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Fatal fall stirs more questions

Even before Jeanne Geiger's fatal fall from the balcony of her inn, she was the talk of Plum Island.

The wealthy newcomer from New York, who was married to the chief executive officer of multimillion-dollar clothing company Aeropostale, had purchased Walton's Ocean Front, the barrier island's lone hotel, transforming the rustic grounds into ''blue," a posh, stark-white resort garnished with clear turquoise stones that lead visitors to its entrances.

She already owned PJ's, which was once the island's breakfast shack, and had plans to turn it into a more upscale takeout restaurant, according to its former owner.

When Geiger fell off the third-floor balcony of ''blue" on Feb. 4, sustaining injuries that led to her death two weeks later at a Boston hospital, she was just days away from buying even more restaurant space.

Geiger had persuaded lawyer-turned-restaurateur Marianthi ''May" Chicklis to part with all of her properties -- a waterfront clam shack called Atty. May's, the nearby Atty. May's Beachcoma bar, as well as a small parking area and cottage behind the bar.

It was estimated that Geiger already had spent more than $10 million on buying and revamping Plum Island properties. Of that, about $5 million alone went to Ann Lee, former owner of Walton's, making it the most expensive land deal on the island to date.

In a community with just a handful of commercial properties, residents believed that Geiger's acquisitions and upscale vision -- along with a project bringing them new water and sewer service -- would change the aura of their island home, which straddles Newbury and Newburyport.

Already a mysterious figure, Geiger's death only amplified questions about Plum Island's future.

''People just don't know what's going to be left unfinished," said Ron Barrett, of the Plum Island Taxpayers and Associates. ''They don't know what's going to happen."

Geiger, who was 55 when she died, first came to Plum Island nearly two years ago and almost immediately began her land deals. Even then, little was disclosed about her personal life and plans.

What was known was that she was a petite blonde with a doting staff, four grown children, and a high-powered husband, Julian Geiger, who runs the New York-based clothing company.

Jeanne Geiger was said to be intensely private and declined or postponed multiple press interviews. Jane McNeal, former owner of PJ's, described Geiger as looking elegant, like actress Linda Evans.

Julian Geiger said his wife first came to the island in June 2003 because she had friends who lived there. She stayed, he said, because ''she instantly fell in love with it."

''She desperately loved it and felt safe and secure and in touch with all sorts of healing spirits," he said.

In the past year, Geiger had hosted several social events at the hotel, including a fund-raiser for Senator John F. Kerry's presidential campaign that she threw with friend and fellow Plum Island resident Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and author.

Barrett said she never approached his taxpayers group about her plans and that he had never met Geiger.

''She kept to herself. She did have parties for people. There were people who had met her," Barrett said. ''I wasn't invited to her parties."

McNeal, who sold PJ's to Geiger last summer, had met Geiger briefly and said she was warm and friendly but also private. McNeal said Geiger told her that purchasing the Plum Island properties and creating a resort were her pet projects, now that her four children were grown.

''When she came here, she said to me that coming to Plum Island saved her life. I thought the other day, how ironic -- Plum Island also took her life," McNeal said. ''How she meant it, I don't know. Maybe it gave her a cause, something to do."

Julian Geiger said his wife ''wanted to create something beautiful." She shied away from attention, he said, because she wanted the spotlight on her businesses, not on her.

Despite talk that her development had boosted local real estate prices, Geiger said it was never his wife's intention to be exclusive.

''Jeanne was regal and beautiful but she had the common touch like no woman I've ever seen," he said. ''She wanted to create icons on the island that would bring prestige to the island. She was not an elitist."

Geiger said he and his wife were fans of the Delano, a hotel in Miami's South Beach. He said she hoped to create a hotel on Plum Island that had the feel of the Delano with the style of New England.

In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be sent to the Women's Crisis Center of Newburyport. Geiger had hosted a benefit in December for children affiliated with the center.

As he prepared for the funeral, which was held Thursday at a synagogue in New York, Geiger said it is too early to say whether the family will carry through with Jeanne Geiger's plan for Plum Island. He did say he wanted to see his wife's dream fulfilled and that he knows just what she would want.

''This was a place she loved," he said.

Chicklis, the former Boston lawyer who moved to Plum Island in the early 1990s to open the clam shack and bar, said she is waiting to find out whether her deal will still go through. She had already closed the Beachcoma and had cleared the property for transfer to Geiger, who planned to rename the business the Blue Penguin.

Chicklis, who is scheduled to move to one of the new artist live-work spaces in Amesbury this week, said she has counted on this deal, which had a closing date of Feb. 15. Chicklis said she has been without an income since the business closed late last year.

''My plans were and hopefully are . . . to open Atty. May's West," Chicklis said, of a new furniture and craft store she hopes to open in Amesbury.

Chicklis last saw Geiger just several days before her accident. Despite negotiating the land sale for about a year, it was only the second time Chicklis had seen Geiger in person.

''She wanted to see the place because she was going away," Chicklis said.

Julian Geiger said he had planned to take his wife on a vacation for Valentine's Day. But at about noon on Feb. 4, police responded to a call that a woman had fallen from a third-floor balcony that was under construction.

The police report about the incident is brief and does not state why she was on the balcony or if anyone else was present. It states that Geiger was taken to Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport because MedFlight was unavailable due to winter weather. She was eventually transported to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She died Feb. 18.

The Fire Department did not release its incident report, citing federal medical privacy laws.

Newbury Police Chief Roger Merry said his department is not investigating the accident. It is now in the hands of the US Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was contacted by the family's attorney.

As residents and Chicklis await word from Geiger's family, McNeal and Barrett said the island will evolve into a different kind of place, regardless of the family's decision.

Plum Island will continue to attract new owners, they said, an evolution that already had begun on a smaller scale even before Geiger came to town.

''The island changes," McNeal said. ''When I first moved here, people didn't stay here year-round. The tide goes in, the tide goes out. With it comes change."

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at

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