BY PHILIP TERZIAN
The Wall Street Journal
When Edward Kennedy died last summer, more than a few eulogists referred to the senator’s “patrician” background. Such a word to describe such a person must have raised an eyebrow or two among the Lowells and Parkmans and Lodges of Boston — it might even have surprised Kennedy himself — but it also suggests the nature of American aristocracy, such as it is. Money counts for at least as much as blood, families rise and fall in due course, yesterday’s cabana boy is tomorrow’s lord of the manor. And nowhere is this truer than in Newport, R.I.
Deborah Davis, whose “Party of the Century” (2006) chronicled Truman Capote’s 1966 black-and-white ball, has now written an account of the historic colonial settlement at the foot of Narragansett Bay much as Capote might have written it — with an emphasis on social striving and startling display. That Newport had thrived for two centuries before the post-Civil War rich descended on the coastline is barely mentioned; Ms Davis seems barely aware that Newport is the home of America’s second-oldest Jewish congregation (Touro Synagogue) or that Bishop Berkeley, the British philosopher, lived there for a time in the early 18th century. The remarkable collection of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, not to mention its storied history, gets only a passing reference.
In “Gilded,” life begins with the arrival of comfortable New Yorkers and transplanted Southerners in the 1850s. They raised palazzos and castles and marble mausoleums — which they described, with self-conscious irony, as “cottages.” The process of creating “society” and building its monuments accelerated during the Gilded Age. For Ms. Davis, the mythical Newport — “America’s richest resort,” as it was called — begins in the last half of the 19th century, flourishes in the decades before World War I and declines to a vanishing point by the middle of the 20th century.
The party, while it lasted, was impressive. The new- money moguls who descended on Newport — the Vanderbilts, Astors, Fishes and Belmonts — built gigantic oceanside residences teeming with servants; they entertained on a lavish scale, founded tournaments and regattas, and filled their days with spectacle. Edith Wharton, one of their own, offers acid glimpses of this world in her novels and her memoir, “A Backward Glance.”
It was a world not destined to endure, and it didn’t. The Depression killed off a lot of conspicuous consumption, and by the end of World War II the cottages that hadn’t been pulled down were occupied by a handful of widowed grand dames and their liveried attendants.
In Ms. Davis’s telling, the slow death of old Newport leads to the gradual birth of modern Newport, where the stepdaughter of a local landowner marries Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1953 and introduces postwar glamour. Meanwhile, the remaining cottages are restored as tourist attractions, and a new generation of the civic-minded rich rejuvenate Newport’s luster as a magnet for celebrities and as a privileged playground. “The ‘lively experiment’ was still a city of uncommon beauty,” she writes, “and a place where everything old really is new again.”
All of which is true, but only part of the story. In its gaudy heyday, Newport was the locus of an age-old conflict in American high society: When the cottage-builders arrived they displaced the old-money clans, many of whom fled in horror. The parents of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who declined to extend a dinner invitation to their Vanderbilt neighbor in Hyde Park, N.Y., deliberately bypassed Newport for Canada’s Campobello Island during the summer. The coast of Maine, Murray Bay in Ontario — any place was preferable to vulgar Newport. Just as it is not quite accurate to describe Ted Kennedy as a patrician, it is important to distinguish between the trappings of true wealth and privilege and the exhibition of cash in which Newport specialized.
This distinction may also explain an amusing Newport subplot. Rhode Island’s late Democratic senator, Claiborne Pell, a Newporter for whom the graceful suspension bridge connecting the city to nearby Jamestown is named, harbored a subtle animus against FDR for his cavalier treatment of his father, Herbert, a sometime congressman and diplomat. The Pells, too, are often described as patrician; they are certainly wealthy. But Franklin Roosevelt, no doubt, looked askance at Herbert Pell of Newport and at garish Tuxedo Park, N.Y., one of Pell’s residences.
Another element of Newport history — insufficiently addressed by Ms. Davis — is the U.S. Navy. During the Civil War, the Naval Academy was moved temporarily to Newport from Annapolis; after 1865, Newport became the home of a naval base and the Naval War College. Newport’s economy in the middle 20th century, especially during World War II, was largely sustained by the Navy — with the attendant joys and sorrows of a military town. The Navy’s near-complete withdrawal during the Nixon administration was devastating.
Which brings us to a final point. The revival of Newport as a city and community was due, in no small part, to the efforts of a few privileged inhabitants — Doris Duke of tobacco fame, for instance — who sponsored the conversion of its cottages into museums, underwrote the restoration of its colonial core and encouraged the development of light industries. Modern Newport has been home to the likes of Claus and Sunny von Bulow, to be sure, and it thrills to the arrival of Elton John. It is also, however, a happy lesson in civic marketing and an argument for privatized urban renewal.
Mr. Terzian, literary editor of The Weekly Standard, is the author of the forthcoming “Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower and the American Century” (Encounter).
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