The psychology of island fever reveals a persistent behavioral pattern: our penchant for replicating what we seek to escape. Somewhere deep within our collective brain has gelled a fascination with these ocean-bound enclaves that feeds the desire for a second chance—the opportunity to start our long social experiment afresh, presumably with the intent of getting it right on the second try. Whether wooded or rocky or tropically lush, these punctuation marks on the fluid, blue prose of the sea summon a sense of loss and a longing belief that places exist where the depredations of society cannot overtake us. Yet inevitably they do: Eden, after all, may be regarded as our first island experiment.
We have since fanned out in search of unspoiled islands, not all of them paradises. Roman Emperor Tiberius employed one such disappointment—the cramped isle of Pandateria—as an oubliette on which to deposit his nephew Germanicus’ wife, Agrippina, who starved to death. Perhaps the eternal peace she achieved there encouraged him, decades later, while on a tour of southern Italy, to tarry on the island of Capri, where he took up permanent residence, making this future international watering hole one of the prototypical private island resorts. The idyllic setting, however, did not long withstand the vices of the imperial court. Tiberius soon ordered the construction of a series of elaborate villas to ring the island. These opulent halls, crammed with the treasures of his empire, came equipped with elaborate torture facilities to furnish the emperor with suitable entertainments; once a performance ended, the victims were hurled from a cliff known as Salto di Tiberio (Tiberius’ Jump), where the ruins of a Roman lighthouse still stand.
Island idylls in the New World provided soil in which decadence could flower. The 1639 settlement on New England’s Aquidneck Island served as a haven from the Puritan regime in Boston for religious refugees, who purchased the island from the Native Americans. A band of these colonists, led by William Coddington and Nicholas Easton, later moved south and established Newport. Its townspeople were committed in the wake of their persecution to form a society predicated on the separation of church and state, and their 17th-century outpost rapidly attracted an array of ideological exiles, notably Jews and Quakers. The principled asceticism of the latter in the 18th century informed the town’s simple architecture and plain manners, which persisted, even as Newport’s fortunes burgeoned through trade in silver, lumber, rum, and molasses. But this homespun prosperity collapsed with the British invasion of 1776, and the post-Revolutionary Newporters, though spared the machine-driven despotism of the Industrial Revolution, were forced to cater to its despots nonetheless. The shingled cottages that dotted the shores by the end of the 19th century fell to the granite and white-marble “cottages” that the caesars of the Gilded Age—the Fishes, Belmonts, Griswolds, and, of course, Vanderbilts—constructed like unwieldy temples to Mammon on the once pastoral cliffs.
Not all plutocrats of the era established their individual kingdoms in Newport, however. The James Roosevelts—doubtless at the insistence of Sara, a Delano, whose icy superiority required less temperate and less congested climes—chose the isolated Campobello Island in New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy as their summer sanctuary. Here, Sara purchased a 34-room cottage for herself and her son, Franklin, who, throughout his boyhood, would swim, fish, and sail among the island’s brisk coves and shoals. The bracing air and sea (as much as his mother’s equally bracing hauteur) forged Franklin’s character—and at no time more decisively than on the August day in 1921, when, after a chilly swim, he was stricken with the poliomyelitis that would leave him crippled. This blow burnished the steely determination that would enable this American Tiberius, as a four-term president, to reinvent the faltering U.S. economy and pull the nation—itself an ideological island—into the second World War. In the process, Roosevelt would flirt with the autocratic powers of a monarch and leave the world a far less innocent place than he found it. But unlike Tiberius, he would preserve his beloved island, part of which is now an international park that has somewhat astonishingly remained the kind of private paradise we all, at some point, search for.