When Society was in Flower

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Riverside Park after a healthy watering. Photo: JH.

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.

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont’s Chinese Teahouse, built behind Marble House. Mrs. Belmont liked to build. In the course of her lifetime, she built and/or did over several mansions and castles. After she divorced Mr. Vanderbilt in 1895, she married Oliver H. P. Belmont and moved up the avenue to his house, Belcourt. She continued to own Marble House, however, and after Mr. Belmont died prematurely in 1908, she moved back into Marble House. She had Chinese workers come from China to build it and had the reputation for paying them very generously. What she got was a genuine, authentic tea house but no place to make the tea. To solve the problem, the lady of the house had a track laid between the house’s kitchen to the pantry of the tea house, concealed from sight by hedges. When the tea was hot, the footmen got onto the little rail cars with their trays and delivered their tea. By then Mrs. Belmont had begun to forsake much of her society role to become involved in the Suffragette Movement. The Teahouse was inaugurated on completion in 1914 with a conference of women activists for a Women’s Vote Meeting. Newport was quite put out by their queen’s actually bringing the hoi-polloi onto her property for Tea.

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.

Newport Harbor which serviced the yachts of the rich from all over the world who came to visit.
The center of town. The State House, Broadway. Unlike the Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive section of the town, Newport was a working class town that prospered from the spending of their rich neighbors. Their presence brought millions of dollars into the community every year even though the season when the “cottages” were open for use, ran between six and ten weeks only.

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. StuyvesantFish and Tessie (Mrs. HermanOelrichs. 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.

The entrance of the Newport Casino. Tennis at the Casino, where the ladies went in the late mornings, dressed to the nines to sit under their umbrellas to watch – and be seen.
The ladies got around in a variety of carriages chosen especially for the occasion. That’s Mrs. Pembroke Jones in her morning carriage. Mrs. Pembroke Jones was from North Carolina and was famous in Newport for her Southern dinners.

“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.

That’s John Jacob Astor IV, Jakie, son of Mrs. Astor, father of Vincent, the man who only a few years later would be lost on the Titanic. That’s his wife with the veil sitting with her back to him.

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.

Arriving at the Coaching Club.
Cliffwalk runs along the coastline off Bellevue Avenue at the foot of the properties of the rich. This public access was troublesome to the residents, such as the Vanderbilts early on as it intruded on their privacy. In those days, the public was as intrigued by the Robber Barons as the public is intrigued with celebrity today. So it was decided to sink Cliff Walk by 12 feet or so so that the “walkers” couldn’t see the houses they were traveling by, only the sea.

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.

Bailey’s Beach. Morning was when people met at the beach club, maintained by beach-men dressed in white, with rows of bath-houses with initials painted on them identifying their owners. It was on the tennis courts of Bailey’s that tennis was played for the first time in bathing suits – revolutionary in those days.
Sailboats preparing for a regatta.

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.”

Marble House on Bellevue Avenue.

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.

Suffragists attend lecture on grounds of Marble House, Newport home of Mrs. Alva Belmont. Woman Suffrage Gathering at Newport Marble House. New York Times, August 28, 1909. Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897-1911; Scrapbook 7; page 114. JK1881 .N357 sec. XVI, no. 3-9. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Around the same time Marble House was a-building, Mr. Vanderbilt took possession of a new yacht, the 285-foot steam yacht, Alva. At the time it was the largest steam yacht in the United States. Family quarters was a ten-room suite, and there were seven more guest staterooms, each with a private bath. There was a crew of 53 which included a doctor, 3 cooks, and a man to operate the ice-maker. The couple began cruising all over the world and with friends in the entourage. It was on one of these long cruises in 1889 where Oliver H.P. Belmont, an old friend of Mr. Vanderbilt, connected strongly with Mrs. Vanderbilt.
By the time Marble House was ready for occupancy, Mrs. Vanderbilt was ready to get out of the marriage. This kind of move in 1892 was unheard of in society. Divorce was very rare and usually the woman was a pariah after that. The yachts, like the Alva, were in the harbor at Newport often only to pick up their owners who would then be off with pals and parties on cruises that removed them from the Newport social scene for most of the season, leaving everything to their wives and their wives’ courtiers.

