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The Mansions of Newport

A married couple with separate bedrooms? Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice each had private sanctuaries in their 70-room Newport "summer cottage" known as the Breakers. But then they did have seven children together. A visit to their home, now one of several house-museums, offers a peek into the private lives of the one-percenters of the Gilded Age.

And what homes they had. Monuments to opulence modeled after Italian Renaissance villas or French chateaus or Victorian Gothic mansions, Newport’s summer cottages were built to show off a family’s wealth and refined taste. The dining room and ballrooms were the most important rooms of all.

The ballroom of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor’s Fifth Avenue home in New York City could only accommodate about 400 guests. But it was said to be her friend and cousin by marriage Samuel Ward McAllister’s remark that only 400 people mattered to fashionable society that led to the so-called "Four Hundred," the first social register. Mrs. Astor hosted an annual summer ball and exclusive dinner parties at her Newport home, Beechwood, where she spent only eight weeks a year. Being on that elite list—and staying on it—was all consuming to high society’s members.

"At a certain hour, fashionable Newport must appear on the beach. Luncheons are served to the minute. At 4 o’clock precisely, the gates of the splendid grounds open and carriages come for the afternoon drive. At 8 o’clock, Newport sits down to dinner," reported the New York World on July 6, 1901.

A lady’s social calendar could have her changing her clothing five or six times a day, which meant she needed sizable closet space. Yes, conspicuous consumption placed great demands on the lives of the privileged class in the years spanning the end of the Civil War to the start of World War I. Dubbed the Gilded Age by writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in a book of the same name, this 50-year period saw rapid industrial growth and technological innovation as well as great social inequity.

Of course, it couldn’t last forever. The 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913 establishing the personal income tax had a lot to do with the demise of such lavish living. So did the grim reality of a world at war.

So who had the deepest pockets? Two family names stand out during the Gilded Age:

THE VANDERBILTS: Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt (1794–1877), the great-great-grandson of a Dutch farmer who emigrated to New York as an indentured servant, built his empire in steamships and railroads. In his will, he left most of his $100 million estate to his oldest son William Henry (1821–85), a railroad tycoon who doubled the family fortune in the eight years before his death. His oldest son, Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843–1899), became president and chairman of the New York Central Railroad and built the Breakers while his brother and William K. Vanderbilt (1849–1920) built Marble House. William’s yacht, Defender, won the 1895 America’s Cup. One of Cornelius II’s sons, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, declined to board Titanic for its maiden voyage to New York only to perish three years later on the Lusitania.

THE ASTORS: John Jacob Astor IV (1864–1912), who died on the Titanic, had the riches his great-grandfather had made in the fur trade as well as his own millions earned from successful real estate ventures, including New York City hotels such as the St. Regis and the Astoria (later the original Waldorf–Astoria on Fifth Avenue, where the Empire State Building now stands). His mother was the strong-willed Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor (1830–1908) and a leading hostess of New York and Newport society. Her Bellevue Avenue mansion, Beechwood, is now owned by Oracle CEO and cofounder Larry Ellison, who plans to turn the property into an art museum.

Updated: 2014-05-06

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