"The golden gleam of the gilded surface hides the cheapness of the metal underneath"

~Keeping Alive The Gilded Age Era; And The Mansions, Parties, Yachts and People That Made It So Gilded.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"The Commodore's Heirs"

The Gilded Age Era Blog is happy to announce that on April 1st, at 6:30 PM, the Museum of the City of New York will be welcoming author T. J. Stiles ~ author of "The First Tycon: Cornelius Vanderbilt" ~ for a lecture he will be giving on the Commodore and his heirs. The Commodore is one of the richest people in all of history! His fortune nowadays worth many hundreds of billions of dollars. His grandchildren - the heirs - emerged as the "nouveau riche" and were scorned by Mrs. Astor and other old monied families. They latter came to triumph over Astor and her kind by building the world's largest homes and giving lavish and excess parties, showing that they were America's wealthiest family - dominating the New York and Newport social arena. 

Here is the official press statement: 

"T.J. Stiles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography The First Tycoon (Vintage, 2010) recounts the birth 
of the Gilded Age through the story of the Vanderbilt dynasty. “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt rose 
from New York’s docks to become the richest man in America. Old patrician families scorned him, though he 
lived in the same dignified fashion as they did. His popular grandchildren emerged as leaders of the social 
aristocracy, yet they indulged in lavish excess; their legendary parties and vast mansions defined the age. 
The  themes of an Edith Wharton novel play out over three generations in real-life tales of scandals, séances, 
suicide, and a bitter trial over the Commodore’s will. Presented in conjunction with Gilded New York. 
Reservations required — $15 for Museum members; $25 general public. 
Co-sponsored by The Victorian Society of New York. "

Order tickets online at  
or call 917.492.3395 
1220 FIFTH AVE, NY, NY 10029 • 212.534.1672 • MCNY.ORG

It is $15 for museum members, and $25 for non-members. 

Below, are some photographs that will be mentioned at the event: 

Alice Vanderbilt's "Electric Light" Costume ~ Worn to her sister's infamous 1890's ball.

The "Japanese Room" at William Henry Vanderbilt's NYC mansion 640 Fifth Avenue, the
last great Vanderbilt mansion to stand in NYC. 

A wealthy ladies toilette scene ~ like the kinds the Vanderbilt women would use. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Queen of Summer Resorts

During the Gilded Age ~ And for a long period afterwards ~ the little seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island, was considered to be the select summer resort. One could never be "In" society if one didn't spend summers in Newport (or at the very least own a residence there). Along the oceanside, barons of wealth built colossal marble castles ~ crammed with every finest luxury of the time ~ next door to the sophisticated yet stylish mansions of the "old money" families. No matter the size or opulence, each of these regal establishments were cozily referred to as "cottages" by the seasonal summer residents. Today, many of these palaces survive in the hands of colleges, school institutions or Preservation societies and foundations. A few, however, still remain in private hands. Here are a few "cottages" located in the resort. 

The Breakers
Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice, it was built to replace their first
cottage, also called 'Breakers', which burned down. Countess Gladys Szechenyi, Cornelius and Alice's daughter leased the Breakers to the Preservation Society of Newport, who bought the estate from her heirs.
It is the largest in Newport.

The Harold Brown Villa
Built by Harold Brown and his wife Georgette Wetmore as a summer estate. Given no
formal name, unlike most of the cottages, it was a treasured family jewel. It was left to Mrs Brown's
niece Eileen Slocum, who was considered the grande dame of Newport and the Republican Party and died in 2008. It is the only house on Bellevue Avenue still in the hands of the family.

Ochre Court
Built by Ogden and Mary Goelet as a palatial showplace to gain access into society.
Their son Robert offered the place to his daughter, who not surprisingly turned him down. He then donated the place to the now Salve Regina University, who still own it today.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Newport Poem ~ Cliff Walk

~Cliff Walk~

Aquidneck Island, in Rhode Island's Ocean State, hosts a trail beside the sea

Where on Newport's legendary cliff walk fog-shrouded mansions rise in mystery

Above the Atlantic's pounding rage one walks past treasures from another age

To glimpse grand palaces on a fabled path along a precipice above the ocean's wrath,

As ghostly mists from another time enshroud the visitor with the sublime,

To view gray sentinels that echo times of lore from the Gilded Age, that lavish life before

When Newport was but America's social queen, of an opulence our nation has seldom seen

Many mansions there, yet, now do last, those triumphant reminders of the past

Where, by moonlight, lofty chimneys yet silhouette the sky above cliffs and rocks over the ocean's haunting sigh.

