Comme Il Faut: A Gilded Age Tour of Newport
by Sharon McDonnell
"The Lady Sharon has arrived," the parlor maid intoned, announcing my entrance. Like others in the elite "400" group entertained by hotel tycoons Caroline and William B. Astor, I had come to Newport, Rhode Island to celebrate the marriage of Astor son John Jacob IV. The year was 1891.
Another Time, Another Place
Standing on the terrace of Beechwood, the Astor's "summer cottage," I gazed across a vast lawn at the silvery Atlantic. Though the gleaming white fortress was magnificent enough under a bright blue sky and gossamer clouds, the moonlight rendered it simply magical. Inside, ladies swathed in glittering Parisian gowns filled their dance cards for the evening and flirted coyly behind fans, while a pianist practiced the contradances, quadrilles and popular songs in anticipation of the evening's celebrations.
I wasn't dreaming -- I was at a recreation "Gilded Age" ball held weekly at the restored Beechwood between June and October. Posing as the Astor family and servants, an authentically costumed troupe of actors navigates modern enthusiasts through the social and cultural maze that was Gilded Age Newport.
Here, guests can mingle with groom J.J. Astor (who later drowned in 1912 on the ill-fated Titanic), tipple champagne with well-to-do Victorian ladies or waltz to Strauss with noble gentleman decked in coat and tails. The mansion is also open for daytime tours, showcasing the social life and customs of Newport, and Victorian Christmas tours that culminate with a four-course dinner.
Founded in 1639 by seekers of religious freedom, and a safe haven for Quaker and Jewish settlers, Newport was a major colonial port involved in the "Triangle Trade" of rum and slaves between Africa and the Caribbean. After the American Revolution, the town became popular with Southern plantation owners, industrial giants, writers and artists for its cooling summer breezes and natural beauty.
La Dolce Vita
Most of all, Newport dominated the social scene during America's Gilded Age, an era of excessive wealth and prosperity between 1880 and 1929 typified by the decadence and social hypocrisy recounted in novels by Edith Wharton and Henry James. Referred to as "summer cottages," Newport's opulent homes like Beechwood were only lived in for a few weeks a year -- trophy residences for their robber baron owners.
Newport's tony tone was set by residents like the Vanderbilts (who struck it big in railroads), and of course the Astors, whose hotels like the Waldorf-Astoria in New York earned them millions in pre-war dollars.
Of Robber Barons and Royals
The town also teemed with aristocrats -- from English Lords to Russian Grand-Dukes -- who were oft-times impoverished and eager to replenish family coffers by marrying a young heiress. Conveniently, Newport was also full of nouveau-riche matrons desiring to add a title or two to the family name. By 1915, almost 500 American women had married into royalty.
Today, Newport is still the ideal place to relive the grandeur of the Gilded Age, thanks to museum-like preservation of the art and architecture.
Like most major mansions in Newport, Beechwood boasts a direct ocean view. Modeled after French and Italian chateaux and palaces, it is stocked with lavish furnishings and equally extravagant artwork.
Beechwood's actor-guides also introduce visitors to the nuances of Newport etiquette. A calling card placed face up on a tray and handed to the house butler meant a guest was here in person, requesting a visit. Calling cards placed face down, or with corners bent in various ways, signified congratulations, sympathy, or plans to go out of town.
Similarly, if a lady dropped her fan in front of a gentleman, it signified she wanted to be friends. If the man returned her fan so she could open it, the feeling was mutual.
An Opulent Setting
Like Beechwood, several other Newport mansions are open to the public. A gleaming white marvel designed after the Grand Trianon at Versailles, Rosecliff is also noted for the beautiful rose garden, statuary, and fountains, as well as its 3,200-square-foot ballroom -- Newport's largest. In 1904, it provided the setting for the legendary "White Ball," at which women wore white and powdered their hair, and a fleet of a dozen fake, life-sized white ships was docked in the Atlantic outside. At another party, Harry Houdini, weighed down with chains and bricks, was thrown off a barge and escaped underwater. Rosecliff's hostess was Theresa Fair Oelrichs, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who struck the Comstock Lode in Nevada, the richest silver mine ever found.
