Newport, Rhode Island, was once the most lavish resort in the world, a summer playground of unparalleled wealth and mind-boggling pretension. “Playground,” however, suggests fun and may therefore be something of a misnomer, because Newport in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century was anything but fun. “You do not give parties to enjoy yourselves, but to advance yourselves,” said Newport insider James de Wolfe, quoted by writer Brian Masters in his book, “Great Hostesses” (Constable, London 1982). The summer vacation, which ran from July 4th to Labor Day, was anything but a holiday, according to Masters. “It consumed all their energies and wore them into deep weariness. Every night there would be a dinner, a party or a ball, taking place in any one of the magnificent houses…The grandest house of all was The Breakers, a five-storey (sic) palace of paralyzing sumptuousness where Alice Vanderbilt, Alice-of-the-Breakers, held court.”
Although none of the fabulous mansions — “cottages,” as they were sardonically known, strung out like giant totems of intemperate capitalism across nearly 1,000 acres of oceanfront land along Newport’s Bellevue Avenue, remain as private residences today, that’s not to say that 21st-century Newport doesn’t have more than its fair share of magnificent private homes. And this in turn poses the question of where on earth you are going to stay if one of summer’s grand house-party invitations fails to land in your mailbox.
I know the feeling. Sometimes life just sucks, doesn’t it, which is a reason to be grateful for the Grace Vanderbilt hotel, to my mind the best place to hang your hat in spiffy Newport, which these days is not short of hotel accommodation, from modest inns and B&Bs to cookie-cutter lodges and showy mini-resorts. For one thing, this hotel has the name, as it was once a Vanderbilt-owned house. (The “Grace,” funnily enough, does not reference Alice Vanderbilt’s strong-willed daughter-in-law, as you might have thought, but the Grace Hotels company, which not unreasonably prefixes all its properties, from the Greek Islands to Argentina, with “Grace.”) For another, there is the Vanderbilt’s position, not on rarefied Bellevue Avenue, which is somewhat removed from the action — it’s hard to imagine any Gilded Age residents popping next door to borrow a cup of sugar; the expedition would have taken them an hour — but right in the heart of historic downtown, just where you want to be as a summer visitor or indeed as a visitor any time of year.
Arriving at the decidedly upscale if charmingly understated Grace Vanderbilt for a recent stay in a clapped-out Toyota SUV with a severely dented offside and a splintered side window held together with duct tape — a tree had fallen right across the hood three days earlier, luckily when the car was parked and passengerless — we were nevertheless not turned away by the well-groomed Vanderbilt reception team. It was as if all guests arrived in this fashion, a fact belied by the shiny latest-model Lexuses and Acuras around, confirming my long-held belief that inscrutability is at the heart of great hospitality. Solicitous inquiries were made, without a shred of irony or sarcasm, as to whether we had had a pleasant journey up from New York. Then, before we knew it, our tatty clutch of mismatched suitcases and an assortment of plastic bags were spirited away, as glasses of delicious chilled Billecart-Salmon Champagne were thrust enthusiastically into our hands and all the usual check-in rigmarole was bypassed as we were shown directly to our magnificent Vanderbilt suite with no further ado. It was a welcome of which the real Grace Vanderbilt — her style distinct from her estranged and redoubtable mother-in-law, Alice, but no slouch in the entertaining stakes herself — might have been justly proud.
The Grace Vanderbilt, you’ll have already figured out, is a very well-run hotel indeed, with a lovely conservatory and small garden where you can eat all day, and a miniature outdoor swimming pool, as well as an indoor pool, spa and wellness center.
