Esther Sayles Root (right) with Marjorie Crocker in the author photo for “Over Periscope Pond: Letters From Two American Girls in Paris.”
Esther Root was a child of the 1920s, coming of age in that decade when women were abandoning 19th-century values and embracing experience in often controversial ways. She was a scion of the Root family, a clan of high-achieving, sometimes eccentric individuals whose presence on Bailey Island dated back to the 1870s, when the Rev. George E. Adams and his wife visited from their parish in Brunswick. After he died, his widow, Helen Root Adams, engaged Thomas Merriman to build The Sea Shell, the first mission cottage on Sea Bank. Other cottages would follow, accommodating parishioners, family and friends.
In 1894, Esther’s mother, Elizabeth Sayles Root, purchased two large parcels on Sea Bank and proceeded to establish a summer home for the family. Following her death in 1922, her husband, Charles Towner Root, took over, expanding their holdings from Oceanside to Lowell’s Cove, to Bass Rock and back again. It was a kind of paradise for the family, with opportunities for swimming, sailing, sunbathing and picnicking, all within the bounds of their own land.
The Roots got along well with the islanders, doing what they could to preserve the flavor of this still-undiscovered outpost. In 1912, they conveyed a portion of their land for the establishment of the Bailey Island Library, and in 1910, when Charles T. carved out a lot for his sister Clara Burnham, he stipulated that nothing should be built on it that would obstruct the general view. Rights of way were established or confirmed, so that others could get where they needed to go. This was before the Cribstone Bridge was completed in 1928, when travel was done mostly by boat, cart or on foot, and the so-called main road was a three-lane dirt track — in spring, an impassable quagmire.
Esther, or Tess, as she was called, grew up in a dual world, partaking both of the energy of the city and the rough beauty of coastal Maine. Winters were spent at the family home in New Jersey, later in New York, and summers at their cottage on Bailey Island. She traveled widely during her youth, but she always returned to Bailey Island.
When Charles Root died in 1938, he passed the property on to his children. This included their cottage Tektisi (Take-it-Easy), where Edna St. Vincent Millay had viewed Ragged Island from the porch and engaged Esther to buy it. The transaction was completed within two weeks.
In 1947, Esther bought her own land at the south end of Bailey Island. The U.S. government had leased the property during World War II. It came with a bunkhouse, several outbuildings and two imposing concrete towers, visible from miles away. For years, Esther, her husband, Frank, and her children enjoyed this getaway. When she died in 1984, she left it to her sons and her daughter-in-law. The property remains in the family today.
Esther Root Adams is remembered now as a friend of Edna St. Vincent Millay and as the wife, subsequently the widow, of Franklin P. Adams, a well-known journalist, as well as a frequent participant on the popular radio quiz show “Information Please.” She, however, was more than just an associate of famous people. She was an accomplished pianist, an ardent feminist at a time when feminism was controversial, and, as I only recently discovered, a published author — all before she had reached the age of 23.
Graduating from Smith College in 1915, she traveled to Paris, where she served as a relief worker during World War I, bringing the wounded back from the front and helping refugees find shelter, food, clothes and medical attention. She and a college friend wrote letters home about their experience, and, at the end of the war, collected them in a book, “Over Periscope Pond.” Her aunt Clara Burnham, an author of numerous popular novels, introduced the volume, and Houghton Mifflin published it in 1918. “The letters reveal the spirit of feminine young America,” Aunt Clara wrote, “a brave and self-sacrificing spirit which shines out through irrepressible youthful humor and vivacity.”
As a self-appointed female war correspondent, Esther wrote about the people she encountered, the quirks and delights of the French language, and the trips she made in and around Paris with the hand-cranked Ford her father had shipped over from America. To bring herself closer to her parents, she included references to home. Thus, the black sweater she brought with her was the one she wore on Bailey Island. The thick canvas sheets on her garret bed felt like “nestling down between two jibs of the good swordfisher, ‘Edmund Black.'” And the blue sky of a Paris summer was matched only by the blue sky at Bailey Island.
These events all occurred before she met Edna St. Vincent Millay, before she occupied the apartment above her in Greenwich Village, before she married Frank and had children, before Millay married Eugen Boissevain and set her sights on Ragged Island. But they offer insights into the woman she would become, and they helped me understand the person I came to know as a friend.
I had a certain youthful curiosity about the towers emerging from the south end of the island. Once or twice, I had set out to look at them, but had turned back at the “Private” sign placed at the entrance to the property. This time, however, I pressed on, believing that no one was home and convinced I wouldn’t bother them anyway. But fate wouldn’t have it. Soon I heard a car rumbling up the road and saw the dust clouds rising from its tires.
Should I try to hide or stand and take my punishment? A principled adolescent, I decided to stand. The driver appeared to be a woman in her 70s with large bifocals, but very much in control of her vehicle. She stopped, rolled down her window and asked pleasantly: “What’s your name?” and “Where do you live?” I answered truthfully. She paused. Then, much to my surprise, she asked me to come to tea!
Of course, I went. Other teas followed. They evolved into happy hours and dinners, which she would prepare. We would sit on the lawn and chat about her children, French culture, my literary ambitions. She asked if I had ever heard of Edna St. Vincent Millay. When I said no, she sent me home with Millay’s “Collected Poems.” “We’ll talk about them next time,” she said.
I told her I wanted to be a writer. She said that after I graduated, she would let me write in Frank’s studio. Later, chafing over college regulations, I went to Paris for a year of study. We exchanged letters, sometimes in the language we both had learned at school. Fifty-six years separated us, but we shared an enthusiasm for adventure and a kind of fearlessness that allowed us to attempt such things.
After returning to the States, I visited her once in New York and learned that she was unwell. The letters stopped shortly thereafter, proving that life, unlike fiction, was not a neatly organized affair. I was about to return to Paris to teach English and do graduate work at the university. I needed to thank her for teaching me to believe in such possibilities. I never got the chance.
For 39 years, Joann Gardner was an English professor at Florida State University. Now a freelance book reviewer, poet and essayist, she divides her time between Bailey Island and Tallahassee, Florida.