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American Resorts: Newport


Newport, known as the Queen of Resorts, or as Elizabeth Drexel Lehr stated ironically in her memoirs: “the very Holy and Holies, the playground of the great ones of the earth from which all intruders were ruthlessly excluded,” was transformed each summer for the sole and very conspicuous consumption of New York’s most exclusive society. Entree into this tiny kingdom by the sea was highly sought after, and nothing–not wealth, lavish entertainments, nor even making a splash in the highest European circles could crack this nut–as the grand doyenne of Chicago society, Mrs Potter Palmer, soon discovered when she made her first foray into the city. But Mrs Palmer was made of sterner stuff and she kept battering the gates of social recognition until the Mrs Astor had to acknowledge her Midwest counterpart. Many others, however, were not so determined nor so successful in their attempts to enter Newport society, and defeated and with lightened pockets, they were apt to sail away to more congenial climes, perhaps even Narragansett Pier, a smart Rhode Island city, though not as smart as Newport, of course.

BeechwoodPrior to the early 1880s, Newport was a sleepy town whose charm lay largely in its agreeable climate and quaint Georgian air. Prior to the Civil War, Southerners journeyed north to Newport to escape the sweltering heat of their summers and did not disturb the genial air blanketing the city. A small but recognizable number of wealthy elites from other cities began to arrive in Newport, also attracted by the weather, and built the first mansions–but these were simple and modest, as native Newporters frowned on ostentatious display. Mrs August Belmont, a member of the Four Hundred, attempted to recreate the social milleu of New York but it wasn’t until Mrs. Astor, at the urging of Ward MacAllister, summered there that Newport officially arrived for the Four Hundred. The Astors purchased Beechwood in 1881 and promptly spent $2 million renovating it to their standards. Following in their steps was Alva Vanderbilt who in 1888 was given carte blanche to design and build a Newport estate by her husband as a birthday present. She hired Richard Morris Hunt and mischievously erected a tall wall around the construction site to keep away prying eyes. Marble House cost $11 million to build and furnish and Alva threw a ball to celebrate the completion of her “cottage” in 1892.

Marble HouseJust as the Vanderbilt mansions on upper Fifth Avenue sparked a rush to build magnificent mansions to replace the declasse brownstones of yesteryear, Alva’s Newport cottage was a gauntlet thrown to others, including her own brother-in-law, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to build a mansion even greater than Marble House. This was The Breakers. The ground was broken in 1893 and two years and seven million dollars later, Cornelius threw open the doors to this seventy room mansion to the awe of everyone. The Breakers stood on 13 acres of land at Ochre Point and faced the ocean, whose spray and crashing surf provided a dramatic backdrop to this impressive “cottage.” Joining Beechwood, Marble House, and The Breakers were other magnificent cottages such as Chateau-sur-Mer, The Elms, Rosecliff, Belcourt Caste, Ochre Court and Rough Point. These mansions and the accompanying wealth surrounding them completely changed the tone of Newport. Now, the city was all about the very, very rich.

The BreakersThough the only hotels in Newport were for the lodging of salesmen from Tiffany, Mumms and other purveyors of luxury items, it was quite easy to “crash” the city, and the year-round inhabitants kept the Four Hundred from total exclusivity. To mitigate unwanted persons from mingling with them, a number of financial hurdles were erected, such the rather steep fee of keeping up appearances. For example, one could buy membership to the Newport Casino for $500, but keeping up appearances afterward was a pill for it was not unknown for an average “cottager” to spend $25,000-$40,000 on staff and maintenance of their residence alone. Women were expected to have on hand 80-90 new dresses, as no one ever wore a dress twice, and an entertaining budget of at least $150,000! And gentlemen weren’t exempt for Newport was one of the principle yachting centers in America, as the America’s Cup sailed annually in the vicinity, and the costs of buying and outfitting a yacht could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, minus the cost of keeping the boat in tip-top shape.

Stamina was also a requirement for the schedule was grueling and tightly regulated:

Bailey's Beach

8-9 am: Breakfast. Change into riding habit
9-10 am: Morning ride. Change into day dress and drive in a phaeton behind a matched pair to the Casino, or to shop.
11-noon: Swimming at Bailey’s Beach.

According to Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, “Only the elite could bathe at Bailey’s Beach. It was Newport’s most exclusive club. The watchman in his gold-laced uniform protected its sanctity from all interlopers. He knew every carriage on sight, fixed newcomers with an eagle eye, swooped down upon them and demanded their names. Unless they were accompanied by one of the members, or bore an introduction from an unimpeachable hostess, no power on earth could gain them admission. If they wanted to bathe, they could only go to Easton’s Beach—’The Common Beach’ as the habitues were wont to call it. There they would have the indignity of sharing the sea with the Newport townspeople, referred to by Harry Lehr [her husband], who was fond of quoting the sayings of Louis XIV, as ‘Our Footstools.'”

