Newport Rules: Ball at the Breakers

The Newport Preservation Society’s triennial Ball at The Breakers bring out antique carriages, vintage fashions and plenty of old money.

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Rich O'Donnell

Photo By Susan Watters

Marion "Oatsie" Charles

Photo By Susan Watters

Robert and India Bolcome

Photo By Susan Watters

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.”


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