The rise of the Gilded Age basically occurred in two locations – New York City, where great fortunes were made and managed, and Newport, RI, where, for eight glittering weeks each summer, fortunes were flaunted and spent.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Newport was a sleepy, comfortable summer resort town for Southerners escaping heat-ridden epidemics such as malaria, and for New England’s poets, intelligentsia, and artists. The town was popular among the Hudson River School of painters, and Julia Ward Howe and, later, Henry James and Edith Whartn were just a few of Newport’s regular visitors. The Civil War brought an abrupt end to Newport’s Southern population during the summer, and as Saratoga, NY, began losing popularity with wealthy New Yorkers, Newport became America’s premier resort town. It began somewhat modestly; hotels were numerous, along with “shingle-style” homes – that is, large, rambling houses featuring gabled roofs and timber trim, very charming in an old New England tradition. As wealth continued to increase, more and more summer tourists wanted homes of their own and hotels lost business, fell to disrepair, and most ultimately closed.
From 1840 – 1870, the growth of railroads fueled a growing economy and created a crop of new millionaires that included E.H Harriman, James J. Hill, and Cornelius “the Commodore” Vanderbilt. Following the Civil War, manufacturing continued to add to this roster of wealthy men: Morgan, Cooke, Gould, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Pullman, etc.
In 1852, real estate developer Alfred Smith bought the 140 acres of oceanfront land from Narragansett Avenue to Newport’s southeastern-most tip. Among the first “summer cottages” to be erected on what became Bellevue Avenue were Chateau-Sur-Mer, owned by William Wetmore, and Beechwood, purchased by Mrs. William Astor, often hailed as the queen of society. One by one, Bellevue Avenue’s cottages sprang up: Kingscote, Isaac Bell House, Rough Point, Ochre Court, Belcourt Castle... The owners were said to have been “hand-picked” by Smith to ensure that only the finest families lived there.
By 1880, Newport’s Gilded Age was in full flower. Conspicuous consumption drove away much of Newport’s intelligentsia as gentility gave way to avarice and brutal social competition.
In 1885 Cornelius II and Alice Vanderbilt purchased The Breakers, then a shingle-style house, which burned to the ground in 1892. At this time, Cornelius’s sister-in-law Alva, wife of William K. Vanderbilt, unveiled her new “cottage,” Marble House, the first major departure from Newport’s shingle-style houses and the Italianate-style mansions such as Beechwood. Marble House, with its massive Corinthian columns and ten-ton bronze grillwork covering the front entryway, was fashioned after the Petit Trianon at Versailles.
Perhaps the greatest example of the fierce social competition of the Gilded Age was played out between Alice and Alva Vanderbilt. If Marble House was large and ornate, the rebuilt Breakers was even larger and more ornate - dizzyingly so. The house, inspired by the seaside palaces of Genoa, Italy, boasted 70 rooms, could house 30 servants, was fitted out with both gas and electric light, telephones, and bathrooms with hot and cold running water - both fresh and sea water. In the summer of 1895, the Vanderbilts welcomed 300 guests into their new “cottage” for the first time, an event that doubled as their daughter Gertrude’s coming out ball. Absent from the guest list was sister-in-law Alva.
It is worth noting that Beechwood is not on quite the same scale as either Marble House or The Breakers. Mrs. Astor, who considered herself above the Vanderbilts since her family’s wealth could be traced back more than three generations and theirs could not, did not feel the need to compete with Alice or Alva. For many years she had refused to acknowledge the Vanderbilts at all, but in 1883 her daughter, Carrie, begged her mother to relent. Alva was planning a costume ball in New York and Carrie very badly wanted to attend. In order for Carrie to be invited, however, it was first required that the elder Mrs. Astor call upon the younger Mrs. Vanderbilt, thus establishing Alva’s place in society. From then on, the Vanderbilts were considered part of elite society’s Four Hundred, so called because that was the number of people estimated to fit comfortably in Mrs. Astor’s New York ballroom.
For eight weeks each year, America’s rich and powerful spent their time in leisure activities: picnics, yachting, and, of course, soirees and balls. Ladies attended teas and made “morning calls”, which in actuality could be any time of day. Gentlemen sailed, played golf or tennis, or relaxed at Bellevue Avenue's Reading Room, an exclusive men's club. In the afternoons, the wealthy piled into their broughams, curricles, victorias, etc., and paraded up and down Bellevue Avenue to see and be seen. Bailey’s Beach, on Ocean Avenue not far from the south end of Bellevue, was a private beach that provided seaside fun away from the common crowds of Easton’s Beach. The Newport Casino was a popular destination for day or nighttime activities. Despite the name, this was not a gambling establishment (casino is from the Italian casina, meaning “little house”), but rather more of a country club featuring lawn tennis, billiards, bowling, an opera house, a restaurant, shops, and a covered promenade for strolling. The wealthy bought yearly memberships, but, in a rare example of inclusiveness as opposed to exclusiveness, ordinary townspeople could gain entrance by paying a daily admittance fee. The Newport Country Club was also a fashionable destination, and the New York Yacht Club established a headquarters with mooring space and a clubhouse on Newport Harbor.
