How I met E.B. White

Guest perspectve/Charles Sutton

My roommate at Cornell University for two years, starting back in 1948, was Joel White (1930-1997), son of E. B. White, most famous for his books “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little,” humorous articles in “The New Yorker” magazine, and for his wife, Katharine White, the magazine’s senior fiction editor.

Joel White

At the end of our freshman year I was invited to visit their home in Brooklin, Maine, for a few days of sailing and just hanging out on the family farm.

Joel and I had taken some lecture courses together, and I remember that, along with taking notes, he would design and draw an array of interesting sailboats in his notebook. So it was not surprising at the end his sophomore year that he transferred to MIT to study nautical design and engineering.

After Joel graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in Naval Architecture, and, having served in the Army, his parents thought he might make a career with some prestigious ship or boatbuilding firm. Not Joel. As soon as he could, he moved back to Maine, which he loved so, and where he spent the rest of his life designing and building sailboats, yachts, dinghies, and other kinds of vessels, becoming one of the country’s more noted wooden-boat designers. When he returned to Maine, he purchased an unused herring-packaging facility, which he converted into a workshop for his famous custom-built boats, and a storage facility, where he also repaired boats during the winter.

During my visit in 1949, we had frequent day trips in a sailboat that he had designed and built himself, one of many he would create in his lifetime. On one particularly hot day, I was determined to have a swim in that beautiful ocean. Joel, by nature a reserved person, gave me a weird look, but said only, “Well, all right, if you really want to.” He put the sailboat on a nearby sandbar where I went for a dip. I didn’t stay in long, learning very quickly that the Gulf of Maine is more suitable for cold-water lobsters then for us humanoids.

A highlight of the day was the late afternoon cocktail hour, when E.B. White would take a large iced-tea pitcher, fill it with two trays of ice cubes, then a good brand of gin nearly to its top, and add just a touch of Noilly Pratt Dry Vermouth. These were the best ever.

This might have been summer-vacation time, but E.B. and Katherine White put in full days of work in separate offices on either side of the front door. Neither had a telephone on their desk, not liking to be bothered by phone calls. There was one out in the hall if needed. Writings and memos flowed back and forth between the two, especially when a packet of materials came in the mail from “The New Yorker.”

The White’s Colonial home, with its little boathouse where White did a lot of his writing, attracted tourists, well-wishers, and those who wanted to thank E.B. White for his charming stories. However, the Whites, like most creative people, cherished their privacy and stayed out of sight as best they could. All the more I appreciated – and will never forget – my visit with them and my friend, their son Joel White.

Charles C. Sutton began his long newspaper career as a copyboy at “The New York Times” in 1958. Today he is co-publisher of the monthly publication “The Vermont Country Sampler,” in North Clarendon Vt., which his wife, Catherine O’Kane, started in 1984. He worked for newspapers in Maine for 17 years, including a stint as managing editor of “The Biddeford-Saco Journal.” During the 1970s, he was news and front-page editor of “The Bridgeport Post” (now “Connecticut Post”). He has been a resident of Vermont the past 31 years and is working on a book entitled “Start to Finish: 60 years a New England Journalist.”