Chapter 19. The Superrich of Newport


This chapter takes a look at the lives of the wealthy in the post-Civil War period. Sections of the chapter visit the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island and the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, while others tour the Legrand Lockwood mansion of Norwalk, Connecticut, and the Henry Bowen house at Woodstock, Connecticut.

The Mansions of Newport

Visiting Newport, Rhode Island is like touring Europe. The many mansions here are designed in styles influenced by European architecture. This emphasis is in keeping with the American Renaissance movement popular at that time. Now that the wealthier American industrialists had the money, the American Renaissance movement searched for a monumental architecture to match that of Europe. (Personally, I think Newport is one of the most fascinating and impressive places to visit anywhere within a three hour drive of New York City.)

There are too many mansions to see in one or even two days, so the visitor should select the ones in which he or she is most interested. This chapter concentrates on the mansions of the leading figures of Newport Society -- namely the homes of "the Mrs. Astor" of the "Four Hundred" fame and her three successors.

The town was a leading seaport before the American Revolution. After the war, however, it stagnated as a result of being virtually cut out of the Caribbean trade and later bypassed by the railroad. The city then became a resort town as Southern plantation owners, seeking a cooler summer retreat, stayed in its boardinghouses or rented farmhouses.

The real influx of the superrich did not begin until the arrival of Mrs. August Belmont, wife of the representative of the Rothschild bankers and mother of the brothers, O.H.P. and Perry Belmont. Mrs. Belmont was an early social arbiter of taste in Newport, but her reign was soon eclipsed by Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, Jr.

The Astor family traces its heritage to John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), an immigrant born in Waldorf, Germany, who built a fortune in the fur trade. He built a fleet of ships and became the dominant force in the early China trade. Disposing of this trade in 1834, he concentrated mostly on New York real estate.

After John Jacob's death, his son, William Backhouse Astor, doubled the family fortune through various real estate and landlord operations. This energetic son favored his own first born son, John Jacob Astor III, over his younger son, William Backhouse Astor, Jr. This fatherly rejection led William, in later life, to drink heavily. And yet it was his wife, the former Caroline Webster Schermerhorn, who became the famous arbiter of Society.

In the early 1870s, as Mrs. Astor's children approached adulthood, she became increasingly involved in Society affairs as a means of insuring them good marriages to the "right" people. Also around this time a certain social climber from the South, Ward McAllister, attached himself to the lady. As a team they gradually defined who was and who was not in Society, as well as the rules by which Society would be governed.

The term the "Four Hundred," originated by the ambitious McAllister, came into vogue in the 1880s. The reason for settling on the number still remains a mystery. Some believe that was the number of people who could fit into Mrs. Astor's New York City ballroom.

The years from 1890 to 1914, when the superrich reigned supreme, were glorious ones for Newport. These were the days before the direct income tax, and consequently, the wealthy prospered. To emphasize just how rich these people were, note that the mansions here were built as mere summer "cottages," the summer season lasting from mid-June to September.

580 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI (Open daily 10-5, June-Oct)

Here lived the "Queen of the Four Hundred," Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, Jr. The architects of the house, built in 1851- 52, were Calvert Vaux of New York's Central Park fame and Andrew Jackson Downing, a leading landscape architect from Newburgh, New York. The house is relatively simple compared to those built later. Here the diminutive lady of the house would receive guests, while standing by a huge painting of herself.

The only serious rival for social leadership was her niece, Mrs. William Waldorf Astor, who lived next door, at "Beaulieu." (This mansion was built 1856-1859 and is now separated from Beechwood by Marble House, built in 1892). Her husband, the favorite of his father, thought that his wife should be the number one Society hostess, and he worked to make this a reality.

The contest was not even close. With McAllister's help, Caroline Astor easily established herself as "the Mrs. Astor," dropping both her husband's first and middle name. William Waldorf eventually settled his family in England, thereby beginning the famous English branch of the Astors.

From then until after the turn of the century, Mrs. Astor was the supreme arbiter of taste. She had plenty of time to devote to this activity as her husband was seldom with her at Newport-- McAllister filling in as male host. When McAllister died in 1895, Harry Lehr, nicknamed "King of the Gilded Age," assumed the position.

Mrs. Astor died in 1908, but she had already lost much of her position as the head of Society. She spent her last years talking with fictitious guests at imaginary parties. However, it took three women, the so-called "triumvirate," to fill Mrs. Astor's shoes. The women were: Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont (the former Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt), and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish. We will visit the home of each of these women.

