THE GOOD WITCH OF MAINE

words SUSAN PEIREZ
island home photograph MICHELLE COLLIER PHOTOGRAPHY

Image

"Excuse me, but did you just say that the Wicked Witch of the West lived there?” I said as I looked at a small island barely out at sea. Earlier this fall, just before sunset, I’d spontaneously driven to an intimate cove, straight down to a private dock, to what would become my most intriguing Pine Tree State discovery yet.

The view reminded me of a magnificent outdoors movie set: a perfect, natural, jagged row of tall dark evergreens as a magnificent backdrop to a lone, exposed stone house, painted ruby red and with its own inviting dock that was—ergh—almost within my grasp. I was immediately mesmerized by this mysterious spot, perhaps from a dream. So, was this moment real, or was I just hearing voices, losing my mind?

“Wait a minute, are you telling me that’s Margaret Hamilton’s house?” I said, standing near two other people as I elongated my finger as far as I could while standing on my tippy toes, trying not to fall into the cove. They were pointing that way now, too, wow, kindred folks!

The gregarious middle-aged couple seemed to be in private conversation but nodded enthusiastically as I continued. “Do you know how excited I am? Do you realize that The Wizard of Oz is my favorite movie, and that I quote the Wicked Witch of the West all the time? When people really get to me and I start to get, you know—grrr—I say, ‘Poppies will put them to sleep. Sleep! Poppies will put them to SLEEP!’”

“You were destined to come down this road,” cooed the woman, marveling at my silly ramblings. “For me, it was the opposite,” blurted her New England macho man. “I used to hate those damn flying monkeys. They scared the crap outta me.” He began to babble on just like me, becoming a dazed little boy as if once again witnessing the witch and her malicious monkeys plotting in their castle lair against poor Dorothy.

We managed to console one another with giggles, comrades walking the plank of odd childhood memories. I turned to a mother-daughter duo now approaching us on what was becoming the ultimate “bonding” dock. “Did you ladies know that the actress who portrayed the Wicked Witch of the West lived over there?” I pointed knowingly, but was shot down keenly by the photojournalist daughter, “Yes, that’s why we’re here. I recently told my mother and she’s been begging to come ever since. Thought we’d catch her house just before the sun goes down.”

We all seemed to freeze for a moment, looking towards that lone home for signs of life—and even ghosts (fanatics like me wondering when my Uncle Herby would come lurking around a corner cackling during Christmas week family movie marathons).

A month later, ruminating over this mind-boggling experience, I had to find out more. “These things need to be handled delicately,” my spirit-witch whispered. And so, I did just that by contacting Margaret’s son, Hamilton Meserve.

Margaret Hamilton, a former schoolteacher, was 36 when she played her best-known role. In 1961, approaching 60 years old, she found her way back to live repertory theatre, reprising the most famous of all screen villainesses—this time during the inaugural summer season at Maine State Theatre in Brunswick. It had been two decades since The Wizard of Oz movie was released and had only just begun its annual airing on TV—haunting generations of children. (Only two earlier airings had occurred, in 1952 and 1956.)

Image

Margaret Hamilton at 36, when she played the Wicked Witch of the West.

Image

Margaret with son Hamilton Meserve and his wife,
Helen, at home in Maine.

Margaret felt drawn to Maine and so—at the encouragement of her son and daughter-in-law, Hamilton and Helen Meserve—the family purchased Cape Island, a 20-acre trapezoid. The island had been inhabited since at least the early 17th century, when European settlers sought shelter there before exploring the continent. Its focal point, a mid-19th-century house, is still in pristine condition today thanks to the Hamilton-Meserve family’s six decades of care.

Apparently, Margaret never minded being called a witch. The local lobstermen lovingly teased her each time she’d take a skiff from her island across Newagen Point (newagen being the indigenous word for “crossing the land”) and over to Southport’s Newagen Seaside Inn, where she’d enjoy a gourmet breakfast.

“‘How ya doing this mornin’, Witch?’ they’d say to my smiling mother all the time,” Hamilton recalled. “Our children were the ones who got bothered on occasion when the tour boats would come by announcing over the loudspeaker: ‘and there’s where the witch lives!’”

Born and raised in Ohio, Margaret Hamilton, a diligently trained Cleveland Repertory stage actress and single mother, would be forever known for a movie part she took by default—at her usual MGM rate ($1,000 a week) as a means of supporting her 3-year-old son, whom she brought to the movie set only a few times.

“You could have played a Munchkin,” I teased Hamilton, “or, better yet, one of the Lollipop Guild.”

Image

Margaret in her original Wicked Witch of the West costume, with Fred Rogers at the 1975 airing of "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood."

“No, never!” he quickly replied. “My mother saw firsthand what that studio did to Judy [Garland] as a little girl. I wasn’t even allowed to see the movie until I was 9 years old.” She was always very concerned about the psychological impact her witch’s cackle had on children.

Margaret grew up the last of four, and frequently felt lonely, he said. And so, she made it a point to be friendly to everyone. She even talked about the movie’s impact on young people in 1975 on an episode of "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood." And boy, do I remember that one: At first, I winced as my hands periodically covered my eyes. By the end I wanted to hug her through the TV screen as that genuine kindness absolutely radiated from her.

“When we first lived on the island, I created a story for my children so they could get to know their surroundings well: A six-foot lizard creature would come out of the sea at springtime, standing on hind legs, laying eggs in the myriad buoys scattered around the inlet. By the end of the season, we had quite a collection of washed-up trash to deposit at the recycling dump”, Hamilton exclaimed with pride. Margaret’s entire family, including eight grandchildren, still spends seasons there, while Hamilton and Helen now gaze over at it year-round, having retired to a home they purchased on Southport in 1970. The most caring of gatekeepers live right down the road from that little dock where my personal Maine map changed forever.

That magical land was renamed in Margaret Hamilton’s honor by the locals long before she died in 1985. So, happy holidays from Witch’s Island! Here’s to the people of MidCoast’s Southport, to the lobstermen of Newagen Point, to all who loved Margaret and to community creative kindness everywhere.

To me, she will always be The Good Witch of Maine.

. . .

Susan Peirez unequivocally prides herself for having performed on the same stage as Margaret Hamilton, albeit two decades apart, while at Bowdoin College, the summer residence for Maine State Theatre.

Susan has always been a storyteller. Since moving to Portland last year, she’s been busy creating an artist incubator, Foxhole Productions, and has recently completed her first screenplay.

Previous StoryNext Story