“Belle Mer” means “beautiful sea” in French, and it is not only the title of this short story, but also the name of the oceanfront house where the main character goes for summer vacation. The house name evokes the peace and tranquility of a summer idyll, yet belies how suddenly contentment can veer into terror, with the need to face the darkest secrets a person can keep.
When I was young, my grandmother would sing us an old song called “By the Beautiful Sea”. It has affected my whole life. Our family spent summers at her beach cottage, and on most of the vacations I’ve ever taken, I’ve sought out beaches and oceans, rocky coastlines, salt water bays, and tidal pools. No matter how brightly the sunlight glitters on the water, I’ve found myself wondering about, and often researching, murders in the area.
Why is it that vacation spots make perfect crime settings? With dazzling views, free time to do what you love, historic hotels, majestic nature, and, possibly, someone to share the journey with, why look to the dark side? I trace it back to fairy tales. The princess’s turreted castle is magical from a distance, but up close it is tangled in vines, thorns, and poison berries, and she is trapped inside under a wicked spell.
The juxtaposition of beauty and the expectation of happiness, with the reality of the local police blotter, can be jarring. What goes on behind the windows of that cozy cottage with blue shutters, with window boxes full of white petunias and red geraniums? What are those women, their beach chairs drawn together in a circle, really talking about? Are they old friends catching up on each other’s lives? Are they sharing news about work promotions, training for a marathon, going back to school for a Master’s degree? Or has one of them been betrayed so viciously that she is plotting revenge?
One very-close-to-home murder occurred in a beloved summer village on the edge of Long Island Sound. It was August. The husband was away with his friends, delivering a sailboat from Rockland, Maine, back to the Connecticut shoreline. Meanwhile his wife, pregnant with their second child, lay murdered on their bed, a stone’s throw from the beach where people were swimming and sunbathing, planning where to go for a lobster dinner at sunset.
And yes, the husband did it. He’d left her body in the air-conditioned bedroom to confuse the medical examiner, then headed off to go sailing. The story captivated me and still does. I feel haunted by the thought of her dying on a beautiful summer day, strangled by the man she thought she loved.
I used that true-life crime to inspire LAST DAY. I wove heartbreak and violence into what at first appeared to be an innocent and beautiful Connecticut beach town. I horrified myself as I wrote, uncovering ugliness hiding behind the privet hedges, hydrangea borders, and Rosa rugosa.
“Belle Mer” takes place in Newport, Rhode Island, a centuries-old summer colony where robber barons built their marble palaces. Jacqueline Bouvier spent childhood summers at Hammersmith Farm and married John F. Kennedy at Saint Mary’s Church. In 1915, my grandparents met at a July dance at Easton’s Beach. My sister fell in love with a French sailor at a party under the Michelob tent at Newport Offshore, the summer he sailed for the America’s Cup aboard the 12-meter France 3, and they married a year later. Our family went to Newport almost every spring vacation.
Newport, with its stately houses, its façade of gentility, its yachting and club life, fishing families, Navy personnel, and working-class people who keep the mansions running, has inspired several of my novels, including my first—ANGELS ALL OVER TOWN .
The 1974 Great Gatsby was filmed at Rosecliff; parts of the HBO series The Gilded Age were filmed at the “summer cottages” Chateau-sur-Mer, the Elms, and the Breakers. It’s a town of old money and the nouveau riche, and people keep track. In Newport, nothing is as it seems. The town that attracts countless tourists and vacationers with promises of fun in the sun and nightlife on the wharves, holds stories of crimes long buried, deeply hidden.
One year, the owner of a fishing fleet purposely sank one of his lobster boats, with the crew aboard, for insurance money. That evil act inspired my novel BLUE MOON. And the title came from the old Blue Moon section of Newport known at the turn of the last century as “the bucket of blood”: where sailors drank, fought, and gambled, where women were traded like commodities. The old bars and boarding houses were torn down long ago, and now, in the Newport of today, the quarter is paved over with a street bustling with shops that sell straw hats, fake scrimshaw, linen dresses, and preppy polo shirts.
The summer I was nineteen, I worked as a maid in one of the grand houses on Bellevue Avenue.
The summer I was nineteen, I worked as a maid in one of the grand houses on Bellevue Avenue. The family spent winters in Palm Beach, spring and fall in New York, and summers in Newport. Their chauffeur drove them from the city in their Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. Each day they went to their cabana at Bailey’s Beach and came home suntanned and relaxed, ready for cocktails on the porch.
They talked about their crowd in terms of numbers: “the Joneses have 33”, “the Montmorencys have 250”, “the Kenmores have only 19”. They called the numbers “M’s”, and I came to learn that “M” stood for millions.
