Newport in the Gilded Age
by Ellen Micheletti
Once there was a man who ruled and amused Society. He was dapper, he was elegant, he was an arbiter not to be trifled with. Beau Brummel? No, Harry Lehr.
Once there was a place where only the chosen could go. Many tried to gain admittance to this exclusive area but only a few were permitted to trod its hallowed ground. Almacks? No, Bailey's Beach.
Once there was a group of women whose word in Society was law. They issued the invitations. They gave the parties. If they liked you, you were accepted, if they didn't, you were forever beyond the pale. The Lady Patronesses? No, The Great Triumvirate.
Once there was a place where the rich met to meet. To see and be seen and to show off their debutante daughters at a Marriage Mart. London during the Season? No, Newport, Rhode Island during the Gilded Age.
For years, Newport had been a favorite place for the rich to spend summer. These rich people (and before the Civil War, the number of very wealthy in America was quite small) were quiet and not ostentatious. But after the War the number of millionaires increased greatly. These newly rich "discovered" Newport and began to spend their summers there.
They built huge summer homes facing the sea, homes that had names like The Breakers, Marble House, Rosecliffe and By-The-Sea. The owners of these huge piles of marble referred to them as "cottages" and they were the sites of large and lavish parties. Newport became the place to spend the summer for members of the 400, the rich, and those social climbers who wanted to be accepted among the right people.
Social climbing was a feat that called for guile, chutzpah and more than a bit of luck. Not too many newcomers made it to the highest peak of the social mountain. The Great Triumvirate, which was the name given the three women who were acknowledged as the leaders of the Newport social scene, kept a tight grip on who was accepted and who was not. The three great ladies were: Alva Belmont (formerly Vanderbilt) Mamie Fish and Tessie Oelrichs. Mrs. Astor was also a social leader in Newport, but she stood alone, a monument unto herself. Why were these ladies the social leaders? Because they had the desire, the nerve, the drive and the money to make themselves so.
Tessie Oelrich had lots of money and the personality of a drill sergent. When she commanded - people obeyed. Alva Vanderbilt Belmont had lots of money and the same commanding personality. Mamie Fish was not as rich as the other three, but she compensated with her personality and her cutting sense of humor. To be insulted by Mrs. Fish became almost a badge of honor. Here are a couple of her quips:
A wealthy dowager had a male secretary of whom she was very fond. One day, one of the dowager's relatives could not find her and asked Mrs. Fish: "Have you seen my cousin? I've looked all over the house." Mrs. Fish replied: "Have you looked under the secretary?"
Even her friends were not immune. Alva Vanderbilt Belmont came up to Mrs. Fish one day and said: "I heard you said I looked like a frog." Mrs. Fish said: "No, not a frog, pet - a toad."
So who did the social leaders let into their charmed circle? People who were amusing, rich and who tickled their fancy. I've read several books on Newport society and have concluded that there were no fixed standards - if you had not made your money in trade and if the members of Society who were in liked you, then you joined the inner circle. If they didn't like you, you were out and that was that.
Society in Newport was very much a woman's game. The men who made the money that allowed for all this social climbing and party giving stayed away from it for the most part. There were a few male clubs that were off limits to women, the men spent a lot of time in their own pursuit of glory - yachting - and husbands did dutifully show up at some of the dinners and balls, but as for planning and playing the Social Game, most men simply were not interested except for a few like Harry Lehr.
Harry Lehr did not come from a distinguished background and he didn't have much money, but he loved Society and all its rules and games. Most men thought he was nothing but an effete fop, but as long as husbands knew Lehr was no threat to them, he was free to squire their wives around and take part in all the social games they did not care for. Lehr, in his role as a court jester to rich and bored women, reminded me a bit of Truman Capote although unlike Capote, Lehr was totally without talent. Harry Lehr first became noticed by social leaders when he attached himself to Mrs. Astor who thought he was amusing and became his first patron. Later, he endeared himself to the Newport social leaders because of his acerbic wit.
Lehr married a pleasant young widow named Elizabeth Drexel because she had money and could finance their social life. He then proceeded to make her private life miserable. Elizabeth Lehr left an account in her memoirs of their wedding night when she had ordered his favorite food and champagne, had brought him an elegant watch as a wedding gift and had all in readiness for a wedding supper. Then Harry came in and told her that theirs was to be a marriage in name only, that he had married her for her money and that he hated and despised all women, especially her. He promised to be attentive in public - and he was, but he was insulting and cruel to her when they were alone. Elizabeth would not divorce him - her mother disapproved of divorce - and she remained with him till he died. Her memoir, King Lehr and the Gilded Age, gives a fascinating portrait of the times.
Harry Lehr along with Mrs. Fish (his principal patron) kept the socialites amused. They gave parties and balls, and became well-known for giving parties which were "different." At one party, the guests of honor were dogs. The owners ate at a separate table while the dogs were served a three course doggie dinner. On one memorable occasion, Mrs. Fish and Harry Lehr gave a party in honor of the Prince del Drago. The Prince turned out to be a monkey in full evening dress. The partygoers thought it was all a great joke, but escapades like these got out in the press and regular people (who were trying to weather a depression) were Not Amused.
The most exclusive place in the Newport social scene was Bailey's Beach, a private beach at the end of the Cliff Walk. It was run by the Spouting Rock Beach Association and if you were a member, you were definitely one of the chosen. Bailey's Beach was not a pleasant place to swim. It was small and cramped and because of its location, it was plagued by a heavy growth of seaweed just offshore. The public beach was much larger, more pleasant and seaweed-free but mingle with the locals?! Heaven forfend! So fully attired in the prescribed bathing costume (black pantaloons, full skirt, black long sleeved blouse, black jacket, black stockings, and black shoes) with a broad brimmed hat and parasol, milady went out in the ocean - but not too far. With all the bulk and weight of that costume, she could easily have drowned, but at least she would have drowned in a socially acceptable place.
The heyday of Newport lasted until after World War I. The "cottages" are now museums and tourist attractions, the rich and bored have gone on to other "amusing" places and life goes on for the rest of us. America had no nobility and no Almacks. But it had Society, and it had a social Season in Newport. Jane Goodger has made good use of Newport as a setting in some of her novels. I hope that other authors will join her.
Don't miss Linda Francis Lee's Write Byte on Gilded Age New York
||Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer - you can email her via the link here
||Find links to all of Ellen's Historical Cheat Sheet articles at the end of Servants, including her article on the Gilded Age