Newport County Feature
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Newport's Social Scene in the Gilded Age
To truly appreciate a visit to Newport's mansions, you need to understand the players—those who built and lived in these opulent homes—and the times.
Newport at the turn of the 19th century was where the socialites of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia came for the summer. They were among the richest people in the United States at the time—from railroad tycoons and coal barons to plantation owners.
The era during which they lived here, the late 1800s up through the 1920s, is often referred to as the Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain and co-author Charles Dudley Warner in a book by the same name. It was a time when whom you knew was everything. Three übersocialites were Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, Mary Ann (Mamie) Fish, and Tessie Oelrichs. These ladies who seriously lunched threw most of the parties in town.
The social register—capped at 400 names—was created by Caroline Astor. While the women gossiped, planned soirees, and dressed and redressed throughout the day, the men were usually off yachting.
In terms of the deepest pockets, the two heavyweight families in Newport were the Vanderbilts and the Astors. Cornelius Vanderbilt I, called Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, built his empire on steamships and railroads. Cornelius had amassed almost $100 million before he died in 1877. He gave most of it to his son William Henry, also shrewd in the railroading business, who nearly doubled the family fortune over the next decade. William Henry Vanderbilt willed $70 million to his son Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who became the chairman and president of New York Central Railroad; and $55 million to his son William K. Vanderbilt, who also managed railroads for a while and saw his yacht, The Defender, win the America's Cup in 1895. One of Cornelius Vanderbilt II's sons, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, died on the Lusitania, which sank three years after the Titanic.
Meanwhile in the Astor camp, John Jacob Astor IV, who perished on the Titanic, had the riches his great granddad 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 Waldorf-Astoria, originally at the site of what is now the Empire State Building). His mother was Caroline Astor.
Homes in Newport related to the Vanderbilts are The Breakers, built for Cornelius II; and Marble House, built by William K. Vanderbilt for his wife, Alva, who later divorced him to marry tycoon Oliver H. P. Belmont. Astors' Beechwood Mansion is Newport's only Astor home. Actors in the mansion relive the year 1891, so Mrs. Astor herself might just say hello to you.
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