In the lavish days of unabashed wealth
New York’s society people—many of them newly wealthy with quick and unsavory Civil War profits—apparently first sought out Newport because they were attracted by the New England intellectuals who had been spending quiet summers there for years. They came, the rich men with their wives—“that pride of social lionesses,” Richard O’Connor calls them—and built chateaux of “depressing magnificence.” Soon the beautiful, serene Rhode Island coastline was dominated by “structures which seemed to combine the more grandiose features of Florence and Versailles with those of the Nineteenth Century American railroad station,” he writes. The writers and artists who had proved magnetic in the first place soon drifted away. In 1907, when Henry James saw Newport for the first time in thirty years, he was appalled by what lavish spending had done to the town. He wrote that the marble “cottages” looked “queer…and lumpish” and that some of them were “really grotesque.” By then the carnival was receding, and James wrote that the owners of the great villas, “roused from a witless dream, wonder what in the world is to be done with them.” James thought he knew what the answer would be—“that there is absolutely nothing to be done; nothing but to let them stand there always, vast and blank.”
From the time the building was completed in 1880, James Gordon Bennett’s casino became the new center of the Newport social scene. People still held formal entertainments in their lofty marble cottages, but there was a friendly, almost cozy charm about the casino’s long wooden verandahs, its whirlwind of Victorian gingerbread, and the variety of pleasures it offered that proved irresistible. With Tennis Week in August, the horse show in September, regular theatrical events, dances, a gourmet restaurant, and beautiful grounds, membership in the club soon became virtually a social necessity. Physically the casino is little changed today except that the ornate triple lamps that frame the entrance have been moved inside the arch for safety.
What parties, gowns, and social alignments were to the Newport ladies, sport was to the gentlemen, or at least to those who didn’t choose to vegetate or to chew the cud of juicy business deals in the Reading Room. Expensiveness and exclusivity were the keynotes. (“You can do business with anyone,” J. P. Morgan once said, “but you can go sailing only with a gentleman.”) Beautifully maintained and elegantly equipped horses were an integral part of the fashionable scene. Horses were used for hunting, for polo, for coaching, and, of course, for transportation. There were also the joys of the sea, for swimming in and sailing upon, and as soon as there were enough cars around to race, there were gentlemen to race them.