This article is from our archives. It first appeared in The Bermudian in November 1959.
It was almost like a visit to Campobello, the rocky island off the coast of Maine where the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt, four-time president of the United States, loved to spend his vacations. Like Campobello, this islet has a rugged shoreline, a sheltered cove that’s always full of small craft at piers and moorings, and a house that dominates the landscape as completely as its owner’s personality dominates the house.
At first glance, the figure that hurried down to greet us at the dock might have been F.D.R. himself, in one of the happy summers before he was stricken with infantile paralysis back in 1921. Like Roosevelt, William Eldon (“Bill”) Tucker of Trunk Island, in Harrington Sound, is a massive (six foot even), powerful (200 pounds) man with the shoulders of an athlete. Like Roosevelt, he relaxes in the most casual of sportswear – a floppy cloth sailing hat, checked tan shirt, white shorts, no socks, black velveteen shoes. And, like Roosevelt, he has a consuming interest in diseases that affect human limbs, particularly those like arthritis, rheumatism, and ailments of or injuries to the bones.
But here the superficial resemblances end. Where Roosevelt was one of the most controversial public figures who ever lived (he has been called everything from a great statesman to a swindling charlatan), few will deny that Bermuda’s Bill Tucker, like his father before him, is tops in his chosen field – the practice of medicine. Thanks to one of those British peculiarities of speech which are incomprehensible to the foreigner, Bill Tucker is never called “Doctor” in England, despite the C.V.O., B.M.E., T.D. and F.R.C.S. which follow his name in Who’s Who – because he is a surgeon. In England, where his practice includes everyone of importance form the Royal Family to cricket stars, footballers, and gentleman riders, William E. Tucker proudly affixes a “Mr.” before his name, which labels him a surgeon and, as such, a cut above the ordinary general practitioner.
On Trunk Island, where he and his wife come each year for a well-earned vacation, the host is neither “Mr.” nor “Dr.” but just Bill Tucker – a host so genial that he maintains what amounts to a Thursday and weekend ferry service between his summer home and Palmetto Bay to accommodate the guests he invites over by the boatload for drinks, picnics , swims, skindiving expeditions, and, let’s face it, backbreaking labours thinly disguised as “work parties.”
We found ourselves members of such a “party” almost the moment we set foot on Trunk Island, after a five-minute crossing by putt-putt from Palmetto Bay. Talking and gesturing as he led the way, Bill conducted us to the house – a big, rambling Bermuda homestead, more than 100 years old, roomy and comfortable because of, rather than despite, the marks which age has left upon it.
On the upstairs balcony, where there’s always a breeze, Bill introduced us to his wife Molly, a petite blue-eyed blonde in a chic tan sunsuit who is in her way as volatile and fascinating a personality as her energetic husband. Since most interviews are conducted during leisurely conversations, I dropped into the nearest lounge-chair and got out my notebook expectantly. But Bill Tucker, far and away the most active individual I have ever encountered, is constitutionally unable to sit still for more than 30 seconds running. He was up like a shot, leading me into the house where he produced a pair of bathing trunks and bade me to put them on.
When I returned to the porch, where I’d left my wife Jane to interview Molly if she could get her to hold still, I found it full of people, as were the grounds below. Billy Frith had showed up in his spanking new plastic-hull motorboat. Edwin Jay Gould, of New York and of the new real estate development, My Lord’s Bay, was on hand. There were Davidsons and Dickinsons, Smiths, Zuills and Cards. M0lly was handing teacups ’round, with plates of cakes and walnuts, while Bill assembled a gang of “big, strong men.”
Driving us before him like sheep, he herded us to the back of the house where the latest of his innumerable projects was in progress – the construction f a new jetty for boats to use when the wind is from the wrong direction. While we toiled to lift concrete-filled barrels on the slope above him, Bill casually tossed his horn-rim specs to the ground and scrambled down into the water, velveteen shoes and all. Single-handed he grabbed the heavy burdens we lowered to him and placed them easily just where he wanted them, as foundations for his new dock.
Before we’d recovered from our labours (I came away with a handsome blood-blister which I can still display), he loped off along a path through the thickets that cover the nine-acre island and brought us to a sheltered beach. Here he distributed face-masks, snorkels, and flippers and let us dive down to meet the friendly scallops, mussels and multi-coloured fishes that have found permanent shelter in the channel.
