OSTERVILLE, Mass. - John S. Carter, accused of bilking Philadelphia's Independence Seaport Museum of $2.4 million, lives in the most exclusive section of this tony Cape Cod village.

His wood-shingled house, bordering the manicured fairways of the Oyster Harbor Club, is located on graceful Grand Island, where entry is limited through a single guarded gate.

"Don't feel bad," the guard told an unannounced visitor last week. "We even turned Ted Kennedy away when he showed up without an invitation."

The ring of privacy around the seaport museum's deposed director seems appropriate for an enigmatic man who compartmentalized his life. Though he kept a home on Cape Cod for eight years - former employees in Philadelphia said he spent most of the summer yachting in Massachusetts - he was a cipher in this resort community.

"There are 150 homes on the island, and most are members of the club, but not him," said Doug Mayo, manager of the Oyster Harbor golf club.

"This guy, Carter, I don't know him," said Paul Chesbro, 70, a lifelong resident who has written several histories on the village. He said the Grand Island houses were mostly occupied by older, seasonal residents who spend winters in warmer climates.

"Those are social people on Grand Island, attending cocktail parties, that sort of thing, in the summertime," said Chesbro, who lives near the center of this quaint village of restaurants, gift shops and real estate offices.

On Monday, the museum sued Carter in Massachusetts court, alleging he defrauded it of $2.4 million to pay for a "lavish lifestyle" that included overseas trips and unbridled spending on expensive boats, clothes, paintings and high-end furniture - much of which it contends ended up in Carter's Cape Cod home.

Despite being paid $301,000 a year, Carter, 56, systematically ripped off the seaport museum, the suit contends.

Carter - who has held prominent positions in national and international associations of maritime museums - is also under FBI investigation, his lawyer, Mark Cedrone, has acknowledged. The investigation apparently grew out of a probe into the use of museum-owned yachts by State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.), a museum board member who has helped it win millions in state funding.

Paul B. DeOrsay, a Carter protégé in Philadelphia who now runs the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum on Long Island, called his mentor "a real stalwart in the field."

But he said the charges would likely ruin Carter's career.

"It's a field where trust is a big part of it," DeOrsay said. "I think professionally this would be pretty catastrophic."

Carter did not respond to telephone calls to his residence.

Why someone with Carter's reputation would risk his career is a mystery to those who said they knew him.

Some speculate that Carter, in adopting the airs of the wealthy yachtsmen and patrons he courted for support, came to see himself as a patrician and entitled to the trappings of old money.

"I can't get into his head," Cedrone said. "But he's a very decent person who did some incredibly stupid things. I'd be speculating about his motivations, but I think he wanted to be part of the club."

Carter seems to have become a year-round resident in Cape Cod since he was dismissed last year from the Philadelphia museum and forced to vacate the museum's 5,000-square-foot Society Hill townhouse. The museum has since sold the Spruce Street house.

He and his wife, Karin, apparently won't be living in Osterville much longer, either.

They recently put their house on the market, asking $2.2 million. They paid $615,000 in 1998 for the 3,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, five-bath house that is shown in an Internet real estate listing with a gabled roof, an octagonal cupola and an extensive patio covered by a pergola. It is situated on a half-acre lot.

"He and his wife were planning to sell the home for some time to pay off the museum," Cedrone said.

The lawsuit suggests that Carter spent more than $100,000 of the museum's money for landscaping and outdoor improvements, and about $75,000 at Cape Cod retailers for electronics and furniture for his Grand Island house.

A Massachusetts judge placed a temporary restraining order on the sale of any assets. A hearing is scheduled for tomorrow in Barnstable Superior Court.

Nowadays, nobody acknowledges really knowing Carter, a native New Englander who spent his life working at museums in Connecticut and Maine that celebrate seafaring before he came to Philadelphia in 1989.

Charismatic, confident and charming with donors, Carter did not come across as warmly to those who worked beneath him, several former employees said.

"John is like a Kennedy," said Roger Allen, a former curator at the Philadelphia museum who left in 1992 and now heads the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez, Fla. "He's got the accent. He's got the smile. He's got the handshake. He's got the blue eyes."

While Carter was admired for moving the Philadelphia museum from cramped quarters in Society Hill into a prominent position on Penn's Landing, the museum suffered financially under his administration.

Some museum insiders saw early signs that Carter's first priority was tending to his own comforts.

Allen said he departed Philadelphia in 1992 after Carter cut museum staff, but purchased a turbocharged Saab with museum funds. "I left because of John Carter," he said.

William Cook, a Hyannis yacht designer, recruited Carter to sit on the Cape Cod Maritime Museum, which opened last year in Hyannis. Cook is the former chairman of the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut and familiar with Carter's 30-year museum career. He was attracted to Carter "as someone who has seen it all."

About a month ago, Carter resigned from the board after telling Cook that he anticipated legal problems and wanted to disassociate himself from the nonprofit.

Cook regards Carter as "a colleague and a friend," though he added that Carter had never invited him to visit his Osterville home.

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Craig R. McCoy and Marcia Gelbart contributed to this article.