Discovering Newport

Newport begins with the Claiborne Pell Bridge. As my car passes under the horseshoe-shaped arches, more reminiscent of an Arab mosque than the gates that guard the palaces of Gilded Age, I feel as if I’ve crossed the threshold into summer. Down below, sailboats bathed in the warm sun float along the East Passage of the Narragansett Bay, and as I climb to the center of the bridge, my chest is filled with clear air, washing away my city pallor.

I know this feeling well. I’ve been coming to Newport every summer, since I was six years old. I’ve had family here for longer. In the early 1930s, my great-great-grandfather Frederick H. Prince bought the Marble House from Alva Vanderbilt in 1932—for $20,000 (even then, it was considered to be a good deal). Marble House was given to the Preservation Society in 1961. It is now a museum, but one with a rather personal connection. Inside, visitors can hear my father on the video guide talking about the time he graffiti-d one of the walls as a child. I was also married here in 2007, and one of my enduring memories of the wedding is dancing wildly to rap in the ornate Gold Ballroom.
But it’s the rituals of my childhood that I remember most vividly—for instance, holding my breath as I entered the town through the cemetery, past the appropriately named Farewell Street. Here, Christian graves lay on one side, Jewish ones on the other. Even as a kid, I found the segregation of the gravestones weird, particularly when I discovered that Rhode Island was founded the by Quakers as a place of religious tolerance. (Newport is also home to the Touro Synagogue, the oldest still standing in the United States.) But this is just one of the ways in which Newport is city of contrasts; it has a more multi-layered and complex history than you might expect.

It was in this New England city where American Rebels tarred and feathered their British tax inspectors and refused to pronounce Thames Street the way the British subjects, so loyal to the German-Born George III, did. It was also the place where the back pews of Trinity Church were locked so that the slave carriage drivers couldn’t escape during Sunday services. Newport was a key Rebel stronghold and port in the 18th century. Great fortunes were made here in shipping, and as a result, it boasts the largest collection of pre-Revolutionary Houses in the country. Many, in fact, were saved by tobacco-heiress Doris Duke who established the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1968.

The revolutionary chapter of Newport’s history was soon replaced by the Gilded Age tycoons who built golden temples that they blithely called “cottages.” Several have been featured in films (High Society, The Great Gatsby). These summer palaces were extravagant, providing a standard of living, many argue, that has never been equaled in America. Just imagine the countless servants, the eight-course dinners, and the necessity of changing four times a day in order to appear at the countless parties, gatherings, lunches, and balls in the dripping heat of August. Newport was a relentless social destination.

Palaces have queens, of course, and no one was more controversial or interesting than Alva Vanderbilt. Originally from Mobile, Alabama, Alva had a fierce temper and a strong drive to succeed. She was renown as a child for beating up the boys in her neighborhood. If she’d been alive now, she would have been the head of some Nasdaq-listed company, bullying the hell out of her stockholders and facing down her competition from the tower of her boardroom. But in those days, the path to success for a woman was paved with a great marriage, which she commenced, to William K. Vanderbilt, son of the founder of the Vanderbilt fortune. The bullying, however, was directed at her daughter, Consuelo, a tragic figure who was forced to marry the unpleasant Duke of Marlborough. Consuelo was horribly unhappy until she abandoned the Duke and found a measure of happiness with Coco Chanel’s ex-lover, Jacques Balsan.

Aside from her terrible parenting, I always rather admired Alva and what she did for Newport.  She was good at spending her husband’s money. With the help of architect William Morris Hunt, she built Marble House next to the more modest Beechwood, owned by her social nemesis, Caroline Astor. (Oracle founder, Larry Ellison, is now the proprietor of Beechwood). Ever the pioneer, Alva later divorced Vanderbilt and went on to marry Oliver Belmont. In doing so, she turned out to be chatelaine of another Newport pile, Belcourt, eventually becoming a major figure in the suffragette movement. I vastly preferred Alva to her social counterpart, the priggish ex-Sunday schoolteacher and sister-in-law Alice Vanderbilt, who built The Breakers, a study in garish excess.