But skin-diving did not hold his interest for long. He popped ashore to lecture a lady guest on his favourite subject, posture. “Faulty posture – it’s the cause of most of our bodily ills,” he told her as he demonstrated the difference between slouching and standing properly. “I had an arthritic hip myself once about 10 years ago,” he proclaimed. “Couldn’t move my leg any further than this. So I exercised it, like this. And now I can do anything I need to do with it.”
As if further proof were needed, he circled back toward the house at full speed, with myself panting in his wake. “We’ll organise a real work-party soon,” he observed over his shoulder, “and get started on clearing up all this dead cedar. Must be all of fifteen hundred pounds’ worth here…”
While we dressed, and over cocktails afterward, I managed to piece together bits of his story. He was born, he told me, in 1903, at Park House, Cedar Avenue, Hamilton, ancestral home of the Tucker family which has been in Bermuda since the year 1616.
“I always like to say I’m descended from Dan Tucker, the first governor of Bermuda,” Bill declared. “But unfortunately, he was a bachelor. His brother was our ancestor.”
Bill’s father, of course, was one of the best-loved characters Bermuda has ever known. Born at Palmetto Grove (now Palmetto Bay) on August 17, 1872, he went to school in Canada, studied medicine in England, and set up his general practice in Bermuda in 1902. “He married Miss Etta Hutchings at the Presbyterian Church in Warwick on the seventh of August,” Bill told me. “I was born on August sixth.” Caught off-guard, I gave him an incredulous look until he added with a grin: “The following year, of course!”
Young Bill grew up in Bermuda, and knew from the beginning that he wanted to go into medicine. At the age of 15, he went away to Sherborne School in Dorset, England – an institution which Jack Tucker, Dudley Butterfield, and other distinguished Bermudians have also attended. Thence, in his father’s footsteps, he proceeded to Cambridge University, where he studied at Caius (pronounced Keys) College.
At Cambridge, Bill’s father had gone out for rugby or “rugger” and become so proficient that he captained the Cambridge XV and later played for England. This is an honour roughly comparable to being chosen for the All-American football team in the United States. But there is one important difference. All-America players, selected by a sports authority like the late Walter Camp, or by consensus vote of sports writers, get their pictures in the newspapers, but never play together on the field. When you play rugger for England, however, you’re in the thick of the world’s toughest competition, against the best teams representing Wales Ireland, Scotland and the like.
Young Bill also made a name for himself as wing forward and captain of Cambridge. When he went down to London for his final three years of medical school at St. George’s Hospital, he played for Blackheath, the London club his father had also joined and starred for. Young Bill played so formidably that the incredible happened – like his father before him, he was chosen to play for England.
In the thick of a rugby “scrum,” bodily contact can be extremely damaging. Unlike American footballers in scrimmage, rugger players wear no protective armour, and injuries are frequent. Hard-hitting Bill Tucker got more than his share, mostly in the form of kicked and twisted ankles. He credits this, plus the fact that both his mother and father were on crutches toward the end of their lives, for first rousing his interest in the treatment of all forms of athletic injuries, and of arthritis, which have been his lifelong surgical specialities.
Try as I would, I could get Bill to tell me nothing of his war record, which is as distinguished as his medical career. Commissioned a surgical specialist in the British Army’s 17th General Hospital, he served outstandingly at Boulogne, one of the last resistance-spots when the Nazi panzers overwhelmed France. Captured, he set up shop in a hospital for British prisoners at Obermassfeld, where among others he treated the shrapnel-shattered leg bones of his Bermuda friend, Timmy Card. After three years, on a prisoner exchange, Bill was repatriated to England. There, at war’s end, he took up his uninterrupted private practice. With characteristic zest, he continued in the volunteer Territorial Army as well, and was Colonel of the 17th General Hospital from 1951 to ’55.
Specialising in orthopaedic surgery, with particular emphasis on repairing bone damage incurred by athletes and sportsmen, Bill rapidly built a reputation that brought the great and the near-great to the London Clinic for Injuries, his surgery in the Park Street, London. Famous jockeys like Bryan Marshall and Lester Pigott, cricket stars like Dennis Compton and Tony Locke, soccer players, distance runners, hurdlers, tennists and poloists, riders and ruggers dragged their bruised and battered bodies to his consulting rooms. In addition, he devoted half his working hours to the Health Service, found time to write books and papers, and in 1958 was elected a Hunterian Professor by the Royal College of Surgeons.
He is now a C.V.O. (Commander of the Order of Victoria) which high award was bestowed on him for special services to the late King of England, George VI, and other members of the Royal Family. The Sportsman’s Ball, which Bill and Molly originated, and which they organise for charity each year, is one of the high spots of the London social season.
