Though little physically remains of the opulence today, Mount Desert Island a century ago was one of the glittering playgrounds of the ultra-wealthy — like Newport, Rhode Island, and The Hamptons in New York. For nearly 70 years, until the Mount Desert Island Fire of 1947, Bar Harbor was the place that people with last names such as Vanderbilt, Astor and Rockefeller flocked to in the summer.
Since it was a bit farther afield from the nexus of New York City than other summer colonies, Bar Harbor earned a reputation as a place where the rich and famous could really let their hair down. The bad behavior and scandals of MDI’s social elite are detailed in a new book, “Bar Harbor Babylon: Murder, Misfortune and Scandal on Mt. Desert Island,” published this month by Downeast Books.
“Imagine Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates all spending their summers in Bar Harbor,” said Stonington resident Leslie Landrigan, who wrote “Bar Harbor Babylon” with her husband, Dan Landrigan. “It was that level of wealth and power and influence.”
The Landrigans, both of whom worked in media and publishing in Boston and in Washington, D.C., before moving to Maine in 2015, operate the New England Historical Society, a website that details the often colorful history of all six New England states. The approach they take to writing about history is all about the stories of real people, rather than focusing on dates, places and other rather dry details.
“People tend to get caught up in things like the houses, or the monuments, or the things they can actually see,” she said. “It’s the people that make history interesting. We’re much more interested in their stories than in old buildings.”
When choosing a topic for their first book, scandalous stories of Bar Harbor high society proved a no-brainer.
“Once you start looking through all the different stories out there, you realize there’s just no end to it,” Dan Landrigan said. “For us, it was harder to choose what to leave out than to keep in.”
The stories in the book span the gamut, from the downfalls of family dynasties to salacious affairs found in the pages of gossip magazines. They range from the story of the McLean family, owners of the Bar Harbor mansion Briarcliffe, who purchased the supposedly cursed Hope Diamond in 1911 and then watched their family fall to financial ruin, to the many divorce-related scandals of the Vanderbilt family, who owned Bar Harbor houses Sonogee, Islecote, Bogue Chitto, Mossley Hall and Point d’Acadie.
“When Willie Vanderbilt’s highly publicized divorce hit the news, he sailed his yacht to Bar Harbor to escape the media attention,” Leslie Landrigan said. “Kim Kardashian would do the same thing today, if something like that happened. She just probably wouldn’t go to Bar Harbor.”
Among the lesser known stories is that of James G. Blaine, who was a U.S. senator and representative for Maine. He served as speaker of the House from 1869 to 1875 and later as U.S. secretary of state. During his run for the presidency in 1884, Blaine was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock before marrying his wife, Harriet, in 1851. Blaine lost the election to Grover Cleveland by just 60,000 votes, and consoled himself by building a huge Bar Harbor “cottage” dubbed Stanwood. Stanwood burned in the fire of 1947. The Atlantic Eyrie Lodge now stands on the property.
Perhaps the most scandalous tale is that of Sir Harry Oakes, who was born in Sangerville in 1874, attended Bowdoin College in the 1890s, and then, in 1912, discovered one of the largest gold mines in the Western Hemisphere. After investing much of his wealth in real estate and infrastructure in the Bahamas, he became a British citizen and was named a Baronet in 1939.
His stint as a member of the peerage was not to last. In 1943 Oakes was murdered in the Bahamas after being stabbed with a pick ax and then being burned alive. The murder remains unsolved, though suspects have ranged from his son-in-law, Count Alfred de Marigny, to Meyer Lansky, longtime associate of the Luciano mafia family, to the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII.
Oakes’ widow later donated the land on which Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft now stands and donated their Bar Harbor mansion, The Willows, to Bowdoin College, which later sold it. It is now the Atlantic Oceanside Inn.
The opulent summer homes that lined Millionaire’s Row are now almost entirely gone — motels, restaurants and tourist traps now line Route 3, heading into Bar Harbor — but the stories remain.
“So much of what made up the summer colony in Bar Harbor is now lost, whether it was demolished or it was lost to fire,” Leslie Landrigan said. “But these stories still remain. It has definitely changed the way I look at Bar Harbor, when you know where a murder happened, or if you can imagine a huge Vanderbilt yacht out in the harbor.”
Watch: Bar Harbor’s annual unusual contest, the Bed Race