I love Newport. It’s one of my favorite things about living in Rhode Island: drive 45 minutes and you’re in the middle of a gorgeous port city, filled with historic houses and fun restaurants and bracing sea air. When my sister visits in the spring or summer, we often try to fit in a trip to Newport, usually with a Cliff Walk or tour of a mansion. And for the past few years I’ve marked the beginning of my summer vacation with a day trip south. I snap tons of photos and take as many house tours as I can fit into one afternoon.
While Newport has a rich and colorful history (including, among other topics, piracy, the slave trade, and the second oldest Jewish congregation in the United States), it’s the city’s Gilded Age mansions that always draw me back. By the end of the 19th century, many of the country’s wealthiest families were summering in Newport, living and partying in expensive “cottages” that were bigger than my entire apartment building. Think Downton Abbey without the titles (though many families did try to marry their daughters off to minor British peers who needed the money). Luckily, many of these “cottages” have been saved by preservation societies, and today you (and I) can visit them and imagine the lavish parties that went on in these palaces.
Most tours tend to focus on the architectural details of these admittedly beautiful homes. But as a writer, I’m more interested in the people who lived in them. Sometimes I have to dig through the docents’ descriptions of the rooms for those slice-of-life details, but there’s gold hidden in these tours. Details that can make these houses and their former inhabitants come alive.
Like the dark, wood-paneled library at Chateau-sur-Mer that was purchased in Europe and entirely reassembled in the States. Or the frosted glass French doors that hide an aviary at the top of the stairs at Kingscote, where the King family kept exotic birds.
Or the curios cluttering Kingscote’s tiny receiving room, a subtle marker of the China trade that made the family’s fortune. Or the strict number of parties silver heiress Tessie Oelrichs had to throw at Rosecliff to assure her place at the top of the Newport social ladder. I greedily sock away these details, hoping to slip them into my WIP someday.
Sometimes I get this odd feeling on tours, just before I leave a room to follow the rest of the group. If I blur my eyes just right, tune out the docent’s voice and the shuffle of tourists’ feet, I catch a glimpse of what life might have been like in these mansions in their heyday. A flash of a Worth gown from Paris, or the tinkle of polished silverware on china at a dinner party. And that’s what I hope to bring back to my own writing.
Reading Accompaniment: The Luxe by Anna Godbersen. First in a series of four, this gossipy YA book explores the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite, c. 1899. While it’s more Gossip Girl than strictly historical, The Luxe captures the glamour of the families who would have vacationed in Newport.
TV Accompaniment: I can’t resist mentioning my newest discovery, Comedy Central’s Another Period. Imagine what would happen if Keeping Up With the Kardashians went back in time to 19th-century Newport…and throw in a heavy dose of ridiculous humor.