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North by Northeast

Evenings end early in Northeast Harbor. There isn't much to do. There are no nightclubs, no bars, no revelers waiting to get past a velvet rope. The very idea of spotting a Page Six celebrity makes the gentry break out in hives. (Martha Stewart's arrival five years ago was met with tangible resistance, though the hackles have been lowered since.) The closest thing to nightlife is the Docksider Restaurant, which serves lobster and steamers on paper plates and closes at 9 p.m.

Most of the entertaining takes place at home—having friends over for drinks or dinner. A festive night might include a spirited game of charades or an evening of special entertainment. It's the same today as it was 50 years ago, when Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, famed naval historian and descendant of Charles W. Eliot, held this kind of event on the porch of his family cottage, Good Hope. His wife played piano and sang. Morison read an essay he later expanded into what is still the definitive book on the island's history, The Story of Mount Desert Island. "Mount Desert is not merely an island," he wrote. "It is a way of life to which one becomes addicted."

Through a friend I arrange a meeting with Wendy Beck, Admiral Morison's daughter, who still summers at Good Hope. Perhaps meeting is too formal a term. "Do you want to come over for a swim?" asks Wendy, now in her eighties, when I reach her on the phone. "Give me half an hour. I'm going skinny-dipping, and I don't want to subject you to that."

I give her 40 minutes, and then we sit by the pool and open a bottle of wine. "I don't mind getting blotto," she says, as we proceed to drain the bottle. The cocktail hour is a blue-blooded tradition, and as we ascend its graces Wendy becomes ever more animated, gossiping and narrating at a mile a minute. As a member of the Eliot family, Wendy has access to all the goings-on of Northeast Harbor society. She turns radiant when talking about Brooke Astor, the Queen Mother of Mount Desert, who often attended Wendy's Fourth of July parties.

Though Wendy has many Eliot cousins, she rarely sees them. All the old families are growing, splitting, becoming strangers to one another. The money dilutes, the bonds of affection fracture. The town's clubs—swimming, tennis—hold the community together. Supreme of all is sailing. The Fleet, as the yacht club here is called, remains a bastion of continuity. Members still race the sleek International One Design yachts that were unloaded into the harbor from a Norwegian freighter in the thirties. Sailing in Maine requires a cheerful acceptance of cold and wet, but Wendy still relishes any opportunity to take to the water.

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