Friday, October 4, 2013

"Squabble” in Newport

Entrance drive to “The Breakers,” the summer cottage on Ochre Point Avenue of  Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt II in Newport, Rhode Island. The house, now owned by the Preservation Society of Newport, was completed in 1895, designed by Richard Morris Hunt. It is now the most popular tourist destination in the historic city, with more than 400,000 visitors last year.
The New York Times reported last month on a “squabble” going on in Newport over a proposed commercial building on the property of one of the city’s National Landmarks, the Breakers – the summer residence more than a century ago of Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his family.

All these decades later, the Breakers is now a major tourist destination. Last year more than 400,000 visited the 70-room, 65,000 square foot mansion set on thirteen and a half acres overlooking the Atlantic. Visitors see nothing but the architectural grandeur that history associates with the Vanderbilt name. The disapproval in the community of making any changes in the property has more to do with the “romance” of the estate as imagined easily by its millions of visitors.
The first “Breakers” cottage, completed in 1878 for Pierre Lorillard IV in the Queen Anne style by Peabody & Stearns, architects from Boston. Cornelius Vanderbilt II bought it in 1884. The brick and shingle mansion was destroyed by fire in 1892, after which it was replaced by the present building. Peabody & Stearns had also designed a detached cottage in the same style for the original house and it was used as a children’s playhouse. That survived the 1892 fire and is still standing. It is also open for tours.
The house from an aerial photograph taken in 1925. Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt was still in residence for the 10-week summer season, as well as other family members. Mrs. Vanderbilt led a very quiet life.
In reality, the Breakers today is a relic of a time and a way of life more than a century ago that is gone with the wind. Today this great mansion is simply a commercial property, a private museum of sorts that more than anything else honors the architects and designers who created it to suit the wishes of a very rich client.
Aside from the cultural value, its real value is what it does for the community in terms of commerce and taxes. So it could be said the Vanderbilts have actually been sharing the wealth for more than a half century. That most definitely was never the intention but ironically it became a noble one.
It was a time of great prosperity for the very rich. It was a time when much of America was farmland or thereabouts, cars (still called “machines”) were made only for the wealthy, and there were few telephones or electricity for most Americans outside the cities. So these palaces which the Vanderbilts and their brethren built for themselves were architectural fantasies disguised as reality.

The Breaker’s owner -- Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was the eldest of Maria and William Vanderbilt’s eight children, also the namesake and favorite grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt --  the first American transportation tycoon. Grandfather was a legendary tough number who made (and kept) several fortunes. When he died in 1877 he was the richest man in the world.
Where it all began. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. The title was an honorarium, more a nickname than something official, although the man (who got started in business with passenger and freight boats between Manhattan and Staten Island) liked it and used it to the point where it was more than official: it was his name. Born in 1794, he married twice (both cousins), fathered 13 children, made his first (small) fortune in the boat/transportation business, augmented by the real estate business and finally made himself the world’s richest man in the railroad business.
When the Commodore died, his son William inherited about $80 million (or at least 100 times that in spending power of today’s dollar) -- almost his entire estate. Comparatively little went to his nine daughters and son Corneliius Jeremiah). Although grandson Cornelius II, who was then thirty-four, inherited $5 million (which was like $100 million in today’s dollars).  The Commodore left nothing  to his eight daughters because he believed women didn’t need their own money. A huge and highly publicized court fight ensued and eventually William settled a half million in ample paying bonds on each of his sisters.

By the time William died -- only eight years after his father -- he had doubled the fortune. Approximately $65 million was bequeathed to each of his two eldest sons: Cornelius II and William K. (always referred to as Willie K.) and substantially less -- although at least $10 million --for the other two sons and four daughters, leaving them all rich. William, like his father had become the richest man in the world, and had also learned a lesson from his father’s bequests.
William H. Vanderbilt and Maria Kissam Vanderbilt and their family in the salon of their first Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, painted by Seymour Guy in 1874. Left to right: William Henry Vanderbilt; Frederick William; Maria Kissam Vanderbilt; George Washington; Florence Adele (standing looking to her right); William Kissam; Eliza (Lila) Osgood facing George W.; Margaret, the eldest daughter; her husband Col. Elliott F. Shepard; a servant behind him; Emily Thorn (in white gloves), a maid; Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt (seated); William Douglas Sloane, husband of Emily; and Cornelius II, Alice’s husband.