The young Mrs. Willie K. Vanderbilt, nee Alva Smith of Mobile, Alabama. She was driven, she was feisty, she was charming, she was democratic, she was a tyrant with her children and her husband. She loved to build houses. She loved grandeur. She left her husband and married a man she loved who died prematurely only a few years after. Her divorce settlement from Vanderbilt included their Long Island estate, as well as Marble House (which had already been in her name) and about $10 million. Two years later she married her friend Belmont. Alva Belmont.
As a hostess, she was both militant and generous with her houseguests. One of her guests smoked in bed. When he departed, the housekeeper reported the sheets had several big holes from cigarette burns. Mrs. Belmont ordered her to wash them, darn the holes together with the “coarsest darning cotton” she could find. “And when he comes again, see that he get them on his bed.” The guest returned and just before he was departing again, he told his hostess: “Everything is so perfect here. You have such wonderful linen that I think I ought to tell you that it is not being taken care of as it should be. You really ought to see the sheets on my bed.” “Ah yes, those sheets,” Mrs B. replied: “you’re quite right. Those are the sheets you burned holes in with your cigarettes. I had them darned especially for your personal use.”
By the time she was in her 50s, Alva Belmont was a full-fledged activist in the Women’s Movement, traveling, lecturing, with homes in New York, Long Island, Newport and Paris. When she died at 80 in 1933, she was given a funeral conducted entirely by women.

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.

The Breakers.

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.

The Great Hall is at the center of the mansion, rising 45 feet. Arriving guests entering the Great Hall look directly toward a wall of glass overlooking the lawn and the sea. The House was inaugurated on August 14, 1895 by the coming out party of the Vanderbilts’ daughter Gertrude. 300 attended and the cotillion was led by Gertrude and her partner Lispenard Stewart who was regarded as the best dancer in Newport.

Alice Gwynne, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, with her daughter Gertrude. Gertrude was tall and lanky and not especially feminine. At that time of Gertrude’s coming out party, she and her friend Esther Hunt (daughter of the house’s architect) had a very intense, emotional relationship bordering on what looked suspiciously like what in those days was called “a Boston marriage.” Mrs. Vanderbilt did not like what she saw. She ordered Gertrude never to see Miss Hunt again. The following year, also in August, Gertrude Vanderbilt married Harry Payne Whitney at the Breakers.

Beaulieu. The Newport “cottage” of Grace Graham Wilson and Cornelius Vanderbilt III, known in the family as “Neily.” “I have never event dreamt of such luxury as I have seen in Newport,” said the Grand Duke Boris of Russia, brother of the Czar. It was the night of Grace Vanderbilt’s “Fete des Roses. A miniature theatre had been constructed by a hundred craftsman and carpenters who worked around the clock for a week. The entire company of a Broadway show called “Red Rose Inn” was brought up to Newport, scenery and all to present to the guests, closing down the New York production for two nights. Millions were spent every summer in Newport on private balls and dinners, sometimes $100,000 to $200,000 for one party.

Grace Graham Vanderbilt at 25 and at 75. At the time of his sister Gertrude’s coming out party, Neily’s relationship with Miss Wilson was the family scandal. His parents were so against her that they forbade him from marrying her, threatening to disinherit him. The young man nevertheless defied his father and married the girl on August 3, 1896, three weeks before Gertrude was to marry Harry Whitney. The newlyweds were not invited to Gertrude and Harry’s wedding, nor would Gertrude speak to her brother. The breach was not repaired before the elder Vanderbilt died, three years later, in New York, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
As he had been warned, Neily was left about 1.5 % of his father’s estate: $500,000 and proceeds from a trust fund. His brother Alfred, who had become the principal heir, gave Neily an additional $6 million. The young Cornelius Vanderbilts lived in New York and Newport. Grace, although never the chatelaine of the Breakers, eventually became the most prominent of the Vanderbilt women as a social hostess. Her social life eventually left her husband to his own devices which meant, among other things, cruising on his yacht. By the time he died many years later, he and Mrs. Vanderbilt were all but totally estranged.

