Mary Wells: There’s Something About Mustique


Sometime in the ’80s, Colin Tennant, or Lord Glenconner as I think he prefers, suggested selling his half of the island of Mustique to my husband and me – it was a balmy night and we were at dinner in our beach house where Harding [Lawrence] and I lived while building the terraces, a kind of palace on a hill. Colin had tears in his eyes, Harding was stunned and I was delighted at the idea. Colin and I are friends. I have always appreciated him. He has an eccentric and theatrical side that annoys some people — not me — but he comes up with creative ideas all of us have thoroughly enjoyed. It was his idea to turn Mustique into a beautiful and charming place to live, a good idea if there ever was one.

Colin is a Scottish lord and he bought the island thinking that Princess Margaret, who he was close to and adored, would have privacy there with her new husband, Tony. For a few years, that privacy was delicious and probably deliciously naughty for Princess Margaret and some of the other royals who needed occasional release from the English leash they were on. Tony’s uncle, Oliver Messel, was a famous stage designer and he created a pretty house on a point we used to say was “out of town,” although it was about a ten-minute drive from the few other houses there at the time. 

We went to Mustique after giving up a winter weekend house we had in Acapulco. Colombians were trying to take over Acapulco at that time and one of them barged into our house when we were not there with guns ablaze and terrified the people working there, locking them up in the kitchen. The Colombian took over the house – but Harding had been so helpful to the Mexican government by ruining Acapulco, flying millions of tourists from the United States there on Braniff Airlines and by building big hotels for them, that the president came through and forced the Colombian to leave our house. I wouldn’t go back after that. Acapulco was great when it was little and sexy, but Harding did ruin it for me when he made it big and successful and rich. I wanted to find a new place that was little and sexy and, when I heard about Mustique, it sounded like my dream of a private island, and perfect. Life is a circle.

My very good friend, John Calley, was offered Mustique for $50,000 before Colin decided to turn it into an island for Princess Margaret. I think Colin had paid $45,000 for it and maybe he thought a $5,000 profit would do. John didn’t buy it and I couldn’t persuade Harding to buy half of it either. We were having incredible problems, then, building the palace on the hill. Harding had retired and had time to build such a house, but he had to bring almost everything from France and Italy to build it with. He had to bring the builders, too. The local men were good at masonry. But Harding brought experts from Italy to teach them about tile and roofing and molding and floors – a group from Ireland came to plaster – and a man came from France to paint everything and liked Mustique so much he stayed. I was running an advertising agency all over the world and rarely got to Mustique the four and a half years it took to build the house. In fact, I gave up on it and one day chopped one wing off the plans. “It’s hopeless,” I told Harding. But Colin and Brian Alexander, his managing director of the island, were warm and welcoming to Harding. And when others saw the investment we were making on top of that hill, more people began building more serious houses on the island.  

Mick Jagger and Paul and Ingrid Channon (Lord and Lady Kelvedon) had homes there before us, and many stars of all kinds have built houses so it was never our private island, and today that is a funny thought. Basil Charles, who had been helping Colin, created a fun, honky bar that would become a very famous bar and restaurant on the sea. Colin gave wild and wooly and gorgeous parties at his domed Great House and in tents on the beaches and invited glamorous people who wore amazing clothes — sometimes amazingly little clothes — and acted in amazing ways under his direction. I have been to grand parties in most countries of this world, and few gave me the feeling that I would never experience anything like this again, as Colin’s parties did. There was a documentary about Colin after he left Mustique that did its best to make him look like a screwball, but someone should have made one about how well Colin understood glamour and great parties and the Beautiful People, and why that talent of his turned Mustique into such a unique place that, today, feels glamorous even when overrun with small children, as it often is.             

We didn’t buy Colin’s half-ownership of the island. At that time, Harding thought it was a dicey investment. I thought it was a cinch. I was the real-estate talent in the family — a sure instinct told me what to buy and when to sell — but he was the savvy builder, in every way. Together we built or rebuilt about 25 or more houses and apartments around the world – and it was our strong suit. If he could see Mustique today, he would admit it was a colossal mistake not to have bought Colin’s suggestion .

The palace on the hill finally came true and became a fairy-tale setting for a time in our lives. Our children spent Christmases and Easters there and still feel that it is home. I watched the island evolve as Princess Margaret swam laps in our extra-long pool. She was as careful with me as I was with her. Knowing that I was not about to curtsy to anyone, she would arrive holding out her hand as she walked through the orangery entrance and would shake my hand and give me a hug. She knew all the great vaudeville songs and when a friend of ours, Audrey Meadows, visited, the two performers would keep us singing along into the wee hours. The island has always been a private haven for stars from the theater and the movie world, and anyone wanting to escape attention.

 Brian Alexander, likely the best manager of an escape island that the world has known, drove Mustique safely through years of possible mistakes by others. People have always come to the hotel or rented one of the houses and immediately bought property so they could stay. Upon becoming a homeowner, they all join the others to do what it takes to keep Mustique innocent, a sweet dream of what life should be like — and not a resort. They don’t visit Mustique; they live there, they love Mustique, and their children and grandchildren love Mustique. The children are safe there. The parents are not anybody there. They may have a beautiful house, but they live in their bare feet in the sun and teach their grandchildren to surf the waves at Macaroni Beach, and nobody notices them, nobody cares about them except their friends there. 

I won’t tell you who lives there now because we all protect each other’s Mustique, each other’s dream.  

Harding wanted to die there when he became seriously ill. The doctor on the island is one of the best you will ever meet, a doctor who continues to learn and is so smart that, when we brought him with us to New York about Harding’s cancer, he dazzled every doctor he met. He saved Harding’s life one piercing, heart-stopping night, and when Harding decided to die on Mustique, it was primarily so that he could be in Michael Bunbury’s care to the end.

Michael’s wife is the designer, Lotty Bunbury. You can find her on the Internet (click here) and you will see her in my pictures. She designs elegant and sensuous island clothes and saris. Her shop used to be Johanna Alexander’s shop, the place to meet and the place I spent a lot of time drinking coffee and talking great woman talk with lovely Johanna. There aren’t a lot of shops in Mustique, but Lotty’s and the shop at the Cotton House Hotel Spa are all you need — just as the Cotton House Hotel is all you need for hip barefoot lunches and dressing up for dinner and Basil’s is all you need for barbecues, live music and shaking whatever you want to shake. Most Mustiquians entertain each other or just hang out under their own starry sky with their own cool breeze.

Harding did die in Mustique and it was, as he expected, a good way of moving on. The palace on the hill became too large for me and, to my children’s dismay, I decided to sell it and find a smaller solution. I wasn’t sure how to go about selling such an extended property, but I was told to dig a hole and bury a small model of St. Joseph upside down facing away from the house and to say a prayer, and the house would sell quickly. I dug the hole, invited a group of very close and imaginative friends, gave them each a stiff drink, followed instructions, and we all said a prayer and buried St. Joseph so he could do his job. He was a carpenter, you know.

The house sold within the month. Now I am looking for a way to keep my children happy in Mustique. Recently, my children and I took photographs of Mustique so that you can see it through our eyes. I hope you enjoy them.

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