The “Cottages” of Newport, Rhode island

It was called the Gilded Age, a time when robber barons built excessive tributes to their self-proclaimed awesomeness.

Newport was the epitome of this unbelievable excess, aptly dubbed Conspicuous Consumption.

In an effort to one-up each other with their “summer cottages” iconic American families of railroad, mining and steel fortunes, threw lavish parties for their pets, had notorious… CONTINUE READING >>


The mansions of Newport, Rhode Island

It
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.

De La Salle Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island

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
pages.

Oh, to be rich and bored out of one‘s mind.

Ochre Court where the Great Gatsby was filmed in Newport, Rhode Island

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!

Bizarre fountain in Newport, Rhode Island

<–This fountain has water coming out of WHAAAT?! Just one of many examples of odd art we saw!

In
order
to tell the story properly, we must start with Caroline Schermerhorn
Astor.

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.

The Mrs. Astor's Beechwood in Newport, Rhode Island

Caroline married
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 York’s Four Hundred showed up year after
year to attend The Mrs. Astor’s Summer Ball.

Alva Vanderbilt's Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island

Perhaps
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.

Chateau-sur-Mer in Newport, Rhode Island

Despite the
Vanderbilt’s fantastic show of wealth in New York City, Alva
could not properly break into The Four Hundred.

The traditional
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. Astor’s daughter, Caroline, from the festivities,
citing Mrs. Astor’s 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. Astor’s much humbler Beechwood. Oh SNAP!

A fitting piece of art in Newport, RI

A celebrated
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).

The beach in Newport, Rhode Island

Alva shopped her daughter around
the European gentry, finally landing the 9th Duke of Marlborough
in 1895.

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,
Mom.

In
1895
Alva blew everyone’s minds by divorcing William Vanderbilt,
something that was just not done. She was granted a huge settlement
and retained Marble House.

Belcourt Castle in Newport, Rhode Island

Alva then married
Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, son of August Belmont and his banking
fortune.
She moved in to Oliver’s enormous cottage known as Belcourt
Castle
, just down the road. Her wedding gift? The deed to Belcourt
Castle
.

Vanderbilt's The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island

The
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.

You just
can’t win in Newport.

The Breakers
is so out of control, as our tour guide informed us, that Vanderbilt
descendent Anderson Cooper of CNN fame won’t even visit because
he is “too embarrassed by his ancestor’s 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. Astor’s schedule
after Ward McAllister wrote a tell-all book, fell from grace and
died alone. But it wasn’t until Harry Lehr was hired on by
Mamie Fish that his true colors could shine. He had discovered
his true partner in crime.

Mamie Fish,
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. Astor’s usual seat of
honor, causing quite a stir.

As The Mrs.
Astor
’s 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 Society’s
reigning dowagers.

Rosecliff in Newport, Rhode Island

Theresa, aka
“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.

Newport, Rhode Island

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.

The deck on Aquidneck Lobster Company in Newport, Rhode Island

Needing
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.

Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island

Diving off the sea cliffs in Newport, Rhode Island

To
burn off our seafood, we took a long walk/hike along Newport’s
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.

Alva
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.

Alva Vanderbilt's Chinese Tea House in Newport, Rhode Island

Flo's Clam Shack in Newport, Rhode Island

After
working up a new appetite on the Cliff Walk, we figured
a full 180 from Newport’s lavish luxury was the right choice
for dinner.

We hit Flo’s 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.

Clam strips and Quahog in Newport, Rhode Island

Luckily,
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.

Flo’s was well worth
the trip, if only to hear “Veronicer! Yuh chowda is up!”

Gotta love
Rhode Island.

David &
Veronica, GypsyNester.com

22 thoughts on “The “Cottages” of Newport, Rhode island”

  1. What a fascinating history lesson! Love the way you’ve written this, it reads just like a story – difficult to believe it was all real life! I would swap lives with Alva in a second, despite how hard she claims it is! The novelty would probably wear off after a couple of weeks though..

  2. Being part of that elite social scene sounds really stressful … funny how even when you have a lot of money, people still care way too much about what others think of them…!

  3. We tasted a bit of this world with visits to the Winterthur and Biltmore estates on our last big mainland roadtrip. It’s hard to imagine the staggering wealth. I’ve always wanted to visit Newport, though, and enjoyed your narrative. This type of thing does live on: Modern periodicals such as Vanity Fair (aptly named), Town and Country, and Vogue predictably feature similar vapid personalities on ridiculous display with hilarious editorial fawning. Or there’s always the NYT wedding section. 😉

  4. You mean stuck-up stuffy Anderson Cooper is actually embarrassed because of someone else’s self indulgence? Sounds pretty self righteous. Anyway, I thought the article was shallow, and showed a rather rush-to-judgement attitude.

  5. Golly what a total waste of good money, but the irony is that they were called cottages and used only 8 weeks in the summer. I understand that the craftsmen were brought in from abroad to create these homes were paid a pittance for theit labor.

  6. Whew, entertaining post! White swans in the fountain, twelve white ships floating offshore; it’s all so hard to believe. Whenever I’m confronted by this type of excess, I remind myself of the army of craftspeople, stonemasons, decorators, artists and artisans employed for decades. Money paid to craftspeople and artists is always money much better spent than simply losing it all at the gambling table. Even today, how many visitors are trooping to Rhode Island simply for a walk along the shore and the scrumptious seafood? Those monster(ous) homes are still bringing tourism dollars into the local economy. Craftsmanship of a bygone era is keeping more than one increasingly industry-less destination afloat afloat these days.

      1. Pittsburgh, Buffalo – both building an exciting new creative life on the architectural bones of their 19th-century past. Even my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, has a thriving film industry based on its remarkable heritage core unchanged since it was hailed as “Chicago of the North” with over 70 vaudeville theatres featuring acts like Groucho Marx…

  7. Wow! Thanks for this lesson in Newport history and your very entertaining portrayal of New Englands Rich and Famous. Isn’t it amazing what some people consider important? I have bookmarked it for my next visit to Newport and will definitely have a look at more of those “cottages” next time I’m there. Oh, and I also linked to your story from my daily ePaper http://paper.li/T_W_O/1326445527

  8. LOL! Think of what brilliant CEOs these women could have been had more outlets been available to them. . .

    I just spent some time in Bristol, RI, just a few miles away from Newport. Same beautiful ocean, and quite a lot of money there, but a lot less flamboyant.

  9. My husband grew up in the Newport area, and we have visited many times. Fascinating how much money these folks had and spent. By the way, did you know that they call a milkshake in RI a "cabinet?" momo

  10. Wow! Thanks for the juicy history lesson and the resources. I may not have time to read the books, but a movie could be in order.

    Having worked as the Events Coordinator (until my recent retirement) at an historical gilded mansion in Wisconsin, (see Fairlawn Mansinon at http://www.superiorpublicmuseums.org), I confess to a bit of envy and empathy for the famed social directors. How often did I bemoan the lack of those socialites' funds when compared to the resources of a poor non-profit. It's tough to throw good parties that compete for attendance when working with a limiting budget. LOL

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