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“at-home” In Newport

May 2024
2min read

Around the turn of the century the parties and balls became so sumptuous that they might have been produced and directed by David Belasco, the lavishness of whose productions had become a Broadway legend. Newport was, in fact, becoming more and more influenced by Broadway and sheer theatricality, as was demonstrated by Grace Vanderbilt’s Fête des Roses gala at her Beaulieu estate. “The great party of our century,” Wayne Andrews, a social historian, called it. It was so expensive and multifaceted an extravaganza, mock-modestly styled an “at-home” by the hostess, that one of the guests, Grand Duke Boris of Russia, gasped, “Is this really America or have I landed on some enchanted isle? Such an outpouring of riches! It is like walking on gold.”

The occasion was so splendiferous that the New York newspapers, having dispatched an amphibious force of reporters and photographers, devoted only one column to President Roosevelt’s political tour (he was merely running for re-election that summer) and four and a half columns to Grace Vanderbilt’s hoe-down. On that August evening in 1902, as her son later recalled, Mrs. Vanderbilt stood on the lawn, greeting her guests, “standing in a little green circle of light, looking like a portrait by Gainsborough in her mousseline de soie pale-green and white gown and huge plumed black picture hat. With the costume she wore her cabochon emeralds and diamond stomacher. Directly behind her on the lawn of Beaulieu stretched a midway some 275 feet long, enclosed in turkey-red calico and blazing with red calcium lights looking, as one guest observed, ‘like a tunnel of fire.’ At the entrance to the midway stood a large jar of orchids and a Persian rug.” The estate was aglow with fairy lamps, and huge baskets of red roses were hanging everywhere to carry out the motif. A fireworks display of gold and silver cascades formed the backdrop against the moonlit waters of the bay.

The first part of the entertainment was the midway and its games of chance, with tents and booths in which the prizes were gold cigarette cases for the men and enamel vanity boxes for the women. Then everyone moved to the wooden theatre built on the lawn by a hundred carpenters and other craftsmen, which included a stage with professional lighting. The whole company of the Broadway success Red Rose Inn , starring Irene Bentley and Eddie Foy, along with their scenery, props, baggage, and stage crew, had been transported from Broadway. The Manhattan theatre in which Red Rose Inn had been playing had to be closed down for two nights, and it was estimated that the total cost of Grace Vanderbilt’s production would have supplied the necessary backing for any three of David Belasco’s presentations. “How much money is there in the house?” the comedian Eddie Foy inquired, peering through the peephole in the curtain. “About ’steen billions,” replied a fellow actor.

After the performance, which had been cut from three hours to one on Mrs. Vanderbilt’s orders because she feared her friends would grow restless if subjected like lesser folk to the full-length version, supper was served inside the house and on the piazza. The showfolk, of course, were segregated; it would have been too daring to allow actors—and worse yet, actresses—to sit at the same table with the gentility. The cast was fed under a tent set up at the end of the midway, where it was felt they would be more comfortable. “Naturally enough,” as a theatrical magazine remarked, “these supper tables became known as Bohemia, and the guests strolled into this ever-fascinating atmosphere and mingled there with the prima donnas, the comedians, and the chorus. Under the combined fire of experienced chorus eyes, Mr. Vanderbilt fled precipitately behind a Japanese vase.”

During the supper an army of workmen swarmed back into the estate and transformed the one-night-stand theatre into a ballroom. Two orchestras provided the music for a hundred couples. (Mrs. Vanderbilt had limited her guest list to two hundred, causing one disgruntled, and uninvited, Newporter to remark, “The Vanderbilt guest list is a victory in vacuums. Nobody is there who ought not to be.”) The dancers whirled over rose petals on the floor.

Mrs. Vanderbilt’s at-home ended with a sunrise breakfast and inevitably was the subject of moralizing editorials in the more serious newspapers, which speculated on how many starving slum children could have been fed with the money spent on entertaining Mrs. Vanderbilt’s guests for six or seven hours.

Newport, happily unaware that it was supposed to have a collective social conscience, called for more wine and madder music.

—R. O’C.

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