An outsider dips into an aristocratic world

But the boundaries are clearly drawn.

Jim Young/Reuters/File
President Obama (r.) and his wife Michelle (2nd from r.) walked along a trail with their daughters Sasha (center) and Malia on Cadillac Mountain in Bar Harbor, Maine, last July.

Strange that Barack Obama and I, two rootless cosmopolitans, should be attracted to Bar Harbor, Maine, the historic home of Society's 400.

I was surprised when the former community organizer went there to bike on roads created by John D. Rockefeller Jr. Of all the places he could have picked, he chose a vacation whizzing around the edges of the old establishment. I wondered what the appeal was for this man who is an outsider even in the White House.

Reading about President Obama's trip revived my early infatuation with America's aristocracy. As an 8-year-old I studied a book about table settings for my fantasy black-tie dinners while living in a house with rugs full of holes. On drives in my father's dented car, I asked to be taken past mansions so I could peer in windows at worlds better than mine, or at least more beautiful. Then and now, it was an aesthetic attraction to the upper class, not a hankering after their money or status. I do envy their air of entitlement and assurance, the absence of which keeps someone like me feeling alien even when passing socially.

I never wanted their values and, as I grew older, disapproved of their politics. That split between my aesthetic and my political inclinations complicated my life even in small ways. I once joined the Society for Creative Anachronism. You were required to invent a historically specific, imaginary identity for yourself. I had a hard time putting my two parts together. Finally, I decided to be the daughter of a Renaissance duke and the stunning peasant woman he married. That way I could have the art and intellectual life allowed women at the Italian court while helping my mother smuggle money to the peasant leagues fighting for their rights.

That split tugged at me when I considered following Obama's footsteps to Bar Harbor and nearby towns where the upper class summers. I tipped toward the trip during a professional conversation in New York with charming "D," who is from old money and has a home in Northeast Harbor. "We don't welcome people who are too Hamptonish," he teased, "but we do have some Democrats like Zbigniew Brzezinski." The Pole is from a noble family. He fitted perfectly.

But not Obama. D, his good manners flecked with condescension, said, "It was obvious during his trip that Obama is an outsider. He didn't know the right restaurants or towns to visit." Then D scribbled the names of the proper places on a piece of paper and handed me an insider's guide to his world. How could I not take it and leave for Maine?

In Bar Harbor, I headed for the historic district and slipped into the late 1800s when the Astors and Vanderbilts arrived. One mansion had a plaque. Assuming it was a museum, I barged in on a man running around in undershorts. After I improvised an explanation, he offered a tour while assuring my political self that money made in the slave trade hadn't built the mansion. The one discordant note was a picture of Bob Dylan. It turned out my tour leader was a former 1960s activist whose grandfather was a blue-collar socialist. He was another antiestablishment outsider.

Still, I hadn't come to Maine for outsiders. To roll around in D's world, I bused to the Jordan Pond House for tea and popovers. Undeterred by hard rain, I went to the Asticou Inn, where I pretended I lived in the elegant 1901 house and moved through it to a silent waltz. Finally, the bus dropped me in Northeast Harbor, where outsider Obama hadn't gone.

Intrepid or obsessed, I struggled uphill against wind and rain toward the Pine Tree Market where D said local dramas happen. I arrived just as the storm blew out the lights. In the market's gloom I could make out customers lining up to pay for food.

It was near the register that one of the scenes D had told me about took place. A celebrity who had just bought a home in town cut ahead and expected the cashier to serve her. An old man with groceries standing behind her quietly said, "Stop giving the girl a hard time."

"I'm ...," she repeated. "Who are you?"

"I'm David Rockefeller," the scion replied, "Now go to the back of the line." He sent her to permanent outsiderhood.

Doing my own observation of tribal behavior at the market was as far as I got into D's world. He wouldn't tell me where he lived, drawing a firm boundary between me and his closed society.

I was still the little match girl with my nose pressed against the glass, but more so. I couldn't even find his windowpane.

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