In three years from the time of this sitting, the Commodore would die and leave his son William most of his enormous fortune, making William the richest man in the world. And dramatically changing the life of all of those appearing in this portrait.
The Breakers, completed in 1895 for approximately $12 million, couldn’t be duplicated today for less than several hundred million, if that. This fortune, having begun to be distributed among family members by those two deaths in the last quarter of the 19th century, made the entire Vanderbilt family the richest family in America.

Cornelius II had married his wife Alice Claypoole Gwynne when he was 24 and she was 22. The couple had met at church (St. Bartholomew’s) where they both taught Sunday School. She was an heiress to a smaller but adequate fortune.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt.
They were a pious couple -- as was the idealized fashion for Society in those days (although not in the reality of Edith Wharton’s characters in the same set). They attended church regularly and contributed very generously. Cornelius early on developed the habit of giving to charity – the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Metropolitan Museum, the New York Botanical Garden as well as his support of his church and the General Theological Seminary. As he got older, his contributions increased to a healthy percentage of his income. 

His grandfather had admired him and guided him because he was of “serious” disposition, and a good worker. His peers liked him because he was courteous, proper, fair and considerate of others. He and his wife Alice lived by a credo that seemed the opposite of the Vanderbilt public image (as well as their houses).

The young Cornelius Vanderbilts as a family were newly, but hardly, social in the “Old New York” where Caroline (Mrs.) Astor reigned supreme, and expressed no interest in knowing any Vanderbilts.

Corneil, as he was known, and Alice were young, yes; and rich, proper and quiet living. Their first child (Alice Gwynne ) died at age five. Their second child and first son  -- William II -- died of typhoid fever at age 12.  The surviving five – Cornelius III, Alfred Gwynne, Reginald, Gertrude and Gladys – lived to adulthood.

The couple was never flamboyant in conduct or behavior -- although after Cornelius came into his first fortune after his grandfather died, he and Alice, like his father and siblings, he built a mansion -- designed by George Post -- on the corner of Fifth Avenue and West Fifty-seventh Street.
The triple-palace residence of William H. Vanderbilt on Fifth Avenue occupying the entire block from 51st to 52nd Street. The 51st Street side was the residence of William and Maria Vanderbilt. Two of their daughters resided in the double houses on the 52nd Street corner. The property was completed in 1882. The  house across 52nd Street, number 660, was the home of Alva and Willie K. Vanderbilt, one of William’s sons.
660 Fifth Avenue designed for Alva and Willie K. Vanderbilt by Richard Morris Hunt, completed for residency in 1882, the same year as the houses across the street. Hunt loved early French Renaissance and he found a willing patron in Alva Vanderbilt who fancied herself a connoisseur of architecture. Alva called the house her “little Chateau de Blois.” The Chateau de Blois was so much Hunt's inspiration that it showed up in his commissions for several New Yorkers. The house was ground-breaking architecturally mainly because its exterior was limestone. In a city of brownstone, this was revolutionary. It set the trend thereafter. The house also marked the major change in the Vanderbilt family’s social ascension. Theretofore, the Mrs. Astor – with everyone following her dictate, paid no attention to the Vanderbilts, from the Commodore onwards. The official “house warming”, a costume ball at the house on the evening of March 26, 1883 changed all that. 1,600 invitations were issued. The preparation for it was a daily topic of conversation among the elite, including the Astors. The evening was a spectacular success and Alva Vanderbilt became a contender to the crown of queen of New York society. This image re-positioned the entire family – something they were financially ready for, if still not entirely interested in.
1 West 57th Street, the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice. Designed by George Post and occupying a half block facing Fifth Avenue as well as a large frontage on 57th Street, it too was completed in 1882. The house across the avenue was part of the first block developed north of 57th Street and the corner house was owned by Edith Wharton’s aunt Mary Mason Jones. Cornelius II had been the favorite of his grandfather  and was left $5 million when he died in 1877. The Commodore left Willie K. $3 million and George and Frederick $2 million each. For whatever reason, several years later, Cornelius bought all the brownstones that lined the rest of the block on the avenue to 58th Street as well as lot inside 58th. With Richard Morris Hunt consulting and George Post designing, he built the most famous house on the avenue in its day. 137 rooms, it was the largest private house in New York and an enormous tourist attraction, not to mention the thousands of curiosity seeking New Yorkers who came frequently to look at it.
The propensity toward mansions was true of all of the grandchildren of the Patriarch. His son William had lived fairly modestly in Staten Island for most of his life until his father bought him a very upscale brownstone on the corner of 40th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. But it was only after the Commodore died that William built his huge triple mansion occupying the whole block of Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Street. Soon after, all eight of William’s children built mansions of varying size along the avenue. The area became known to some as Vanderbilt Row.

