Emmy Award winner, renowned lawyer and journalist, The View cohost, and National Bestselling author Sunny Hostin dazzles with this brilliant novel about a life-changing summer along the beaches of Martha's Vineyard. Welcome to Oak Bluffs, the most exclusive black beach community in the country. Known for its gingerbread Victorian-style houses and modern architectural marvels, this picturesque town hugging the sea is a mecca for the crème de la crème of black society—where Michelle and Barack Obama vacation and Meghan Markle has shopped for a house for her mom. Black people have lived in this pretty slip of the Vineyard since the 1600s.”...
Publisher: William Morrow (May 4, 2021) Hardcover: 400 pages ISBN-10: 0062994174 ISBN-13: 978-0062994172 Dimensions: 6 x 1.25 x 9 inches
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To my Summer Vineyard Sisters, Kathy and Regina
and my “writers room,”
Kathy, Regina, Floyd, Farah, Jill, Pierre, Linsey, Therese, and, of course,
See you on the Bluffs.
Prologue: An Invitation
March 21, 2019
Amelia Vaux Tanner, rich, glamorous, beautiful, was one of the first Black women to have a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. She had been married, until his death, to Omar Tanner, a quiet man who looked good in suits and who was content to let his wife shine.
Amelia never had children. She always thought she would, then she looked up one day and she was forty. Her career was in full swing, and she and Omar had everything they needed and wanted. She thought about having a baby, as her doctor kindly pointed out to her, “before it’s too late.” But truth be told, she didn’t feel like it.
It wasn’t that Amelia didn’t like children, she did. She was godmother to three girls. She loved taking them to Europe on their birthdays and swooping them up for summers on Martha’s Vineyard. It was like a dream. But she also realized that the beauty of loving other people’s children is that you get the best of them and then you get to give them back.
Now all three girls were grown up, but they remained close to Amelia. She was more than a fairy godmother, she was their Ama, their second mom. With her support and generous financial gifts through the years, they had all excelled. Perry Soto, almost twenty-eight, was on the partner track at one of New York’s top law firms. Olivia Jones, twenty-six, followed her Ama onto Wall Street and was shaping up to be a gifted analyst. Billie Hayden, twenty-five, was a marine biologist, currently serving as an assistant director of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole in Massachusetts.
Each summer, the girls, now women, came to Oak Bluffs to spend time with Ama at the house she and her late husband had built nearly thirty years before. It was customary in the Vineyard to humbly refer to a luxurious summer home as a “cottage.” But Ama was having none of that. She boldly christened the house, her most prized possession, Chateau Laveau, named after the New Orleans voodoo priestess herself, Marie Laveau.
Ama’s picturesque home sat high on the Bluffs. It had five bedrooms, a chef’s kitchen, a pool, three French-country-style beehives, a pool house with three additional guest bedrooms, and steps that led down to a private beach. Her grandmother died shortly after she married Omar and she rarely visited New Orleans except when it was convenient to stop on trips to the coast. Oak Bluffs had become home. Over the years, the house had played host to American presidents and African royalty, movie stars and Wall Street titans, Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur Fellows. It was a stunning piece of property, but most importantly, it was the backdrop for a rich slice of cultural history.
On the eve of her sixty-sixth birthday, Ama was sitting at her desk, her monogrammed Mrs. John L. Strong notecards laid out in front of her. She had decided to send each of her three goddaughters an invitation. Within each invitation, she enclosed a small gold bee pendant. “Come spend the entire summer with me, the way you did as schoolgirls.” It was time for the bees to come back to the hive. At the end of the summer, she planned to give one of them the keys to Chateau Laveau.
Although Ama promised that none of her goddaughters would leave the summer empty-handed, for each of them their beloved Chateau Laveau was the only prize. Each young woman wanted the house desperately.
But as the old folks used to say, “Every shut eye ain’t sleep and every goodbye ain’t gone.” By the end of the summer, new bonds were created and others torn apart. It turned out there was very little Ama didn’t know and no limit to how far she would go to protect her girls. And in the end, the three found sisters discovered that they weren’t the only ones with something to hide. Ama had a few secrets of her own. What she had to gift them was far more than property. There was a reason she entered each of their lives all those years ago. This was her season to tell them everything they never knew they needed to know.
