How I destroyed the new economy

Dot-com visionary David Wetherell could do no wrong -- until he started building a mansion on an ancient Indian burial ground.


John F.X. Sundman
October 23, 2002 11:30PM (UTC)

Booboo the insulator looked through the window upon the sight of the blue-jeaned ass of the kneeling archaeologist, hollered, "That's it! I've had enough! I'm going out there right now!" and headed toward the front door. Stevie the carpenter and Rich the electrician quickly grabbed him and I was afraid that I was going to have to jump on him too.

Booboo was a big man, recently released from Barnstable County Jail, whose hobby was weight lifting. I'm pretty big too, and at one time my hobby also was lifting weights, so I knew that the other guys on the site would expect me to pile on next. But I'm basically a conflict avoider, whereas Booboo allegedly got his nickname from the souvenirs he left on the bodies of the slow-paying clients of his former boss, some connected bookie from Brockton. So it was a great relief when Booboo stopped wrestling and started laughing. All the guys laughed too, standing amid the construction chaos of the unheated shell of the mansion we were building. But it was a rueful laughter, for indeed that ass was some provocation. Even to those of us who hadn't just spent six months in the pokey.

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It was Jan. 20, 1999, my third day on the job as a common laborer on the four-bedroom, 7,000-square-foot vacation home that Internet billionaire David Wetherell -- whose CMGI stock had recently split and was trading at $163 a share -- was building on Squibnocket Point, formerly the most beautiful spot on Martha's Vineyard. In helping build this house I knew that I was participating in a desecration. But I needed the work, and this low-paying job was ideal in some ways. It paid cash, it was interesting work, the setting was spectacular, and I didn't need a car to get to the job -- my boss, Lou, lived next door, and I rode the 18 miles to work sitting on a pile of power cords in the back of his panel van. Also, the job provided lots of exercise and allowed me to work irregular hours; that is, whenever I felt like taking a day off to work on my manuscript, a novel about nanomachines and Iraqi biological weapons that I believed both Hollywood and New York to be interested in, I did. On those days somebody else, one of the Brazilians, vacuumed the table saw and carried the trash barrels to the dumpster.

Despite its irrationally exuberant embrace by Wall Street, the CMGI business model never made much sense to me. The idea was that CMGI, which Wetherell had created pretty much single-handedly, was to be an incubator of Internet technologies and companies that it would sell off or take public. As a former software grunt who had been with a couple of start-ups that had gone public and then bust, I checked out the Web sites of CMGI's companies and saw mostly pipe dreams. I saw ideas and ambition, but not a sensible business model. Or rather, CMGI made perfect sense as a business model for enriching Wetherell, but not much sense as an investment model for the average lunch-pail guy who was cashing in his paycheck and buying the stock, as were many of the tradesmen at Squibnocket. At lunchtime we would sit around the wood stove that we had jimmied into the unfinished fireplace in the great room, and the better-off guys would talk about how they were making more money on CMGI stock than they were building this house. From time to time I would meekly voice the opinion that to me CMGI looked like a Ponzi scheme, a bubble. But everybody knew that I was a flat-broke, no-tools laborer who couldn't afford a new pair of boots, so it was easy to discount my analysis. I'm sure it sounded like sour grapes, because I couldn't afford even one share.

The tradesmen were all guys, except the tilers Susan and Sue. The archaeologists were mostly all women. They kept apart from us, seldom even accepting our invitation to share the stove warmth. They took their lunch in their trailer. So I don't know if they discussed whether the house was jinxed or haunted, as we did. I don't even know how many human skeletons they found. Some said that they never even found one complete skeleton, just a lot of parts.

The work site was situated on 10 acres of what had been the old Hornblower estate. To get to it you went down to the little parking lot at Squibnocket Beach and then a mile or so up the private dirt road that started at the lot's back end. A chain was strung between two granite pillars at the entrance to that road, but the chain was down during work hours -- and anyway you could drive around the right post if it hadn't been raining.