Marble House
Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI (Open daily 10-5, Apr-Oct; Sat-Sun 10-4, Nov-Mar)

Located next door to Beechwood is this mansion, completed in 1892 by Richard Morris Hunt for William Kissam Vanderbilt. It took four years to build at a cost of $11 million. The mansion is modeled after the Petit Trianon at Versailles. Don't miss the Gold Ballroom for a feeling of showy wealth.

There is usually a great deal of suspicion between those of "old money" and interlopers with "new money." Mrs. Astor kept Commodore Vanderbilt and his son, William H., out of Society because they had recently acquired wealth and also had been involved in manipulating railroad stock. William H.'s son, William Kissam, and his red-headed daughter-in-law from Mobile, Alabama, the infamous Alva Smith, were determined to break into Society, despite Mrs. Astor's opposition. To make everyone sit up and take notice, Alva had Richard Morris Hunt build a huge mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue.

Still not accepted, Alva engineered an elaborate ruse to force her neighbor's hand. Knowing Mrs. Astor's devotion to her children, Alva planned a gala affair and made sure that young Carrie Astor was deeply involved in the planning. A few days before the party, she sadly informed the young girl that she would not be able to send her an invitation because her mother had never come to call. The mother, informed of her daughter's sadness, paid a visit to her neighbor. This opened the way for the party invitation and the entrance of the Vanderbilts into Society.

In 1895 Alva divorced her husband, thereby, becoming the first woman of prominence to obtain such a separation. In retaliation, the Vanderbilts ostracized her. The social custom of the day should also have called for her isolation. However, she refused to submit to this prejudice. She issued invitations for a huge ball and even attended church services. She created further scandal by holding a great ball to introduce her daughter, Consuelo, to Society just five months after the divorce.

In the house itself be sure to notice daughter Consuelo's bedroom. She was kept a virtual prisoner here in order to prevent her from marrying Winthrop Rutherfurd. Her mother intercepted all letters between the two and even threatened to shoot Winthrop. (It's a small world. Rutherfurd's second wife was Lucy Mercer, who had an affair with Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

Alva forced her daughter to marry the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. Consuelo was very unhappy in the marriage. The couple legally separated in 1905 and obtained a civil divorce in 1920. In one of the proceedings, Alva defended her daughter's contention that she had been forced to marry the Duke by saying she had complete control over her daughter. She added that it would have been impossible for Consuelo to have resisted her will. We may not approve of Alva's actions, but must admit she was not only determined and feisty, but honest as well.

In 1896 the energetic woman married a man five years her junior, O.H.P. Belmont. She moved two blocks south along Bellevue Avenue to Belcourt Castle. Nevertheless, she still kept Marble House, where she had her washing and ironing done. It was there that this liberated woman conducted a conference of leading feminists in 1914. While visiting Marble House, be sure to see the Chinese Tea House located to the rear. (If you are ever in Centerport, Long Island, visit the mansion of Alva's son, William K. Vanderbilt, II.)

Belcourt Castle
Bellevue and Lakeview Avenues, Newport, RI (Open daily 10-5, April-Jan 1; daily 10-4, late Feb; Sat-Sun 10-4, Mar)

Richard Morris Hunt built this mansion in 1892 for the thirty-five year old, five feet tall, bachelor Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont. (The great naval hero, Oliver Hazard Perry, was his uncle on his mother's side.) The mansion's style is that of a French hunting lodge, but includes other styles as well. The castle contains sixty rooms, each done in a different period of French, Italian, English or Oriental design. (I myself do not care for such mixing of styles, but must admit there are some beautiful pieces in the collection.)

In 1896 Belmont married Alva Vanderbilt. In her new role, his wife ruled the social scene as one member of the triumvirate along with Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and Mrs. Oelrichs. She became very active in social causes, including soup kitchens, clinics for the poor, model houses, and even the dissemination of birth control information.

Mr. Belmont had his activities also. One of his favorites was to exercise his horses daily in the center courtyard of the castle. The man loved these animals so much that he had them sleep on white linen sheets embroidered with the Belmont crest in a Richard Morris Hunt designed stable.

O.H.P. died in 1908. His wife devoted most of her time and a good part of her fortune to working for women's suffrage. She saw the attainment of this goal in 1920. She died in 1933.

