Snoop around the grand mansions of Newport, Rhode Island
BEFORE Jay Gatsby started hanging out at Sydney’s Fox Studios with his new pal Baz Luhrmann, you might have found him at Newport, Rhode Island. Back in the 1920s, it was a great place for a man with a dubious past to pursue respectability.
After hosting so many lavish parties at his own magnificent house on Long Island, a wannabe like Gatsby might have expected Old Money would reciprocate and invite him to what the super-wealthy used to call their ‘‘summer cottages’’.
Of course, they’re not ‘‘cottages’’. That’s just mock humility. They’re ostentatious palaces of marble and gold, extravagant survivors of what writer Mark Twain satirised as the Gilded Age, in which a great wave of American excess splashed through the late 19th century and into the early 20th, gathering up the most exuberant European architectural styles and scattering them around Newport’s premier address, Bellevue Avenue.
The ‘‘cottages’’ cost millions to build, but today they’re yours for a few bucks. Just $US31.50 opens the doors of the five most popular properties of the Preservation Society of Newport County.
We start our tour at The Breakers, a ‘‘holiday escape’’ built more than a century ago for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, a leading member of what was then the richest family in the US. The Vanderbilts made their money building railroads. The Breakers, however, is a U-turn into the past. Under its mighty skylight, we find late Renaissance Italy colliding with the French court of Louis XV, as though Cornelius couldn’t quite decide whether to be an Italian merchant prince or a Bourbon king — and settled for a bit of both.
In fact, a lot of both — the audio guide leads us under glorious painted ceilings, supported by monumental plasterwork, exquisite in its gilded detail, through rooms rich in polished wood and silk glowing in the reflected lustre of expensive marble. The house takes every opportunity to try to impress.
Remarkably, the Vanderbilts used The Breakers for just six or seven weeks a year. Ah, but how they used it. The guide recalls balls and dinners, tennis and yachting, golf and coaching (that’s with a coach and four horses). The rich were anything but idle.
Just a few blocks away is Marble House, designed by the same architect, William Morris Hunt, for the same family: Cornelius’s brother, William Kissam Vanderbilt, and his wife, Alva, who was even more of a Francophile than her in-laws. Any passing French king would have felt at home here — actually, there are two in the dining room in the form of enormous portraits of Louis XIV and Louis XV looking down from walls of pink Numidian marble. The audio says the gilded bronze chairs at the dining table are so heavy that each one needed a footman standing behind it to help guests move in and out from the table.
The footmen, maids, kitchen staff, gardeners, laundry staff, grooms and many other denominations of servants make frequent appearances in the commentary, their words recalled by actors and by those who worked in these great houses. They recount the drudgery of life below stairs, a plodding counterpoint to the glittering social occasions in the salons above.
Yet there is also a cheerful pride in having played a part on these grand stages and even a wistfulness for a style of life now just a hollow memory echoing through empty rooms.
The tours include the kitchens, where the surprise feature — standing among massive stoves and sinks as big as swimming pools — is a safe for the family silverware. The butler kept the key.
Fully half of the 70 rooms at The Breakers were to accommodate the Vanderbilts’ household staff, plus the maids and manservants of house guests. A fashionable woman from New York might change her outfit seven times in a day as she flitted from one social activity to the next. The laundry and ironing was her maid’s problem.
It was all too extravagant to last. The introduction of
Below: personal income tax along with rising wa eroded the financial footing of these grand dimmed the glittering entertainments of Newport; its last great starburst was in the what Jay Gatsby’s creator, F. Scott Fitzg tened the Jazz Age — before the Great Cras
A quarter of a century later, the Preserva of Newport County was set up to save the great houses from developers, including the on our tour, the darkly baronial Chatea which, despite, its French name, is unmist century America writ large in granite.
Though some monumental residences w ished, others have survived to be recycled as or upmarket offices. Some even persever homes; for example, software squillion Ellison, reportedly America’s third-riche restored Beechwood Mansion, summer r Astor clan, as a holiday escape for his family to house his collection of American art.
Beechwood Mansion sits between the la
The foreshore of Newport, Rhode Island, is festooned with palatial former playgrounds of the super rich
The opulent music room in The Breakers, built for railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt