But Tennant was better with parties than he was with money—he sold everything, from Cotton House to family heirlooms, to subsidize the island—and in 1976 Mustique was dead in the water. “He was the greatest dreamer but he hated accounting,” Basil Charles says. Tennant finally sold a controlling interest to Hans Neumann, a Venezuelan homeowner, and his influence waned.
In 1979, Neumann turned management over to Brian Alexander, son of World War II hero Field Marshal Harold Alexander, who sold more houses, stabilized the island’s economy, and began to move Mustique out of its neo-feudal period, even as the culture remained, as he puts it, a “benevolent paternalism.” Under Alexander, for example, the Mustique Company built homes for the island’s Vincentian workers in a little village beside Britannia Bay, as well as bunkhouses for construction workers who’d previously lived on building sites.
The villas—most but not all of which are available for rent—are Mustique’s principal lure. My wife and I stayed in Blue Waters, one of the first Messel houses, and one of the least expensive on the island. It turned out to be a charming, if faded, architectural gem, with sweeping views from the back terrace over the swimming pool and Endeavor Bay to the islands of Canouan and Bequia beyond. Stone steps lead to a bay where a reef is literally an arm’s length away—it became our favorite swimming hole.
Many visitors rent larger villas, like Princess Margaret’s Les Jolies Eaux, with its chintz fabrics, mini-Versailles gardens, private beach, and framed, autographed photograph of Margaret Thatcher; or the 10-bedroom Yemanja, which overlooks two bays and has sprawling gardens surrounding two boulder-fringed pools and a waterfall.
The island’s main hotel—originally conceived as a guesthouse for homeowners—has evolved over the years into a stand-alone destination. The Cotton House is now a full-service property with a pool, a historic windmill, two restaurants, and a spa. Though its beach (the same one as is beneath Blue Waters) is rocky, a pier provides access to deeper water, and there is swimming and snorkeling right offshore, and a vast array of marine life, including fields of sea urchins. We even saw a baby electric ray.
The Mustique Company runs it all, generating and selling power and water (from its own desalinization plant, which augments the cisterns at every house), and collecting a percentage from rentals and the equivalent of taxes, which nets profits of about $2–$3 million per year that are then reinvested in the island. It does some things very well—in particular, it upholds the integrity of Tennant’s original vision of an island defined by exclusivity and refinement, which now passes as eco-friendliness. All building plans must be approved by a board of shareholders. The company owns the south side of the island, and for the present, at least, vows to maintain it as a greenbelt. And a few years ago, the shareholders decided to take 10 of the legal building lots off the market.
Still, the true soul of Mustique is not to be found in the homes of the rich. Rather, it resides in the vicinity of Basil’s Bar and in the story of its owner, a Vincentian who was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2005. Charles has been working here since the early 70’s, first as a bartender at Cotton House, then as the island’s assistant manager. Tennant was notoriously difficult, but somehow Charles got along with him, and when Tennant sold the Mustique Company in 1976, he proposed they become partners in a bar and gave Charles a quarter share. Some years later, backed by several homeowners, Charles bought Tennant out and eventually did the same with most of his later partners as well. Before that, though, “I became Public Enemy No. 1,” Charles says. “They wanted the bar to become a private club. I said, ‘What about the local people?’ People wouldn’t come for barbecue because their gardeners were here. I said, ‘Your gardener would take a bullet for you.’” And in the meantime, he became successful enough to buy two houses and become a Mustique shareholder, too.
“I still give them hell,” Charles says. He fought to upgrade the workers’ village and, recently, the company’s ferry, which he found totally inadequate. “They live in an unreal world,” he fumes of those who oppose the upgrades. “They don’t live here.
“Look,” Charles says, “nothing is perfect; the workers need a little bit more.” Still, he loves this place. “People ask me where I’m from and I say, ‘I don’t know where heaven is, but I live just next door.’”
Michael Gross’s latest book, Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum, will be published in May by Broadway Books.