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NEWPORT, R.I. — Anyone who would rather catch an episode of “Downton Abbey” than commit to watching the upcoming presidential political conventions should consider a visit to this bucolic town on Aquidneck Island jutting into Narragansett Bay. Here, no one worries about being too lavish, too patrician or too over-the-top. They can’t. The huge mansions, known as cottages and built by some of the nation’s most flamboyant industrialists, are simply too lavish and too gilded to hide.
Newport is where capitalism reigns supreme, a city where everyone celebrates the idea that, in America, some people — and no one knows for certain just who those people will be — have a shot at becoming far, far, far richer than everyone else. And they enjoy that wealth.
This story first appeared in the August 24, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“It’s all about family,” Ala von Auersperg Isham, the daughter of the late Sunny von Bulow, says of Newport at the Ball at The Breakers.
The dazzling, 70-room Rococo Breakers, which was built by railroad robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt 2nd at the end of the 1890s, is the most lavish of the Newport Preservation Society’s 10 historic properties. Designated as official projects of the Save America’s Treasures initiative between the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, these 10 “cottages” celebrate Americans daring to think big.
“I’ve been here most of my life. It’s a warm, wonderful, real-life place to be,” continues Isham, whose second husband is international banker Ralph Isham. “Everyone is friends. They come here with their children and have barbecues. It’s a small community that seems to be a glamorous place for people to come because people find society interesting.”
Nowhere is that society more on display than at the Ball at The Breakers. A fund-raiser for the Newport Preservation Society, the ball is one of eight or nine social affairs — breakfasts, lunches, dinners, cocktails and more — during the three-day triennial event that celebrates authentic 19th-century coaches, the sportsmen and collectors who drive them, and the horses that make them spin.
The weekend only reinforces the sense of Newport as time warp, a bubble that enables residents and visitors to escape — at least momentarily — from the negative tenor of the presidential campaigns as candidates jockey for political advantage. While Republicans fret about the possibility of hurricanes in Tampa and the two parties spar over Medicare, Newport residents luxuriate in life amidst the town’s architectural treasures designed to emulate European icons like Versailles and the Florentine palazzos of the Italian Renaissance.
“Newport is the place to go to be naughty,” says Marion “Oatsie” Charles, 92, who left Georgetown for Newport back in 2007. Charles, who has charmed everyone in Washington from the Kennedys to the Reagans, grew up in Alabama, the granddaughter of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates, who became Alabama’s 29th governor. Outspoken, irascible and deliciously funny, Charles relishes naughty friends almost more than being seriously naughty herself.
Four days before her marriage to her first husband, the fabulously wealthy Thomas Leiter, heir to a Chicago retail fortune, she recounts how she got her first course in sex education from a family friend, the actress and theatrical legend Tallulah Bankhead. “Tallulah told me the facts of life,” Charles recalls. “Mother hadn’t told me anything. Tallulah sat with me eating sugar cubes and bourbon, and I don’t remember a thing she said.”
Another naughty friend, tobacco heiress and Newport legend Doris Duke, named Charles as one of two trustees in her last will. Today Charles serves as trustee emeritus of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which has an estimated endowment of $1.3 billion. Considering Duke’s over-the-top approach to collecting art, huge houses, men and mayhem, her jewelry, while dazzling in anyone else’s vault, wasn’t among her passions. “Doris never cared much about jewelry. Her jewelry only sold for $15 million at Sotheby’s,” says Charles. “She did have a tiara, though. No one knew how to pronounce it, much less wear it.”
Charles’ lighthearted banter captures the tenor of Newport. Leaning over to talk with her driver as her car pulls up the long driveway to the Newport estate Marble House, built by William K. Vanderbilt in 1892, she observes, “This is a moneyed crowd.” The luncheon, cohosted by Marble House’s former owners Frederick and Diana Prince, is another occasion for the Preservation Society to raise money. As guests arrive, paying visitors continue to tour the house snapping pictures of the horses, the coaches, the whips (the term used to describe both the owners and coach drivers), and the fancy guests they invite to join them.
For all its elegance, the weekend has one main purpose: to raise money to preserve the traditions and splendor of a bygone era. “We raised $650,000 at the Ball at The Breakers, and that will help to buy two paintings to return to Rose Hall,” driving enthusiast Bob Hardwick tells one of the visiting coach collectors from Holland, who argues that some money should instead go to preserve royal coaches.
For the Newport Preservation Society and the 15 visiting whips, the weekend is a win-win collaboration. The preservationists raise money and the whips build interest and support for their favorite sport.
For Charles — who moved into the gardener’s house to allow her daughter, Victoria Mele, and husband Joe to live in the main house, Land’s End, which was once owned by Edith Wharton — the pageantry of a weekend of coaching offers cause for celebration. Otherwise, her typical day is far less glam. “I sit in my kitchen watching the bird feeder and I watch the people coming up and down my road,” says Charles, referring to the historic 3.5-mile Cliff Walk, where each year thousands of tourists come to see the town’s architectural treasure trove of grand seaside houses. “Hair not combed, wearing clothes that are not ironed. That’s one reason I love this coaching weekend. For once, people in Newport dress to the nines.”
Not that the outside world doesn’t intrude at times during the weekend, even in a place like Newport. The town’s at-times crotchety residents admit they have their own concerns about the changing political landscape.
