Facing Eviction from His Boston Hovel, Hermit Bill Britt Pleads There's No Place Like Home

updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At 51, Bill Britt looks like nothing so much as a grizzled mountain man. With his towering build, white beard and wind-chapped skin, he resembles the sort of loner one might find deep in the piney wilds. In truth, Britt is a sort of pioneer: His home, however, is a jerry-built wigwam on state-owned land near Boston's Chestnut Hill—a haute community of $500,000 mansions and country club sensibilities. A bona fide eccentric who dropped out of the middle class, Britt has been the hermit of Chestnut Hill for nearly 20 years now, happily foraging for food in Dumpsters, sitting in his wigwam writing poems and contemplating the sky above the nearby reservoir.

While Britt says he wants to keep things that way, his days in Chestnut Hill seem to be coming to an end. In 1985, he sought a restraining order to prevent a landscaping plan that would have eliminated his lean-to. He agreed to move—but did not, and soon found himself the object of what he called a harassment campaign. State officials descended upon his dwelling, confiscated some of his belongings and spirited away his two dogs, which were later put to sleep.

Bill was back in the Boston Housing Court last March and he asked the judge, "Instead of spending all this money harassing me, having police come up at night and shine a spotlight into my tent, why don't some of these people say, 'Here, Bill, have a cup of coffee, have a sandwich.' Where were the police with a blanket on nights when it was freezing?' "

Because Bill's lean-to is on state property—and they contend, a health hazard—the authorities have resolutely refused to look the other way. If he doesn't pack up by July 1, his makeshift home may be bulldozed. Bill claims that the move was spurred by his complaints, and at least one court officer agrees. Robert Lewis, chief magistrate of the Housing Court hearing the Attorney General's suggestions for alternate shelter for Britt, says, "My sense is that somebody must have called the Attorney General and complained."

Politically motivated or not, the court order has made Bill something of a cause célèbre in Boston—and has wrought major changes in his life. Mickey Rooney, appearing in a local production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, called a press conference last month to announce that he planned to immortalize Britt in a TV movie. Though a bit hesitant about having his life transformed into a prime-time spectacle, Britt readily accepted Rooney's offer to furnish Britt with legal assistance and pay an undisclosed sum for his story.

Britt has always preferred nature to people. Raised in an Air Force family, he was never in one place long enough to make many friends and took every opportunity, he says, to head for the woods. He dropped out of prep school and years later found stability when he married a registered nurse. Her parents helped Britt purchase a service station, and the couple settled into a three-bedroom house near Boston.

After three children, however, the marriage broke up. "I don't think I was a good husband," Bill says. "I didn't make enough money. I'm not different in general concept now than I was then. I'd feed skunks and raccoons in the backyard—I was not conventional."

The divorce was nasty and Britt went into a tailspin. There was a brief stint as an insurance salesman, and an affair with a woman whom Bill says was a Radcliffe College dean. Still reeling from the pain of losing his family, as he tells it, he decided that he simply wanted to drop out. And he did: "I was walking along the Chestnut Hill Reservoir one hot June day enjoying the breeze," he says. "I sat down under a cedar tree...and said, 'Bill, you're too good a guy to let them beat up on you.' "

Eventually setting up camp nearby in a spot hidden by the trees, Britt, who has since become legally blind, shied away from contact with anyone, including his children, for almost two decades. His family, in turn, never sought him out. But after his picture appeared last February in a newspaper story describing his fight to stay on the land, Britt had two surprise visitors. "I was resting my weary body," says Bill, "and a voice said, 'Would you like to meet your son and daughter?' I said, 'Would you like to run that by me again?' Then I heard my daughter Ingrid singing California, Here I Come and my son Steve greeted me with a big hug." After an emotional reunion, it was clear that Steve, 29, still harbored reservations about his long-lost father. "You don't make up for 20 years in one day," says Britt. "There are too many hurts." But Ingrid, 28, now visits her father regularly, leaving care packages of food if he is not around.

With the court-ordered day of his departure approaching, Britt is given to moments of wistfulness. "If I was to die tomorrow," he says, "I hope that what's left of me would be scattered around the blueberry bushes on my land." But Ingrid has cheered him, and he is beginning to dream about positive alternatives. The state has pledged to help him find shelter elsewhere: "Ideally, I'd like a fishing shack on an island," Britt says. Wherever he goes, Britt insists it must be close to nature, and his daughter has promised to do everything she can to see that he has his wish. "Loving my father," Ingrid says, "means not trying to change him."

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