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How the grandiose mansions of Newport, Rhode Island provided backdrop to Muriel Bolger's historical novel

Award-winning travel writer and author Muriel Bolger recalls a trip to Newport, Rhode Island to research her first historical novel, 'A Suitable Marriage'

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Rosecliff, Newport, RI

Rosecliff, Newport, RI

A Suitable Marriage

A Suitable Marriage

Newport Rhode Island postcard

Newport Rhode Island postcard

To the manor:  Muriel Bolger at The Elms in Newport, on the Servants’ Life tour

To the manor: Muriel Bolger at The Elms in Newport, on the Servants’ Life tour

Chepstow Mansion, Newport, RI

Chepstow Mansion, Newport, RI

The Marble House, Newport, RI

The Marble House, Newport, RI

The Breakers, Newport, RI

The Breakers, Newport, RI

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Rosecliff, Newport, RI

Did you ever feel you were born in the wrong age? That you should have been around in the days of servants and barouches, lady's maids and butlers? Well, that's how I felt the first time I visited the mansions in Newport, Rhode Island.

That was over a decade ago, but the memories of those grandiose mansions of a bygone time, with their opulent ballrooms, Gatsby-like marble staircases, orangeries, tea houses and columned loggias, never left me. Of course, the reality would in all probability not have seen me at the receiving end of gilt-edged invitations from the Vanderbilts and Astors, reclining on a chaise while a parlour maid poured my coffee.

Instead, I'd probably have been below stairs in service, among the countless other Irish girls who had 'taken the boat' to a better life in America in the decades following the famine years.

By the 1880s, the town of Newport on Rhode Island had found favour with the wealthy of New York and Boston. These were the railway magnates, fur traders, property developers, bankers, newspapermen and some plantation owners from the south, who fled the heat and the smells of the cities for the fresh sea air. They only came here to their 'cottages' for six to eight weeks every summer, bringing with them armies of servants. Keeping up appearances took on a whole new meaning, as these people vied to outdo each other in every possible way.

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To the manor:  Muriel Bolger at The Elms in Newport, on the Servants’ Life tour

To the manor: Muriel Bolger at The Elms in Newport, on the Servants’ Life tour

To the manor: Muriel Bolger at The Elms in Newport, on the Servants’ Life tour

The cottages - often a third or fourth home for their owners - were opulent, ostentatious and often quite eccentric and their architects were the superstars of the Gilded Age. Much of the furnishings and fittings were sourced and manufactured in Europe, with chandeliers of Bohemian and Murano glass, marble from Carrera, staircases from French oak and brocades from Italy.

Such lifestyles required a never-ending pot of money and ensured a continuous supply of scandal and gossip. One family, the Pembroke Jones from North Carolina, budgeted $300,000 for the Newport season, while society hostesses, Mrs Ogden Mills and Mrs Elbridge Gerry, boasted that they could put on a 10-course dinner and ball for a hundred guests without engaging any extra staff!

Rivalry for invites was fierce, and it was not unknown for some who had been excluded from a particular guest list to swiftly arrange a trip to Europe as the reason for their absence.

In the Gilded Age, being a member of the New York Yacht Club was a sign that you had been accepted. While the women made their social calls, the gentlemen spent their time on the waves, in a vain attempt to compete with William K Vanderbilt, who then owned the world's biggest yacht, the Alva, called after his wife. It cost half a million dollars and had a crew of 27.

He had earlier inherited $65m from his father, so perhaps it didn't seem very much at all and - when it sank in a fog off Nantucket a few years later, he commissioned an even more opulent replacement.

Two of the social gatekeepers, Mamie Fish and Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, hosted a 'Dogs' Dinner' garden party for 100 canines. When word of this got out, during the 1890s depression, it elicited derision from the pulpits and papers of the day. The menu had included fricassee of bones, cooked liver and rice.

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Newport Rhode Island postcard

Newport Rhode Island postcard

Newport Rhode Island postcard

James Gordon Bennet Jnr left his mark on the town for many reasons. His father had started the New York Herald, which he in turn inherited at a very young age. He'd already gained attention by winning the first trans-Atlantic race from Newport to the Isle of Wight before he was 20 - and that was the start of the Americas Cup, which still continues to this day. He brought polo to America too.

