June is the cruelest month in Southern California. The fog descends and so do my spirits, so I was determined to be on the East coast this month. Never mind that we arrived to several days of deluge in NYC. We were looking forward to our time in the city and our planned three-day driving trip to Newport, Rhode Island.
Just as I had wished to make a pilgrimage to Thomas Wolfe’s Asheville, I have long been curious about novelist Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age lifestyle in Newport and how it informed her work, including The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Wharton spent a few apparently desultory summers in Newport during the early years of her ultimately unhappy marriage.
Newport was the acknowledged summer playground of the wealthy at the close of the 19th century. With no income tax to nibble away at the immense fortunes of the Vanderbilts and their like, they built palatial “cottages” along Newport’s ocean cliffs where the very serious business of maintaining social prominence could be conducted during the summer seasons.
The greatest of these “cottages” is, of course, The Breakers, commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, II in 1893.
We also toured The Marble House, extracted from William K. Vanderbilt by his ambitious (and perhaps scheming?) wife, Alva, in the late 1880’s at the cost of $11 million dollars to be her sole property as a 39th birthday “gift”. She divorced her husband a few years later to marry one of his best friends, making a case that her decision to divorce before such things were socially acceptable was consistent with her work on behalf of Women’s Suffrage. Her progressive beliefs did not, however, dissuade her from engineering what would be a deeply unhappy marriage for her daughter, Consuelo, to the 9th Duke of Marlborough.
We only toured a few of the mansions, but several more are open to the public through the efforts of The Preservation Society of Newport County
From The Breakers, we explored Newport’s famous Cliff Walk. Parts of it are currently closed due to damage from Hurricane Sandy, but there is still a long strand of walkway along the cliffs affording spectacular views of Narragansett Bay.
We also visited Bannisters Wharf, the centerpiece of the town of Newport. Like wharves in every seaside tourist town, it is lined with souvenir shops, bars and only adequate restaurants. One of the better meals we had in Newport was lunch at The White Horse Tavern, where they have been serving hungry diners since 1673.
We stayed in a cottage during our visit to Newport, and although it was nothing like the “cottages” we toured, we couldn’t have been happier. Ours was a cozy cocoon at Castle Hill Inn and it was an ideal retreat. Referred to as a “Beach House” by the property, it was one in a row of charming bayside bungalows where we were lulled to sleep each night by the sound of the waves lapping against the rocks.
A sweet little path frequented by bunnies and butterflies led from our room up to the Inn, which was once the site of an 18th century watchtower and much later served as a retreat for actress Grace Kelly while she filmed High Society.
Changing fortunes and societal mores led to the outsize mansions at Newport being viewed as “white elephants” within just a few decades of being built. But the rocky coast of the Narragansett Bay still lures sailors and travelers to drink in its beauty. I wouldn’t trade my life with the Vanderbilts for a second, but I hope someday to return and listen to the waves from that little bungalow by the beach.