Rob Hardy: The good life in Newport

January 12, 2010 3:45:00 PM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


There is no city in America that has so extraordinary a history as Newport, R.I. This is chiefly due to its being a destination for visits, first by well-heeled New Yorkers and Southerners in the 1850s, and then most famously by the rich society swells who installed showplace mansions especially along the magnificent rugged coastline, and then by tourists who come to see the mansions. The mansions (erected by rich people who enjoyed the ironic humor of calling them "cottages") and the society within them are not the whole Newport story, but any social history of the city is going to concentrate on them.  


Thus does Deborah Davis in "Gilded: How Newport Became America''s Richest Resort" (Wiley), which is an anecdote-rich account mostly of life in and around the cottages, upstairs and downstairs, and those who got included and those who did not.  


The stories are funny and revealing. Rich people are not really that different from the rest of us, but they have resources to put peculiarities on display, and the rest of society seems to enjoy focusing on their peccadilloes. Davis thus has intrinsically interesting material, but the book serves well, too, as an informal history of a unique city and how it handed the economic ups and downs of its waves of visitors. 


This story populated by unimaginably wealthy families starts with a man of humble origins. Alfred Smith was born in Newport and learned to be a tailor there. He did well enough to be taken on by a clothier in New York, where he not only pinched his pennies, he listened carefully as his clients for fittings discussed investments and planned their vacations in his hometown.  


In 1839, he had made his fortune at only 30, and he returned home to invest in real estate; he predicted that the wealthy would want to be buying places of their own rather than just staying in the many hotels that had sprung up. Not only did he buy up parcels of land that had enormous potential, the former tailor instituted the tradition of ensuring that only the "right" people bought them. They, in turn, instituted the tradition of building spectacular homes and gardens, and inviting each other to huge parties meant to inspire admiration (envy) and emulation (competition).  


As Davis points out, Thackeray described the process of social climbing as "licking the boots of those above (and) kicking the faces of those below," and this has happened in Newport ever since. 


The tycoons who participated in the climb had scads of money to use for social advancement, and often were encouraged by ambitious wives to do so. Many of the marriages described here had that sort of teamwork, but didn''t have much else going for them.  


Alva Vanderbilt had learned to ignore the philandering of her husband, William, but when he gave her a 35th birthday present, a blank check to cover the cost of building the cottage she desired, people whispered it was because she had caught him in yet another compromising relationship.  


Nonetheless, she built a palace called Marble House which opened in 1892, and inspired the word "Vanderbuilding" as others thought to catch up to its gorgeous example. Even Alva Vanderbilt had had to curry approval from the grande dame of Newport society before her, Caroline Astor, but having gained it, she went on to become queen in her own right. When the marriage broke up, it may have been because she was having one affair contrasted to her husband''s many, but she suffered bad press for insisting in the divorce proceedings that it would be a hardship for her to live on $200,000 a year. She cemented her social position within Newport, however, by arranging the marriage of her daughter Consuelo to the Duke of Marlborough. It was a sheer business transaction, and Consuelo hated it, but Alva Vanderbilt forced the wedding by feigning a heart attack and predicting worse if the marriage didn''t happen. It was all hard work: "I know of no profession, art or trade that women are working in today as taxing on mental resources as being a leader of society," Alva complained. There are many scandalous and unpleasant stories like hers here, but the social grind did produce one magnificent mansion after another. 


The matrons were always careful whom they admitted to their Newport circle, and it was impossible that Harry Lehr would ever enter it. He had no family to speak of, and he was a wine salesman. But the charismatic bachelor was welcomed in "because he was a lively companion and candid confidant. He played the piano, danced ballet, told funny stories, poured afternoon tea, designed chic costumes for his hostesses and spoke French. Best of all, he loved to plan parties, and the wilder they were, the better."  


He took every opportunity to cross dress at pageants and costume parties, and his detractors called him "the human poodle." He never came out of the closet except to one person, his wife, whom he informed on their wedding night, also letting her know that she was repulsive to him. The marriage lasted 28 years, and in public they feigned affection, while they avoided each other the rest of the time. One of his pranks was a society party in honor of the visiting Prince del Drago; invitations to the event were highly desirable. When the Prince made his appearance, it turned out that he was a monkey in evening dress. Perhaps those attending thought the joke was funny, but when the newspapers reported about it, and about how the monkey got drunk on champagne, public reaction led him and some of the matrons to head to Europe in 1908 until the backlash blew over. 


The conflict between the society dames and the public has continued. Doris Duke was a tobacco heiress who owned the mansion Rough Point, where she had made her debut in 1930. By 1958, she was furious that people could walk between her house and the ocean on the famous Cliff Walk, part of which went through her backyard. While one tycoon had installed a bull on his property to keep Newporters from claiming their right to the walk, Doris Duke installed two German shepherds, and set up a barbed wire fence and thorny bushes. The battle between Doris Duke and the public continued until 1966, when she was at the wheel of a car that ran over her boyfriend and killed him. In three days, the police chief said there was no reason to press charges, and shortly thereafter Doris Duke gave $25,000 for restoration of Cliff Walk. It seemed to many like a quid-pro-quo, but Duke went on to launch the Newport Restoration Foundation to restore the Colonial architecture remaining in the city. She seems to have taken her foundation seriously. It was one of the movements like the Preservation Society, which in 1948 was given a $1 lease on the Breakers, another Vanderbilt mansion. Tourists could then buy access to the Breakers for a $1.50 ticket. 1948 was also the year that the "Newport Social Index" of "prominent cottagers" ceased publication.  


Newport boosters, few of whom have the sort of money that built the cottages a hundred years ago, have also taken up a jazz festival, the nostalgia for Camelot (Jacqueline Lee Bouvier summered in Newport, and she and John F. K ennedy married there), the Americas Cup sailing race, or modern scandals like the supposed murder of Sunny von Bulow, all of which have brought their share of gawkers. The city remains a playground for rich people; Elton John played at a birthday party there a few years ago, as did Billy Joel. The great attraction of "Gilded," besides its collection of often hilarious if sad anecdotes about rich people, is its social portrait of a town like no other which has undergone huge social changes and is continuing to take on new roles for itself.

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]