IT'S THAT TIME of year again when we beach lovers are getting a restless urge to go someplace -- but not too far -- where we can feel the sand in our toes, the wind in our hair and the ocean spray in our face. Spring, we know is on the way, but has not arrived, and although Rehoboth and Ocean City have plenty of sand, wind and water, it also is still pretty cold on the Shore, especially in the ocean.
So the obvious thing to do is go just far enough south to meet the spring coming our way, to find a place where we can lie in the sun for a few days (or play a little golf or tennis if that's your bag--or racket) and dream about how good everything is going to be when the warm sun and waters work their way north. And the most likely place to find this kind of weather--without having to go all the way down the Atlantic Coast of Florida or over to the Gulf of Mexico--is on the Sea Islands of Georgia, which enjoy Gulf Stream breezes and currents and a semitropical climate known to produce temperatures in the high 80s in March and April.
In fact, in matters of this sort, it generally is a good idea to follow the rich; and once upon a time, in the good old post-Civil War days, a group of New York's wealthiest picked one of the Georgia Islands as a site for what soon became perhaps the most exclusive resort in the world--the Jekyll Island Club.
Jekyll Island, as most Washingtonians will remember, is the place where the White House press corps stayed when former president Jimmy Carter visited Sea Island to the north. And there is a story about Jekyll that has been perpetuated not only by journalists, such as myself, but by the expert of experts on Society and resorts, Cleveland Amory. To wit: that Jekyll Island was chosen as a site for an exclusive club only after two Johns Hopkins Medical School doctors had spent two years (paid for by the kind of men who did not have to ask how much it cost to buy a yacht--or an island) looking for the ideal spot on the face of the earth (and not too far from Wall Street) to build a winter retreat. The paradise they finally recommended, so the story goes, was the "Golden Isles" of Georgia--Sea Island, St. Simons and Jekyll. The one that looked most appropriate was the 9.5-mile-long, 1-mile-wide Jekyll, which they bought from the family that owned it for $125,000 in 1886 dollars.
The problem with this story is that the Johns Hopkins Medical School did not open its doors until 1893, nine years after the good doctors were reported to have started their two-year search for the Eden where robber barons could get away from exploiting and accumulating long enough to do a little boar hunting, golfing and bathing. More careful research has shown that the origin of the Jekyll Island Club was a little less dramatic.
In April 1885, Newton Finney, a wealthy member of New York's exclusive Union Club, gathered a group of friends together for a hunting trip and headed south for Jekyll Island, which happened to belong to his wife's family. Thirty years before, when young Finney was a Coast Guard surveyor assigned to map the harbor of St. Simons, he had met, fallen in love with and married Josephine du Bignon. He often visited Jekyll and after the Civil War , the richer he became in his shipping business, the more he had time to visit it. On this particular trip, when he and his friends were sitting around the fire sipping their bourbon, it was agreed that Jekyll, with its perfect climate and rich armies of deer, wild turkey and quail, would make a fine hunting retreat.
However, Finney's host and wife's brother, John Eugene du Bignon, was not certain the rest of the family would agree to sell. So du Bignon spent the following year quietly buying out his relatives. On April 4, 1886, the headline over a short article in the New York Times announced: A New Winter Club One of the Old Sea Islands Acquired by a Party of Wealthy Gentlemen
The Finney story was not as promotional as the Johns Hopkins doctors' version, but it makes the same point: some of the richest men of America's Gilded Age agreed that Jekyll Island was the perfect place for a winter retreat. And the way I feel is that if these men, who had considered all the other winter resorts and found them wanting, agreed to part with thousands of their cherished dollars to find a place to spend a winter (their "season" was from Jan. 1 to Easter), then it must be a pretty good spot for the less affluent like myself to visit a few days in March or April.
The Times article also said: "It is predicted that the Jekyll Island Club is going to be the 'swell' club the creme de la creme of all," something of an understatement. The first thing they did was to limit membership to 100 members who must have had at least $1 million. But at first the Club only admitted 59 members and never in its history did it have a full roster of 100. After the club had been operating a few years, it was said there were only three ways to gain admission: marry into it, inherit a membership--or ingratiate yourself with old J.P. (Morgan). For it gradually became apparent that Morgan used the Club to do favors for the men who worked for him or with whom he did business.