Above the gray cliffs, those do yet dwell, who recall legends 
of the cliff walk's many tales to tell

Of gossip and social scandals and tragedies of the sea, of success and failure during Newport's proud history.

-Alfred Richardson Simson 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Grey Gardens

'Grey Gardens' ~ Before the Beale residency. 
'Grey Gardens' ~ During the Beale residency. 
In the 1970's, Lee Raziwill, sister of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, suggested to two film-making brother named Albert and David Maysles, that a documentary be made about the lives of Lee and Jackie's aunt and cousin, both named Edith Beale, and their East Hampton home, 'Grey Gardens'. And so, in 1975, a documentary film was released mystically called 'Grey Gardens'. The documentary focused on the tenure of Edith Bouvier Beale, called "Big Edie", and her daughter, Edith Beale, called "Little Edie", and the ruinous conditions they lived in at their once grand estate, 'Grey Gardens'. 

Little Edie on the cover of the Maysles's documentary ~ Grey Gardens.
In 1924, Edith Bouvier and her husband Phelan Beale purchased 'Grey Gardens' in East Hampton, a few miles away from Edith's father's Hampton residence 'Lasata', where future First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy would grow up with her sister. Grey Gardens was known locally for it's stunning and beautiful gardens, which had been designed in 1913. The home was located a block away from the Atlantic Ocean, a was where Little Edie grew up. The Beales separated in 1931, later divorcing via telegram in 1946, Phelan Beale was in Mexico at the time. She received no alimony, however was given child support. After a few years of living in upper Manhattan, Little Edie returned to live permanently with her mother at Grey Gardens in the 1950's. Despite a severe shortage of cash, mother and daughter managed to survive by selling off various pieces of Bouvier silver service or antique jewelry. They remained active in Hampton society, however that ended when Big and Little Edie returned home one evening from a party to find the house had been burglarized, the thief making off with several pieces of antique furniture. The Edies rarely left home afterwards. As costs began to rise, including taxes on the home, the Beale girls found it harder and harder to maintain the home, and thus allowed the place to fall into disrepair. The lush gardens and lawn became overgrown with weeds and bushes, the house began to fall apart. The cozy hall and rooms of the house, soon became cluttered with dust and trash and garbage, not to mention there was a never ending supply of animals running around the rooms, mostly strays taken in by Big and Little Edie. Empty cat food cans were piled up along the walls of the rooms, as the paint she and sagged off, and water leaked through the roof and walls. Broken furniture heaped in every room, and blankets and pillow were lying about, since the home had no heat. The living room was perhaps the only recognizable room left in the mansion, with antique furniture propped up in the center of the room, and a portrait of Big Edie in her thirties sitting crooked in a corner. 

Big Edie in her eighties, sitting near the window of the living room at
Grey Gardens, with her portrait sitting in the corner beside her. 
The documentary proved to be the legacy of the Beale ladies, as the home was eventually cleaned up by Jacqueline and a crew of trash men. Big Edie died in 1977 at Grey Gardens, and afterwards Little Edie listed the home for sale. She was stunned at how many offers came in to demolish the home. Little Edie refused to sell the home to anyone with plans to demolish, hoping to find a buyer to restore the home. 

"All the house needs is a new coat of paint!!" Little Edie said to potential buyers. 

Eventually, the home was purchased, and completely restored. It was good timing, too, for when Grey Gardens was purchased by it's new owners, the roof and walls were literally caving in. Today, the home is a beautiful reminder to a forgotten era. 

Please, also visit the website dedicated to the home, known as 'Grey Gardens' Blog, by clicking HERE.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Newport ~ Queen of Resorts Reaches Over 400 People on Facebook!

'Marble House', the Willie K. Vanderbilt cottage, Newport, RI. 

My Facebook group, "Newport ~ Queen of Resorts", has reached over 400 members this morning! "Newport ~ Queen of Resorts" is dedicated to remembering Newport, RI, and the marble mansions (cozily called "cottages" by their owners) that made it so legendary. Please join our group, by clicking HERE.

