Life As a Summer Cottager in Bar Harbor’s Gilded Age
By Shana Abé, author of The Second Mrs. Astor
In the golden summer of 1910, John Jacob Astor IV, the richest man in America, decided to forgo spending the summer at Beechwood, his Italianate cottage in Newport, Rhode Island. Instead, he went to Bar Harbor, Maine, a slightly smaller, less formal summer retreat for the wealthy, where he began a courtship with young and vivacious socialite Madeleine Force.
What was it like to be a member of Bar Harbor’s summer colony back then?
It was a fleeting, luxurious world of yachts and dinner parties, of tennis and croquet, swimming and sailing, theater and symphonies and moonlit dances. Bar Harbor, that sparkling jewel of an island town, offered any number of pleasurable pastimes for those with the means to seek them out.
What Is a Cottage?
To be clear, what you and I may think of as a cottage was nothing like what the fashionables of the day did. A “cottage” in Newport or Bar Harbor was a mansion, composed of marble or limestone, brick, or cedar, and filled with the finest, most elegant décor. The cottages varied in size and grandeur, but they all had one thing in common: You had to be very, very rich to own one, and you only stayed there for the summer season.
Cottages might also be leased for the season to another family, if for some reason you could not be there yourself. And some of the summer visitors didn’t bother living on land at all but, instead, spent the season residing in the more compact splendor of their private yachts, anchored in Frenchman Bay. But no matter where you stayed, the town of Bar Harbor was where you spent your time. Because why else come at all, unless it was to see and be seen?
How to Spend Your Gilded Hours
Like most retreats for the well-to-do, Bar Harbor was about diversions: entertaining, athletic, or intellectual. There were clubs to be joined, restaurants to be tried, soirées to attend, musical or theatrical performances to be appreciated.
Jack and Madeleine might have enjoyed getting to know each other while strolling along the bucolic Shore Path, lined with birches and firs, offering expansive views of Mount Desert’s eastern shore. Or perhaps they spent more time in the town’s Village Green, admiring its bandstand and gardens.
But Madeleine was something of a sportswoman, so they might have gone canoeing, another popular pastime in the calm waters. She was also an avid equestrian, so a visit to the horse races at the Robin Hood Park Raceway would have been a must.
The Casino (not a gambling parlor) offered spacious chambers for dances, plays, graduations, and athletic games.
The beautiful and recently completed Building of Arts was a marble palace where the cottagers could go to listen to orchestras, attend lectures by visiting professionals, or enjoy shows presented by some of the notable actors and dancers of the day.
The Kebo Valley Golf Club hosted some of society’s finest luminaries on its nine-hole course, and the Bar Harbor Swimming Club had its own walled-off saltwater pool in the bay, along with tennis courts and a bath house.
In short, there was always something to do, but this was, after all, your vacation, and the social whirl could easily prove exhausting. Why not spend a few days simply relaxing in a hammock on your porch, reading or daydreaming, listening to the breeze murmur through the trees?
Unfortunately, in 1947 a horrific fire tore through the town, and many of these fabulous mansions and venues were destroyed. Yet they live on in stored images, in local lore, and in books such as my own novel The Second Mrs. Astor.
About THE SECOND MRS. ASTOR
In 1910, Jack Astor was among the richest men in the world. Madeleine Force was a beautiful teenaged debutante suddenly thrust into fame simply for falling in love with a famous man nearly three decades her senior. From their scandalous courtship to their catastrophic honeymoon aboard the Titanic—a tragedy that transformed a pregnant Madeleine into the American Princess Diana of her time—their love story is brought to life in this captivating work of historical fiction by New York Times best-selling novelist Shana Abé.
Madeleine Force is just seventeen when she attracts the attention of John Jacob “Jack” Astor. Jack is dashing and industrious—a hero of the Spanish-American war, an inventor, and a canny businessman. Despite their twenty-nine-year age difference and the scandal of Jack’s recent divorce, Madeleine falls headlong into love—and becomes the press’s favorite target.
Marrying after a yearlong courtship that’s constantly in the tabloids, the couple flees to Egypt for an extended honeymoon. There they finally find a measure of peace from photographers and journalists, and they only decide to return in the spring of 1912, when Madeleine is five months pregnant. They book a trip home aboard an opulent new ocean liner: the RMS Titanic … .
Four months later, at the Astors’ Fifth Avenue mansion, a widowed Madeleine gives birth to their son. In the wake of the disaster, the press has elevated her to the status of virtuous, tragic heroine. But Madeleine’s most important decision still lies ahead: whether to accept the role assigned to her or carve out her own remarkable path.
Praise for The Second Mrs. Astor
“Abé is an exquisite storyteller, gracefully transporting the reader from Newport to Egypt to the cold seas of the Atlantic. Rich in detail and deeply moving.” —Fiona Davis, New York Times best-selling author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue
“Through Madeleine, we see a young woman fall in love with America’s wealthiest man, the society scandal that follows, a level of media intrusion not dissimilar to that endured by a young Princess Diana, and, of course, the tragic events that unfold during Titanic’s maiden voyage … a touching, compelling, and haunting love story that will delight fans of historical fiction and enthrall those of us for whom the Titanic will always fascinate.” —Hazel Gaynor, New York Times best-selling author of When We Were Young and Brave
“Abé’s intimate prose brings to life a fascinating and heartbreaking piece of history. A harrowing and yet ultimately hopeful tale of survival and courage, fate and love, and the ultimate question of who do we become after great loss. The Second Mrs. Astor is historical fiction at its gripping and irresistible best.” —Patti Callahan, New York Times best-selling author of Surviving Savannah and Becoming Mrs. Lewis
Shana Abé is the award-winning New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today best-selling author of more than a dozen novels. She lives in the mountains of Colorado and can be found online at ShanaAbe.com.