indelible stamp on what would be known as Richard’s Dessert Gallery. The restaurant would be a showcase for Richard’s art. Lee is a master of reverse glass painting, a technique dating back to the 14th century, which consists of applying paint to a piece of glass and then viewing the image by turning the glass over and looking through the glass at the image. “The paintings were bold, colorful — some erotic — and all interesting,” Claudia Lee, Richard’s widow, said to me recently.

And on the restaurant side of the business, there was no question in Lee’s mind as to what the fare would be. “When we went out to dinner,” Bob Gothard said, “he’d always ask for the dessert menu first. He loved desserts.”

Linda Ziegler, who helped out the baker Chris Stoddard with the pies, said that from time to time the restaurant also offered dinners. “Sometimes there would be a guest chef,” Ziegler said, “and Lois Hill of West Tisbury would often help out with dinner orders.” Ziegler recalls helping Hill prepare a stuffed sea bass, something neither of them had attempted before, resulting in patrons having to wait well over an hour for their dinner. Ordinarily guests might be annoyed, but Lee turned on his charm and the guests barely noticed the wait.

Richard’s Dessert Gallery became a popular Island destination. Gothard said that people would even fly in from time-to-time to enjoy the restaurant. But it wasn’t just for the desserts or to see the paintings; the main attraction was Richard Lee himself.

“I used to go there quite a bit,” Lanny McDowell, a friend of his said, “I just remember he would usually meet you at the door barefoot and wearing a pair of pastel pink overalls and nothing else. He was dynamic, fun, and he could be outrageously fey when he wanted to be — which was a lot of the time. Richard would be constantly circulating around the room, always laughing, smiling, quipping — it was always immensely fun!”

“Richard was generous, loving, funny, quirky, and very open — he was one of the best,” Carol Brush, a friend of his said.

The following excerpt is from Life in Reverse, The Remarkable World of Richard Lee, a coffee-table book compiled by Bob Gothard.

Richard’s greeting was always warm and welcoming — and never brief. One must ‘set a spell’ with Richard as his conversations were inspiring, thought-provoking, and sometimes electrifying. His humor was ever

present … Richard Lee created more than 600 paintings in his lifetime. His art, which is now included in many private and public collections, is indistinguishable from the man. He was magic spun from gossamer and sinew.

“The dining room was amazing,” Daisy Kimberly of West Tisbury said. “You were surrounded by Richard’s Bosch-like paintings. “He had the most amazing collections of teacups and all things related to tea,” Kate Taylor of Aquinnah said. “And dolls, many dolls painted fancifully as only Richard could.”

“Dinner plates were fine china provided by the owners,” Claudia Lee said. “And the walls were painted with pastel colors. Everything was painted.”

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the erotic nature of some of Richard’s work. “There were penises everywhere,” McDowell said. “Richard  even painted penises on pieces of furniture.”

The restaurant was very popular with a diverse group of Islanders, everyone from the young and hip to ladies who lunch. “It was very popular with some of the refined West Tisbury and Chilmark women, proper women who would sit eating pies surrounded by erotica,” Elise LeBovit, a close friend of Lee’s said.

“Richard’s Dessert Gallery was not just a place to view art or eat pies and cakes,” LeBovit said. “It was more of a salon, a place where you could hear dazzling conversations … there was a Gertrude Stein/Alice B. Toklas vibe to the place.”

For one year, and one year alone, Richard Lee reinvented what it was like to run a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard, and then he moved on — to redefine an ancient form of painting and to spread his unique joie de vivre to all he encountered.

As Fan Ogilvie said in her eulogy to Richard in 2012,  “You made us want to be alive.”