Asked about the upcoming political conventions, Ruth Buchanan, 94, whose late husband served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s White House chief of protocol, says, “The politicians are going to wreck everything. They get the publicity, but they don’t talk about how to fix things.”
George “Frolic” Weymouth, one of the most celebrated drivers and collectors of vintage coaches, agrees: “Our children have different lives and different values. The most dangerous element in society today is the computer. They are ugly. You can’t eat them. You can’t screw them. And they are going to screw you.”
For Charles, the real problem lies in young people having to learn to do everything themselves — a true sign of a changing era. “How can young people do it all without help?” she wonders, adding, “I never changed a diaper. Never.”
There are equally weighty matters on Newport residents’ minds, though, including the question of development in Newport. As in other historic enclaves — think Nantucket — the issue often gets people, even the Old Guard, squabbling. Last year, Hugh D. “Yusha” Auchincloss 3rd opposed Charles’ plan to build a permanent, minimalist art installation on Queen Anne Square to celebrate Duke’s contribution to restoring 82 colonial houses near the harbor. Nonetheless, he admires Charles, who he calls “very knowledgeable, not chichi or poo-poo, a real person.”
It’s the social scene of Newport he can’t quite stomach.
“I don’t much like that kind of ball,’’ Auchincloss admits of the Ball at The Breakers. His great-grandfather built Hammersmith Farm in Newport in 1887, and the 90-acre farm is where Auchincloss’ half-sister Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy held their wedding reception. The family sold the property when Auchincloss’ father died and it’s now owned by Peter Kiernan, a former managing director of Goldman Sachs.
“I don’t like putting on a tuxedo,’’ Auchincloss continues — especially the one he inherited from his father that he wore to the Ball at The Breakers. “My father was heavyset and although I wore a belt, it felt all night like my pants were about to fall down. John Loeb, who invited me to sit at his table, kept telling me I should have worn suspenders.”
At the ball, Auchincloss reminisces about first meeting his stepbrother, the late Gore Vidal, when he lived with his father at Merrywood, the estate across the Potomac River from Georgetown. “Nina Gore had just married my father and she brought her son Gore over to meet us,” he says, shifting uncomfortably in his vintage, double-breasted tuxedo. “Gore was a bully. I hit him and knocked him out cold. I was afraid I’d killed him.”
Auchincloss’ uncomfortable fashion moment at the ball exhibits another characteristic of Newport’s Old Guard: One can never be sure whether their penchant for old family things is born out of sentiment or Yankee parsimony.
Take the crowd at Bailey’s Beach, where members of what Vidal once called “America’s ruling class” vie for the best location of closet-sized cabanas that line the private beachfront. “The place really does need a major overhaul,” confides one guest, who nevertheless begged for anonymity so as not to damage his chances of gaining membership. “Every time anyone tries to change anything, someone always objects, saying that things have to be done just like they were in their grandmother’s times.” Guests are not permitted to talk on cell phones and club memberships are coveted both for prime beachfront and social access.
Socially, hosting a party for the whips and their friends is deemed an honor for just about everyone in the Historical Preservation Society — everyone except Dorrance “Dodo” Hamilton, the Campbell soup heiress. Preservation supporters like Mary Ann Hamilton Lamont hosted a luncheon for the whips and their guests, and David Ford, a former Goldman Sachs partner, gave a dinner at his home, Miramar (built by George Widener, who died on the Titanic before he could move in). Hamilton refused to allow the whips and their coaches on her property in order to protect the health of her cattle herd.
“Domestic animals are going extinct,” she explains, adding, “My herd is in the freezer. Everything is cryogenically frozen and the freezer is on the farm. That is why we can’t have the horses over because they could damage the strain.”
As for Weymouth, the weekend is all about the coaches rather than the social events. Asked whether Ann Romney’s love of dressage would inspire equestrians the way Jackie Kennedy did when she was First Lady, he fairly bristles at the notion. “I don’t think Jackie Kennedy affected the sport at all. It is Prince Philip who has done the most,” he insists, frowning as he notices a missing button on his fine wool vest. A friend teases him about needing a valet. Weymouth replies with a smile and a shrug: “Anyone who gets that close is too close.”
Weymouth, a member of the Dupont family, is cofounder of the Brandywine Conservancy. His home, Big Bend, surrounded by the Brandywine Creek on three sides, is just inside Pennsylvania. The land was ceded back to the Indians in 1683 by William Penn. Like the men who built the great houses of Newport, Weymouth still turns to Europe for inspiration — hence his hero, Prince Philip, whose portrait he painted in 1996 and now hangs in Windsor Castle. So when asked about the specter of class warfare tainting the current political scene, he opts for a royal response that focuses on his passion rather than politics.
“All I want is to keep coaching going, and not because the sport is American — because it’s not,” he said. “Coaching started in England, and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt helped to bring it here. [The sport is] why we all come back to Newport.”
Weymouth points to the Cowtown Work to Ride team from Philadelphia, which last year won the National Interscholastic Championship at the Virginia Polo Center — the first all-black team to do so. In his view, if there was ever a sign of changing times, it is that.
“The Queen once said horses are the greatest levelers in the world,” he says. “And she is right.”