I often remember biking into town on sunny afternoons, ready to spend my baby-sitting money on my favorite “Awful Awful” milkshakes (Slogan: “Awful Big, Awful Good”), dwarfed by these vast castles lining Bellevue Avenue on either side. I was curious to know what it would be like to live in one of them. Later, I read accounts of Victorian-era scribes who recalled traffic jams of carriages on the stickiest of late summer days, ferrying lace-collared ladies to and fro as they called endlessly on each other. I was glad for the freedom of my bike and the simple joy of cold ice cream.

Freedom is a big part of an American summer, even when you grow up with the expectation to behave like a proper New Englander. What this means, in practice, is hours spent in the freezing Atlantic Ocean trying to sail horrible little tugboats called “Frosties.” I was equally terrible in my attempts to play tennis; I was perennially missing the ball and my whites always seemed to be dirty.

As I grew older, and was thankfully allowed to abandon any pretense of being athletic, I sought hours of delightful refuge in the Redwood Library. A magnificent Neo-Classical building, all the newspapers and magazines were always arranged in a fan on the mahogany tables for what felt like my eyes only.

Nights were filled with the typical teenage activities: trying to get drunk or stoned or laid, or all three. Sometimes my friends and I would race mopeds at night without helmets or have cookouts on the beach and then go skinny-dipping off the barnacle-covered rocks. Other nights, we’d dress up and head down to the Clarke Cooke House, also known as “the Candy Store,” although there was no candy there unless you count the liquid kind. Most of the social world of Newport is off limits to outsiders, but the Cooke House provided an entry point for those who wanted to meet the summer people.

A nightclub on three levels like Dante’s Divine Comedy, there is hell (the Boom Boom Room, where the scantily clad go), the middle bar, and the Skybar (where the crowd looks like it came straight off the set of Mad Men). Men wear the standard “Brook Brothers blue blazer with gold buttons” uniform and women wear ’50s cocktail dresses with coiffed hair. Everyone ballroom dances to the DJ’s awful mid-’90s repertoire, and the last song is always “God Bless America,” bellowed by tipsy patrons who stop on the dancefloor to sing it with their hand on their chests.

One of Newport’s greatest charms is its continuity. When I go there now with my children, we do the same activities I did when I was little. We wander along Bannister’s Wharf and look at all the beautiful wooden ships. Then we play a couple of rounds of Pac-Man at Ryan’s Amusement’s Arcade, finishing the day with an ice cream or fudge. My boys are now brave enough to put their hands in the lobster tank at my favorite restaurant in America, the Aquidneck Lobster Bar. Our entire family sits around the rough wooden tables, wearing plastic bibs, eating fresh steamed chunks of lobster, dipped in melted butter. Desert is normally a sublimely tart key lime pie and if someone were to take my emotional temperature after a meal there, I’m sure it would read: “In a state of ecstasy.”

Today, there are many green shoots on the horizon. Newport native Andrea Van Beuren founded the Newport Film Festival, a non-profit organization, which invites established and emerging filmmakers to screen their films in and around the “cottages” and other architectural places of interest. Additionally, another Newport stalwart, John Royall, celebrated the launch of the Antarctic Biennale Project here in typical Newport style with a weekend full of events including a tour on a private wooden yacht, a black-tie gala, and a seated dinner for 100 followed by a ballerina performing “The Dying Swan” from Swan Lake.  Oh, and did I forget to mention the after-dinner vodka luge in the shape of the ship this group is taking to the Antarctic? I think Alva would have approved of that one.

Newport will always be my childhood summer spot. It doesn’t have vegan restaurants, glitzy celebrity parties, or a Soul Cycle. But it has old money, seersucker jackets, and gigantic houses with romantic histories. It’s a place of old-fashioned, cozy glamour, and that is what keeps me coming back year after year.