was called the Gilded Age, a time when robber barons and their
offspring built excessive tributes to their self-proclaimed awesomeness. Newport, Rhode Island was the epitome
of this unbelievable excess, aptly dubbed Conspicuous Consumption.
Newport is chock full of gaudy mansions erected by the more-money-than-class club.
In an embarrassing effort to one-up
each other with their summer cottages these iconic American
families of railroad, mining and steel fortunes, threw ridiculously
lavish parties for their pets, sat atop carriages every afternoon
to show off their new outfits, had notorious affairs, harassed their
overworked staffs and backstabbed one another to get into the society
Oh, to be rich and bored out of ones mind.
Many of these
cottages have become white elephants as family fortunes dwindled
or heirs finally came to their senses and are now kept up by historical
societies, available for touring by the public — and to be mocked
by The GypsyNesters!
<–This fountain has water coming out of WHAAAT?! Just one of many examples of odd art we saw!
to tell the story properly, we must start with Caroline Schermerhorn
Caroline insisted on being called The Mrs. Astor,
which in itself tells you a lot about the woman.
Together with her social director, the notorious Ward McAllister,
The Mrs. Astor put together The Four Hundred, a list
of people considered worthy of their company.
“If you go outside
that number, you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom
or else make other people not at ease,” proclaimed Ward McAllister.
Although rarely disputed by society columns and social climbers,
this list was full of the nouveau riche, which goes a long way in
explaining the goings-on of the eight-week long Newport summer season
in which these cottages were employed.
William Backhouse Astor whose grandfather, John Jacob Astor, made
a killing in fur and real estate and in his time was the wealthiest
man in America. William, neither a captain of industry nor much
into socializing, was nevertheless a big spender and bought Beechwood in 1881.
Two million 1881 gold-backed dollars were spent on fixing
the place up and New Yorks Four Hundred showed up year after
year to attend The Mrs. Astors Summer Ball.
the most infamous newcomer to The Four Hundred was Alva
Vanderbilt. In 1875, Alva, married William Kissam Vanderbilt,
grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt,
whose fortune was built on railroads and steamships. The Commodore
amassed wealth, his descendants spent it like there was no tomorrow.
Vanderbilts fantastic show of wealth in New York City, Alva
could not properly break into The Four Hundred.
acknowledgment of this honor was to be formally called on
by The Mrs. Astor.
Apparently the old Commodore had burned a few
too many social bridges in his day, but Alva was not to be denied.
In 1883, Alva
devised a plan to bust her way in. She put together a masquerade
ball to show off her newly finished Fifth Avenue home in New York
City. This little wingding had a guest list of 750 and all the
young ladies of quality were feverishly practicing their parts
in the much anticipated Quadrilles. Just prior to the ball, Alva
banned The Mrs. Astors daughter, Caroline, from the festivities,
citing Mrs. Astors lack of formal calling. Sure enough, The Mrs. Astor came a-callin and Caroline attended the ball.
The Vanderbilts were in.
Alva and William
arrived in Newport in 1892 upon finishing their eleven million
dollar Marble House. A gift from William to Alva for
her 39th birthday, the new cottage just happened to be right next
door to The Mrs. Astors much humbler Beechwood. Oh SNAP!
social climber, Alva was determined to marry off her oldest daughter
Consuelo to a European aristocrat.
Lacking the proper pedigree,
drastic measures were necessary to make Consuelo into a suitable
mate. Among other things, Alva forced the girl to don a contraption
made of steel to force her to sit up straight. Luckily, Consuelo
turned out to be a renowned beauty (likely helped out by a two
and a half million dollar dowry).
Alva shopped her daughter around
the European gentry, finally landing the 9th Duke of Marlborough
To convince Consuelo to marry against her will, Alva
faked a mysterious fatal illness. The marriage was later annulled
with Alva saying, “I forced my daughter to marry the Duke.
I have always had absolute power over my daughter.” Nice,
Alva blew everyones minds by divorcing William Vanderbilt,
something that was just not done. She was granted a huge settlement
and retained Marble House.
