BAR HARBOR — Authors Dan and Leslie Landrigan will be at the Jesup Memorial Library on Thursday, May 23, at 7 p.m. for the launch of their book “Bar Harbor Babylon: Murder, Misfortune, and Scandal on Mount Desert Island.” Copies of the book will be on sale that night courtesy of co-sponsor Sherman’s Books.
“It’s evident when you get to MDI that something happened here,” said Dan Landrigan. “During the Cottage Era, for a hundred years or so, it was a booming place. Naturally, when rich people get together, bad things happen.”
Leslie Landrigan added that she and her husband both worked as reporters, and they knew how to uncover a story.
To dig up the stories of the rich and famous of Mount Desert Island’s past, the Landrigans turned to old texts: newspapers and out of print books. “It was front page news back then,” explained Leslie Landrigan.
Dan Landrigan added that the public, then as now, had an appetite to read about “billionaires behaving badly.”
In addition to newspapers, “There are a couple books around that are out of print, that we dug up,” Leslie Landrigan said. Some of the wealthy families, like the Vanderbilts and the Whites, had biographies written, which the Landigrans combed for Bar Harbor-related anecdotes.
When asked what story was his favorite, Dan Landrigan said “I sort of was fascinated by Clarence Cook Little, founder of Jackson Laboratory. You know him today for the legacy of the research … but he himself was a eugenicist and had some really ugly beliefs.”
Little worked as a scientific spokesman for the tobacco industry after leaving Jackson Lab. Dan Landrigan noted the irony, saying “He caused so much cancer and did so much to cure cancer.”
Leslie Landrigan was intrigued by “the fabulous McLeans” a wealthy couple who summered on MDI. “They bought the Hope Diamond, which supposedly brought them bad luck.” Though their story did end badly, Leslie Landrigan attributed this to “money [problems], alcohol addiction, and insanity.”
After a lavish and outlandish lifestyle that involved keeping a pet seal and bringing a bear to a brothel, Edward Beale McLean died in an insane asylum while his wife Evelyn “died in a Washington mansion, out of money, with plaster crumbling,” said Leslie Landrigan.
The Bar Harbor Fire of 1947 erased many of the remains of the opulent lifestyle that “was declining anyway,” said Dan Landrigan. “A lot of the old money families were struggling to maintain the mansions.”
For example, said Leslie Landrigan, all that now remains of the Vanderbilts’ multiple mansions on MDI are a single hunting lodge and a marker in Acadia National Park. “Many of their mansions burned, and some were torn down,” she said.
Leslie Landrigan said she and her husband intended the book to be “a fun summer read. Hopefully we succeeded.”
The Landrigans are the authors of the blog New England Historical Society. With backgrounds in journalism and publishing, they now live in Stonington, where they pursue their passionate interest in history.