A resident of Islesboro suggests I watch The boy in the plastic bubble, a 1976 TV movie in which John Travolta plays a teenager born without the ability to fight off pathogens. His mother asks how long he will have to remain cut off from the world. “Until a cure is found,” replies the doctor, “until he develops his own immune system, he will have to stay in his protected environment.” After a few awkward experiences venturing out of his airtight room to attend high school in a hazmat suit, Travolta eventually abandons all protocol, hoping he’s somehow gained sufficient immunity. (After the movie, he dates the actress who plays his mother.)
The suggestion is as much a joke as it is a historical nod: Travolta lives on the island. Sometimes. He and Kelly Preston bought one of the old summer estates in 1991, after Kirstie Alley bought her own house here. I’ve run out of things to do, and on the island as well as in the Big World, people keep telling me that an unproductive writer in a huge empty house in the dark off-season evergreen desert is very the brilliant, ha ha. Against my better judgment, I set out to write about the island, but going beyond the butter churns of the historical society to tell the subtle, intimate stories of the community would require endless, painstaking work. On the other hand, I could, on the thinnest pretext and with the vaguest purpose, tour the house of John Travolta (“journalism of the 90s”, says a friend).
That means I have to assemble an elite team. There’s Dylan, a thirty-six-year-old transplant from Virginia who went to seamanship school in Florida and has worked the full Islesboro Marine Circuit for a decade now, and will haul anything where. He was once paid a handsome sum to drive two cocker spaniels to Washington, D.C., and on another occasion spent a week on his charter boat, the island raider, driver two idle people he discovers that I know from New York (“He kept wiggling his penis at her,” Dylan reports, and I clarify that they’re not really friends so much as nightmares). I stress that we also need to have a brave teenager if we are going to get into any fearless snooping, so Dylan recruits Shamus, a sixteen-year-old with several years of experience on lobster boats, who seems understandably confused as to my intentions but generally cool with the diet.
I find myself thinking often of the teens on this weird island in these weird times, teens like anywhere else, teens like nowhere else.
Earlier this year, two teenagers were in a car accident and were not injured, but knocked out power to half the island for “days” (more like a few hours). A man from a posh old family wrote on Facebook that the teenagers were drunk and he wanted to kill them, for which he was expelled from the yacht club.
Now the teenagers are booing in the night somewhere behind the spruce, in the pool house. In the afternoon they invite me from the main house to their party with “chips and soda”, but I refuse, then at three in the morning I lay awake wondering if I should offer to take them back at home.
The teenagers put up a sign renaming the common ground Beckett’s Landing.
The teens donated their senior trip money to help set up vaccination clinics.
The teenagers have their own lobster boat and sell their catch directly to David Geffen’s yacht.
Teenagers (and a few recent ex-teenagers) tell me, “You learn to operate in different ways and make peace with those you don’t really like,” because your class can have three members. They tell me: “I was fifteen, in Paris, and I realized that I didn’t know how to make friends. They tell me, “People aren’t really dating, or it’s not worth it.” They tell me, “Parents are a little relaxed about relatives on the mainland and sleep at home, because transportation is so difficult. They tell me: “I saw Travolta leave once, I saw his reflection in the mirror.” They tell me: “I never saw him, he was always around the corner.” They say to me, lighting up at the prospect of gossip: “There is this time, at school, no, it is not really anything. They tell me, “The deeper you are, the smaller it gets, until you find me there.”
Islesboro is in Penobscot Bay, at the far north end of the Midcoast. The city of Islesboro includes about fifteen smaller islands apart from the main island, also Islesboro, which was called Long Island until the end of the 19th century. The island, which is about half the size of Manhattan – another inverted synecdoche when called “the city” – consists of two comparably sized lobes, north and south, connected by an isthmus that narrows at high tide about forty feet, where riprap on the Atlantic side prevents storm surges from washing out the main road.
Before the rise of modern vacation travel, high-minded rustics had ventured north to places like Bar Harbor and Islesboro in search of the wholesome coastal energies they saw in paintings. of landscapes. In the 1880s, they were followed by the Golden Age wealthy, who ushered in a property-building hobby that had its last sustained boom between World War I and the Depression. Men who had worked land and sea now found positions as coachmen, gardeners, and winter watchmen; those who were still fishing now had regular customers for the summer; women without formal employment took care of the kitchens and laundries. After World War II, the holiday scene shifted away from linens and silverware and servants transported from the Main Line and Back Bay—Typhoid Mary had been brought in to work in an Islesboro household—and a new economic symbiosis between islanders and summer visitors has emerged. Generations of an island family could work for a summer clan. Some members of the nobility might prosper and, over the decades, expand their presence to other households, while others might become penniless and cede their properties to those still or newly wealthy.