Alva then married
Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, son of August Belmont and his banking
She moved in to Oliver’s enormous cottage known as Belcourt
Castle, just down the road. Her wedding gift? The deed to Belcourt
new Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont’s castle/cottage was soon trumped
by her former kin, brother-in-law Cornelius Vanderbilt II,
when he built The Breakers in 1895.
cant win in Newport.
is so out of control, as our tour guide informed us, that Vanderbilt
descendent Anderson Cooper of CNN fame wont even visit because
he is “too embarrassed by his ancestors self indulgence.”
Much of this
insane self indulgence was planned by the social directors. Perhaps
the job to have in Newport, one social director of particular
note was Harry Lehr. Harry took over The Mrs. Astors schedule
after Ward McAllister wrote a tell-all book, fell from grace and
died alone. But it wasnt until Harry Lehr was hired on by
Mamie Fish that his true colors could shine. He had discovered
his true partner in crime.
wife of Stuyvesant Fish, president of the Illinois Central Railroad,
was not your typical Newport hostess. Mamie and Lehr hosted some
pretty outlandish parties at the Fish’s cottage Crossways — a dinner where everyone had to speak baby talk
and bring dolls, a three-course dinner party for one hundred dogs,
some dripping with diamonds, and an extravagant ball for the Prince
del Drago, who when announced, turned out to be a monkey. The
simian prince then was seated in The Mrs. Astors usual seat of
honor, causing quite a stir.
As The Mrs.
Astors influence fell out of fashion, The Triumvirate
emerged. Alva Vanderbilt and Mamie Fish had climbed to the top
of the social ladder, and with Theresa Fair Oelrichs, The Triumvirate was completed. The trio became Societys
Tessie was the daughter of James Fair, a silver magnate.
She and husband, Hermann Oelrichs built Rosecliff, a cottage with
twenty-two master bedrooms in 1902. Tessie could throw a mean,
themed shindig including a fairy-tale dinner and a circus. Her
magnum opus was the thirty-thousand dollar Bal Blanc, put together
by Ward McAllister before his demise.
All attendees wore white
from head to toe, including the powder in their hair. Rosecliff
was strewn with white flowers, the fountain full of white swans.
But the pièce de résistance was the twelve white
ships Tessie bought as decoration to float in the ocean.
Life was hard
for these ladies as Alva Vanderbilt famously said, I know
of no profession, art or trade that women are working in today
as taxing on mental resource as being a leader of society.
Well, honey, you should have thought of that before you decided
to take on The Mrs. Astor.
Dear, brave Alva.
to get away from the mentally taxing work of looking
at huge houses, we decided to head down to the marina to relax
and take in the scene on the water.
We found the Aquidneck
Lobster Company where
we picked out a lobster from their multiple tanks, had it steamed
and ate it out of a paper bag on the beautiful back deck while watching
the sailboats go by.
burn off our seafood, we took a long walk/hike along Newports
famous Cliff Walk.
This beautiful trail alongside the majestic
cliffs of the Atlantic gives a view of the sea-facing sides
of the most ostentatious cottages.
Yes, it meant more opulent
mansion — sorry — cottage viewing but no trip to Newport is
complete without it, it is truly spectacular.
Vanderbilt’s famous Chinese Tea House is along the cliffs.
Tucked away behind the Marble House, she used it to hold meetings
for the Women’s Suffrage movement.
Apparently, later in life
she wanted a vote that really counted.
working up a new appetite on the Cliff Walk, we figured
a full 180 from Newport’s lavish luxury was the right choice
We hit Flos Clam Shack on First Beach
for mounds of clam
strips, decadent chowder and a fiery hot quahog. As far as we knew,
Quahog is the town where the famous Family Guy lives,
but always up for a culinary adventure, we ordered one anyway.
it turned out that a quahog is a type of clam, served stuffed with
spicy clam stuffing and held together with a red rubber band. Excellent
when washed down with an ice cold beer.
Flos was well worth
the trip, if only to hear Veronicer! Yuh chowda is up!