Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Adventures of Tessie

The exterior of Rosecliff, Newport, RI.
Film buffs are familiar with the house as that of Gatsby’s in the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow film version of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Called Rosecliff, it was designed and built between 1899 and 1902 by Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White for Hermann and Tessie Oelrichs.

The beginnings were humble in the classic sense; what could be described as dirt poor. Theresa Alice Fair, known as Tessie, was born in Virginia City, Nevada, daughter of Theresa Rooney, an innkeeper’s daughter and James Graham Fair, a prospector who had emigrated from Belfast, Ireland at the age of twelve.

Virginia "Birdie" Fair at Bailey's Beach, circa 1895. Miss Fair's sister Tessy Oelrichs built Rosecliff. Fair later married (and divorced William K. Vanderbilt Jr.).
In 1859, at the age of 28, Fair had become one of four partners, along with John Mackay, James Flood, William O’Brien in the fabled Comstock Lode, the largest single deposit of silver and gold ever found. Before it was depleted in 1898, more than a half billion dollars (a half-trillion in today’s currency) in ore was mined from it.

The Comstock brought great wealth and fame, and in some cases, eventual notoriety to the partners. In the case of the family of James Graham Fair, it also brought disappointment, great unhappiness.

Theresa and James were divorced after only a few years of marriage. Theresa got custody of the two daughters Tessie and Virginia (known as Birdie) and one of the sons, Charles. James got custody of his namesake, James Jr., who committed suicide not long after. Charles married young to a woman whom both parents disapproved of. The couple was killed in an automobile accident while on their honeymoon in Europe. When Tessie married Hermann Oelrichs in one of the biggest weddings San Francisco had ever seen, her father was not invited. He was a poor Irishman from Belfast who found the Mother Lode.

Despite his hardscrabble personality and style, however, Fair was a shrewd businessman. He was responsible for pushing the San Francisco interests out of Nevada development, taking it into his own hands. He became a U.S. Senator (elected by the Nevada legislature).

He was remembered by historian Frederic Logan Paxson:

(Fair) made no impression on the Senate save to advertise it as a haunt of millionaires, and he rarely took part in its debates. But the gaudiness and irregularity of his life and the social ambitions of his family, to which his wealth allowed full gratification, attracted much attention for two decades.
The Newport Casino where the rich young Tessie Fair met the forty-ish bachelor with the social name, Herman Oelrichs.
James Graham Fair spent the last years of his life (he died at 63) living alone in a San Francisco hotel, estranged from every member of his family and most of his friends. In his will he left $50 to any widows or children who could prove themselves to be that. This was before DNA, so his estate was basically safe.

Meanwhile, as soon as she was old enough, Fair’s daughter Tessie had moved East to conquer the social heights of New York and Europe. In 1889 at the tennis matches at the Newport Casino, she met Hermann Oelrichs, the handsome and smart scion of an old Baltimore family, directly descended from one of the founders of the republic.

Herman Oelrichs was almost forty, and had never been married. The year after they met, Herman married Tessie. The couple’s wedding present from the father was a check for a million dollars. A million dollars then would be like $40 million today.

These were the days of the Gilded Age. The haute monde of New York did not go to the Hamptons, they went to Newport where they built enormous houses and in some cases, palaces, and in a pretentious bid for modesty, referred to them as “cottages.” By the mid-1890s, both Vanderbilt palaces in Newport – Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s The Breakers and his brother William K. Vanderbilt’s Marble House -- had been completed. These houses set the tone for future “cottages” of any importance. Tessie Oelrichs got the message, and she intended to abide by it.
Tessie Oelrichs. Bal Blanc, 1904.
Hermann Oelrichs Jr., Tessie Oelrichs, Muriel Vanderbilt, and Consuelo Vanderbilt (named for her aunt Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan).
James Graham Fair.
The Oelrichs bought fourteen acres right on the ocean and Bellevue Avenue called Rosecliff. The place had been owned by man named George Bancroft who raised roses (and created the American Beauty Rose). The original house was ample and wooden and comfortable, but to the young, rich and socially ambitious Mrs. Oelrichs, it was what today is called a “teardown.” And down it came.

Stanford White, a contemporary and social peer of Hermann Oelrichs, and one of the hottest architects of the day for the very rich, was consulted. The popular architecture for the rich was something they called “scientific eclecticism” -- buildings that reflected a specific historic prototype, i.e., Renaissance, Roman, Egyptian, Greek, etc. Whatever the style, it was reworked from the original to accommodate the progress of modern man, like electricity, heat, plumbing.

