Islander's Blog

Merle Orleans – The Quintessential Newspaperwoman

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Someone, I forget who, once wrote that he learned how to act by watching old cowboy movies. He meant those horse operas that filled Saturday matinees, before the genre was spun into spaghetti westerns, crafted to reflect the sensibilities of great Japanese Samurai films, or turned into political tracts.

As a kid I felt the same way about certain big-city newspaper columnists. They were a window through which I could see a certain kind of urban life, filled with attitudes and characters that to me felt as comfortable as an old pair of sneakers.

Then I moved to Nantucket. My first week on island I met a woman who was the island counterpart to those columnists that had shaped my youth, whose writing was a sort of mirror image to the urban world they walked.

Merle Orleans – her full name was Merle Turner Blackshaw Orleans – stormed into the newspaper office, where I had just begun my new job one morning. She declared that we should write that an elderly man – who appeared to have walked into the ocean the night before, in a state of confusion brought on by some sort of Alzheimer’s – like dementia, and drowned – had died in a swimming accident.

Merle Orleans had a very old-fashioned way of looking out for people, of allowing them to preserve a sense of dignity, when their names were linked to unhappy events. I was young and arrogant, and it took a while for me to understand that.

Merle had been around newspapers since she was a little girl. Her father was Harry Turner, editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror in the early 1900s. The newspaper, like a lot of small-town newspapers has always had what might be called a local society column, where bits and pieces of news, announcements and observations, were cobbled together.

Merle wrote the “Here and There” column for 50 years, and once upon a time there was no way to get a sense of this island without reading it. Russell Baker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and long-time summer resident, once told me “Here and There” was always his favorite part of the newspaper.

She began her column by noting when the sun rose and when it would set, reminding readers when to light their automobile and carriage lamps. Years passed before I realized the importance of knowing when the sun rose and set, or got a feel for those rhythms. It was not until then that I began to understand life here, rather than simply tying to superimpose my own life over this place.

Merle was a living repository of those small moments that describe the bigger history of Nantucket. As in 1981, when a large group of pilot whales (sometimes called blackfish) had stranded themselves up on a beach, she wrote about how times and attitudes change.

“Back in 1918, over 59 of the creatures were beached on the north shore on July 3, and another 130 plus stranded on the Cliff Beach a month later. Among many other Nantucketers, we remember being taken down to the beach by our father, and walking from one blackfish to another, slipping and sliding, while he took innumerable pictures of the unfortunate animals. Such an activity – walking across the bodies – would be unthinkable today, but back then no one gave it a thought, just curiosity, while fruitless attempts were being made to get them back across the sandbar out to deeper water.”

These days when countless bloggers do their thing on the web, including myself, Merle’s work stands in high contrast. She did not write because she thought people might like to hear what she had to say. She wrote because it was her job. It was a trade she had been born into.

But it was not a stack of old newspapers or the newness of the blogosphere that made me think of Merle. It was catching a glimpse of the sky as I drove home early last week. The crescent moon with the two planets lined up so as to appear next to each other.

I tried to remember which two planets they were. Merle would have known. Twenty years ago she would call my wife – another woman born into the newspaper trade – every so often and tell us to go out into the back yard and look at something in the night sky.
– John Stanton is a writer and a filmmaker on Nantucket.

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