Bar Harbor Babylon, just released by Down East Books, takes you inside Maine’s premier summer resort during its heyday. What happened there wasn’t always pretty, but it was usually entertaining. At least in the telling.
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Take Mary Roberts Rinehart, America’s Agatha Christie. She coined the cliché, “The butler did it,” in her 1930 mystery novel, The Door. Seventeen years later, while summering at her Bar Harbor estate, her cook really did try to kill her – in a dispute over the butler. While terrifying at the time, it made for a good story.
Written by Dan and Leslie Landrigan, the co-writers of the New England Historical Society, Bar Harbor Babylon exposes the secrets behind the mansion walls. The authors focus on the newly rich who started coming to Mount Desert Island in the Gilded Age. They sought status, relaxation and chances to misbehave – if misbehavior hadn’t gotten them there in the first place.
As Dan said to the Mount Desert Islander, “When rich people get together, bad things happen.”
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Bar Harbor Babylon
In Bar Harbor, the fabulously wealthy Evalyn Walsh McLean hung the Hope diamond from her dog’s neck. Willie K. Vanderbilt sulked in his yacht off Bar Harbor after his sensational divorce. And Joseph Pulitzer, crusader for the working class, hid out in a soundproof Bar Harbor tower, unable to bear the slightest noise.
The authors intended the book as a breezy summer read and as a reminder that the rich and famous aren’t always what they seem. J.P. Morgan, for example, regularly attended and financially supported the island’s Episcopal churches. But he also stashed his mistresses on High Street. And Clarence Cook Little, the man behind Jackson Labs, did more to cure cancer – and to kill people from it – than anyone else on the planet.
Bar Harbor Babylon also delves into Prohibition, politics and the relentless theft of land belonging to indigenous people. The book begins with Abraham Somes, who swindled the Indians, and ends with the dashed presidential hopes of serial philanderer Nelson Rockefeller.
The Cutting Room Floor
Bar Harbor offered up so many juicy scandals the authors couldn’t include them all. Take Cobina Wright, Sr., and Cobina Wright, Jr. These two lively ladies didn’t quite make the cut for Bar Harbor Babylon. But they came close.
Mother and daughter, they were minor film actresses. Cobina Wright, Sr., had a small role in the acclaimed film, The Razor’s Edge. Junior acted in some not-so-acclaimed films like Charlie Chan in Rio and Moon Over Miami.
Cobina Wright, Sr.’s, real avocation was social climbing. Well known for her parties, she married several rich men. She had a hard time, though, holding on to them or their money.
When she learned that one husband married his manicurist in Bar Harbor, she went ballistic, and threatened to have him seized for bigamy. (Never happened.)
Cobina Wright, Sr., had to work as a cabaret singer in New York. She complained she was ‘working like a Trojan’ to support her daughter while he went deep-sea fishing in Bar Harbor.
She had a plan, though: to arrange a spectacular marriage for her beautiful daughter. So when Cobina Wright, Jr., turned 17, Senior took her to Venice to rub elbows with the beautiful people.
A handsome, eligible naval officer, also 17, fell head over heels in love with young Cobina Wright.
For several weeks they were inseparable. They held hands through the streets of Venice and necked in gondolas by moonlight. He even followed her to London for a week and asked her to marry him.
But, as the story goes, Cobina Wright, Jr., resented her mother pushing her into marriage. So she dumped him. He was devastated for weeks. But then he took consolation by marrying a pretty young lady named Elizabeth, and now he is known as Prince Philip of England.
Maine Fires of 1947
Bar Harbor today is very different than it was back in the day. It’s still busy in the summer, attracting crowds of visitors to nearby Acadia National Park. And wealthy summer people still populate parts of Mount Desert Island, especially Northeast Harbor.
But most of the mansions along Millionaire’s Row in Bar Harbor are gone, either consumed in the Maine fires of 1947 or torn down by their owners. A few still stand, mostly repurposed to new uses. Sonogee, formerly home of Frederick Vanderbilt and Lyman Kendall, housed a residential rehabilitation facility until closing its doors in April 2019. The Atlantic Oceanside Hotel & Event Center was once the home to mining tycoon Harry Oakes — before he was murdered, perhaps by the Duke of Windsor.
This story was updated in 2021.Click here to see Leslie Landrigan talk about the book on a podcast.