Both Bill and Molly have been previously wed. By his first marriage (to Jean Stella Ferguson in 1931, which was dissolved in 1953) Bill has two sons – William Jr., 25, who married Diana Joel, lives in Bermuda, has a small daughter, and is an accountant; and James, a year or so younger, who is presently a salesman in Durban, South Africa.
Molly and Bill first met at a London cocktail party given by the actress Heather Thatcher in 1955, and they were married six months later. Like her new husband, Molly has two youngsters by a previous marriage. This was to Cedric Belfrage, a wittily brilliant British journalist who leaned a bit too far to the left to suit the late, implacable U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. After Molly had divorced Belfrage, McCarthy got him deported form the States. “I never could agree with Cedric’s politics,” says Molly. “But now that we’re no longer married, we get along fine as friends.”
The Belfrage children give every indication of having as lively careers as their parents. After a visit to Russia, daughter Sally, 22, wrote a book titled “A Room in Moscow,” which stirred up a storm of controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. Sally is now in the Middle East, making up her mind whether her next book will be “A Farm in Israel” or “A Tent in Arabia.” Young Nick Belfrage, 19, has been learning about life this year by hitch-hiking in the United States, Mexico and Europe. His mother tells me he’s already learned enough to letter cardboard signs “U.S.” and “G.B.” and hold one or the other up to view as a motor car with an appropriate license plate approaches. Actually both children are U.S. citizens.
Molly (Mary Beatrice) Castle herself was born in England, but had her schooling at the University of South Carolina in the States. back in London, she married Belfrage and went to work for Lord Beaverbrook as columnist on the Daily Express. He sent her on a world tour to write a series called “Around the World with a Suitcase.” From California, she cabled that the title better be changed to “Around the World with an Expectant Mother.” As a result, she says, infant Sally actually “visited” China before she was born.
I remember Molly vividly from Hollywood, where in ’38 I was writing movie scenarios and she was doing a gossip column for London. She left for New York and arrived on Pearl Harbour Day – December 7, 1941 – just in time to get herself a job on McCall’s Magazine. Now she is Home Editor for Modern Woman, published monthly in London.
Bill Tucker today is so completely Anglicised that even when he’s full of excited enthusiasm (i.e. most of the time) he betrays no trace of any lingering Bermuda accent. He and Molly are happy as larks in their home at 49 Grosvenor Square, London W. 1 – which by coincidence looks out upon a statue of Franklin Roosevelt and is a rendezvous for visiting Bermudians as well as for Britain’s sporting set. But both insist they will be living permanently in Bermuda within five years.
“You mean Bill will retire?” I ventured.
“Don’t be silly,” replied Molly. “Bill will never retire…” a statement in which I can heartily concur.
Just what he will do, or where he will live, is still undecided. Much as he loves Trunk Island (so called because it’s shaped like an elephant’s proboscis, curving between Crow Island and Rabbits Island) in summer, it can be a bit bleak in winter. As he puts it, the house (which contains among other curios two human skulls, a set of bongo drums, and a muzzle-loading musket) needs a little “fixing up.” Bill owns it jointly with his sisters, Mrs. Edmund Zuill, second-in-command at the Bermuda High School for Girls, and Mrs. Warner Gardner, whose husband is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. A brother, Robin, with musical and artistic leanings, lives in England.
Ferrying us back to Palmetto Bay in his outboard, Bill Tucker gave us an inkling of what he’d like to do when he returns to his native Bermuda for keeps. His eyes narrowed and his voice rose with enthusiasm.
“Bermuda needs more than just its tourist industry,” he said. “And I think I have the answer. What I think it needs to do is to start a health centre here – a place to which people from all over the world would come for treatment of arthritis and rehabilitation. Just think about it for a minute! The medial profession everywhere, in the United States as well as Britain, would, once it is known, send their patients to us here. We’d let them sit in the warm Bermuda waters, whilst the waves exercised their limbs. There’s nothing better than that for arthritis. And in the winter, we’d have warm salt-water baths indoors. My medical friends in Bermuda all seem to think it a good idea.”
He paused, and his eyes clouded. “Of course, there will be opposition. In fact, there is already. People are saying I want to change Bermuda from a vacation spot to a health resort. But that isn’t so! This Centre could bring people of the highest type to these Islands – and bring them all year ’round. Think about it some more! It wouldn’t be long before everyone in America would know about the health potential of Bermuda. it would be the greatest thing that ever happened to the Island.”
That proposition may be debatable, but another one is less so: that the return of the Tuckers to Trunk Island will be among the greatest things that ever happened to Bermuda.