For the new Rosecliff and for Tessie Oelrichs a little girl from Virginia City, Nevada, White proposed a model of Jules Hardouin Mansart’s Grand Trianon at Versailles. Fit for a queen.

A staircase made for the grand entrance.
The living room.
The Vesibule and Stair Hall.
The dining room.
The house actually has four stories, but was designed to give the illusion of having only two (the servants quarters are secreted behind the parapet on the top floor). With an eye on the formal entertaining that went on in Newport, Tessie and Stanford White planned the entrance. Guests would arrive at Rosecliff, with its imposing and palatial exterior, entering the vestibule to the stair hall.

Immediately the women guests went upstairs to freshen up while the men waited. The women then returned to make their grand entrance on the double helix red carpeted staircase, re-joining their husbands and moving on to the salon where they were “announced.” They then for the final impact, passed into the vast living room at the center, its French doors opening onto terraces on both the east (looking out at the Atlantic) and west side of the room.

The house, which was begun abuilding in 1899, was not completed until 1902, at a cost of approximately $2.5 million (or about forty times that in today’s currency). Impatient with the slow pace of construction, before it was completed, Tessie just couldn’t wait any longer. She threw her first party, a dinner for 112, in late August of 1900, using flora and fauna of every description to bank, cover, and camouflage the incomplete construction.

The maitresse de maison was an exacting taskmaster; what today we’d call a “clean freak.” Each morning she made an inspection of every room in the house. Then she would tour her garage and stables. Cleanliness was next to godliness. Every bed had to be made up fresh everyday, and if there were a marble floor in need of a scrub, she wouldn’t hesitate to take the mop and pail and go at it. “When I die,” she used to say, “bury me with a cake of Sapolio in one hand and a scrubbing brush in the other. Those are my symbols.”

Entertaining was a way of life for the mistress of Rosecliff. Even the great Houdini once entertained the dinner guests. In 1904, Tessie gave her most memorable party, the Bal Blanc, decorating everything in white and instructing all the guests to come in white, including the powdering of their hair. To complete the scene, Tessie ordered a dozen full-sized skeleton ships with white hulls to be anchored in the water below, and illuminated at night to give the illusion of a full white fleet at anchor.

She was a woman who was consumed by the need to play out a bigger role, a role of “pretend.” Blanche Oelrichs (who wrote under the nom de plume Michael Strange, and later married John Barrymore with whom she had a daughter Diana) described Tessie as “strongly addicted to Society as a business.” Mr. Oelrichs, however, was not interested. At all. In short time, he appeared to be not interested in Tessie either. He abdicated most of his husbandly roles and moved to San Francisco, far far away from his social climbing wife, a husband in name only.

In 1906, after the great San Francisco Quake, Herman Oelrichs returned to New York. Thinking that her husband was at last returning to her, Tessie had the house at 1 East 57th Street -- originally the house of Edith Wharton’s aunt Mary Mason Jones (where Louis Vuitton stands today) swept up, freshened up with bowers of flowers, and ordered new clothes for him from Brooks Brothers.

Setting out a candlelit table for two for dinner with her man, she waited for him to arrive. Shortly after his appointed time of arrival, however, Tessie was informed by her butler Herbert that Mr. Oelrichs was walking up Fifth Avenue, passing the house. The errant husband had gone straight to the Metropolitan Club; he wanted nothing to do with her. He died a few months later, never having returned to his wife.

The season in Newport lasted a mere ten weeks for those who stayed the course. Many divided their summers between Newport, Europe and the Adirondacks. Tessie Oelrichs and her son Hermann Jr. traveled the rest of the year between New York, Paris and Saratoga. Like her predecessor Caroline (Lina) Astor, Tessie Fair lost her mind in old age, and like Lina Astor, she spent her days wandering about her mansion, lost in a haze of memories, greeting and seating her imagined (but non-existent) guests.

When she died, Hermann Jr. inherited Rosecliff. He lived there with his wife until 1941 when he sold the house and its contents for $65,000. The following winter the pipes froze and burst and did extensive damage. The house was sold twice more, the last time to Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Monroe in 1947. The Monroes occupied the house until 1976 when they donated it to the Preservation Society of Newport County. It is now open to the public as a museum.

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