If men ruled over business and industry in New York, the Newport summer Season was very much dictated by their wives. Strict social conventions were adhered to: calling cards must be left before formal visits; ladies were expected to change their clothes upwards of nine times a day. Gowns were ordered months in advance (many from House of Worth, Paris), and could be worn only once. Though it was summer, balls were every bit as lavish as in NY, and each one provided an opportunity to further financial and social interests by strategically bringing together the right sons with the right daughters. In the 1890s this was brought one step farther as many American mothers sought titled, European husbands for their daughters. For example, William and Alva Vanderbilt’s daughter, Consuelo, would become a duchess by marrying the ninth Duke of Marlborough in 1895, and in so doing revive the dwindling finances of her husband’s family and keep their country home, Blenheim Palace, up and running. (We see a fictional example of the American heiress syndrome in the popular series, Downton Abbey: Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham, is an American heiress whose dowry refilled the coffers of the ailing Grantham estate.)
Cottages continued to be built along Bellevue Avenue into the first years of the 20th century: Crossways, The Elms, and graceful Rosecliffe. However, by the second decade of that century, the Gilded Age began it’s subtle, and later rapid, decline. In 1912, Mrs. Astor’s son, John Jacob Astor IV, went down with the Titanic. Alfred Vanderbilt, Cornelius and Alice’s primary heir, and his wife, Margaret, should have been on the ship, but canceled their travel plans at the last minute. Ironically, Alfred died in 1915 aboard the Lusitania when a German U-boat torpedoed the ship off the coast of Ireland.
The loss of two of society’s most prominent leaders, the implementation of income and estate taxes during Woodrow Wilson’s administration (1913-1921), and the advent of WWI in 1914, all contributed to a relative decline in the lavish lifestyles of previous decades. The final blow came with the Stock Market crash of October 29, 1929.
Murder at the Breakers – The Gilded Newport Mysteries as companion reading for any of the following subjects:
1. The Industrial Age – the development of American industries in the post-Revolutionary War era; progression from modest wealth to the accumulation of vast fortunes in post-Civil War era.
2. Development of tourism in America – nineteenth century shift in thinking from strict work ethic to the idea of leisure time being beneficial to the individual and to society as a whole.
3. The Gilded Age – conspicuous consumption; social climbing/competition; “old money” vs. new and the rise of class consciousness in America.
4. History of Newport, RI, from modest textile and mercantile port (late 18th Century) to summer colony for Southerners (1840s to the Civil War) and New England intellectuals and artists, to the “Queen of Resorts” for NY’s Four Hundred (America’s wealthiest families) who built their colossal “cottages” along exclusive Bellevue Avenue.
5. History of the Vanderbilt family
MURDER AT THE BREAKERS Suggested Discussion Questions for Readers Groups and Classrooms:
1. Emma Cross is both a Vanderbilt and a Newporter. How has this shaped her personality? Which traits enable her to track down a murderer? Which make it more difficult to conduct her investigation?
2. Within the framework of class consciousness in 1895 America, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of Emma’s duel heritage as she deals with both elite society and the townspeople she’s known all her life. Compare her place in society with that of her cousin, Gertrude, and with that of her maid, Katie.
3. Emma’s inheritance from her aunt Sadie gives her a measure of independence, but at what price? Given the social and economic restrictions of the times, do you think she is right to guard that independence the way she does, or is she simply being stubborn?
4. How is Emma influenced by the memory of her aunt Sadie? Do you see Emma as a feminist – why or why not?
5. The Vanderbilt Family is an American icon of wealth and privilege. What, besides their money, sets them apart from “ordinary” families? In what ways are they similar?
6. Discuss the importance of family as a motivating factor throughout the story. Compare Emma’s various family relationships: with her parents; the Vanderbilts; her half-brother, Brady; and Nanny. How does Emma’s role change in each of these relationships?
7. When a second murder occurs in Murder at the Breakers, Emma claims it’s no coincidence, that in a town like Newport everything is connected. How is this small town, and the island it’s part of, symbolic of the tone and structure of cozy mysteries?
8. Emma sees Derrick’s lie as a betrayal, although she is much quicker to forgive Katie’s omission of the truth. What is the role of trust in cozy mysteries between the sleuth and her small circle of friends and family? Discuss the importance of these secondary characters in solving the crime, taking into account clues and alibis, red herrings, etc.
9. Discuss Emma’s various motives for solving the crime, and compare these with the motivations of a professional detective/investigator in a crime thriller or international spy novel.
10. In solving the crime, what do you think Emma learns about herself and her ability to a) judge someone’s character; b) defend herself against a threat; c) rely on herself and her own personal resources? Do you think her faith in people is shaken or strengthened by her experiences?
Newport in the Gilded Age
1. The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America; edited by Charles W. Calhoun
2. The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
3. Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt by Arthur T. Vanderbilt
4. The Vanderbilt Women by Clarice Stasz
5. Mrs. Astor’s New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age by Eric Homberger
6. Newport Through its Architecture: a History of Styles from Postmedieval to Postmodern by James L. Yarnall
7. Newport Houses; photographs by Robert Schezen, text by Jane Mulvagh and Mark A. Weber
Recommended Online Sources:
On this page you'll find a historical overview, suggestions for related reading topics, and readers group/classroom discussion questions. Enjoy!
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