Wetherell's property was spectacular. It wasn't only that the point provided such vistas -- from the roof peak there was a 270-degree water view, and from the great room it seemed that Noman's, that mysterious empty island, was floating in the air five miles offshore -- but also that the Squibnocket terrain is so much more extreme than that of other parts of Martha's Vineyard. There are few trees on the Hornblower land -- too much wind -- and rolling hillocks of high grass lead steeply down to giant dunes and a surf break full of boulders and strong currents. You generally wouldn't want to take your children swimming there. This is a lee shore better known for causing shipwrecks than for sunbathing. The point's most dramatic feature of all, perhaps, is the Devil's Amphitheater, a giant wind-carved hollow in the dunes where generations of Vineyarders had tasted their first beer or had sex for the first time around a driftwood fire. The cops left the kids alone there -- it wasn't worth hiking a mile from the road to bust them.

At the time I joined the crew the house had been framed and shingled, but nothing much had been done to the interior. There was one set of rickety exterior wooden stairs that led down into the basement, but on the inside there were no stairs, only ladders between floors. In January I worked inside, mostly helping Booboo to strap the batting and then blow in the cellulose. During a February thaw I worked with Lou and Stevie to build the permanent exterior basement entranceway. I demolished the wooden stairs, shoveled sand and earth to a rough slope, bent and wired rebar while Lou and Stevie made the forms and shot them into the foundation walls with a .22 caliber nail gun. Then we called for a 9-yard load of concrete and settled it with shovels and the snake, a 20-pound steel vibrating phallus at the end of a 3-inch-thick cable attached to a motor. Fifteen feet away the archaeologists went about their kneeling ministrations.

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There were 18 steps between the exterior grade and the basement door. There were more than 18 companies in the CMGI stable, each more synergistic and visionary than the next. David Wetherell's picture could be found on every business page, and fawning articles about him graced every glossy from the blue-blood Boston Magazine to Upside, Silicon Valley's answer to "The Sopranos." Wetherell was the very darling of the new economy. "The rules have changed," the business journalists gushed. "CMGI is proving that the old rules no longer apply." Here was a man who soared on his own wings, generating wealth for anyone lucky or smart enough to come near him.

The story behind the archaeologists went something like this: Sometime in spring 1998 a backhoe broke ground for what seemed to be simply one more egomaniac's Vineyard trophy palace. But an odd thing happened: The excavators unearthed what appeared to be human bones. So the police were called, and the police took one look and said, "This person's been dead a long time. Like maybe a couple of centuries. Or more." So the state archaeologist of the state of Massachusetts was called, and it was determined that this was a potentially very significant site, as was reported in the local newspaper the Vineyard Gazette (which was considerately vague about the location of the site and identity of the landowner). A new foundation was begun 10 yards from the first. Evidently it was at about this time that the Wampanoag Tribal Council got into the act. They wanted Wetherell to build his house somewhere else on his 10 acres, more than 10 yards away, but he said no. That's what I heard, anyway.

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After Booboo finished insulating, the rockers put up the drywall and plasterers covered it with three coats. Then Lou's crew hung doors, trimmed them out, wainscoted hallways. Winter became spring. We installed the floors and built mantels and cabinets: ash in the south wing, cherry in the north. We milled lots of wood. Nothing came off the shelf at this place; everything was custom-made and no expense was spared. I heated my house with rejected hardwood that looked fine to me. "Fine" wasn't good enough. We were aiming for perfection.

This perfectionism gave me an excuse to chat with the archaeologists more than the other tradesmen did: One of my jobs was carrying construction debris from the house to the dumpster parked a hundred yards away, and my route passed the little dig. The archaeologists were under strict instruction to keep mum about their work. They wouldn't tell us anything and I swear that they looked over their shoulders before even answering a "good morning!" That house generated about 30 dumpsters' worth of waste, a hundred cubic yards of sawdust alone, so I walked by them a lot. The Brazilians called me "Rei do Lixo," king of trash.

