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.
“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.