$11 Million Rowayton Island Where Marilyn Monroe Once Partied For Sale

As we move through the waters of Long Island Sound toward Tavern Island a helicopter swoops out of the sky circling the island like an insect around a light.

“That’s a flyby alright,” Mike Hart says. Hart is the caretaker of the island and he’s at the helm of our boat as it cuts through the waters. Helicopter flybys of the island are not uncommon, as some potential buyers want an aerial view of the property before they schedule a tour. But this helicopter is coming unusually close. “They’re trimming my branches,” Hart jokes.

The helicopter’s visit is a symptom of the buzz surrounding the island mansion off the coast of Rowayton, a section of Norwalk, that on the market for $10.99 million with Rich Higgins of Higgins Group Real Estate.

A June 10 New York Post article reported supermodel Heidi Klum was interested in the island (The Hour in Norwalk reported shortly afterwards that the model was unlikely to buy the property) and many national publications have profiled the island.A 6,116-square-foot mansion that might make Gatsby jealous anchors the grandiose 3½-acre property. There’s also a beautiful 75-foot pool, guesthouse, private beach, boathouse, tea house and 360 degrees of water frontage. All of that's not to mention stunning rock formations, views of the Manhattan skyline on clear days and several links to old Hollywood history, Marilyn Monroe used to party at the island when it was the playground of theater legend Billy Rose. According to Hart it is also where writer Lillian Hellman completed The Little Foxes while renting the caretaker’s cottage.

The helicopter operators weren’t the only visitors admiring the island during Connecticut Magazine’s tour of the property. Later on, a group of kayakers would paddle close buy and snap a few photos.Hart clearly empathizes with those fascinated with the island that is about 40 minutes by boat from Manhattan and 20 minutes from Long Island. About 23 years ago he heard the place’s siren call after floating by, while fishing with his father. Noticing workers involved in a project he asked if he could lend a hand. “You don’t need to pay me but I’ll help you carry wood,” he recalls saying.

That free work eventually became paid, and about 19 years ago he took over as the island’s full-time caretaker, taking up residency in the island’s pilot house. He has  called the place home ever since.

And what a home it is.(Above, This cannon was discovered on the property. Its origins are unknown but it seems ready to defend the island.) 

First settled by English colonists in 1651, Tavern Island was originally called Pilot Island and it was home to the harbor’s pilot, a mariner with local knowledge who maneuvers ships through dangerous or congested waters.

No one’s exactly sure when the name switched to Tavern Island, but local lore holds that it became a popular party spot for sailors and workers (possibly during Prohibition) and earned the Tavern moniker as a result.The mansion is thought to date to about 1900. In the 1950s and 1960s it got a taste of big city glam when Rose purchased it. A noted Broadway lyricist Rose penned hits like “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and made the island a local party hotspot. When he was at the island he would hang a flag with a rose on it to signal those nearby he was there and the festivities were about to start. In addition to Monroe, Maureen O'Sullivan and Barbara Streisand were other starlets said to have frequented these soirees.(Above, the freestanding game room has its own bathroom and bedroom. Below, the island's private beach.) Under Rose’s rule the island had an old school, top hat and cane feel, says Hart. “He had seven statues of his ex-wives with no heads.”

The island changed hands several times since Rose owned it, ultimately failing into the hands of its current owner, Albert Zesiger, more than 20 years ago. During Zesiger’s reign the statues were removed and the Hollywood-style glitz was replaced with natural gardens and landscaping that give off a Zen vibe.Today the island has a feel that is equal parts millionaire playground and natural retreat. Though relatively close to land it feels miles away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Norwalk and Rowayton. Hart is fond of showing guests various spots where you can watch sunsets and moon rises, and observe thunderstorms while protected from the elements.

The main house features classic stonework and every room has panoramic views of the water. The Boat House is a large game room, complete with a bedroom and full bath and deck so close to the water you feel like you’re staring off of a ship. There is also a Tea House with a meeting room and bedroom on a peaceful portion of the island that Hart refers to as the “island within the island.” The compound also includes a guest house (the Pilot House) and comes with a garage and waterfront property on the mainland, which allows year-round access to the island.

These structures are impressive and decadent—even the property’s freestanding dog house has radiant floor heat—but Hart’s favorite thing about the island is its connection with nature. “The amount of quiet and beautiful moments here are unbelievable,” he says with genuine awe. Standing on the island with a cool breeze, under the shade of tree, surrounded by the water on every side, it’s easy to see exactly what he means.

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