Mrs. Wetherell visited the site from time to time, usually accompanied by a very nervous woman said to be an interior decorator. I pushed the broom and carried heavy stuff from here to there. The architect also visited; he was also a nervous person. The house was behind schedule and I think he was under the gun. Everything went wrong on this site. The foundation sank half an inch. Machines broke. Rooms flooded. We talked a lot about a jinx. Weird stuff happened. Manufacturers sent the wrong parts; things fell off parked trucks.

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The pool crew dug the pit and framed it, poured it. They departed, leaving two dumpsters' worth of framing debris behind for me to clean up. In April and May we workers ate lunch in the empty pool, out of the wind. The archaeologists took their lunch by their trailer, which rocked in the near-gale. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers and masons discussed Wetherell's dance with Barry Diller and USA networks; they handicapped strategies in that proxy war and debated which mattered more: content or the technology to push it. Should CMGI spin off Lycos? What about AltaVista? Ubid? How many IPOs would we see this year? So many permutations of the deal! When Wetherell walked away from Diller's offer, opinions on the work site were mixed. Some said he should have taken the money and run. Others said no way: With Wetherell at the helm CMGI would soon outflank Microsoft itself. Nobody, they said, understood the new economy better than D.W. He was the modern Midas.

But not everybody sitting in that pool was a fan. Some, like me, were sick of the cult of technology and bored with yet another incarnation of the capitalist-as-savior. And others thought it was simply wrong to put a house there at all. The wash-ashores felt less strongly about this than native Vineyarders did. But Stevie had bowhunted deer here all his life, and Jeremy the painter had camped out with his father on the beach and not seen a soul for three days, and Sandy, who made deliveries for FedEx, had mown hay here riding on her father's lap. Under the old regime the locals had been allowed customary usage. But Wetherell, like all the new money people, put up No Trespassing signs.

"It's a fucking abomination," Sandy said one day as I signed for a package of saw blades. "I hate this place. It used to be so magical, and now it's just another Vegas whorehouse." In fact I got the sense that most of us felt at least a little slimy about our work there, even those who had bought stock in CMGI.

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Summer came; Noman's turned bright green. Most of the south wing was done, and we heard that the family was determined to come for August, come hell or high water. The pool filled up and the surrounding area was sodded. We framed out the pool house, put the filtering machinery in its basement. And then we went back to the main house and built the theater in that basement. For sound insulation the walls and ceiling were 10 inches thick; I carried a truckload of plywood down those 18 steps one sheet at a time. No gym workout was ever so punishing as that day's work.

The great room was still unfinished. Home to the table saw, band saw, planer, chop box and compressors and cords, the great room, in the north wing, was the heart of the house. The ceiling arches, carved by Mennonites in Pennsylvania, were 28 feet high. We built scaffolding to install the ceiling woodwork and made jokes about Michelangelo.

Phone calls: The architect took a call on the phone in the great room; I turned off the shop vac so he could hear. There was shouting on the other end. The architect turned red and didn't say much. He hung up and I went back to vacuuming. I guess he didn't know that there was a more private phone downstairs. I did, and I used it when I needed privacy. From the phone in the boiler room I called my agent. Hollywood was nibbling and the agent wanted me to do some more rewrites.

The furniture arrived before the spiral staircase was done: That thing took a month to install! We had to lift it into place using our backs for leverage, 15 men. I was actually afraid that my neck was going to snap. Heated words: The staircase men wouldn't allow its use so the furniture movers used ladders to get their stuff to the second floor. I've done plenty of work on ladders and I'm not afraid of them. But I've also been a furniture mover, and I would have walked off the job before I tried that stunt. One slip and you could break a leg so badly they would have had to amputate.

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Mr. Wetherell was in Europe on business. Mrs. Wetherell was directing. She said to me, "I told David that if he ever wants to do this again, he had better get a new wife." She was pleasant to me; we talked about children and Harry Potter. Over 10 conversations that year she and I probably spoke for three minutes, total. I knew my place.

