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Murder and mayhem on MDI – ‘Bar Harbor Babylon’

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While it certainly remains a significant destination, the Mount Desert Island of today is viewed very differently than the MDI of days gone by. Yes, there are still plenty of wealthy people who summer on the island, their vast estates surrounded by nature’s beauty. But a peek into the island’s history reveals that not long ago, MDI served as a summer playground for the elite of the elite.

And where the elite of the elite gather, scandals are never far behind.

Those scandals are the subject of “Bar Harbor Babylon: Murder, Misfortune, and Scandal on Mount Desert Island” (Down East, $26.95) by Dan and Leslie Landrigan. It’s a collection of some of the more salacious stories from MDI’s decades-long stint as the go-to getaway for the rich and unprincipled. This was a time when what happened on MDI definitely stayed on MDI. These are tales of deception and theft, of sex and murder – stories that once served as the kind of cocktail party gossip that only the truly privileged might encounter.

Just the names alone – Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Astor – read like a who’s who of the wealthiest, most powerful families of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These are the people who spent stretches of summer openly and delightedly doing literally whatever they wanted in the considerable privacy provided by the island.

We get the story of J.P. Morgan and his many mistresses. The Vanderbilt divorce that was one of the biggest the world had ever seen. The teen widow Madeline Astor, whose 30-years-older husband went down with the Titanic. Nelson Rockefeller’s infidelities get plenty of page time as well, as does the possibly-related kerfuffle surrounding his demise.

“Bar Harbor Babylon” also spends a fair amount of time with James Blaine. Blaine’s political career didn’t play out the way he wanted – he never managed to get elected President – and he had his share of scandals. One of the big ones was after his 1884 presidential campaign, when Blaine went hard after Grover Cleveland for fathering an illegitimate child; as it turned out, Blaine was going to have to hide from the press because he had a love child of his own. There’s some other stuff, including some time spent with Blaine’s son Jimmie.

But while the famous names are fun, the book’s real highlights are the stories about people whose names haven’t necessarily stayed prominent as the years have passed. These people – well-known and wealthy, real high society types – have largely been forgotten, but their strange and lurid sagas live on.

There’s a section devoted to John Morris, who built his MDI mansion with money he made as the Louisiana Lottery King. Morris amassed his fortune by way of lottery-by-mail; his operation was incredibly lucrative, but the sketchy legality eventually led to him being shut down and lotteries largely disappearing for a few decades (until the government decided to give it a try).

And perhaps the most fascinating character in the whole book is Sir Harry Oakes. A Maine native, born in Sangerville and a graduate of Bowdoin, Oakes devoted his whole life to the idea of getting rich. It was his sole goal, and while it took him 14 years to achieve it, he got there, thanks to his 1912 discovery of what would be the second-largest gold mine in all of the Americas. That wealth took him all the way to the Bahamas, where he would campaign for and receive a knighthood – First Baronet of Nassau.

Harry and his family owned a huge mansion in Bar Harbor; by the late 1930s, the heyday of the Cottage Age had largely passed, but there was still plenty of residual charm. And it was the night before he was to leave Nassau to join his family there in the summer of 1943 that he was murdered – a murder that involved a French count who had eloped with Harry’s daughter … and the Duke of Windsor, Edward VIII himself.

All of this plus some more general hits from the island’s history; we meet George Dorr, who bought Cadillac Mountain, and the McLean family and the fallout from the alleged curse of the Hope Diamond. There are some pretty great stories about the effect of Prohibition on the wealthy summer denizens. There’s even a chapter devoted to the relatively brief but intense relationship between Maine and the Ku Klux Klan.

And through it all, character after bizarre character – wealthy failsons and weirdo quack doctors and serial socialites and even a serial killer – parading through the decades of MDI’s time as the summer getaway of choice for the rich and powerful.

The Landrigans are the writers behind the New England Historical Society; their dedication to history is undeniable. The meticulousness of their methods is obvious; the stories of “Bar Harbor Babylon” are clearly well-researched. Each narrative is rich with detail, bringing the past to bright, bizarre life. The tales being told are true, yes, but they’re also compelling. The source material might be juicy, but a little something extra is required to make it really click. Dan and Leslie Landrigan find the click.

“Bar Harbor Babylon” is a great look at the foolhardy foibles and shadowy scandals that have marked MDI’s time as a summer destination. It’s a fun trip back in time to the island’s swinging, salacious past – an entertaining read for any lover of Maine history.

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