The mansion itself has very few items from the days of the Belmonts. The Tinney family bought the place in 1956 and the present mansion is a reflection of their extensive collection of European and Oriental furniture and art. Notice the Grand Staircase upon which liveried footmen at Belmont parties would stand every sixth step. Each servant held a candelabra to light the way for guests.

Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI (Open daily 10-5, Apr-Oct)

Built in 1898-1902 for Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, this mansion was designed by McKim, Mead, and White to resemble the Grand Trianon at Versailles. The focal point of the house is the ballroom, which is the largest such room in Newport. Scenes from the movies "The Great Gatsby" and "The Betsy" were filmed here. Another interior highlight is the heart-shaped staircase that dominates the entrance hall.

Mrs. Oelrichs was the daughter of the Irish Comstock Loder, James Graham Fair, and wife of Hermann Oelrichs, the North German Lloyder. As a society leader she gave one of the most famous of Newport parties. To celebrate the Astor Cup race in 1904, she held a White Ball where she had the women and everything in the room dressed in white. The male guests wore black for contrast. Thinking nothing unusual about her request, she asked the United States Navy to anchor its "White Fleet" just off her ocean-front property. When they refused, she had an army of carpenters create a dozen full-sized ship models to set in the ocean.

The Society hostess had a penchant for cleanliness and, perhaps because of this, ran her home like a first sergeant. She daily inspected every room. However, her husband was not home very often to enjoy the well-run household. The couple lived apart for many years, much to her sadness. Her husband died at sea in 1906, but she lived on until 1926.

Crossways (private)
Ocean Avenue (North), Newport, RI

Of all the mansions mentioned in this chapter, this is the only one you cannot tour. It is located nearby Bailey's Beach. The mansion was built in 1898 by McKim, Mead and White in the Colonial Revival style for Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, the third member of the triumvirate.

After the waning of Mrs. Astor, Harry Lehr attached himself to Mrs. Fish, who actually helped start the downfall of the "Four Hundred." A sign of decline, she was the first hostess to include all kinds of celebrities at her parties, including actors. The Society leader was barely literate, but had a caustic sense of humor. On one occasion she even introduced a monkey to Society.

The Breakers
Ochre Point Avenue, Newport, RI (Open daily 10-5, Apr-Oct; Fri & Sun 10-6, Jul-Labor Day)

For tourists this is the most popular Newport mansion. Built 1893 to 1895 by Richard Morris Hunt, it is modeled after the Renaissance palaces of Turin and Genoa. The owner was Cornelius Vanderbilt II, grandson of the Commodore and brother of William Kissam Vanderbilt, owner of Marble House.

His wife, Alice Gwynne, commissioned the building of the mansion. She used it as one stratagem in a contest with her sister-in-law, Alva of nearby Marble House, to become "the Mrs. Vanderbilt." We have already met Alva and know there is no way that this determined lady would be defeated.

Highlights of the mansion include the double loggia on the east side of the house, the Great Hall with its 45 foot ceiling and the two-story dining room. The opulence belies the character of the owner, for Cornelius attended Episcopal services daily and rarely entertained. He officially opened the mansion in 1895. However, he did not have much time to enjoy it. He suffered a stroke the next year after fighting with one of his sons over the boy's fiancee. He died three years later.

One of Alice's sons was Reginald Vanderbilt, who married the much younger Gloria Morgan. They had a child also named Gloria. After the husband died, the mother was so often away from her child that other family members worked to gain legal custody of little Gloria. A bitter dispute over the young girl broke out between the mother and the child's aunt, the sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The 1934 trial was a national sensation.

During the Depression, there were a great many kidnapings. The most famous of these was the Lindbergh case of 1932. Little Gloria, influenced by those opposed to her mother, developed a phobia about being kidnaped and killed. She thought her kidnaper would be her own mother, and, consequently, rejected her. Mrs. Whitney won guardianship, only to ignore the poor child. Little Gloria, happy at last, became better known for her jeans commercials.

Other Sites

This chapter has concentrated on the mansions of Newport, but don't miss the Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue. It is a beautiful example of the Shingle style of architecture. Stanford White designed it (completed in 1880). The building wraps around a green grass court that was the site of the first National Men's Tennis Championship. It presently houses the Tennis Hall of Fame that you may also want to visit.

There are many other mansions in Newport. Read the chapter on Hammersmith Farm to learn more about the Kennedys. Also in Newport are several colonial houses open for tours.


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