During the Gilded Age, Newport was considered the Queen of all the summer resorts, and many of America's richest citizens built homes there in an attempt to break into the "400", a list of who's who in New York society according to Mrs. Caroline Astor, the leader of the social arena. Amongst other things, a potential candidate was required to spend at least three seasons in Newport before acceptance was decided. Alva Smith Vanderbilt, of the recently rich Vanderbilt family, decided to outbuild everyone in Newport (known as the practice of "Vanderbuilding"). She hired her friend, the renown architect Richard Morris Hunt, to design and build for her a spectacular palace costing $11 million (About $280 million today) made entirely out of marble! The result was the 'Marble House' we have today. Interestingly, Alva chose to build her home on a plot of land adjoining the Newport cottage of Mrs. Astor, 'Beechwood'. To put it simply, Alva was bound to get in! 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Firestones in Newport

Harvey S. and Elizabeth P. Firestone sailing onboard a ship to Europe, 1958.

Mr. and Mrs. Harvey S. Firestone Jr. were amongst the wealthiest couples in Newport, with a combined net worth in the range of seventy-million dollars. They summered at their Newport residence, 'Ocean Lawn', which Mr. Firestone had purchased in the early 1950's. In addition to 'Ocean Lawn', the Firestones maintained homes in New York City, Ohio and Palm Beach. The Firestones were a dedicated couple, having wed in 1921, and remained married for over fifty years, till Harvey Firestone's death. Afterwards, Mrs. Firestone remained in seclusion at 'Ocean Lawn', leading a very lavish livelihood. 

Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897-1990)
Harvey and Elizabeth Firestone were known in Newport for their extensive collections, particularly Elizabeth. Elizabeth Firestone was said to collect just about everything, and she carefully marked, catalogued, sorted and organized her collection into a massive inventory. She was particularly fond of couture dresses, which she collected by the hundreds. Her collection of clothes was so massive, she had a three-story walk-in closest carved out of guest bedrooms at 'Ocean Lawn'. Elizabeth also had a passion for collecting silver and porcelain pieces, which she housed in a small anteroom at 'Ocean Lawn', featuring specially designed class cabinets for their storage. 

'Ocean Lawn' ~ The Firestone cottage in Newport, Rhode Island.

With 'Ocean Lawn' bursting at the seams full of her collection, Elizabeth decided that more property needed to be purchased. In addition to the main house, the property at 'Ocean Lawn' included a guest house, gardener's cottage, pool house, green houses and a playhouse for the Firestone grandchildren. A few years later, Mrs. Firestone purchased the two neighboring properties: 'Southside' and 'The Orchard', to not only buffer 'Ocean Lawn' from other neighbors, but also to utilize the homes as more space for her collection. 'Southside' became completely devoted to Elizabeth's collection of Jamaican furniture, which had originally graced the Firestone residence in Jamaica. 
'Ocean Lawn' 
Elizabeth Parke Firestone, photographed by Cecil Beaton.

Elizabeth Firestone was a perfectionist, carefully concerned and mindful of her appearance. She had a fit routine which she practiced with care every morning. She had breakfast every morning in her bedroom, and planned every meal she ate with her the Firestone's cook. After breakfast, her maid would come and do her hair and nails in the beauty parlor chair and hair dryer she had installed in her room. Afterwards, she would exercise by the pool with her personal trainer. Many remember, that at a certain age, Elizabeth began having facelifts done every seven years to retain a youthful look. She had them done in Florida, by a surgeon who did all the Hollywood stars. Elizabeth also took very very VERY great care in what she wore. She favored pinks and blues, and had swatches of fabric next to each of her shoes to make sure the servant picked the right outfit to match with the shoes. She had her clothes washed in Paris, though pressed at home. Her system of organizing her clothes was so well planned, that she never lost a thing. 

Mrs. Firestone's dressing table at 'Ocean Lawn'.

With Mrs. Firestone's death in 1990, 'Ocean Lawn' was valued at $6 million. Her fabulously collection of dresses was given to various museums, including the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, Michigan. Christie's New York was given the honor of auctioning off her marvelous jewelry and decorative arts collection. 'Ocean Lawn' was eventually sold for $1 million, and 'Southside' and 'The Orchard' were also sold. Today, both 'Ocean Lawn' and 'The Orchard' still survive. 