Marble House, the most ostentatious of the mansions, was built with 500,000 cubic feet of white marble and filled with plum-colored Numidian marble from Algeria, yellow Siena marble from Italy, and Louis XIV and Louis XV-style furnishings custom-made by Paris decorators. In the Gold Ballroom, every square inch is covered with carved gilt wall panels, massive marble mantelpieces, bronze chandeliers and sculptures.
It took nearly four years and $11 million to finish the house, which William K. Vanderbilt gave as a gift to his wife, Alva. Two years later, Alva divorced him; one year later, she married another Newport tycoon, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, and moved across the street to Belcourt Castle, where Mr. Belmont's beloved horses slept on linen beds.
In her later years, Alva became an ardent supporter of women's suffrage. Meetings for the cause were held in the Chinese Tea House -- a lipstick red and moss green pavilion adorned with dragons -- which she built overlooking the ocean behind Marble House. "Votes for Women" china can be seen in the kitchen of Marble House, and Alva reportedly told a suffragette -- distressed after her arrest -- in 1914, "Pray to God. She will help you."
The biggest and grandest Newport mansion, The Breakers, was built by William's older brother, Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Inspired by northern Italian palazzos in Genoa and Turin, the 70-room limestone mansion is noted for its two beautiful Renaissance-style loggias. The courtyards overlook a point where Atlantic Ocean waves crash against the rocks, giving The Breakers its name.
Within the house, don't-miss sights include the 45-foot-high Great Hall, the marble and gilt-bronze edges dining room, and the library, whose walls -- leather stamped with gold -- are designed to resemble books. Visitors can also experience Gilded Age style by taking a horse-and-carriage ride to the stables.
Behind the Velvet Curtain
Since Newport mansions are such shrines to "conspicuous consumption," visitors often wonder how the other half lived and worked. A behind-the-scenes tour of The Elms, inspired by a chateau outside
Paris and built for Pennsylvania coal magnate Edward J. Berwind, answers these questions. To heat the house, 40 tons of coal a year were transported by underground railroad from a grate in the street to the coal furnaces stoked by men in white shirts.
One of the first Newport homes to be fully electrified -- its opening party in 1901 was lit with 5,000 newfangled lightbulbs instead of candles -- The Elms also features landscaped grounds with statuary of mythical Gods and sunken gardens.
Curiosity about how well-to-do middle class lived in Newport in the Gilded Age can be satisfied by visiting The Cliffside Inn, once summer home to the Turner family of Philadelphia. Its stairway, coral and moss green parlor, and all 16 rooms are filled with over 100 paintings, most depicting women in late Victorian finery. The works -- mainly self-portraits -- were done by Beatrice Turner, the family's daughter, who was scorned by Newport society as an unmarried, mysterious recluse. She poured out her sensitive observations and drawings of the resort's notables and events in her diary. Excerpts can be found in the biography of Ms. Turner, self-published by the inn's owner.
One should take in the natural beauty of Newport as well. Green Animals, the foremost topiary garden in the U.S., is an enchanting place where teddy bears, giraffes, camels, lions, and dogs have been shaped from shrubbery. Part of a serene country estate overlooking Narragansett Bay, the gardens are located in Portsmouth just a few miles from Newport. The most charming way to get here is riding the old-fashioned train -- choose a 1904 open-air coach or 1884 parlor car -- along the edge of Aquidneck Island, where Newport is located.
Also stroll along the Cliff Walk, a rustic 31/2-mile path which borders the ocean and faces the lawns and backs of the mansions.
Newport is "such a combination of natural and contrived beauty, open for the enjoyment of all, and cannot be seen on such terms anywhere else in the world," an English visitor wrote to Liverpool's "Evening Mercury" around 1900. Viewing the wildflowers and breathing in the salt air, today's turn-of-the-century visitor is sure to agree.--Sharon McDonnell
For more information on Newport RI attractions and events, go to Website: http://www.newportri.com