Wednesday, September 7, 2022. It’s raining outside as I write at the eleven o’clock hour (last night). It was raining Tuesday morning and then through the day and the night, and it’s still raining. Off and on. We’ve had very little rain in the northeast for the past few months, and so it’s welcome. Like the perfect escort into Autumn (I’m jumping a little ahead because it’s that time of year coming upon us). Activity is out there.
I had dinner last night with my friend Nikki Haskell who came in this weekend from her residence in Los Angeles. She has had an apartment here on the upper East Side for years. Decades. Nikki is an entrepreneur, a media marvel. These days she’s heavily into her pieces on TikTok talking about the world out there that she’s been a part of since she was a kid growing up in Beverly Hills, and later as a reporter of the social scenes of CA. and NYC. Here’s a little taste of the @bignikbh
@bignikbh Replying to @sawahadesert the cartier love bracelet girlies had nothing on imelda 😌 #imeldamarcos #bongbongmarcos #reply ♬ original sound – Nikki Haskell
What was notable on this very rainy Tuesday night that still feels like Sunday night, was the restaurant (Sette Mezzo) which was jammed inside and out. To this observer it was a sign that “they’re coming back …” (they being the New York citizens who’ve been away in Summer and also “away” from the atmosphere brought to us by the Cov. It was just nice to see so many New Yorkers, all ages, glad to be out and about and with others enjoying the company.
Today we’re running a little history on the season we’re just leaving: Summer. And this time in Newport, Rhode Island. At the end of the the 19th century and well into the 20th, Newport was the summer resort for Society — mainly out of New York. It had the elan that spoke of great wealth of the Gilded Age. In the early 1890s, the mansions they were building were like palaces of the European monarchs that cost millions (of what would now be hundreds of millions because of the value of the dollar today). And these palaces were generally occupied for maybe six weeks out of the season, and then its occupants would be moving on elsewhere — Europe, or yachting trips, or other residences.
What’s great about it, from a historical point of view, is that much of the grand architecture is still there and whole; and some of it still occupied by individuals and in some cases even families of the original owners. The houses were built to last with no expense spared. Today that architecture continues to define the area and its presence has a strong influence on the community’s respect. It’s a memory but it continues to influence the attitude of the community.
100 years ago in 1908, in July and August, Newport was the determining destination for New York Society. The Hamptons were still tiny villages of large cottages for the less colossal WASPs and their Roman Catholic brethren. Newport was the land of the Astors, the Vanderbilts, and their fellow tycoons and millionaires. (Millionaires were yesteryear’s billionaires.)
The Mrs. Astor had passed away earlier that year. The social triumvirate of the “younger” set were now fully in charge: Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, Mamie (Mrs. Stuyvesant) Fish and Tessie (Mrs. Herman) Oelrichs. There was a fourth — another Mrs. Vanderbilt — Alice Gwynne, Mrs. Cornelius II. She lived in the biggest, grandest “cottage” called the Breakers, but her interest was less enthusiastic.
“Avoid Newport like the plague until you are certain that you will be acceptable there, counseled a man named Harry Lehr, who was the Court Jester of the courts of the aforementioned troika of society queens. Social climbing tycoons sought his counsel very seriously. “If you don’t (following this advice) it will be your Waterloo.”
“Above all,” Lehr continued, “don’t take a house there and launch out giving parties.”
Those who did not follow the dictum were in for big disappointments, no matter the size of their new fortunes (the Vanderbilts were already third generation, going into four). The three ladies decided.
For those who belonged there were balls and dinners every night. There were bathing parties at Bailey’s — the “beach club,” and yachting parties.
It was such a closed society that there were hotels for people who weren’t invested as houseguests.
The girls got along fairly well although they all had very strong and dominating personalities. One of the issues that could create friction was who got the prized men to always be present at their parties.
Mornings were spent at Bailey’s Beach. Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, the consort of “King” Lehr the Court Jester, recalled the drill. “Baileys’ or on the Horse Shoe Piazza where women who prided themselves on their ultra-feminine pose and despised these sports girls whose era was fast dawning, sat arrayed like Solomon in all his glory, listening to the strains of Mullalay’s orchestra.”
The clothes for tennis mornings at the Casino: Petticoats of satin lace, taffeta, petticoats embellished with elaborate designs of plump cupids, playing gilded lyres, true-love-knots interspersed with doves embroidered in seed pearls. Parasols to match every dress, huge feather flopping hats, white gloves to the elbow — three or four new pairs everyday; lace ruffles at the throat, lace underskirts.
