Who Says No Man Is An Island? Builder Forbes Kiddoo Is Surrounded on All Sides by Water and Curiosity
"Why did I build an island?" asks Forbes Thor Kiddoo. The linebacker-size Sausalito builder sips champagne as he scans the shimmering San Francisco skyline: "Because it hadn't been done before. I wanted to copy a great architect. So I copied God."
Lounging in a glass gazebo amid the swaying 40-foot palms and rippling waters of Richardson Bay, Kiddoo, 49, is a study in Northern California formality—wild Hawaiian shirt, navy blue polyester pants, Topsiders—and lord of all he surveys. On the surface that means 1,600 square feet of white sand rimmed with 120 tons of granite boulders just a quarter of a mile and one minute (by motorboat) from the shores of Sausalito, a bedroom community across the bay from San Francisco.
But Kiddoo's inventive alternative to "listening to the toilets flush in other peoples' apartments" must not be judged by its palm tree cover alone. In the middle of the island, two flights of stone steps descend into an undersea whirl of lavish staterooms draped in rich red fabric, laid with Italian tiles and teak parquet, hung with mirrors and studded with crystal, antique furniture and Persian rugs.
The style is that of an exuberant genie decorator just escaped from the restrictions of single-bottle homes. But traces of Kiddoo's painstaking craftsmanship add an elegant touch. Nine thousand feet of wood molding—more than a mile and a half—were cut with such precision that no nails are needed to hold it in place. The 21 doors are all assembled with glue rather than unsightly nails, and the 55 brass-fitted portholes were salvaged from World War I troop and supply ships. The bar is made of Honduran mahogany. The San Francisco Examiner once described Kiddoo's homestead as "a pad of such reputed sybaritic splendor that visitors gasp with astonishment."
Some misguided gawkers wrongly assume that this undersea seraglio is the creation of that other imaginative and self-indulgent Forbes, Malcolm, who is no relation to Kiddoo. But like that other guy, this Forbes thinks big, as a 6'3" 235-pounder should. Consider the custom-built houseboat, a replica of the Taj Mahal, that he helped make for a Sausalito neighbor. Or his plans, which have never gotten off the drawing board, for gigantic concrete islands with airstrips on top and inverted high rises plunging 30 stories under water.
Kiddoo knows imagination is just the beginning. "You can't just dream," he says, "you've got to follow through." But investors willing to get their feet wet in the floating building business are scarce. So some of Kiddoo's schemes—including one for glass-bottom islands on Australia's Great Barrier Reef—are on hold.
Back in July of 1975, though, anything seemed possible. That year, inspired by Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Kiddoo—a master carpenter who owned his own shipyard—poured the 288 tons of buoyant concrete that form his island's hull. Over the next five years, he spent every spare moment fitting out the oversize raft he wanted to call home. On Dec. 22, 1980, it was seaworthy. The three-day launch was tedious (cables broke, cranes got mired in mud) and expensive ($10,000), but by Christmas, Forbes' Folly was afloat. He's lived there ever since.
For the past two years the tiny island has also been a base of sorts for Deborah Schilling, 33, who met Kiddoo at a party. She lives there only part-time but figures she has "more clothes there than he does." The two share sunsets in the gazebo, sip champagne from Kiddoo's 1,200-bottle, 58°F wine cellar and dine alfresco on tidbits from his gourmet galley.
But on weekday mornings Kiddoo and Schilling must cast off in the Boston Whaler and contend with "America" just over the water. Schilling, who recently quit her job as a collection agent at an insurance company, is looking for work. Kiddoo commutes by motor scooter to his newly-formed Forbes Construction Company, which builds and repairs piers. Last year he finally made the decision to shut down his once-thriving shipyard, which had been losing money ever since tighter local restrictions on houseboats dried up the market for custom-made floats. "In 1986 we built one barge," he says. "We used to build 24 each year."
Kiddoo seems to have inherited his craftsman's skills from his father, George, a carpenter and welder, and his offbeat imagination from his mother, Betty, who named her children Forbes, Vanatta, Torsten and Nanette. Born in Neshanic, N.J., he completed high school in Brooklyn and then enlisted in the Coast Guard. After a two-year stint as a cook, he was discharged in 1959 and settled in San Francisco, where he worked as a union carpenter. Never married, Kiddoo opened his own business in 1968 building custom barges.
When demand flagged, Kiddoo was left with nearly all his assets sunk into his floating home. Between the $4,000 a year in property taxes and the endless improvements, "it's kept me poor," he says. To offset expenses Kiddoo began renting out the island for parties at $500 an hour and giving guided tours for $25 a head. Artist Leroy Neiman has been aboard, as has an ill-mannered group who took snaps of each other snuggled in the beds.
Then, three years ago, Kiddoo put the island on the market. It's still there. He has rejected an offer of $1.2 million in cash, he says, as well as bids from an unnamed movie star, a German millionaire and a business executive. He will entertain any offer above $1.5 million, provided the buyers are the sort that will give his island the loving care it deserves. ("No rock bands," he says.)
One suspects his conditions may never be met. "Sometimes when I'm low on money, I say, 'Gee, I'll take an offer,' " Kiddoo says. "But then when I'm flush I say, 'Here I am, a poor working guy, and I get to live like this. Why sell?' "