Olga Hirshhorn did not fish as many days, or catch as many big fish, as many Derby fishermen, but she had as much heart and soul and spirit as anyone who ever walked into the weigh station and dropped a big striper on the scale.
Olga died Saturday at the age of 95 in her winter home in Florida. When I received a copy of her obituary from her son, John Cunningham, I said I wanted to use a photo of Olga in the weigh station. “Mother would love it,” John emailed back.
My introduction was anything but ordinary. It was 1995. Olga Hirshhorn — doyenne of the art world, wife of the founder of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., art collector, grandmother, and irrepressible world traveler — had bid on a fishing trip with Cooper Gilkes, Island fisherman and tackle shop owner, and me, the scribe for the adventure as part of the Possible Dreams fundraiser auction.
When I learned who had bid, I told Coop we were taking out a Jewish grandmother who was big in the art world. I told Coop we would probably be out a few hours and she would want to come in. Boy, was I mistaken.
So what did a woman who had lived on a palatial estate, sat next to presidents, ridden on elephants in India, and collected art around the world have in common with an Edgartown tackle shop owner and a fishing columnist? Simple. She loved to fish.
I wrote about our first trip, one of many that would follow — raising thousands of dollars for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services in the process — in a fishing column titled, “Ms. Hirschhorn Reels in the Possible Bass.”
“It was past noon, and we had been trying to hook up since 7 am. Coop put the throttle down on his 18-foot Boston Whaler Montauk and we began to bump across the water as we left Edgartown Harbor heading for Vineyard Sound. It had been dead calm when we made the decision to give up chasing albies and bonito and look for some bass, but the wind had started to pick up, raising a light chop.
“I was standing next to Cooper and holding on to the center console rail. Olga sat behind us with her back turned to the breeze. She was wearing a white Derby cap, a blue windbreaker, and had slipped her feet, slippers and all, into my size 10 beat-up blue sneakers to keep her feet warm, giving her feet a decidedly Ringling Brothers appearance. It was a fashion look perfectly in keeping with the Derby, if not the lady.
“‘Olga,’ I shouted above the noise of the outboard and salt spray, ‘we may not have impressed you yet but you sure have impressed us.’
‘You’ve got that right,’ Cooper added.
“… The popular fundraiser for Community Services had offered a variety of ‘possible dreams,’ including walk-on parts on popular shows such as “Seinfeld’ and ‘Chicago Hope,’ and lunch with publisher Katharine Graham, dreams that reflected the Island’s ties to off-Island influence and celebrity. But Olga wasn’t looking for that. She was interested in an Island experience.
“We arranged to meet Olga and her guest, Nina Davis, at 7 am at the Edgartown dock, hoping the weather would allow us to fish in the harbor or Cape Pogue for bonito or false albacore. After seining up some fresh sand eels, we started our way up what had become ‘false albacore alley,’ the route followed by a small flotilla of Derby fishermen as they pursued the hard-charging albies.
“Small pods of albies were erupting in Edgartown Harbor as boats danced around each other, rods at the ready; at the gut, fishermen lined the bank. But the action was slow and scattered, so we headed for East Beach.
The day had cleared up, the wind had dropped, and the sea was a light emerald green. Nina lay down on the deck and enjoyed the sun, happy to relax from the task of remodeling her new house. Olga held her rod, following Coop’s instructions on how to play the bait. She wasn’t interested in reeling in a fish that someone else hooked; Olga was there to fish.
“By noon the only hit had come from a Spanish mackerel that severed the line with the neatness of a razor. Coop and I discussed strategy, determined to find fish. ‘How do you feel about trying for some bass?’ I asked Olga and Nina. ‘We’re thinking of going back in so Coop can grab some eels and heavier rods at his shop. Are you up for heading out again?’
Olga’s reply reflected the philosophical yet practical approach needed by every good Derby fisherman. ‘I don’t have to be anywhere until 10 am tomorrow,’ she answered. Coop and I decided we really liked Olga.
“We headed off for the Sound without Nina. She had enjoyed fishing and loved sunning, but in general felt the need to chase down the people who were supposed to be working on her house. I suggested that during Derby time she had a better chance of finding them with us.
“Vineyard Sound was flat calm as we pulled up off Cedar Tree Neck. Coop rigged up two heavy rods with squirming eels and dropped them to the bottom, handing one rod to Olga. I dropped some sand eels over, looking for a fluke. Almost immediately I had a hit, and I traded rods with Olga. She reeled up a nice sea bass. Another quickly followed, and another. The lady was hot.
“Suddenly the rod doubled over. ‘I’ve got one,’ Olga shouted. It was no sea bass from the look of the rod, and Coop coached as Olga tried to fight the fish to the surface. The line snapped.
“‘Oh, dammit! Can I swear?’ Olga said, flushed with a fisherman’s combination of excitement and disappointment.
“Coop just nodded and consoled, ‘You go right ahead.’
“It was getting late in the afternoon, and we started to head back around West Chop, when bonito and false albacore started bursting from the water. Coop anchored up and, before long, Olga was fighting a fish to the surface. Into the net came a bluefish.
“’Oh golly, that was fun,’ declared Olga with a wide smile. A nice 32-inch striper would follow. But the albies and bonito bursting periodically around us proved more elusive. Still, it was exciting.
“Around 6:30 pm, we pulled up to Owen Park dock in Vineyard Haven so Olga could walk to her home on Franklin Street instead of riding back to Edgartown in the boat. It was more than 11 hours after we’d started, and Olga had gone the distance. Coop quickly cleaned one of the sea bass, but we didn’t have a bag. No matter. Mrs. Olga Hirshhorn took the sea bass strung on a piece of fishing line and went walking up the road.”
Years later, I still remember her walking up the road with that fish on a stringer. Coop and I were exhausted. Olga was off to a movie date.
There are people who like to fish, and there are fishermen. The difference is the gulf that separates affection and passion.
And one of the wonderful things about fishermen is that no matter what they do or where they come from, there is something that connects them with other fishermen. I was thinking about that connection after I heard that Olga died, and how lucky I was to fish with her.