There were lulls in the work when we were waiting for materials, so Lou sent me on other jobs. I crawled on my back under Carly Simon's house installing insulation in her new library. Then I knocked down her living room wall so we could add a new tea room. From her kitchen I called my agent in New York: Random House was sitting on the fence. Could I come down to New York to meet with a senior editor? Is the pope Catholic? On Carly's refrigerator there were pictures of her children and a photo of her mugging with Bill Clinton. Later she threw a party for all of us workmen and sang backup in a pickup band that played past midnight.

Back at Wetherell's the talk was all about the guesthouse and the impending Big Powwow to determine its fate. Something was going on with the archaeologists, the rumors said; something was about to give. The diggers had been there for eight months. Had they found anything or hadn't they? And if they hadn't, then what was the meaning of those times when they ran for the tripods and the cameras and took careful photos of the dirt?

By this time the archaeologists had moved to a new spot 20 yards from the first one. We knew that they were digging where the guesthouse was supposed to go. The Tribal Council was said to be opposed to siting it there as a matter of principle, but others said they were just looking to be bought off. The archaeologists cleaned up their site and said goodbye. They were done. The blue-jeaned one who had so entranced Booboo told me that she was to be married two weeks hence. She was from Texas. She gave me a kiss on the cheek when she said farewell. She never told me anything about what they did or did not find. The only thing we workmen wanted to know was whether we had built that house on an Indian burial ground. The diggers wouldn't say yes and they wouldn't say no. "I'm not supposed to talk about that," Texas said.

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I saw Wetherell himself three times. One time I passed close to him and said hello. He did not say hello back. That was on the day of the Big Powwow, when everybody was very tense. Oh, that was a day for theater!

In actual fact I may have some sequences wrong; I don't remember exactly when the Big Powwow occurred, whether it was before or after the day that John Kennedy's plane went down off Noman's. That was a hot day, a Saturday; there were only a few of us there that day. I had gone up Squibnocket to make a form for a little concrete pad that was to hold an air-conditioning unit. That job was more tricky than it sounds, because the pad sat right next to a 6-foot-deep trench that had been redug for the umpteenth time to accommodate some pipe or wire. I had to reinforce the trench so the concrete wouldn't collapse it. So muggy, so hot that day: It was a suffocating fog and you couldn't see more than 50 yards. I knew that something big had to be up when I heard all the planes and helicopters overhead. There was no visibility! It was no day for flying. All the next week we watched the boats searching, and then, later still, the burial. Standing in the great room you can see miles and miles and miles, far out to sea.

A few times that summer -- before the Wetherell family had moved in, before the security system had been activated -- I drove up to the house late at night and walked around the place. It was the least light-polluted on our island. Standing on the back patio, by the pool, you could see the lights on the bridges of Newport, R.I., a million miles away.

The night watchman's name was Chip, a Wampanoag from Aquinnah, hired by the tribe to protect the dig. We talked about what may or may not have been there, under the earth, where we built that house. He didn't know much more than I did, but had heard some rumors. Like me, he had no opinions about ghosts or jinxes. But he told me something interesting: He said that the old ones, the Tribal Elders, had prophesied that the family "would not have one day of happiness in this house." Chip and I felt sorry for them.

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I went down to New York, and my agent and I met with some editors: at Random House, at Scribner's, at some place down on the Lower East Side. Oh, it was very flattering and I got my hopes all up. But they rejected the book eventually; they just took longer and teased more than did the other houses. So I decided to publish my book myself. Not having any money, I sent a note asking Mrs. W if she wanted to invest, but I never heard back from her. I found some other sources. I worked deals using the phone in the boiler room on the far side of the theater.

The day of the Big Powwow came. Mr. and Mrs. Wetherell were there; Beverly Wright, the president of the Tribal Council, was there; the architect was there; two selectmen from Chilmark were there; the head archaeologist was there; and there was another person there who was rumored to be the state archaeologist from the state of Massachusetts. After setting up a conference table of sorts around the table saw, I ditched the vacuum and picked up a broom, vainly hoping that I would be mistaken for a Brazilian, and thus invisible, a nonperson. I was doing my "Chief Broom" shtick, from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Oh, how I would have loved to eavesdrop on that powwow! Alas, Glenn, the architect, asked me to leave just as they were rolling out the blueprints and preparing to get started. Damn! Back to carting trash to the dumpster!

