Longtime Aquinnah resident Peter Ochs, who died on April 11 in Vienna, Austria, was a Gay Head original.
Thirty years ago, my wife and I bought the lot in front of Peter’s house, and immediately got to know him as a marvelous conversationalist, so effusive that it was hard to do anything but listen as he regaled his friends with colorful stories from his years as a writer for NBC News and before that, the Associated Press. He claimed he wrote more obituaries for NBC than anyone else.
He also wrote for this newspaper, both op-ed columns and letters to the editor. He once wrote a piece about how he successfully persuaded NStar, the predecessor of Eversource, to bury the powerlines in front of his house: “I was stubborn, no poles, no wires, nohow … Just air and sky, between my neighbors and me, and all who pass on Moshup Trail.”
Peter came to the Island in the 1950s, long before Gay Head became Aquinnah in 1998. He acquired a lot off Moshup Trail in 1974 that he purchased from Leonard Vanderhoop. Emmett Carroll built him a house Bauhaus-style, and to this day it remains one of a kind in town. He sold it in 2008, but continued to visit the Island, renting on Lighthouse Road.
Running into Peter usually meant an invitation to come to, as he always put it, Oxmarsh, for “a dietetic sherry,” which of course he never literally meant. He would, however, ask you to bring a bottle of something with you, or maybe he’d have an open bottle he wanted to empty. His favorite drink, at least when we were with him, was vodka with grapefruit juice. It kills the taste of vodka, he’d oddly comment.
The conversation was always lively and amusing, with tall tales of theater and local gossip. He wrote poetry and plays, and loved to break out into song — Hollywood and Broadway to tunes in French and German. He once told me he was related to the Ochs of the New York Times, but I had no way of verifying that claim. But he clarified it by adding that he correctly pronounced the name as “ox” and not “oaks,” as the renowned Times publishers apparently do.
Although he considered Gay Head/Aquinnah home, Peter also had an apartment in Brooklyn, which he said he could afford because it was rent-controlled, and a home in Vienna. He lost the Brooklyn apartment when the rent control ceased, so he spent his time roaming between Aquinnah, Vienna, and Paris. He wrote in this paper that Paris was like Edgartown, only cheaper.
Here’s how he put it then, in his inimitable way. “A glass of wine at the Deux Magots — remember Jean-Paul Sartre and that crew — runs you $8.75 (get twice as much at the VFW in O.B. for $5.50). But the food — the women. The language. Vive la France. Closed Mondays.” He undoubtedly would be viewed as a misogynist for using such language today, but he apparently got away with it. And needless to say, the cost of a glass of wine at the Deux Magots is more like $18 today, but you can still find a good glass at the VFW for a whole lot less.
Peter also had a lighter, softer side. He crafted a poem for this paper many years ago lyrically reflecting on life, on death, and on celebration. It’s fitting to include it here:
land water sky
air wind and waves
space into time
weave time and tide into a view
where we were, what we are
It’s funny — after I’m dead, will I remember my
setting sun’s long evening light, etching in shadow
each dusky tree and bough? After, after I’m dead,
will I remember, how very nice this evening was?
Ave atque vale, Peter.
Jack Fruchtman lives in Aquinnah.