A bit of a maverick, he got himself barred from the conservative men's club for 'ungentlemanly' conduct, so he built the evocative Casino and Tennis Hall of Fame complex to show everyone that he didn't need those who had him expelled.

Considered a very good catch, he was very briefly engaged to a socialite from New York. But he turned up late and inebriated for their engagement party and then proceded to urinate into the drawing room fireplace before all the guests - so the marriage never took place.

But it wasn't just millionaires and eccentrics who stamped their mark on the smallest of the states. From the early 1800s, it was a popular settlement for the Irish. Over 100 copper miners arrived from Allihies in West Cork to work in the coal mines. Many of the bricklayers involved in the mammoth three-decade construction of the star-shaped military defence installation, Fort Adams, hailed from Kerry.

They made a good life there. The stonemasons earned $1.71 per day; the labourers $1. All gave their services freely to help build St Joseph's Church, which was designed by Tipperary architect Patrick C Keely.

It's not that church, however, that attracts visitors as much as St Mary's, where John F Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier in 1953.

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Chepstow Mansion, Newport, RI

Chepstow Mansion, Newport, RI

Chepstow Mansion, Newport, RI

As the idea of writing A Suitable Marriage - my first foray into period fiction - began to form in my mind, I knew I had to set some of it here in Newport, as the time when these cottages were being built. I took myself to its little Irish museum to learn more. There I discovered that the majority of domestic servants in the mansions had been Irish and they had their own social network in this summer resort. The 40 Steps on the beautiful Cliff Walk was their meeting point and, on their days off, they met here to dance, court and sing songs from home.

The gentry had their own hang-out - Easton's Beach, where they enjoyed their beach picnics and sea bathing. At least they did until the new trolley service began bringing the mill workers over from neighbouring Fall River, then they upped camp and relocated their bathing huts to Bailey's Beach. Apparently they had no wish to associate with those who "ate their lunch from buckets". It's still a private bathing club to this day. New members are only added to the waiting list when old ones die.

Sadly, many of the wonderful imitation French chateaux, Italian palazzos, Gothic and Shingle-style mansions have been demolished or repurposed over the decades - but happily the Preservation Society of Newport County now owns 10 of them. And they really do allow visitors to see life as it was, when money was no object and you changed your clothes up to nine times a day - for breakfast, morning calls, horse-back riding, tennis parties, bathing, afternoon tea, the five o'clock carriage ride along Bellevue Avenue, dinner and the inevitable ball.

Visiting the mansions last year, I was immediately transported again. I had this sense of deja vu, of belonging in another era and nowhere more so than when I joined 'A Servant Life' tour at the Elms and discovered that although the hours were gruelling, conditions weren't too bad at all!

Not only did the Elms have a below stairs, but it had another below that as well. The owner, coal baron Mr Edward Julius Berwind, was considered 'new money' and initially had a bit of a job being accepted into society. It may have been new money, but there was no shortage of it. He had enough to have the first home with its own electricity, and its own rail line and tunnel to the basement to accommodate the wagons bringing coal in and cinders out, lest the residents should be offended by the sight of domestics going about their chores.

I was minding my own business, gathering research, as I meandered through The Marble House, where Mr and Mrs William K Vanderbilt had lived, when I became aware that Sir Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, was holding court with his entourage beneath a portrait of the lady of the house. He was there researching his yet to be aired series - Downton - American style.

Great minds and all that!

Mansions apart, Newport abounds in other attractions and the wealthy still flock there to enjoy its gourmet fare, festivals, golf, culture and sailing. But for me on this occasion, my intention was to time travel and I did so quite happily.

So happily, in fact, that when it was time to leave I deeply regretted having to leave my housekeeper, ladies' maid, chauffeur, cook and butler below stairs while I was catapulted back into modern-day reality and the hoi polloi!

'A Suitable Marriage' by Muriel Bolger is published by Hachette Ireland Trade Paperback and eBook, €13.99

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