August 13, 2009
Her real name is Honor Blackman, but she’s better known as Pussy Galore, the character she played when she was young and hot in the 1960s Bond movie “Goldfinger.” Some people on the island of Islesboro, Maine still call her Pussy Galore, though never to her face. She’s almost 80 now.
Pussy Galore and her husband own the second largest summer house on the island of Islesboro, which is in Penobscot Bay midway down the Maine coast. The largest used to belong to Kirstie Alley, who acted in the TV show “Cheers” and, incidentally, produced so much household waste at her Islesboro place that her staff kept 14 garbage cans queued up by the back door, which seemed to say a lot about wealth -- a subject that held great fascination for me at the time of my first visit to Islesboro more than 30 years ago.
I recently returned to Islesboro, and this time was struck more by the passage of time than by displays of wealth. Everything seemed to have remained more or less the same, which was odd, and only emphasized how much everything else had changed. It’s good to have a place that can serve as a bellwether, illuminating anything from the pitfalls of wealth to the vagaries of time – a place in the margin where you can take stock now and then.
Islesboro is a place of stunning scenery -- shimmering blue water, rocky islands and long vistas of the mainland mountains, characterized by an odd mix of sprawling summer “cottages” (as their absurdly wealthy seasonal residents refer to them) and the comparatively rustic abodes of local fishermen, plumbers and the like who have been exploring their own small gene pool within the confines of the island since the 1750s. The demographic counterbalance gives Islesboro a depth not normally associated with playgrounds of the rich and famous. Though I am personally more drawn to the worker bees, I have to admit that the queens are entertaining in their way.
I first visited Islesboro in the summer of 1978 when a friend and I joined the ranks of a third, smaller island demographic: Workers who were there by choice, who were neither lords nor serfs, and whose unique station afforded us opportunities to hold parties on estates that we didn’t have to pay for and to sail on other people’s 90-foot sloops while they were shopping in Boston or hobnobbing in New York. Rich people tend to have a lot of good stuff, but it occurred to me back then that most of them don’t enjoy it as much as you’d expect. As seasonal workers we maintained the lush landscapes of their large estates, changed the sheets on their multiple guest beds (one cottage had 16 guest rooms), and crewed and maintained sailboats worthy of a cover of Wooden Boat magazine, which they shuttled between Islesboro and places like West Palm Beach. All of which gave us unique, generally unencumbered access. It seemed to me that we had the best of both worlds. Also, we were young.
I lived that summer in a tiny, gabled house beside a cove that miraculously emptied and refilled twice a day as a result of the shifting tides. For roommates I had Ando, a musician from Corinth, Mississippi, and Tom, a Meridian native who more or less launched a Mississippi-Maine seasonal migration that continues to this day. My friend Lisa and I arrived at the start of the summer in her green VW Rabbit with her now-legendary dog, Poo Poo. We didn’t know each other that well starting out, but after realizing, at a party in Jackson, that we both had friends living on the same island off the coast of Maine, it seemed to make perfect sense for us to head out together on an open-ended journey. I stayed until October; Lisa is still living in Islesboro today.
I’d never seen the kind of ostentation on display in Islesboro, and I was both fascinated and a little put off by it. I’ve always enjoyed looking down my nose at snobs, and Islesboro can be a very good place to exercise this tendency. I went to work as a bartender at the only pub on the island, while Lisa got a job as a housekeeper for Princess Joan of Luxemburg, a Connecticut native who had married into royalty and who, after being widowed by the prince, that summer married an elderly duke from France.
People like Princess Joan tend to go back and forth between lavish dwellings, hauling their supporting casts (maids, yardmen, nannies, cooks, etc.) with them. Over time she and Lisa became friends.
Lisa and I had followed my friend Tom to Islesboro. He’d moved there in 1977 to work on the summer house of a woman from his hometown, Meridian, Mississippi, and afterward decided to stay. Lisa was friends with a friend of Tom’s who had likewise followed him to Islesboro, and soon after, other friends began to arrive, with the result that by mid summer we had almost enough Mississippians to play the island in softball. We were short two players, so they awarded us two guys from the Caribbean – the only two black guys on the island -- to round out our team. The guys, who crewed someone’s boat, became honorary Mississippians.
It was a magical summer, and Lisa, her sister Cindy, Tom and Ando all stayed in Maine after the trees began to turn, and are still there today. The rest of us return for periodic visits, as I did earlier this month for my sixth trip to Islesboro, which had the feel of a reunion, hovering as it did around the 30th anniversary. Further amplifying the feeling of reunion: The Dark Harbor ice cream shop hosted its 30th annual island footrace and the island held a seventies-themed, multi-generational dance at which Ando’s band played many of the same songs they’d played at the pub in the summer of 1978, most notably Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken,” the bar’s theme song that summer.
There were a few minor changes in evidence. There is now a bookstore next to the Dark Harbor Shop, which was sold out of copies of Sultana (the storeowner had tried to set up a signing but at the time my schedule was too complicated, and he more or less gave up). The store’s big seller now is a tell-all book by summer resident Isabel Gillies, who plays the wife of Detective Eliot Stabler on Law & Order SVU. The Pendleton boat yard is definitely bigger than I remembered, and there’s now a small assisted living facility tucked away into the trees. But overall, the place looks pretty much the same. Coming in, as I do, at long intervals, Islesboro tends to seem contained in a way that only an island can, and even more so because so many of the same people are there, doing much the same thing they were doing the last time you saw them. It all seems a bit surreal, as if the summer of 1978 is continuing to unfold, the primary difference being that the key characters now have gray hair.
Part of the feeling of stasis stems from the fact that no one really wants Islesboro to change. There are strict covenants to prevent wholesale development while enabling construction of some affordable housing (typically on hidden lanes), and as always, the necessity of a ferry ride to the mainland exerts its own limitations. There is no hotel on the island and there are no real restaurants, so it’s no place for tourists. You’ve pretty much got to be fabulously wealthy, have family ties going way too deep, work on the island, or know someone.
The sameness of Islesboro is in some ways deceptive. People have been born and have died since I first visited, including Billy’s father, who now lies buried in the family cemetery down the lane from his house, and Lisa’s mother, who died at her house last summer. Yet I felt like I was revisiting a place that exists outside the normal space-time continuum. The Ottman twins were still there, lithe and beautiful as ever as they made their way from one end of the island to the other on their bikes. Ando was still playing his guitar, singing in the same band that rocked the Islesboro Pub the summer I tended bar. Billy Warren still runs the Dark Harbor Shop, the primary meeting place down-island. Billy Boardman still works at Stanley Pendleton’s boatyard, as does Nick Love, a member of a wealthy summer family who moved back after a career as an actor and model. Shake Mahan, my boss at the pub, runs the grocery store, and has for 20 years. From all appearances, my peers have neither ascended into the upper echelon (which looks no more attractive to me now than it did then) nor settled for the lower rung. We’re all still somewhere in between and generally happy there. Everywhere I went I recognized people, and was pleased to observe that their offspring are the 23-year-olds of the islands now, enjoying the place much the way we did in 1978.
There was a powerful reverb, and in many ways it felt like I’d never left – as if my previous life was continuing to unfold, in my absence, 2,000 miles away.