However, it had been Cornelius’ younger brother Willie K’s wife Alva, who set the tone in the family for building palaces. In 1882 she and Willie K moved with their two small children Consuelo and Willie K Jr. into the “Petit Chateau,” 660 Fifth Avenue (where 666 Fifth Avenue stands today), right across 52nd Street from the senior Vanderbilts and two of Willie’s sisters.
The completed re-building of the  Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion was finished in 1895.
Designed by Richard Morris Hunt under Alva’s direction, the “chateau” set the fashion in brownstone New York with its limestone facades. The “housewarming” ball that was held in 1883 as a costume ball was a sensation – like the house. It also established the Vanderbilts as a force in the very established society of Mrs. Astor.

That same year as the housewarming, Cornelius and Alice also moved into their new palatial mansion at 1 West 57th Street, although not with the same pomp and circumstance. It was Alva, a Southern belle from Alabama, an evacuee (hardly a refugee) from the War Between the States, who had the eye for drawing attention to herself and what she believed was her rightful place (at the top) in society.

Nevertheless, Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who disdained their sister-in-law’s “public” notoriety, couldn’t resist showing up at the (undeclared) competition. In 1882, they bought “The Breakers,” a very large “Queen Anne style” cottage from Pierre Lorillard IV, the tobacco magnate, in Newport. As modest as it sounds, the “Breakers,” a wood and shingle structure, was a mansion with what was then the largest dining room in Newport. 
The 58th Street side of the house. The finished  expansion, or the Richard Morris Hunt touch which thrilled the critics, was the 58th Street tower. The porte cochere entrance was used only for formal receptions. This photograph was taken in the 1920s shortly before the house was sold (in 1925) for $7.1 million (or a hundred times that in today’s currency), and demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman store still standing today. The week before the house was being dismantled, it was open to the public to see just how grand was the life of the Vanderbilts. The price of admission was all donated to a charity for the poor. This was either an idea of Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt or instituted to please her. The public was overwhelmed, of course, to see just how palatial the residence was.
In late November of 1892, a huge fire started in the furnace room of The Breakers and within hours the entire mansion was burned to the ground. Almost immediately, Cornelius  hired Richard Morris Hunt to design a fireproof “cottage” to replace it for him and his family. The result was “The Breakers” that we know today.

Coincidentally, at the time of the fire, Cornelius’ brother and sister-in-law Willie and Alva had just moved into their “cottage,” – also by Richard Morris Hunt --  “Marble House” on Bellevue Avenue, around the corner from The Breakers. Marble House was four years in building at a cost of $7 million, more than half of which was the cost of the 500,000 cubic feet of marble used in its construction.

It was about that time that Hunt was also hired by Cornelius to consult with George Post in expanding the house at 1 West 57th Street. He had bought the rest of the brownstones that were built on the block up to 58th Street with the intention of expanding his house to cover that land.

Completed in 1895 (the same year as the completion of the new Breakers), and covering the entire block, it was the largest private house ever built in New York to this day. It had six stories (the entrance gallery was five stories high), 137 rooms, including 37 bedrooms, 16 baths, a massive two story dining room, several salons (including a “Water Color” room), a smoking room and an enormous ballroom. The message was clear for all to see (take that Alva!): Power and Wealth.
The house in all its splendor at the beginning of the 20th century. Cornelius had died in 1899, only four years after the completion of both this house and The Breakers, and for the next 35 years, it was mainly occupied by his wife and her huge staff of servants. Despite its vast space, most of it went unused almost all of the time. Mrs. Vanderbilt went into mourning (wearing black) for the rest of her 35 years of life.
The phenomenon of Vanderbilt residential architecture continued throughout the family into the next generation. Several of the Vanderbilt mansions built in New York in that period (into the 19-teens) are still standing and in use institutionally. However, Alice and Cornelius were definitely the victors when it came to out-and-out grandeur.

Whatever else he was, Cornelius II had a taste for what is called in architectural parlance le Gout Rothschild (translated: Rothschild style of the 19th century, i.e. Waddesdon Manor, Mentmore, Chateau de Ferrieres) -- a combination of many styles including Renaissance, 12th Century French Beaux-Art, and let’s not forget Victorian.