Who knows what they talked about? I don't. People speculated that they talked about two things: bones and money. But nobody knows. Autumn came, and Hurricane Floyd came roaring in. In the rain I walked down through the wind-thrashed scrub and moor, wary of ticks and poison ivy, down to the dunes, across that magnificent spooky bowl known as the Devil's Amphitheater and on to the beach, hidden from the house a half-mile behind me. Had I been on Mars I could not have felt more removed from CMGI, from Random House, from dumpsters and NASDAQ and sinking foundations. The ocean churned and wind screamed and sand stung my face. And then I saw, out there by Noman's, halfway to Newport, the most astonishing thing: giant waves crashing in perfect left and right breaks, like the ones off Oahu that those insane guys surf -- towed in by jet-skis -- waves that seemed a thousand feet tall, and so perfectly breaking that the mere sight of them nearly stilled the surfer's heart in my chest. And then, more astounding still, inconceivable, really, I saw a trawler heading out to sea.

When I got back to the house I found that one of the balcony drains had gotten clogged and a bedroom flooded. The wood buckled, later, and the floor had to be replaced, as well as the ceiling below it.

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It was a warm October and often on my lunch breaks I stripped naked and swam in the pool while Stevie donned his camouflage suit and disappeared down the hill with bow in hand. CMGI stock went up and up and up.

We finished the great room right before Christmas. The cherry floor shone, and the trim around all the doors and columns likewise. The walls and ceiling were painted white; the table saw had been moved to Lou's shop and our other tools to the basement. It was an austere room, more grand than friendly, but it was very well built and we were proud of it. We knocked off at noon and Lou sent me all the way to Oak Bluffs to pick up beer and pizza. By the time I got back to the house a giant, gleaming grand piano had been delivered and set up, the most wonderful device you've ever seen. The piano had brought along its tuner, and we sat on the floor before the fireplace where the wood stove had once radiated and we opened up those pizza boxes and wished each other Merry Christmas. Then we stopped talking as the tuner played a particularly ferocious bit of Chopin and the sun set over Noman's.

My book came back from the printer and I hit the road to promote it; then I got a job managing the Information Architecture group at Curl Corporation, a Kendall Square software start-up populated with dozens of the smartest MIT geeks you can imagine. At one point I heard that we were trying to get some of the top guys at CMGI to come to Cambridge for a demo, and I thought that it would have been pretty funny were old D.W. and I to wind up talking bits and bytes and strategic alliances. I wanted to ask him about the powwow. But it never happened.

CMGI fell apart, of course, when the new economy bubble burst. The stock hit its all-time high right at the turn of the millennium, and it has been trading at well under a dollar for months now, having lost 99.99 percent of its value. The talk on Yahoo's board is all about when the delisting is going to happen. I lasted two years at Curl before that bubble likewise burst, but that's another story.

There are lots of explanations for why the new economy died. It was a tulip bulb mania that had to end: That's what the pundits say. But I have another explanation. I think it burst because we built that house where we had no business building it. Looking at John Kennedy's plane being hauled up from the bottom, it was hard not to think of Icarus. And of course people will say the same about Wetherell. He is still a wealthy man, but nobody any longer believes that he can fly higher than allowed by physics. He's paid a price for his hubris, they will say. But I've paid a price too. I helped build that house, knowing that it would help me write my book.

Mrs. Wetherell filed for divorce two years ago and got the house. Last week another hurricane passed offshore. I drove up to Squibnocket to look at the ocean. Somehow I had hoped to go all the way up to the point, to see if those freakish swells were breaking off Noman's. But I had to stop at the lot by the beach. Where there used to be a chain at the end of the lot between two pillars there's now a giant electronically controlled gate watched by video cameras and motion detectors, and you're not allowed to go up the road to watch the waves from the point anymore unless you're rich.


John F.X. Sundman

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