New book chronicles Newport's rich and glamorous

AP News
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Posted: Dec 13, 2009 12:56 PM

Long before trendy nightclubs used velvet ropes to keep out unwanted guests, Caroline Astor was maintaining exclusive lists of socialites deemed worthy of an invite into her Beechwood mansion in Newport.

Well-connected guests aspired to make Astor's vaunted list of 400 in the late 19th century _ a time when business tycoons idled away Newport afternoons in private social clubs while their wives perfected the art of entertaining in palatial summer mansions.

A new book, "Gilded: How Newport Became America's Richest Resort," chronicles the lives of some of the city's richest and most glamorous residents, recounting _ in sometimes unflattering detail _ their excesses, mannerisms and taste for luxurious living.

Author Deborah Davis said she became fascinated by Newport's mystique while growing up in a middle-class family in Cranston. She and other outsiders experienced Newport with "our noses pressed up against the glass."

"Newport, although it was just a few miles away, was to a child this incredible magic kingdom," said Davis, who has written books on Truman Capote and John Singer Sargent. "I loved going there, I loved going to the castles, and I always wondered, 'How did those people get behind those gates and what do I have to do to get in there?'"

The book, which costs $25.95 in hardcover, was published last month by John Wiley & Sons.

Davis gathered information from old newspaper articles, visits to Newport and conversations with contemporary high-society figures. Her book traces the history from colonial times through today, ending with anecdotes of a recent birthday party in Newport where Billy Joel entertained on piano as guests dined on lobster tails and prime rib.

"Newport is a living museum. It has its houses that have been preserved, but it also has its lifestyle that has been preserved," Davis said.

Though occupied by the British during the Revolutionary War, Newport emerged by the mid-19th century as a prime destination for extremely wealthy New York businessmen and their wives who valued the city for its beauty and its remote island location. They discouraged tourism by deliberately allowing once-grand hotels to close and fade away.

Astor _ mother of John Jacob Astor IV, who died in the Titanic disaster _ was among the early Gilded Age socialites in Newport. Her Fifth Avenue dinner parties for 400 guests were major New York events, and she transferred to Newport her same penchant for elegant balls with sought-after invitations.

She would soon be joined by other wealthy families, who jostled to see who could build the most opulent summer mansions _ a competition that peaked in 1895 with the completion of the Breakers, a 70-room Renaissance-style palazzo that was home to the Vanderbilts and remains the most visited of all Newport's mansions.

The husbands formed social clubs, where they swam, played billiards and lazed on the beach.

But, Davis writes, it was the women who were the true social engineers, hosting extravagant balls and abiding by strict rules of decorum. Since appearances were critical, they dyed their hair constantly and changed clothes multiple times a day based on whether activity they were doing at the time.

Caroline Astor's social strata would soon be interrupted by a new group of female socialites, including Alva Vanderbilt, an early suffragette whose divorce and subsequent relationship with a younger bachelor made tabloid headlines at a time when such "scandals" were rare.

The genteel way of life that had characterized the city soon gave way to excess, even recklessness, by the turn of the 20th century, according to the book.

A chapter is dedicated to Harry Lehr, a socialite who ingratiated himself to rich hostesses but was scorned for ridiculous tastes. He once hosted a party featuring a monkey dressed in full evening attire, and another celebrating the birthday of his wife's Pomeranian, Davis writes.

The mansions were losing their luster by 1914, thanks to World War I and a new federal income tax that hit Newport's millionaires hard. The homes became too expensive to maintain and were eventually put on the market. Today, they're mostly operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County and rank among New England's most-visited tourist attractions.

Still, the city has maintained elements of celebrity intrigue.

Tobacco heiress Doris Duke inherited the Rough Point mansion and founded the Newport Restoration Foundation. John F. Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier here in 1953, and reporters descended here in the 1980s after financier Claus von Bulow was accused of trying to kill his wife Sunny in what became a blockbuster trial.

The book gives minimal attention to the less glamorous side of Newport, where 12 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, census data shows.

"I didn't set out to write the story of Newport in all of its aspects. I'm writing about the rich. That ties into the myth. It ties into the wonderful history," Davis said. "I'm seeing it all through the prism of high society and money, which is what most people associate with Newport."

John Tschirch, the Preservation Society's director of academic programs, praised the book for its relevance.

"She sort of brings it right up to the 21st century, and that isn't finished," he said. "She's kind of recording things as they evolve."