The Witch of Wall Street
Amelia Vaux Tanner arrived in New York City on June 22, 1972. She had a diploma from Southern University, a junior college in Shreveport, Louisiana, and a patent leather purse with forty-five dollars in cash and a bank check from her grandmother for three hundred more. Amelia traveled by one train from New Orleans to Chicago and then another from Chicago to New York. The journey was long but worth the trouble. On a warm summer morning, her train finally breezed into Grand Central Station with her set of matching luggage. She can still remember the thrill of it, how she stood in the main concourse, staring up at the starry silhouette of Orion in the bright blue celestial ceiling. Just getting to New York was everything she had ever dreamed of, all that came after was just gravy. It was two p.m. in the afternoon, hours away from rush hour, and still the hall was packed. Men in suits and trench coats, ladies in smart dresses and perfectly coiffed hair. They zoomed by her so fast, she had to check that they weren’t wearing roller skates. Would she ever move so fast? She doubted it.
She stepped out of the station, oriented herself, and headed south. On West Thirty-Fourth Street, she entered the Webster Apartments. It was an integrated boardinghouse for single women over the age of eighteen, regardless of race, nationality, or religious belief. To qualify, a woman must show proof of employment, at least thirty hours a week. Amelia had, through her college career office, landed a position as an executive secretary at Mayflower Advisors, a financial services firm on Wall Street.
Dorothy Hadley, the boardinghouse director, was a prim woman with skin so pale that Amelia could see the veins in her hands. Mrs. Hadley went over the strict house rules. No ironing in the bedrooms. Irons were only allowed in the laundry. No male guests on the upper floors. Men were allowed only in the dining room, the drawing room, and the garden. Beds were to be made once a day. A housekeeper did a thorough cleaning once a week on Fridays. Two meals per day were provided, breakfast and dinner. Beverages and small snacks, such as yogurt or cottage cheese, could be kept in the pantry refrigerator. No alcoholic beverages were allowed on the upper floors. Once a week, on Saturdays, there was a coed cocktail social. Each resident would be given two tickets a week, which entitled them to a glass of wine for themselves and a guest. The cost of the room was $150 a month, payable on the first.
Amelia signed the lease agreement and took the key to her room on the eighth floor. It was tiny, no bigger than a garret, but from it she could see—or so it seemed—every rooftop in Manhattan. From the eighth floor, there was a staircase that led up to the roof deck.
There she encountered two blond women in oversized sunglasses, laying out in their bathing suits. “Hi,” the first one said, “I’m Libby and this is Blythe.”
Blythe took her sunglasses off and beamed. “Welcome to the club, new girl.” “Come sun with us,” Libby said, oblivious to the fact that the tan Amelia was sporting was from heritage, not sunbathing.
“Oh honey,” Amelia said, with a wink. “I was born with a tan, but you know what they say, the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice, so let me change and I’ll be right back to join you.”
Amelia never let people think she was white—though she was lighter than Lena Horne, with green eyes and bone-straight hair. She carried her Blackness up front. She was a proud Black woman, and if people didn’t guess that right away, she threw a little cayenne into her perfectly phrased English to make it clear. She couldn’t help it if her ability to blend in made white people more comfortable. Within minutes, Libby and Blythe knew they had made their first Black friend.
By 1977, Amelia had worked as an executive assistant to Benjamin Walsh for five long years. Walsh was in his forties, with Robert Redford hair and a similarly chiseled jaw. He was wealthy, connected, and a vice president at Mayflower Advisors. What he was not, was bright.
He’d tried to make a move on her, inviting her out for drinks, letting his hand rest too long on her shoulder. Then when he thought her silence was permission, he closed the door to his office and put his arms around her waist.
Then one afternoon when he came back from lunch, he found her in his office, chatting away on his phone to what appeared to be a girlfriend. “Get off the phone,” he said. “Get out of my office.” He couldn’t believe her. The cheekiness it took to make a personal call at his desk. She smiled at him and said into the phone, “Sure thing, Mrs. Walsh. I will certainly get you my grandmother’s recipe for étouffée. I think your husband will love it.”
Then, after wishing her boss’s wife a good day, she hung up the phone.
Benjamin Walsh stood silent, fuming, at his desk.
“Watch yourself, sugar,” she said. “Or the next call I make to your wife will not be about recipes.”
After that, he turned his attention to the other secretaries on the floor.
* * *
The 1970s were a terrible time not just for the business, but for the country. Watergate and the oil crisis had sent the economy into a tailspin, the market nose-dived 45 percent in one year, and it seemed to the brokers, who had once believed that trading stocks was just a means of printing money, that everything they touched turned to dust.