There were different dresses for every occasion, 80-90 in a season worn only once or twice. Some of the ladies at the Casino played tennis. The costume: (considered daring) white tennis shoes and black stocking, white silk blouses, pleated skirts which when fluttering in the breeze exposed bloomers. Along with sailor hats with attached double veils protecting their fair faces from the sun.
The girls at the beach wore full skirted costumes and long black stocking. James Van Alen always went into the water wearing his monocle and a white straw hat. Alva Belmont carried a green umbrella into the water with her to protect her fair complexion.
Marble House on Bellevue Avenue was built for William and Alva Vanderbilt and designed by Richard Morris Hunt who had built the couple’s houses on Fifth Avenue and on Long Island. The land was right next door to Alva Vanderbilt’s one-time nemesis, Mrs. Astor, who occupied the 62-room “Beechwood” since 1881.
Construction began in 1889. When it was completed and ready for occupancy in June 1892, more then $2 million had been spent on construction and another $11 million on décor and interiors (or approximately 30 times in today’s currency). During building, Alva had high walls constructed so that no one could see what was going up. Her move was not popular. Neighbors were in an uproar when it finally was visible, as it was the most palatial house Newport had ever seen (it inspired by the Petit Trianon) and was right on Bellevue Avenue for all to see. They called it “a marble house for a marble heart.”
The entrance hall of Marble House is lined with yellow Siena marble. The Gold Room is considered to be the most opulently decorated room in all of Newport. It was used for the balls and dances.
The gilt wall panels were carved by Karl Bitter and J. Allard et Fils of Paris supplied the sculptures. The painting on the ceiling is in the style of Tintoretto.
The house did not seem to bring happiness to the marriage or to the individuals. It was in this house in the summer of 1894 that Alva imprisoned her seventeen-year-old daughter Consuelo whom she intended to marry off to the 9th Duke of Marlborough.
She succeeded. She also divorced Mr. Vanderbilt that same year, to marry Oliver H. P. Belmont.
Because adultery was required for the divorce, Alva persuaded her soon-to-be-ex-husband to go along with a charade of an investigation that claimed to have caught him in a tryst with a lady of the night in Paris. Mr. Vanderbilt was allowed only to escort his daughter down the aisle to her fate with Marlborough.
After that, he was ordered to leave the church and not attend the wedding. Whatever he really did to offend his wife is not known.
Construction of the Breakers began in 1893 after the original house by that name, owned by Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt II burned down at the end of the summer the year before.
Set on 11 acres and the house occupying an acre itself, Richard Morris Hunt built the grandest house in Newport and one of the grandest houses in the history of the United States.
70 rooms, the Great Hall rises 45 feet. Hunt was inspired by the palazzi of Genoa and there are highballing rooms and loggias to encourage ventilation by the sea breezes. The bathrooms in the house had hot and cold running sea water, as well as fresh water.
Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish was outspoken and not shy about calling it the way she saw it. She loved to entertain although she could complain about it. She especially liked playing tricks on her guests. She once gave a fancy dinner for a visiting member of royalty who turned out to be a real live monkey.
A man who had been left off the guest list for her parties once cracked about the name of her property. “I can never remember the name of your house Mrs. Fish. Isn’t it the Cross Patch?” “Well, that’s a patch you’ll never cross, young man,” was her reply
Her butler Morton was considered an autocrat by everyone who came in contact with him. They were intimidated by his eagle eye and and his remonstrances when he caught someone in a breach of etiquette. He’d worked for English dukes, a matter he emphasized and which impressed the American guests. Morton had one especially difficult failing: he liked his wines.
The last straw was one morning when Mrs. Fish had invited guests for luncheon. As the last guest was arriving, Morton swooped in, flourishing a napkin. “I suppose that because you happen to be Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish you think you can drive up and down the Avenue inviting who you like to the house. Well let me tell you, you can’t. Sixteen is my limit, and if you ask any more, they go hungry.”
The next day he was dismissed.
His revenge was taken, nevertheless, and subtly: he unscrewed an entire gold dinner service into three hundred pieces and left them in a heap, like so many pieces of a puzzle, on the dining-room floor.
It was the day before Mrs. Fish was giving a big dinner party. None of the remaining staff knew how to put them together. Two men had to be dispatched from Tiffany in New York immediately to put it back together again.