Melee at the Manor
In Dover, everyone drinks in the basement of the American Legion, a wood-paneled space just off the town square where the day’s events—who died, who’s getting married, who’s pregnant—are posted above the Budweiser sign on the wall behind the bar. That the nonveteran (and the veteran for that matter) spend so much time at the Legion is a curiosity to every outsider and not a few locals, but there is an explanation. Despite a per capita income second only to Weston’s, Dover has no bar, in large part because there’s pretty much no people, just 6,000 to hear the locals tell it, and even that a slight exaggeration of the Census Bureau’s figures. It’s basically either the Legion or the deli shop on Center Street. And the Legion has booze.
The Legion also has Craig Rafter. It is dusk in mid-June, and he is holding forth at a table near the bar, a garrulous man in his late fifties with a flat-top haircut and glasses that do not hide the warmth in his eyes any more than his polo shirt hides his gut. Rafter is the co-owner of David Craig Properties in Dover and also co-owns the Sherborn Inn in Sherborn, one town over. He grew up here—"Mr. Dover," some call him—and loves to talk about Dover’s schools, the friendliness of the people, and the diversity (such as it is in a town 95 percent white) of the Legion’s regulars: everyone from Jay the Pig Farmer to Jack the Bartender, who works at Merrill Lynch by day and tonight brings over drinks and microwave popcorn.
In 2007 Rafter built a home for Mark Clair a couple of miles east of here, on a 7-acre spread off Dedham Street. The 6,500-square-foot faux Colonial, unsheltered by the groves of trees that the neighbors prefer, has imposing Greek columns and sits at the end of a long driveway, the Charles River behind it and a moat out front. It was Clair’s dream house. "Building for Mark was an experience," Rafter says. "Probably one of my toughest customers. We were friends, but he had a vision of how he wanted it."
Clair was a principal in the Clair Auto Group, one of the largest auto dealers in New England. One year ago this month, the night before he and his family were to have a holiday party in their new home, he got into a fight in his basement with an Irish-born contractor whom many in town suspected of having ties to the Irish Republican Army. Clair died the next morning. What followed was one of the strangest homicide investigations in Massachusetts history. Whether it produced a just outcome is a question that has ended friendships, but if you believe the Irish contractor, one thing it certainly did was show Dover for what it really is.
Mark Clair was the fourth of five children and the son of Ernie Clair, a World War II hero who took a car dealership in West Roxbury and made out of it an empire. The Clair Auto Group would eventually total 19 dealerships spread throughout New England. They sold everything: Jeep, Ford, Acura, Mercedes, Porsche. The Clairs—Ernie and wife Theresa, oldest son Jimmy, Mary, Joe, Mark, and Michael—lived in Weston, and the three older boys all loved cars, spending their free time as kids in the ’60s at the West Roxbury lot.
Mark was the captain of the football team at Weston High and, briefly, during his senior year in 1974, class president. Back then, the drinking age was 18, and Mark thought he could raise a lot of money for his class if, in exchange for donations, he gave away beer. Weston High administrators did not like this idea, and Mark was impeached. But such were the wholesome hijinks of a seemingly idyllic life.
And yet: "Mark didn’t have that great of a home life," says Jane Clair, Mark’s widow. Ernie was a drinker. He wasn’t around much during Mark’s childhood, and when he was, he could be abusive. "Mark considered himself the black sheep of the family," Jane says, "because he stood up to his dad." On occasion "he’d get into fisticuffs with his father." Only after decades had passed, and only after Ernie was on his deathbed, did the two make amends, she says. (Joe, the de facto family spokesman, declined to comment for this story.)
In 1979, at age 23, Mark met Jane Darveau. She was a secretary at a brokerage firm in Boston; he was selling used Buicks for his dad after dropping out of Curry College in Milton. He was witty, Jane remembers—a big guy, 6 feet tall, who lived equally large. They married six years later, in 1985.
In 1986, with Jane pregnant, Mark went to his father and asked if he could head up the Acura dealership. After Jonathan was born in December 1986, and Caroline two years later, Mark and Jane needed a bigger place. And so again, Mark turned to his father, who let the young family rent a condo he owned in Needham.
Mark Clair and his family moved to Dover in 1989, living in a home his brother Jimmy owned on Claybrook Road. Public records show that Mark bought the place outright three years later for $300,000. Unlike a lot of small towns at that time, Dover was not in decline. Many well-off small-business owners and Financial District higher-ups called it home. Then, as now, it didn’t have the cachet of Wellesley or Weston, but Dover didn’t have the gawkers, either. There is no easy route to the town: Though it’s only 15 miles southwest of Boston, it takes at least 40 minutes to get there, regardless of traffic, and this protection from major thoroughfares gives the town an other-worldliness: the white picket fences and verdant yards of an Eisenhower-era oasis. It was a place the Clairs, despite their generation’s push for modernity, loved.
Mark had a knack for selling cars. He was a willing negotiator, unlike his brothers, who took a harder line. After Ernie’s retirement, Joe became CEO. But Mark also climbed within the Clair Auto Group—eventually overseeing not only Acura but also the Saturn dealerships—and as he did he became known for his many appetites. He was a legend at the Legion, a big-timing big lug who weighed about 250 pounds and who would often tell the bartender to "sprinkle the infield," meaning Mark was buying the next round for everyone, which always included Mark, too. He gave zealously to charity. He had box seats for the Patriots, the Sox, and the Bruins, and a reserved spot at Abe & Louie’s on Boylston Street to watch the marathon. His unironic motto was "Living the Dream," and he passed out umbrellas that said as much to new customers.
In the spring of 2007, Prime Motor Group of Saco, Maine, approached the Clairs about buying them out. Joe and Mark debated the offer and initially refused. But then the deal "kept getting sweeter and sweeter," Jane Clair says. It went through on November 26, 2007. While the terms were not disclosed, the hot rumor around Dover was that the company had gone for $200 million. Jane Clair doubts it was that high but admits she never heard the actual sale price; Mark just kept telling her, "It’s more money than we’ll ever need." The following Friday, November 30, Mark headed to the Legion early to celebrate. The next day, he’d have that holiday party on Dedham Street, welcoming guests across the moat and into his new palace.