Some of the best-known early members of the Club were Morgan; Joseph Pulitzer; William Rockefeller (curiously, John D. dropped his membership after first agreeing to join); William K. Vanderbilt; Sen. Nelson Aldrich; James J. Hill; George F. Baker, F.H. Goodyear, and Pierre Lorillard. They built a 125-room clubhouse and perhaps the country's first condominium, called the Sans Souci; its principal tenants were Morgan and Rockefeller. Each member also was allowed a five-acre plot, and many of the families built their own "cottages," most of them grouped in a semicircle around the clubhouse and the Sans Souci.
And it did, indeed, turn out to be the perfect retreat. As one member put it: "For 60 years no unwanted foot ever touched the island." Guests, no matter how wealthy, only were allowed to stay two weeks, and unruly members (like the gentleman who was found with one of the serving girls in an empty bedroom, and another who arrived with a yachtful of ladies of questionable virtue) quickly were asked to resign. In 1910, when Aldrich and four financial experts wanted a place to meet in secret to reform the country's banking system, they faked a hunting trip to Jekyll and for 10 days holed up in the Clubhouse, where they made plans for what eventually would become the Federal Reserve Bank.
It was great while it lasted, but by the time World War II came along, Jekyll was in decline: The new tax laws made it more difficult to maintain the large lavish resorts, like Newport, Saratoga, Bar Harbor and Tuxedo Park and, anyway, the rich did not just want to own an island--they wanted to become one, which was getting harder and harder to do.
Also, during the war it was not very fashionable to retreat to an exclusive club to play golf while our boys were getting killed over there to preserve the fortunes that made it all possible. As far as Jekyll was concerned, the sons and daughters of the men who had built industrial America considered the closed society on the island a crashing bore. Finally, after a German submarine was sighted off the coast, the government decided it was not wise to have families controlling one-sixth of the world's wealth concentrated in such an indefensible place.
The State of Georgia closed the resort. Then, in 1947, it bought the property from the millionaires for $655,000, restored the remaining buildings and ran the area for 30 years as a state park, a sort of rich man's Williamsburg.
But the winds are shifting again on Jekyll. A couple of years ago the park almost went bankrupt, and so the legislature decided to shift the promotional focus from a park museum to a modern tourist resort, catering to vacationing families, honeymooners and business conventions. They also hired some sharp professional promoters--such as Robert Henry and Dr. Tom Rose--with proven track records in promoting other resorts to make people forget that Jekyll is a museum and remind them that it also is a resort with beautiful beaches, good late-winter climate, plenty of golf courses and tennis courts, fishing, bird-watching and biking and that it is closer than Florida.
Jekyll has five fine motels and a complex of villas strung out along the ocean front and numerous private homes are available for rent--tourists can find out in advance about availability of accommodations (recommended) by calling 1-800-841-6586.
There also is fresh shrimp to be had at the wharf facing the channel where Joseph Pulitzer once dropped the hook of his "Liberty," J.P. Morgan anchored his "Corsair IV," and other members tied up their smaller yachts. And I strongly urge you to rent a room with a stove so you can cook your own shrimp--the freshest and tastiest I ever have eaten. But, most important, the sun is warm and the ocean swimmable in late February.
The only way to travel to Jekyll, of course, is the way the millionaires did--by yacht or a private railroad car. But, if you prefer, you can make the 600-plus miles to Jekyll by automobile in one day going straight down I-95 to Brunswick, Ga.--although it is more relaxing to swing over to the coast somewhere in North Carolina and proceed leisurely (taking a second day) down the coast highway, U.S. 17.
And you don't have to worry about getting on the island. They have a causeway to Jekyll now and they let anyone come over--even reporters.
Roy Hoopes is the author of the recently published "Cain," a biography of the late James M. Cain, and currently is working on a biography of Ralph Ingersoll.