Cornelius was third generation Vanderbilt, and for the duration of his lifetime, after the Commodore died, the family fortunes continued to multiply. As modest and quiet living as he was thought to be by his family and peers, and as generous he was with his charitable contributions which sometimes almost exceeded his income, as he got older (into his late 40s and early 50s, he demonstrated an increasingly distinct taste for the imperial grandeur that separated him from almost all other men.
Alva and  Willie K Vanderbilt’s Newport “cottage,” Marble House, also designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Begun in 1888, it was completed in 1892 and given to Alva by her husband as her 39th birthday present. It had 50 rooms, requiring a staff of 36, costing $11 million, (more than a quarter billion in today’s dollars), seven million of which went for the 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Three years later Alva divorced Willie K. and the following year married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont and moved down the avenue to his “cottage” Belcourt Castle. After Perry’s untimely death in 1908, Alva moved back into Marble House.
Alva’s bedroom at Marble House.
Alva and Willie K. had set the tone for “big-ness” in Newport with the construction of Marble House. There were other houses of comparable size but nothing to compare with it in terms of pure luxury. Gilded, mirrored and grandeur, there was nothing like it. 

The Breakers interiors would easily match it. They were planned by executed by the leading interior decorators of the day – including Jules Allard in Paris and Ogden Codman Jr. (The Codman appointment was the architect/interior designer’s first big break – a connection made for him by the husband his friend Edith Wharton --  and put him on the map among the wealthy clientele).

Cornelius Vanderbilt was fifty-two when the house was completed.  Ironically he was to have little time left to really enjoy his palace. In the summer of 1895, the Breakers was opened in Newport with the coming out party of  Cornelius and Alice’s Gertrude.
“The Breakers” completed in 1895 – begun in 1892 after the fire destroyed  the first Breakers on the same property, about the same time that Alva and Willie K.’s Marble House was being completed. Richard Morris Hunt was the architect for this house also. Because of the fire Cornelius Vanderbilt – known as Corneil to family and friends – wanted a house that would be fireproof. Steel and stone. Its “house warming”  was the occasion of the debut of their daughter Gertrude. The evening turned out to have profound repercussions on the family’s future. With a foundation of 250 by 150 and four stories of steel and brick and covered in Indiana limestone, there were 70 rooms, 30 bathrooms (with both fresh and salt water taps). Much of the floorspace was used for rooms and lodgings for their huge domestic staff. It was competed at the cost of $7 million or a hundred times that in today’s currency.
Among the invited guests was a charming, effusive young woman named Grace Graham Wilson. Grace’s siblings were known as “The marrying Wilsons.” One son married Mrs. Astor’s daughter Carrie. Another daughter married a Goelet, then one of the richest real estate families in New York; another married Sir Michael Herbert, brother of the Earl of Pembroke.

Their father, Richard Wilson Sr., a banker from Tennessee, had served on the staff of the Commissary General Lucius Northrop of the Confederacy. The Commissary General was responsible for the supply chain of food, clothing and forage to the Confederate Armies, especially in Northern Virginia. Commissary General Northrop was also responsible for supplying the prison camps that held the Union soldiers as prisoners-of-war – such as Andersonville. If that connection weren’t bad enough to a Northerner, Richard Wilson’s relationship with Northrop ended the way a lot of politicians’ relationships with their colleagues and counterparts seem to end: in wealth.
The vast central hallway with 45-foot ceilings at “The Breakers.”
The morning room.
Gertrude Vanderbilt (later Whitney)’s bedroom at the Breakers.
After the war, moving north, the Wilsons were very popular in the young set of New York. Grace was naturally invited to Gertrude Vanderbilt’s debutante ball at the Breakers. It was there that young Cornelius III, known as “Neily,” a bit younger, met the charming Grace, and was immediately smitten.

For whatever their reasons, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife of the Breakers did not like the Wilsons and were dismayed immediately by their son’s infatuation. They soon expressed their disapproval. Young Neily argued with his father who was not so calm or kind or gentlemanly about it. The son ignored him.