I served dinner in my uniform, a white dress with a dainty apron. After the dishes were done, I retired to my garret on the third floor, in the servants’ quarters, to gossip with the English nanny.
She told me about who in the family’s circle was having an affair with whom, who secretly drank and hid the vodka bottles, whose sordid past included an assumed identity and an abandoned child. She told of an heiress who lived down Bellevue Avenue and had more M’s than anyone. Right there in her driveway, the heiress had run over a man who was about to leave her. She blamed it on accidentally hitting the gas instead of the brake, but no one in town believed it was anything but murder.
Brendan Gill—the drama critic at The New Yorker, my friend and literary mentor—told me he feared I would fall prey to womanizing yachtsmen, so he appointed a friend to look after me. The friend and his wife were kind and charming. They would pick me up on my evenings off, take me to Clarendon Court—their estate, also on Bellevue Avenue—to listen to chamber music on their terrace overlooking the Atlantic.
The couple was Claus and Sunny Von Bulow. Years later, Claus was accused of trying to murder Sunny by injecting her with insulin, sending her into a coma from which she never recovered. He was convicted, acquitted on appeal, and left Newport forever. Their story was the subject of a Vanity Fair article by Dominick Dunne. Alan Dershowitz, Claus’s lawyer for the appeal, wrote the novel REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, and it later became a movie starring Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons.
The fascination with the Von Bulows continues. Clarendon Court is on all the local tours, a must-see for tourists who drive along Bellevue Avenue, craning their necks for a peek at the house where the terrible tragedy occurred.
That goes to show me that I’m not the only one drawn to chilling tales set in vacation paradises. Although New England getaway spots are particularly evocative—with their craggy coastlines, abandoned Victorian houses, haunted lighthouses, and the history of witch trials—I found some of my darkest inspiration in one of the sunniest places.
In 2010 I started to spend time in Malibu, California, a destination that fills you with dreams long before you get there. The house was on a cliff above the Pacific, in the lavender shadows of the Santa Monica Mountains. Covered with cascades of deep pink bougainvillea, it was set in a garden of agapanthus and white roses. It had a saltwater pool, a hot tub, and a deck that hung out over a steep canyon.
The sound of the waves, the feeling of warm air sweeping through the mountains from the desert, the scent of canyon sage and wild thyme, and the sense of being far away from the East Coast, lulled me into a state of pure inspiration. My Malibu sojourn became the basis for my novel THE LEMON ORCHARD.
The house came with a staff that had worked there for years. The pool guy seemed nice at first, but soon revealed a sinister side. He showed up more often than necessary to adjust the salinity and scoop oleander blossoms from the pool. He’d always say, “I know you’re busy, I don’t want to interrupt you,” then proceed to talk nonstop about the property’s history.
He started off with enticing stories. Robert Redford had once rented the house. A cookbook author stayed there one June and gave a party that lasted until sunrise, ending with guests jumping into the pool. A Brazilian couple got married in the garden. He spun tales of fame, fun, and romance.
But then he’d get down to it. Beware of the rattlesnake that gets into the house and suns itself on the dining room floor. Never walk barefoot across the lawn at night: scorpions hide in the grass. Mountain lions slink down from the hills, and if they detect my indoor cats, they will stay all night, stalking back and forth beneath my bedroom window, trying to get in. He liked to scare me: I never saw a rattler or a scorpion, and although I wished I could see a mountain lion, I never did.
He told me the band Whitesnake had once rented the house, and the first time his son ever saw a woman’s bare breasts was when Tawny Kitaen, the lead singer’s wife, was sunbathing nude in the exact spot where I was sitting. He told me the drummer in one of the world’s most famous rock bands had rented the house for his father, who very soon afterwards died in bed—the bed I slept in.
But the story that really got me was about the woman found dead in the pool. She was on vacation with her husband and young son. They went to bed one night, and when morning came, there she was—face-down in the azure water. The police investigated, and the husband immediately came under suspicion for murder.
“It was never solved, though,” the pool guy said, staring mesmerized into the pool as if he could still see the woman floating there. “They never charged him. They never charged anyone.” Then he raised his narrowed eyes to me. “Bad things happen in pools. I should know.”
My hair stood on end. Was he confessing to something? It seemed he wanted me to think he was. Later that night I went online to look up the drowning, to read everything I could about the case. The pool guy’s name appeared in several of the articles. In more than one, he was quoted as saying, “Bad things happen in pools.”
There isn’t a pool in “Belle Mer”, but there is a sprawling family house on a hidden cove, a character who returns to Newport—her favorite place in the world—for a summer on the beach and to seek answers to old questions. She encounters, well, a twist of fate.
You can spend your vacation at a house called Belle Mer, but keep your guard up. Bad things happen not only in pools, but by the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea. And we might be horrified, but we’ll also be transfixed.
And we’ll write about it.