The pre-industrial charm that attracted visitors, writes journalist Colin Woodard, was actually a state of post-industrial decline from which Maine never recovered. Much of the region’s economy collapsed after the Civil War, with changes in transportation, refrigeration and construction technologies triggering a collapse in granite quarries, shipbuilding, logging , fishing and ice harvesting. Between 1860 and 1910, Waldo County, of which Islesboro is a part, lost 40% of its population. Wealthy families who set up seasonal outposts on the island sought to preserve its fallen bucolic condition, for example by banning cars until 1933 and proposing legislation to prevent people all year round from throwing away their course with the things of life. Another long-standing relationship is thus established: the brooding pride of the salt-of-the-earth islanders rubbing shoulders with the pretensions of summer visitors.
For the rich, the scene became a kind of anti-Newport, meaning the money was there, but subdued: the island’s yacht club is an ontologically ramshackle shack but is, some say, the most exclusive institution of its kind on the East Coast. . I meet Francie Train, probably the last leading lady of Islesboro’s heyday as a low-key treasure of Wasp coastal frolic, a time when JP Morgan ran aground in his yacht, Taft and Lindbergh and Hepburn and the boys Kennedy and Nixon passing by. In the 60s it was a world suspended in erotic tension, slightly worn polish, tone and hedonism, rules and rule breaking.
In Francie’s more sedate childhood in the 1930s, filled with flounder fishing and soporific dancing, she would take a buckboard (or, on occasion, a surrey with a fringe on top) to the island, where his great-uncle, George WC Drexel, had built his mansion atop Coombs Bluff, away from the crowds of Dark Harbor who didn’t want to be disturbed by his snowshoe racing boat, Argo, who was the fastest in the world until he wasn’t anymore, at which point he scuttled him to keep him out of incompetent hands. It was the Drexel mansion – known in Islesboro’s understated artistic term as a “cottage” and effortlessly given the Swedish-origin name “Gripsholm” – that eventually found its way into the hands of John Travolta. .
Michael Hutcherson, a year-round resident, the one who got me to watch The boy in the plastic bubble, tell me a story.
He and his wife, Pam, are about to go to bed when they hear cars racing to the end of their gravel road.
“Nice cars, not redneck cars.”
Sounds like Mike like a party.
“’Damn frat kids,’ I think, and walk out. Don’t take a flashlight, I don’t want to scare them.
A little red Jetta wagon pulls up, this strange chinless man in the driver’s seat.
“A woman sticks her head out the back window and says, ‘I’m so sorry, we got our car stuck at the end of the road, is that your property? Don’t worry, we called Cliff, he’ll come out later late.
“I’m looking to my right and a Rolls-Royce is in a ditch with one wheel in the air. A vintage silver shadow.
“I say, ‘Oh, that’s Travolta’s car.’
“‘Yeah yeah, I know, I’m Kelly Preston.’
“Then I look in the passenger seat and I see Travolta with a really tight baseball cap. ‘Ah, I know, that’s my car.’
“So she gets into all this spiel trying to explain why they were driving down the end of our road in the middle of the night, and none of it really makes sense unless you understand that these people are a kinda like. . . space aliens. They don’t do drugs or even drink, they’re totally straight. They do things like that all the time for no reason. And they frequently lock their keys in their car. It’s exceptionally rare for them to be seen off their property, even on their property, during the day – there’s this whole lore about how they’re vampires or something. Anyway, they had friends in town and were driving around trying to show them a house for sale.
Mike assures them that there are no houses for sale nearby. But Preston is sure of it.
“’No, there is one that is definitely for sale. A pink house! ”
Mike tells her there’s a pink house next door, but it’s definitely not for sale.
“’Okay, we’ll just go up the road. I think it’s somewhere around here. ”
Fifteen minutes later, Mike receives a text from his friend Josh: “’Hey, the weirdest thing that’s happened, we got pushed around by people in Hollywood. Did they stop at your place? They said they knew you. ”
Josh also explains to Mike that the Jetta’s chinless driver was an actor on the show. Friends named David Schwimmer.
So they arrived at Josh’s. Out jumps Travolta. “’Oh hi, it’s me, don’t worry, John Travolta. It’s me, John Travolta. ”
They explain that they are looking for this mythical house for sale.
“The next day Cliff and Laura came and got the Rolls out and took it to the scrapyard, and there it sat for God knows how long.”