Benjamin Walsh managed a mutual fund and his clients were protected only by the relatively low percentage of risky stocks in the portfolio. Walsh followed the industry trends and took long, three-martini lunches with colleagues in the name of “research.”
Every night at dinner, the young women around the Webster Apartments dining table complained about how they were practically doing their bosses’ jobs for them. Over plates of poached salmon and wedges of iceberg lettuce, they passed around copies of Ms. magazine, strategized, and made plans. Some planned to marry their way into prosperity, but even that seemed fraught with pitfalls.
“Married women still have to get their husband’s signature to get a credit card,” Libby said. “That’s bullshit.”
“Language!” Mrs. Hadley said, from the butler’s pantry. She did not even need to be in the room to sense when the young women were falling out of line. Feminism she could tolerate. Boorish behavior she could not.
“You know, Amelia,” Blythe said from across the table. “I read a story in the paper that Black men are much more enlightened when it comes to women’s rights than white men. Apparently, the sentiment is linked to the civil rights movement and the shared struggle.”
“That’s probably true,” Amelia concurred.
“I don’t want an M-R-S,” Libby said. “I want an M-B-A. And I’m going to get my company to pay for it.”
Over the next few weeks, a path began to open up for Amelia. One she had never imagined.
It turned out that Libby was on to something. Amelia already had an associate’s degree. She realized it was entirely possible to get her bachelor’s, and then a master’s, by taking courses in the evenings. Amelia couldn’t believe that a graduate degree was suddenly within reach—paid for by the company. All she needed was to get her boss to sign the papers. She could’ve forged Ben’s signature.
She signed his name all the time to form letters he was too bored to deal with. But she was proud of her Southern ethics and she wanted her tuition reimbursement to be on the up-and-up.
The day she approached his office, she wore one of her favorite outfits, a camel-colored sleeveless dress with a belt that matched and a pair of black-heeled Mary Janes.
“Can you sign this benefits form for me?” she said, casually handing the form to Ben. She hoped he wouldn’t look at it too closely. But he did.
“Why do you need to go back to school?” he asked. “A looker like you could be married tomorrow.”
It was true. She had a boyfriend, Carter. But he was, to put it lightly, hard to pin down. She wanted something more. Something harder to achieve.
“What are you going to study?” Ben asked.
Amelia smiled and said, “Art history. I’d like to work in a museum someday.”
She didn’t know why she lied. Maybe because she was afraid of telling him the truth, which was: I’m getting an MBA because I could do your job better than you can. Ben sighed, perused the document, then signed his name on the form. Amelia gently retrieved the paper and walked swiftly out of his office ready to secure the life she wanted.
It took a long time. Eight years of part-time study in total, but Amelia got her MBA. Then she passed her security sales supervisor exams and became one of the first Black women to wear the trading jacket on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1985, becoming one of the first Black women on the New York Stock Exchange floor was a proud historical mo ment for Amelia’s community, but the rest of the world can be cruel to the “firsts” and she was not immune to their insults. The hazing was quick and brutal. One Monday morning in December, she came in to find that the drawers of her desk had been filled with what she hoped was horse manure but could very well have been human excrement. Someone had turned the heat off that weekend to ensure that the cold temperatures would freeze the manure rock solid and make it impossible to remove. You could smell the shit from fifteen feet away. Maintenance workers had to break down the desk, remove it, and bring in a new one. Amelia lost a whole week on the floor because of that prank, but she persevered.
The next month, her phone lines were cut. In the decades before the invention of cell phones the landline was the stockbroker’s most valuable tool. Two days and hundreds of thousands in trades were put on hold as a result of what the supervisory board called a “non-malicious” prank.
In the first few years, Amelia was audited by her supervisors every three months. A process that required hours and hours of preparation as she opened her books and proved the legitimacy of her trades.
She watched other women quit the floor, but she held strong. Every time she put on her forest-green blazer and pinned on her badge she felt a rush of excitement. She had a sixth sense for undervalued stocks and was well placed and experienced enough to ride the waves of risk assessment to a level of success few women on Wall Street had ever achieved.
The media called her “the Witch of Wall Street” and joked that she used her Creole heritage to cast a spell on the market. Ironically, she wasn’t a nonbeliever. She believed in spirits, lighting candles to saints and friends on the other side. But that wasn’t anything she brought into the workplace. She was whip smart and did not need magic to make money. She had instinct, insight, and a well-honed ability to make split-second decisions when millions of dollars were on the line. Still, she thought, it was just like men to look to magic or luck as an explanation, when the simple answer was that she was a woman who happened to be very, very good at her job.