The magnificent Newport Casino was built as a result of a grudge.
James Gordon Bennett was one of Newport ' s most well known celebrities. To some he was a rogue, others a rascal and to still others the very pillar of society. While many no longer remember his flamboyant rides down Bellevue Avenue in his carriage, or the scandalous stories of his drinking bouts and behavior on his ocean going yachts, nearly all associate him with the building of the Newport Casino.
The Casino, most Newporters will tell you, was built upon a resentment that Bennett had against the members of the very exclusive Reading Room. This men's club was lodged in a frame building, erected in 1854. The building still stands on the corner of Bellevue Avenue, not far from the Touro Cemetery. On the surface the club was the epitome of respectability and its members were quick to judge and criticize the various exploits of the rich and zany.
In reality, the Reading Room was anything but what its name implied. Most of the members had made their fortunes during the Civil War and had been notorious for war profiteering. Some became rich by dealing with the enemy, others by selling poor quality merchandise to the government for high profits. By the late 1800s, many were old men who loved to sit, drink, chew tobacco and exchange stories of their flamboyant escapades. While their wives entertained and spent the money they earned on Wall Street, many of the patrons of the "Reading Room" visited Blanche's in Newport, the most infamous house of ill-repute on the island. Rumor has it that when Blanche finally gave up her lucrative business and rode by the Reading Room, many of the members gathered on the piazza to wish her a fond farewell.
To younger men like James G. Bennett, the Reading Room habitues were "stodgy old men who sat around telling ribald stories, chewed plug tobacco, and spit in the shiny brass cuspidors which were in abundance." Bennett decided to add a little spice to their lives and shake up these "pillars of society".
To do so, Bennett used his friend. Captain Henry "Sugar" Candy a member of the 9th Lancers and outstanding member of the British Polo Team. Candy and Bennett had introduced polo to the United States in 1876 and were frequent patrons of the Reading Room. On one occasion when both Bennett and Candy were intoxicated, Bennett dared Candy to ride his horse through the Reading Room. Candy, always ready to accept a dare or a wager while in his cups proceeded to do so. The staid members of the Reading Room were properly shocked when Candy on his polo pony, made his entrance.
In retaliation, the Board of Governors of the club censured Bennett and withdrew an invitation they had earlier extended to Candy. Because the censure was issued to the latter as a friend of Bennett's, the insult was felt by Bennett as well. For revenge, Bennett decided to build a modern country club which would include lawn tennis courts, card rooms, a theatre and a restaurant. The Casino (from the Italian casina or little house) would be a club all socialites would clamor to join.
The firm of McKim, Mead and White were given the contract. The firm, knowing of Bennett's reputation for insisting on the placement of owls (which he believed brought luck) in the most incongruous places, hesitated at first. They soon found that the wealthy New York Herald owner was in earnest and was going to give the architects almost complete control.
The Casino, which contained a block long complex of shops on the street, was built across from Bennett's estate. Charles Pollen McKim designed the architectural framework which was then embellished by Stanford White. The complex, in addition to various shops, contained a billiard parlor, a bowling alley, court tennis facilities, a model opera house, gentlemen's lodgings, a restaurant, and reading rooms. White combined Victorian charm and Chinese detail. In addition to its shingled exterior and multi-gabled roof line, the architects provided for a picturesque courtyard with a horseshoe piazza and several latticed porches. Today, the Casino is considered a "Shingle-style" masterpiece of architecture.
Unlike the exclusive Reading Room, the Casino was both a private and public club in that the public could pay an entrance fee and enjoy the club's facilities for the day. The Casino opened in 1880. To attract attention Mulhaly's String Orchestra was engaged to play on the piazza every morning. In 1881, the Casino became the first site of the National Lawn Tennis Tournament. The first match was between Richard D. Sears and Dr. James Dwight.
There were no seats or grandstand at the time, and spectators stood or sat on camp-stools in an area set off for them. The aristocratic Richard Sears of Boston won eight championships in a row and set the style of proper wear for tennis. He wore knickers, wool socks, a blazer, a cap and rubber- soled canvas shoes. The game proved so popular that in 1890, the
Casino's Board of Governors purchased a grandstand from the Barnum and Bailey Circus. By 1915, the game was played by professionals as well as blueblooded aristocrats. The patrons, however, were Newport Socialites who chattered constantly through the games disrupting the concentration of the players. In 1915, the National Lawn Tennis Tournament moved from Newport to Forest Hills, N. Y. Now the Tournament is called the U. S. Open and is played at Flushing, N. Y.
Almost as notorious as the players and spectators were the Casino "Ball Boys", often called "shaggers", who were hired to retrieve the tennis balls. These boys were mostly of Irish descent and in order to be hired, they had to be recommended by their parish priests. Despite this precaution, the "shaggers" were often young hoodlums. Dressed in their red sweaters, often patched trousers, and caps with broken visors they often became a major nuisance. These youngsters, and some not so young, often became drunk, obnoxious, rude, and quarrelsome and, on several occasions, the police had to be summoned to remove them from the premises.
Bennett, whose spending in the millions, had set the style for the conspicuous building and lavish entertaining of the Gilded Age in Newport.
Obviously, all the colorful, flamboyant, silly, and dangerous personalities of the Gilded Age in Newport were not men. Newport, to a great extent, was governed by some very determined female rogues, rascals and pillars of society.