Going to Newport, RI means excess, so no wonder I found myself most attracted to The Elms.
After all, I have the most in common with Miss Julia Berwind. She and I both worked on our houses. Now, Julia did spend $1.4 million in 1901, which makes me feel better about what I’ve spent in 2014. And she only stayed there a couple of months a year there. My house is a bargain!
The Elms is considered “quiet and sophisticated” compared to the over-the-top opulence of The Breakers, etc. Certainly my turquoise cabinets and multi- colored counters would also be considered quiet in comparison to the gold and pink marble and molded plaster of Marble House.
And as a woman after my own heart, Julia loved mah jongg! She regularly played it in her “real summer home for a real family.”
Alas, that’s where the similarities end. The Elms was a “machine for entertaining,”
representing efficient, Industrial Age America. Of course, it was also Gilded Age America. So Julia had 43 servants, who worked 14 hour days.
Julia never saw “the dirt and grime” of the construction process or the parlor maids who, along with the dirt, were kept invisible. Only male servants were acceptable to see.
My favorite ballroom of the five mansions I visited was also at The Elms. It opened on all sides, so that the length of the house was accessible and visible end to end.
For the Housewarming Ball, the quadrilles started after midnight, allowing participants to show off the complex moves which could last two hours per dance. One of the 400 guests remarked he had so much fun that he never wanted to leave.
Such fun took great planning, and Julia conducted her business, like other Newport hostesses, right from her bedroom. This social life took great planning. Julia managed a $300,000 budget for the season and had to plan time well, too. She’d get mail by the sackful (and we complain about email) and had an elegant pre-printed, pre-stamped rejection letter at the ready.
For all the remaining yeses, not only did any one day require 4 to 7 clothing changes, but strict schedules had to be adhered to–one must always arrive exactly on time for any function. Too early and one embarrasses one’s hostess; too late, and one throws a kink in the works.
So please. When you are next invited to a Newport do, be on time, and don’t put your knife in your mouth! Rest assured though, when you break a dish or spill your wine, Julia will merely smile. And she will keep such meticulous records that you will not be seated next to the same dinner companion twice in a season.
Oh, and she will not call you on the telephone. How rude! The telephone is only for communicating with the servants. She will write you a note. Please respond in kind.
Chances are you won’t spend the night at The Elms. Julia only has 7 bedrooms. Don’t worry, she has 3 guest cottages nearby.
Julia and her peers didn’t have the vote and were expected to behave.
Take this story. Elizabeth Drexel Lehr was told by Harry, her husband, on her wedding night, that not only did he not love her, but that he was repulsed by her. He married her for her money, and she must avoid him everywhere but in public. They remained married for 28 years.
So as much as I like and admire Julia (and her friend Elizabeth), I’ll keep my for real cottage versus lust after her Newport one.