To read more about 'Ocean Lawn', click HERE

To read more about Mrs. Elizabeth Firestone, please click HERE  and HERE to read about her fabulous wedding dress, currently on exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

'Beechwood' Evolves!

Sketches of Larry Ellison's plan for 'Beechwood'.

'Beechwood' today, currently in the process of exterior and interior

It was big news in 2010, when Oracle billionaire Lawrence Ellison purchased the deeds to the Astor family cottage in Newport, Rhode Island, 'Beechwood'. It shocked everyone even more, when he announced plans to turn the residence into a museum, and purchase the original acreage to the property and restore both the house and the gardens. The new estate would serve as a museum to Ellison's art collection, which would adorn the walls of the manor house.

Originally built by Andrew Downing and Calvert Vaux for merchant Daniel Parrish, 'Beechwood' was later purchased by William Backhouse Astor Jr., the grandson of America's first millionaire John Jacob Astor, for his wife, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, known officially as THE "Mrs. Astor". Mrs. Astor was renown as queen of New York City society, keeping the outsiders out and the insiders in with her list of socially acceptable New York families, known as the "400". It was her so-called "court jester" Ward McAllister, the man who wrote the "400", who led her to Newport, describing it as practically a "gated-community". Since 'Beechwood' possessed no ballroom, renovation had to be made. Mrs. Astor commissioned her friend and fellow Newport neighbor, architect Richard Morris Hunt, to oversee the renovations. A few months later, 'Beechwood' was ready for occupation, and Mrs. Astor moved in. Very soon, 'Beechwood' became the new scene of the "400", and Newport where they flocked every summer to escape the New York heat. Mrs. Astor held the grandest entertainments in her Newport ballroom, which featured wall scones designed with nymphs and Poseidon. The Astor's Summer Ball was the official opening of the Newport summer social season, and invitation to such event was highly sought after, something which could make or break one's social standing. With Mrs. Astor's failing health in 1907, 'Beechwood' saw less and less entertainments, the events there becoming more family related. Mrs. Astor's son, John IV also summered at the cottage with his mother, and frequently used the home as an escape from his domineering wife, Ava. Mrs. Astor died in 1908, and left the home to her only son, who quickly turned around and divorced his wife, later marrying a Bar Harbor socialite named Madeleine Force, who was 18 to his 47 years. It was a scandalous marriage, held in the ballroom at 'Beechwood'. The Astors fled to Europe to escape gossip, and shortly after returned with news that Madeleine was pregnant with Astor's third child, John VI. Astor had two other children from his marriage with Ava, Vincent and Ava. 

On their return trip home, the Astors booked passage on the newly complete Titanic as the richest passengers onboard. The Titanic sunk days into it's maiden voyage on April 15, 1912. Madeleine escaped the ship in one of the few lifeboats onboard. John, however, like most of the men onboard, perished. In his will, John left 'Beechwood' and a $5 million trust fund to Madeleine, so long as she did not remarry. He also left a $3 million trust fund to his unborn son, to be received at the age of 21. Madeleine continued to use 'Beechwood' during the summers, and was known as a big-spender, turning the entire third-floor of 'Beechwood' into her own walk-in closet. She eventually remarried, and relinquished use of the estate to Vincent, who sold the estate again to a Count and Countess. In the 1960's, 'Beechwood' became home to Palm Beachers Mr. and Mrs. James Clark, whose beagle William was known in Florida as "the mayor". The Clarks closed down seventeen of the forty-eight rooms and summered there seasonally. After Mrs. Clark's death in 1980's, the home was sold again, and later made into a living-history museum, known as "The Astor's Beechwood", which featured actors dressed in period costume and pretending to be Astor family members before the Titanic. The company operated the home until it's purchase from Ellison.

To read more information on the restoration currently going on a 'Beechwood', please click HERE

If you are interested in the Newport "cottages", such as 'Beechwood', please visit my Facebook group, "Newport ~ Queen of Resorts" by clicking HERE, and please ask to join. With almost 400 members, we can so be called the Newport "400"! 

Also, please show your support and visit Gilded Age Era's Facebook page, by clicking HERE, and please give us a like in support! 

Also, if you are on Pinterest or Twitter, please follow me by clicking HERE and HERE.

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