Noon-2 pm: Luncheon on yacht or picnic on a local farm
2-3 pm: Drive to Polo Field to watch a polo match from carriage
3-5 pm: Promenade in carriage down Bellevue Avenue. Cards are left.
5-8 pm: Tea on lawn or terrace. Change for dinner
8-10 pm: Dinner on yacht, or supper before the weekly Casino dance, to which tickets are sold for $1 to spectators
10 pm-early morning: Dances, cultural offerings, theme balls with second supper at midnight and breakfast as dawn breaks over Sakonnet Point

With such tightly-restrained gaiety, it’s a given someone would break out to lessen the monotony, and for the staid Newport schedule, Harry Lehr and his Triumvirate, of whom Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish was his prime cohort, were at their service. Horseback dinners and Little Egypt scandals aside, it was in Newport that many of the Four Hundred’s grossest indulgences were, well, indulged in. Mamie Fish treated Gilded Age society as a plaything, establishing her modus operandi early on by declaring “I’m so tired of being hypocritically polite,” and was known for kicking her guests out of her home when she grew tired of them (accordingly, her invitations were highly sought after). With Harry Lehr at her side, the two terrorized Newport society, throwing dogs dinners, servant suppers and monkey fetes. So notorious were their antics, the more conservative members snubbed them–but that didn’t stop Mamie or Harry one bit. A particular antic that survives in the annals of history involves Grand Duke Boris of Russia who came to America at the invitation of Mary Goelet. Mamie announced a ball at Crossways in honor of the Grand Duke and purposely excluded a favorite of Mrs Goelet’s from the guest list. Mary retaliated by letting it be known none of her friends would attend. Mamie refused to be checkmated and turned to Harry for advice. When guests arrived at the Fish residence they were informed that Mamie’s guest of honor was Tsar Nicholas II! The eager guests bowed low when the doors were thrown open to announce the entrance of His Imperial Majesty–Harry Lehr dressed as a Tsar! Everyone had a great laugh over this, including the Grand Duke who met Harry the next day to crown him King Lehr.

When the summer ended so did the season, though after the turn of the century a few socialites stayed on into the early fall, and the Four Hundred moved on to its next social enclave. This jewel in the crown of New York society began its slow descent by the outbreak of WWI and though it retained prominence as the social resort, the new generation of idle rich found the Gilded Age mansions rather cumbersome and outmoded. Thankfully many of these outstanding mansions remain standing and available for tours to retain an appreciation for American social and architectural history.

Further Reading:
A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs Astor in Gilded Age New York by Greg King
Newport Villas: The Revival Styles 1885-1935 by Michael C. Kathrens
Wicked Newport: Sordid Stories from the City by the Sea by Larry Stanford and J. Bailey
The Golden Summers: An Ancient History of Newport by Richard O’Connor
The ultra-fashionable peerage of America by Charles Wilbur de Lyon Nicholls
This Fabulous Century: 1900-1910 by The Editors of Time Life
To Marry An English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
Baedeker’s United States, 1909 by Karl Baedeker
Class and Leisure at America’s First Resort
The Newport Postcard Museum

A Day at the Links


Mary, Queen of Scots playing golf at St AndrewsThe Edwardian era saw the growth of golf into a worldwide sport. Despite a brief entry into English consciousness in the 15th and 16th centuries, the game became wildly popular outside of Scotland when Englishmen founded the Royal North Devon Club at Westward Ho! in 1864. There were golf clubs in Britain before this–and indeed the first golf course was St Andrews in Fife (est circa 1506)–but they were founded by Scotsmen for Scotsmen, retaining the sport’s insular popularity. After the foundation of the Royal North Devon Club, the sport of golf spread throughout England and beyond, into the United States.

Golf’s overwhelming popularity was sparked by the obsession of the Anglo-Scots politician, ArthLadies Golf Courseur Balfour. Though he came to the game late in life and was actually never a very good player, he nonetheless destroyed the image of golf as being an old man’s game and replaced it with the image of a sport suitable for relaxation for a busy man. The other influence for the avid playing of golf was the sheer skill shown by Scottish players in the 1880s and 1890s, whose methods were then adopted by American and English golf players. Fittingly, in Scotland all classes of people continued to play golf, whereas in England and especially America, it became aligned with the idle rich. By the turn of the century, there were hundreds of golf links dotting the British and American landscapes, and in the latter country, the rise of golf coincided with the development of the country club.