The two young people had begun to see each other. The elder Vanderbilts then sent an emissary, Chauncy Depew, president of New York Central to prevail upon Richard Wilson to keep his daughter away from Neily Vanderbilt. Learning from Depew’s conversation with Grace’s father that she that no plans that fall to travel to Europe, they sent Neily off to the Continent to get him away from her temptation.
The music room.
The state dining room. 58 feet  long, 42 feet wide with red alabaster columns surmounted by gilded Corinthian capitals, designed by the firm of Richard Bouwens van der Boijen in Paris who designed the house’s grand salon and music room.
The Library. The early French motto  carved above the fireplace had the words: “Little do I care for riches, and do not miss them, since only cleverness prevails in the end.” Cornelius Vanderbilt II was well known for his philanthropic generosity to his church, to the Red Cross, to the YMCA and to many hospitals. He had the reputation for being a simple man because of his “devotion” to his wife, church and family. His architectural longings, however, would argue that perception quite credibly.
The Billiard room, marble and alabaster.
The Grand Staircase with a portrait of the grand benefactor, the Commodore on the second landing.
Richard Wilson was outraged when he figured out the Vanderbilts were meddling in his daughter’s business, and soon Grace was on her way to Europe with her sister and brother-in-law May and Ogden Goelet. When she got to Paris, she went straight to the Bristol where Neily was staying.  None of this remained secret for long to the international press, and soon it was in all the papers and a very popular scandal.  Within months, Grace Wilson and Cornelius Vanderbilt II had become the most famous lovers on two continents.

Young Cornelius III known as “Neily” about the time he met Grace Wilson at his sister’s debutante party held at the Breakers.
Grace Graham Wilson. The youngest daughter of a Southern businessman who settled in New York and married his daughters off to wealth and aristocracy, Grace was the most popular, high-spirited, an international party girl in her youth. Even the somber Mrs. Astor was charmed by her. So was Teddy Roosevelt including the Prince of Wales (who was to become Edward VII and the King of Prussia). Everybody loved Grace except Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt. They hated her, and eventually Corneil ordered young Neily not to marry her at the risk of being disinherited.
Neily ignored his father’s warnings and married Grace. And paid the price.
Daddy Cornelius didn’t let up. He sailed to Europe to confront his son for going against his expressed disapproval. This brought more headlines. Father threatened to disinherit his son. Son ignored him. By 1896, Richard Wilson announced a wedding date, June 18th.

Cornelius II went to work to prevent it from happening. Neily backed off – albeit briefly. The following July 1896, the father and son were still having violent arguments. After one particularly harsh one, father banished son from his house – The Breakers.  Very shortly afterwards, Cornelius Vanderbilt II had a stroke. He was 53. Alice Vanderbilt blamed it on her son. Others members of the family agreed with her.

That August, Neily and Grace married in her father’s house at 608 Fifth Avenue. No Vanderbilts attended the ceremony. There was no music, no party, just a simple ceremony. It was no longer a private matter, or a family affair because the press covered it the way they cover celebrity relationships today: everybody knew. And everybody loves a lover. Meanwhile, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, disabled by stroke was looked upon as a ogre, disinheriting his son over a pretty young woman whom everybody loved.

Cornelius had had a reputation as a workaholic. When the stroke paralyzed his legs, it made him a near-invalid. When the young marrieds returned to New York in1897, after a trip to Europe, they were welcomed into welcomed into society by everyone but Neily’s family (although his Uncle Willie, now divorced from Alva, expressed his empathy). Cornelius and Alice still would not speak to their son or his wife. Neily went to work at New York Central.

During that time, Cornelius’ health began to improve. Eventually he was able to move around on his own two feet, and to go to the office where Neily was working. He still wouldn’t speak to his son.

The following year, 1898, the first grandchild was born: Cornelius Vanderbilt IV. In the Spring, 1899, while attending the wedding of William K. Vanderbilt Jr. to Birdie Fair, Neily attempted to speak to his now long estranged father. Father refused.

A few months later, in the early morning hours of September 12th, Cornelius Vanderbilt II sat up in bed, woke Alice and said: “I think I am dying.” A few minutes later he was dead. A cerebral hemorrhage. He was two months from his fifty-sixth birthday.

He had lived only another four years after The Breakers was completed, and in that brief time spent little of it there. He left an estate of more than $70 million, about what he had inherited from his father fourteen years before. He left several million to his wife along with the houses; several million in trusts to his son Reginald and his daughters, and $500,000 and the income from a $1 million trust fund to Neily. The bulk of his fortune, approximately $45 million, went to his son Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt.

