The Wayward Commodore

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On the Newport Casino project, however, White was allowed to follow the dictates of his own ornate fancy, and the building survives both its designer and his patron, “a curious combination of Victorian grandeur and Chinese detail,” as one critic of more austere tastes described it. Several generations have enjoyed its facilities, which became the center of Newport’s social, athletic, and theatrical activities. “It was the first thing of its kind in the country,” wrote Maud Elliott, who was one of those who appreciated the commodore’s gesture,

and it’s building marks an epoch in Newport life. In the morning at eleven o’clock, the gay summer crowd assembled to play tennis or listen to Conrad’s orchestra while they exchanged the news of the day. The theater was used chiefly for the biweekly dances that took the place of the Ocean House hops. Everybody attended them; the elders to watch, the youngsters to dance on that perfect parquet floor.…In the tangled web of memory many threads lead back to the Casino Theater where—besides the dances—concerts, readings and private theatricals were held.

At the casino balls even year-round Newporters, the “townies,” were permitted to attend at a dollar a head and watch from the balcony as their betters swanned around the dance floor below.

The opening of the casino in 1880, whether or not it was so intended by the commodore, inaugurated the era of conspicuous and often outlandishly lavish spending in Newport. “The balls grew more elaborate, the hours longer,” as Maud Elliott recalled:

At the ball given by [New York] Governor Levi P. Morton for the debut of his daughter, Lena, a darkeyed beauty of the first-water, an outside ballroom was built and decorated with columns of glittering ice, festooned with smilax and roses. Thousands of lamps illuminated the pillars; the place looked like the cave of Aladdin.…Social life in every way showed increasing formality. The old high teas faded out of the picture, and late elaborate dinners took their place. Great emphasis was placed on gastronomy. The dinners were endlessly long, the decorations costly. A popular feature was a pond in the middle of the table, in which floated blue and pink water-lilies. These banquets now seem truly Roman in their gross exaggeration of the importance of eating.…

In some part, at least, Bennett’s construction of the casino as a slap at the Reading Room and its stuffiness resulted in the transformation of Newport from the informality of the seventies to the growing ostentation of the eighties and the great leap forward of exhibitionistic spending and party giving in the nineties. It was a contribution the commodore made unwittingly. He was a determined enemy, as he had demonstrated, of formality and display for its own sake; his theory was that wealth ought to provide a liberation from the rules and conventions.

Newport would see less of him in the ensuing decades. He still retained an interest in the casino, as he would cling to his newspaper properties even when they became unprofitable and were close to bankruptcy at the end of his life. But the casino was an undisputed success. “The place had an undeniable charm,” as one local historian wrote, “that had soon awakened the civic pride of the colonists; for all its bigness, it was somehow snug and cozy-looking, with a quality of unassuming hospitality about it.” All those who yearned for acceptance in resort society schemed to become casino stockholders. Even after he transferred himself to Paris permanently, Bennett clung to his thirty-two shares of casino stock, which comprised the largest block of all. Otherwise he had no further connection with the institution he had established.

Even as an absentee the commodore was almost a palpable presence on the Newport scene, not only for his visible works but for the memories he left behind of a hectic and often mischievous personality. The old gentlemen maundering over their ancient escapades on the Reading Room’s piazza would certainly never forget, for instance, Bennett’s Domino Ball, which was held in a huge tent behind his house and was illuminated by the newly introduced electric lights. Even the deadly prose of Ward McAllister could not muffle the excitement of that occasion:

At this ball appeared a Blue Domino that set all the men wild. Coming to the ball in her own carriage—her servants, she felt, she could trust not to betray her—she dashed into the merry throng and gliding from one to the other whispered airy nothings into men’s ears. But they contained enough to excite the most intense curiosity as to who she was. She was the belle of the evening; she became bold and daring at times, attacking men with the inmost secrets of their hearts, so as to alarm them, and when she had worked them all up to a fever heat, she came to me to take her to the door that she might make good her escape. A dozen men barricaded the way, but with the rapidity of a deer she dashed through them, reached the sidewalk, and her coachman literally threw her into the carriage. Her coachman, well drilled, dashed off at a furious rate.

Blue Domino’s identity was never discovered, but there was little doubt in many minds that Commodore Bennet had hired and coached her in the spicy indiscretions that enlivened his party.

Newport THE BACKSTAIRS CONTINGENT “AT-HOME” IN NEWPORT