As for the guest rooms, they are fresh and contemporary, as far removed, and I say this with some relief, from the overbearing Italianate mansions on Bellevue Avenue — which almost choke you with excess, to the point where houseguests must have gasped for air. I loved our first-floor, two-bedroom suite, perfect for families, with its marble bathrooms stuffed to the gills with Molton Brown products, its small kitchen, dining area and vast living room. And then there were the snowy linens and beds so comfortable that, especially after a night on the Newport tiles, you might easily bring to mind Uncle Willy’s immortal words in the Broadway play and 1941 movie “The Philadelphia Story.” (It was made into a 1956 musical and relocated to Newport to take advantage of the musical talents of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and the Newport Jazz Festival, which will be held this year Aug. 3 through 5.) “This,” says Uncle Willy, nursing a monumental hangover on the morning of the jeopardized wedding of his haughty socialite niece Tracy Lord, “is one of those days that the pages of history teach us are best spent lying in bed.”
That said, lying in bed is something you simply can’t do in Newport, no matter how much you may have overindulged the night before or how comfortable the bed — not when there is so much to do. From its world-class yachting regattas to the jazz festival; from its historic buildings, such as the Redwood Library & Athenaeum, established in 1747, to the Touro Synagogue (America’s first), established in 1763, and its Loeb Visitors Center, created by longtime Purchase resident and former American ambassador to Denmark John Loeb, Newport has something for everyone. And that’s before you’ve even set foot in any of the 10 “summer cottages” open to the public, either the Breakers itself, the impressively over-the-top Elms, modeled after the 18th century French Chateau d’Asnières outside Paris, the Gothic Revival-style Kingscote or Stanford White’s Rosecliff, commissioned by silver heiress Theresa Oelrich and modeled on Versailles’ Petit Trianon — to name but four.
At the other end of town, the Grace Vanderbilt is a stone’s throw from the Newport waterfront, which was almost visible from our ground-floor suite, and the main thoroughfare of Thames Street, where to be honest the shops sell nothing you really need but lots of things you would really quite like. Not, it must be said, if you hanker after big-name stores, which are mercifully few on the ground (although there’s a J. Crew and Gap at the Long Wharf Mall if you’re really desperate), but rather if you’re drawn to individual, idiosyncratic places, like Jason & Co. for exclusive Newport beads, Patagonia for Newport sportswear and Kristina Richards’ Rhode Island-inspired lifestyle boutique, for gorgeous clothes and shoes. Of course, you don’t come to Newport especially to shop, but on the other hand, beautiful jewelry, objets d’art and magnificent clothes have always mattered here.
In her book “King Lehr”(Applewood Books, 2005), a biography of Newport habitué Harry Lehr, one of America’s most successful (and disreputable) social climbers, Elizabeth Beresford observes that for a Gilded Age Newport hostess, having 80 or 90 dresses made for the season was not unusual, most of them to be worn only once and then discarded. Nowadays, you can pack lighter, thank goodness, because anything goes. You can dress up in Prada and high heels for dinner at Crowley’s Casino Pub on Bellevue Avenue or dress down in Dress Barn and flats for drinks on the Roof Deck at the Grace Vanderbilt, Newport’s ritziest bar and nobody is going to bat a gin-blearied eyelid — although if you land the coveted invitation to dinner at the Newport Yacht Club, gentlemen please remember you will need a collared shirt and jacket in the formal dining rooms.
By the way, the fact that the line at the Grace Vanderbilt’s Roof Deck bar might be three-deep on any given evening is more than compensated for by the quality of the drinks and the view — the entire Newport waterfront laid out at your feet. And if it’s buzzy, read borderline raucous on the weekends, then the first floor Vanderbilt Grill is by contrast an ocean of calm, large tables spaced far apart so you can whisper sweet nothings in your date’s ear or talk secrets of state with the local senator and be sure that no one is going to overhear you. You also eat fantastically well here — the most delicious chowder and corn fritters, the most delectable lobster tails, the best weekend brunch.
Evenings though, be warned, can get chilly in Newport, even in August. The climate is a few degrees cooler than the “mainland,” which is a boon in summer when a daytime breeze always seems to keep you cool. The one thing it’s unlikely to do in Newport, though, is rain. Want to know how I know? Back to “The Philadelphia Story,” er, “High Society.” As Tracy’s little sister, Dinah Lord, says with unflinching confidence, “Oh, it won’t rain. Tracy won’t have it.” That’s Tracy for you and that, in a nutshell, is Newport.