Kings, Queens, Knaves, and Jokers in Newport's High Society During the Gilded Age.
The elite group of fabulously wealthy Americans that came to summer in Newport, Rhode Island during the Gilded Age has often been the target of harsh criticism and antagonism. Without doubt, Newport's rich were guilty of "conspicuous leisure, conspicuous consumption, and conspicuous waste."
The social critic and writer, Thornton Wilder, noted in 1926 that Newport could claim to have ten distinct cities within the one. This, of course, is true. Newport contains many visual reminders of when it was a small Colonial town, a rich trading city, a haven for intellectuals, a thriving naval base, and of course the playground for millionaires.
It was especially during the period 1890-1914, that Newport rivaled the extravagance of the Roman Empire. It was the period when summer residents spent millions on entertainment for the eight or ten weeks of the season. Here we find some of our most flamboyant and interesting rogues, rascals, and pillars of society. Adjectives used in describing the personalities involved in Newport's summer society often take on the terminology associated with playing cards. Newport's mansions seemed to be rife with "kings," "queens," "knaves" and "jokers" and often boasted of a "full house." The "ante" for playing in this game was usually at least a net worth of over $5 million, and a "cottage" costing at least $1 million. In addition, many of those playing the game did so with less than a "full deck."
Tales of drunken orgies, absurd dinners for both humans and animals, outrageous temper tantrums, and callous disregard for servants and workers abound. In addition, heartbreak, loneliness, tragedy and madness seem to have accompanied the elegant phaetons and coaches as they moved along Bellevue Avenue, leaving bizarre calling cards along the way.
Social historians point out that women dominated the scene at Newport. Many were very talented, clever and domineering. These queens of American Society, such as Mrs. Herman Oelrichs, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, were pace-setters and created a new standard for social entertaining. Millions were spent to erect these pleasures.
palaces and it was not uncommon for the most affluent to set aside $100,000 to $300,000 and more for the "season." Their "cottages" were more like resort hotels and palaces. Some had over fifty rooms and could accommodate large numbers of guests. While the worst forms of snobbery existed, those most guilty often had common backgrounds. While the mansions rivaled the great chateaus, castles, manor houses and palazzos of Europe, the exclusiveness of the European nobility was not possible. The European nobility lived on large, landed estates far removed from the commoners, while in Newport, the land available made it possible for all to see the mansions and observe the behavior of the very rich.
Even Cliff Walk, which claims some of the most magnificent mansions of the era, claims a democratic aspect. William Beach Lawrence, probably Newport's first millionaire, purchased nearly all of Ochre Point for $14,000 in 1844. Within a few years, he sold a one acre parcel to a friend. Soon after, Lawrence regretted the sale and the loss of privacy so he erected a large stone wall across Cliff Walk. He was amazed when Newport residents objected to this obstruction on the walk and tore the wall down. An incensed Lawrence ordered the wall rebuilt, higher, wider, and with broken class on the top. Newport residents, citing an old law which
provided that fisherman had the right to use Cliff Walk and its outcropping of rock to tie their boats, took the case to the U. S. Supreme Court. The judges ruled in favor of the natives and since then Cliff Walk, one of the most scenic of all walks, is open to strollers.
Once Newport's Bellevue Avenue and Ochre Point became the most exclusive area in America, the ladies who were leaders in New York Society commanded the large numbers of servants necessary for the upkeep of the "cottages." Many of their husbands, who payed for the amenities necessary, worked in New York during the week and came to Newport for the weekend, via private railroad cars and steam yachts. Many had made their fortunes during the Civil War and were often clever and ruthless on Wall street. Some worked very hard to provide the riches
necessary for the Newport life-style and often found themselves too nerve-wracked by the strain of business to relax. It was very common for a Wall Street tyrant to become a docile yes-man to a domineering wife in Newport and become a social non-entity.
One of the major exceptions to this rule was the talented, flamboyant, often outrageously rude rogue, rascal and pillar of society, James Gordon Bennett, Jr. He was a confirmed bachelor, notorious drinker, womanizer and prankster. He spent from thirty to forty million dollars on whims, and openly admitted his love for women, alcohol and racing. He is the man who sent Stanley to find Livingstone, the one who brought yachting and coaching to a fine art in Newport, and the man who built the Casino.
Bennett's money came from his father's brilliant business career. The elder Bennett had been a penniless printer in his early years but was able to start the New York Herald. He carried the newspaper to great heights by using sensationalism in its most blatant forms and by using new methods to gather and report the news. Critics claim that Bennett, Sr. spent so much time acquiring a fortune that he neglected to curb his son's wild escapades.
Young Bennett was educated abroad and returned to the United States in 1866. He was good friends with the wealthy Jerome brothers, and with Frank Osgood and Pierre Lorillard. On one occasion when all the young men had had too much to drink, Bennett challenged Osgood and Lorillard to race their yachts against his in a trans-Atlantic race from Sandy Hook, N.J. to the Isle of Wight, England. He suggested they all captain their own yachts. Under the bravado of the alcohol, all agreed. When the time came to race, however, Osgood and Lorillard wisely turned their yachts over to professionals and stayed home.
Bennett insisted on leading the race and persuaded Charles Longfellow (Henry W. Longfellow's son), playwright Stephen Fiske, and Lawrence Jerome, all amateurs, to crew for him. Fortunately, he also procured the services of Bulley Samuel, a very capable professional.
Crossing the Atlantic proved to be much more difficult than imagined. The yachts ran into a very severe storm which caused some anxious moments. Thanks in a large part to Bully Samuel's excellent navigation around the Isle of Wight, the Henrietta, Bennett's schooner won, decisively defeating the competing Fleetwinq and Vesta. Bennett's time was 13 days, 21 hours, 55 minutes. The news of the race excited the sporting world in 1866, and the elder Bennett was so proud of his son's achievement that he made it front page news.
At the time of this episode, James Gordon Bennett, Jr. was twenty-five years old. In that same year, his father made him managing editor of the New York Herald. Young Bennett, despite his erratic life-style and foibles, proved to be an excellent publisher and when his father died in 1872, he assumed the ownership of the Herald. Throughout his life, Bennett was very much
interested in yachting. In 1870 he raced his yacht Dauntless from Queenstown, Ireland to Sandy Hook, N.J., again facing the dangers of the Atlantic. In this race, severe weather hampered him and he lost the race by two hours.
James Gordon Bennett, Jr. lived most of his life in the same dangerous fashion. When he brought his yacht into Newport harbor in the 1870's, he brought along with it a flair for living and a life-style that would make Newport the playground of the rich.
The story of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., his escape from the clutches of matrimony, his duel with the notorious Fred May, and a number of his wild escapades will be continued.