Although it would never be the same for her, Alice Vanderbilt and her family continued to use the Breakers for “the season” almost until the time of her death in 1934, when she left it to her youngest daughter Gladys. (None of the surviving children --  Reginald -- father of Gloria Vanderbilt, Alfred Gwynne -- grandfather of Wendy Vanderbilt, and Gertrude -- grandmother to all those Whitneys and Towers, etc. and founder of the Whitney Museum) -- wanted it.

The marriage of Neily and Grace Wilson lasted, however, albeit not as happily as they would have wished. Eventually Alice Vanderbilt came around to “accepting” her daughter-in-law who bore two more Vanderbilts –Cornelius IV (or Cornelius Jr.) and a daughter, Grace.  When she died in 1934, she left Neily property, which along with several million his brother Alfred had settled on him, kept the couple in mansions, staff and yachts.
The house on Fifth Avenue in 1926 when the city had grown up around it, dwarfing it. A year later, it was gone.
Ironically, thirty years later, the same family drama occurred to Neily and Grace with daughter Grace who in 1927 eloped against her parents sharply expressed wishes,  with a young man named Henry Davis. Like her mother and father, young Grace and her groom married unceremoniously in the City Chapel and witnessed by a local patrolman.

Grace’s parents were outraged, just like her Vanderbilt grandparents had been about her mother. Mother Grace had other ideas for her daughter marital future – Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, for example, son of the Duke of Marlborough and Neily’s first cousin Consuelo Vanderbilt. Although, like her mother, young Grace also had a “reputation” that linked her to several other men, including Prince George, the Duke of Kent, son of Queen Mary and King George V.

In 1927 the big house on 1 East 57th Street was sold for $7 million. Alice Vanderbilt could no longer afford the rising taxes.  ($130,000 a year). Bergdorf Goodman bought it and demolished it to build the store that stands there today. The gates to the entrance of the porte cochere on the East 58th Street side of the house are now the entrance of the Conservatory Garden in Central Park at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue.
William H.’s house on 51st Street, circa 1940, the other side of which had already been replaced by an office building. William’s will designated the house to go to “a son” of his son Frederick. Frederick had no son and so it was passed on to Gertrude who also didn’t want it. It eventually ended up in the hands of Neily and Grace who by then had become  the Mrs. Vanderbilt in New York, the hostess-with-the mostest (a red carpet was rolled out onto the sidewalk for the guests at her balls and dinners). Horace Trumbauer was hired to re-do in the interiors from the heavy late 19th century décor to the Louis XV and XVI. Over the years Grace Vanderbilt entered literally tens of thousands of guests in this house. When Neily died in 1943, the house was sold and demolished to be replaced by commercial property.
Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt bought a “smaller” mansion, the George Gould house farther up the avenue, at 61st Street where she lived out her days. She died in 1934.

By the end of her life, her one time nemesis, Grace Wilson Vanderbilt and Neily had moved into the mansion on Fifth Avenue at 52nd Street, that William had built and which no one else in the family wanted. There Grace established herself as the Vanderbilt hostess in New York, much to her husband’s boredom and chagrin.

Famous for her entertainments, over the years, she was  hostess to literally tens of thousands who attended her dinners, her “at homes” and her major banquets. That house was finally sold in 1943, after the death of Neily (of a stroke), and Grace too, like her mother-in-law before, moved to a “smaller” house – the William Starr Miller, Louis XIII style townhouse at 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street (now the Neue Galerie New York).
Clockwise from top left: Grace arriving at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera; The entrance gallery; Grace in her music room.
One of Grace's "intimate" dinner parties.
The Horace Trumbauer-designed ballroom.
Guests arriving in white tie and tails for one of Grace Vanderbilt's many, many fetes.
In the late 1940s, Gladys, now Countess Gladys Szechenyi, who had inherited the Breakers from her mother, leased the property to the Preservation Society of Newport County for a dollar a year.  The upkeep had become more than she could reasonably handle. Twenty-four years later in 1972, the Society bought the house, with the proviso that the countess’ progeny would still have the right to occupy the massive third floor that had been designed by Ogden Codman, originally for the house's staff.

The lives and the dramas that dominated the family in the four decades that The Breakers belonged to Cornelius and finally Alice, have faded into almost obscure memory. Now it remains what it was initially in the planning – a fantasy of a life larger than was ever possible for Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Disappointment and in some cases, even heart-break was the residual.
After the house was sold, Grace Vanderbilt moved up to “much smaller” quarters – the famous William Starr Miller house on East 86th Street and Fifth Avenue, still standing, now the Neue Galerie. 

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