Cornelius Vanderbilt III’s North Star (233 long, 30 feet wide) was Neily’s first ocean-going steam yacht named for his great-grandfather’s yacht in which he cruised around the world. He and Mrs. Vanderbilt entertained the King and Queen of England (Edward VII), Kaiser Wilhelm II and President Theodore Roosevelt. Mrs. Vanderbilt’s dinner service made for the yacht included 108 plates. As his wife’s social calendar became more active, Mr. Vanderbilt spent more time aboard his yacht (this was only his first). “Your mother has become a waltzing mouse,” he told his son, and lived most of the time aboard his yacht. When War broke out in 1940, he donated his last yacht, the 233-foot Winchester to the government and chartered a small (100-foot) boat on which he died, in Miami, in 1942.

A Stateroom on the North Star, purchased in 1903.
“Crossways,” The Newport “cottage” of Mamie (Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish).

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

Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and Miss Lola Robinson. Mrs. Fish, never at loss for words as well as reminders about personal realities once greeted her guests at the beginning of a new season with “Well, here you all are — older faces and younger clothes.” She hated musicales — a popular entertainment for the stuffier members of the society. When someone asked her what instrument she played, she replied “a comb.” One night during a coughing spell that worried her husband, Mr. Fish asked, “Can I get you something for your throat my dear?” “You certainly can,” she answered, “That diamond and pearl necklace I saw today at Tiffany’s.” And so it was.

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.

Theresa Fair Oelrichs, known as Tessie, was the daughter of James Graham Fair, one of the partners in the Comstock Lode, one of the greatest silver discoveries on the North American continent. The Comstock made them rich. His daughter Tessie, already estranged from her father because of her mother, extracted the money to come East to make a new life and make it in society. She positioned herself well and one day at the Casino during a tennis tournament, she met Herman Oelrichs, well-to-do — on Mrs. Astor’s 400 — with only meager finances. They married. Tessie Oelrichs built Rosecliffe on Cliffwalk. Her marriage to Mr. Oelrichs produced children but no devotion. The couple remained estranged for most of their married life.
Tessie’s younger sister Virginia, known as “Birdie” made a marriage to Alva and Willie Vanderbilt’s son Willie K. Jr. The marriage produced three children before the couple were divorced. Their son William K III was killed in an automobile accident in the early 1930s when he was in his 20s. His death was Birdie Fair’s great tragedy and she died only a few years later.

Rosecliffe. Considered one of the most beautiful houses in Newport, inspired by the Grand Trianon at Versailles, Tessie Oelrichs was a perfectionist. Once when she had a full circus come from New York to entertain the guests with side shows and peanuts. Friends arriving in Newport at their rented houses would find all the beds had been made up with fresh linen, towels on racks, fresh fruit; even before servants arrived. At Rosecliffe she made her beds everyday. She would never sleep in sheets which did not belong to her. So a trip to Paris and the Ritz, she had her own bed which was stored when she was not there, and brought out and fitted with her sheets for her arrival. When she left one of her houses, for another, everything would be closed down except her bedroom. It was superstition.
She had a personal maid but gave her little to do. She liked doing her own hair. Because she was very hard of hearing, she was unaware that she spoke very loudly in a poorly modulated voice that could be embarrassing. She lived alone in her big houses when she did not have guests. She had a passion for order and cleanliness that probably drove others crazy. “When I died,” she would say, “bury me with a cake of soap in one hand and a scrubbing-brush in the other; they are my symbols.”

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