James BraidBetween the years 1894 and 1914, the “Triumvirate”–Englishman J.H. Taylor, Scotsman James Braid, and Channel Islander Harry Vardon–dominated the open championships, raising the bar for sportsmanship to inhuman levels. This also translated to the skill level of women. Ladies played golf in Scotland but it spread more rapidly in England and especially in London where, in 1893, the Ladies Golf Union was formed. The best women golfers at the beginning of the century were in Northern Ireland, chief among them May Hazlet and Rhona Adair, who won five English and nine Irish championships between 1900 and 1908. Dorothy Campbell (Mrs. Hurd) was equally a dynamo, winning the Scottish women’s championship three times and the British twice. She then moved to America where she won the American National twice and the Canadian Open three times. The most important women golfers of the Edwardian era were Lottie Dod and Cecil Leitch. Dod came to golf from a background in tennis, where she had won the women’s singles lawn tennis championship at Wimbledon five times. She was also an international hockey player and the best woman archer in Britain, making her a pioneer figure in British women’s sport. Leitch played golf from childhood and set a new standard of iron play for women.

Golf Match, 1902The development of the sartorial side of golf arose after the sport spread beyond Scotland. When American players first came to play on British courses they caused a great degree of interest by appearing on the links without their coats and vests and played in nothing but shirtsleeves and suspenders. The old guard looked upon this attire with disapproval, believing the correct garb in which to play golf was a heavy tweed suit. A middle ground was reached, though Americans continued to play coatless, with a pair of tweed knickerbockers, golf coat with pleats to allow movement, and a tweed cap. Ladies were warned in their golf books from donning “mannish” attire as ties, bloomers and caps, but the majority conformed to notions of femininity and went out to play in heavy tweed skirts, straw boaters and thick, sprigged boots. Despite this, many saw golf as an emancipator for “none of the pre-golf pasttimes led their devotees so far afield or brought them together in such numbers as golf has done.”

Further Reading:
Edwardian England, 1901-1914; ed by Simon Nowell-Smith
Ladies’ Golf by May Hazlet
The Book of Golf and Golfers by Horace Gordon Hutchinson

The Season: Scotland


After the close of the London social season, society packed its bags for either the Continent, or other country house parties, but most traveled up north for the Scottish season. Partly focused in Edinburgh and partly focused in Balmoral Castle, or other Scottish castles and/or hunting seats, this time was marked by August 12, otherwise known as the “Glorious Twelfth.”

Apart from a brief visit by George IV in 1822, no British monarch had crossed the border since the reign of Charles I. This changed when twenty years later, Queen Victoria, on tour of her realm, went to Scotland and fell deeply in love (dare I say her love of Scotland and all things Scottish rivaled her love of Prince Albert?). She and Albert returned frequently, gladly entertained and protected by her noble Scottish hosts (Marquess of Breadelbane), but an idea percolated in her brain: a castle of her own.

Balmoral was a small castle on Deeside. It was a simple, sturdy building so cramped, that when the gentlemen played billiards, the ladies had to get out of the way. That had to go. In its place, a magnificent castle testifying Victoria and Albert’s love and appreciation for Scotland. However, no one could call the castle comfortable, and the wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-ceiling tartan decorations gave many guests a headache.

Early on, the gatherings at Balmoral were a family affair, but aristocrats followed the Queen up North and saw an opportunity for new sport. And as with all matters important to their male kith and kin–and eligible gentlemen–the general social season fit itself around the Scottish one. Deer-stalking occupied the men, and many cash-poor/land-rich Scottish aristocrats found themselves inundated with rich English peers willing to rent their outlying deer-forests for outrageous sums. Five thousand pounds for ten weeks’ sport was not unusual. This influx revitalized the Scottish Highlands: glens that had lain barren save eagles and rutting stags since the Highland Clearances of the 1780s rang once again with human activity. Carpenters, timbermen, and other artisans found themselves with more work than ever as these English aristocrats needed impressive hunting lodges to go with the vast tracts of land they purchased.

In later autumn, country house parties gathered for partridge shooting followed by hunting, an activity par excellence which brought together local people and those involved in London Society. The high point of the Scottish season was the Hunt Ball. It was a somewhat public function, where tickets were sold, though many were also sent to the best private householders in return for a subscription.

In Scotland, everyone seemed more relaxed, most likely due to the Highland practice of leaving ones doors open to all, and thus an informal and pleasant mode of intercourse sprang up between guests.

Further Reading:

The Best Circles by Leonore Davidoff
The English Country House Party by Phyllida Barstow