Now that American tennis has gone frankly commercial, the diehards of the country-club, grass-court set may at last be able to face this long-forgotten fact: the Newport Casino, birthplace of U.S. tournament tennis and genteel home of the Tennis Hall of Fame, was not primarily designed for the sake of tennis at all. It was conceived in a fit of anger by the crass and flamboyant James Gordon Bennett Jr., who was not even much of a tennis player.
Bennett, the wealthy publisher of the New York Herald and a front-rank Newport "cottager" when society's summer gathering place was at full flower, was not acting sportingly at all when, nettled and on his own, he put in motion the Casino project in 1879. He was prompted by what he considered an affront to a friend dealt by another Newport club: the socially formidable Newport Reading Room. The Reading Room, which was chartered in 1854 and is believed to be the country's oldest club still occupying its original building, had (and has) its quarters in a simple frame structure fronting on Bellevue Avenue, then Society's main promenade. Its title was somewhat misleading, for the Reading Room's membership—male only—was given more to socializing and wassailing than to the pursuit of literature. As Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer wrote in 1905, "The young men who throng the corridors or fill the windows are the smartest around town, and they are attractive features as they saunter about in their faultlessly cut garments, with their hats cocked in the latest fashion, with an indescribable air of self-satisfaction known only to the well-turned-out male."
That then was the atmosphere into which this friend of Bennett's rode a horse on an August afternoon in 1879. The man on horseback was one Captain Candy (inevitably nicknamed "Sugar"), a former British cavalryman and Bennett's polo-playing crony. Bennett had encountered the game in England in 1876 and with Candy's help had introduced it in this country. Whenever Candy was at Newport, which was often, he enjoyed all the privileges that close aquaintanceship with Bennett rated, including a card as Bennett's guest at the Newport Reading Room.
It has never been firmly established what caused Captain Candy to perform as he did on that August day. Perhaps it was a bet, a dare or a too-long stay at the tavern. One school holds that Bennett himself put Candy up to it. In any case, Candy and his mount set a course that brought them to the front of the yellow-colored building that houses the Reading Room. Then, to the astonishment of those thronging the corridors and filling the windows, in he rode. He went up the front steps, across the piazza, through two sets of broad doors and into the main hall. "Sir," the white-coated steward is said to have informed him at that point of the journey, "you cannot ride a horse in here." Candy ignored this. He proceeded along the hall for some 20 feet, made a left turn through an archway into what is called Reading Room No. 2, then into the South Room, which at the time housed the bar. Once there, he wheeled about, retraced his course out to the street and galloped off.
Taken purely as a feat of horsemanship, Captain Candy's ride was not much, but it had an electric effect on the membership of the Reading Room, on Newport at large and, hence, on all of Society. The act was taken as "a clear violation of the rules," as a brief reference to the happening in the Newport Mercury put it, and Bennett was notified that the guest card held by Captain Candy in his name was revoked.
Now James Gordon Bennett, stirred and under full throttle, was a formidable man. His drive and his news sense had made his Herald the most powerful publication of the day, and he ran it with a bold and totalitarian hand. Once, for example, he promoted a copy boy named Billy Bishop to the post of sports editor of the European edition simply because a pair of Bennett's Pekingese, trailing their owner through the paper's Paris office, had taken a liking to him.
Bennett was also enormously rich and, in his social as well as business life, a leader and a doer. "Mr. James Gordon Bennett reached Newport on Wednesday," the Newport Mercury proclaimed in its issue of August 2, 1879, "and everyone at once looked for the opening of the festivities and sports of the season, for Mr. Bennett has the energy and push needed to give the coach of gayety a good start."
Within days of the Candy incident, Bennett bought and paid $60,000 for a cottage called "Stone Villa," about one quarter of a mile up Bellevue Avenue from the Reading Room, intending to make it a rival clubhouse. He soon decided against converting, though, and took Stone Villa as his own residence, because he had a better idea. He would build an all-new structure for the new club and to that end, in early fall, he bought 126,000 square feet of land across from Stone Villa.
By October, Bennett had formed a joint stock company and offered shares in his project, at $500 each, to a select number of friends. The list of shareholders read like a reprint of the Social Register. For the architectural work, he commissioned the firm of McKim, Mead and White: Stanford White, the junior member, was to be primarily responsible for the form the Casino (as he decided to call it) would take.
What White brought from his drawing boards was a three-building complex in which space was provided for a bowling alley, a billiard parlor, reading rooms, restaurant, a court-tennis court, a theater-ballroom, bachelor lodgings and, on the ground floor facing Bellevue Avenue, space for shops to be occupied by "first-class tenants."
The main building was, and remains, three stories high, brick-faced at the street level, fish-scale shingles above. A paneled entryway on Bellevue Avenue led to the wonders within—the neatly kept tennis courts, trees, shrubs and pathways, the semicircular Horseshoe Piazza and a yellow-faced clock on a bulbous tower that struck one viewer as a copy of a London bobby's helmet. Actually the tower is shaped after a form common to the Loire Valley of France, a region much favored by White. The cost of the entire layout was said to be close to $200,000.
The grand opening was held on July 28, 1880, and the Newport News proclaimed: "There is nothing like it in the old world or new." The first-class tenants, most of them from New York, were installed in the shops. The 16-piece orchestra of J. M. Lander, the Meyer Davis of his time, was brought up from New York, and the cottagers all turned out to make the inaugural a dazzling success.
"It is doubtful," the Newport News said just three days after the opening. "if a more lively place can be found." Within a week the Casino held a gigantic housewarming attended by more than 3,000 persons, an occasion the Providence Journal decreed as "the greatest event of its kind ever known here." Mrs. Van Rensselaer, in her account of Newport life, was moved to note that whatever the attraction provided by the Casino—horse show, dog show, tennis tourney, anything—"the fashionable folk" on the grounds made "a dazzling sight" and "a picture not easily forgotten."
In short, Bennett's place was the place, and in record time it became the "must" place to be seen at around noon for gossiping and for lunch. Then would come tennis or whatever for the afternoon, then a play, a concert or a gala on the grounds during the evening.
Bennett himself, oddly enough, was far from the best patron the Casino had, primarily because he had expatriated himself to France and was an increasingly infrequent visitor to the U.S. But even when he was in residence at Stone Villa, Bennett did not often walk across the street to patronize his own creation; indeed there is a strong belief that he never once played tennis on the premises. Just having the Casino there and a success, apparently, was his reward.
After socializing, tennis quickly became the Casino's leading sport. The game had been growing in popularity among the American elite since it first appeared in this country from England, by way of Bermuda, around 1874. When, in 1881, the newly formed United States Lawn Tennis Association decided to hold its first national championship, the honor of serving as host for the event went to Newport and, of course, the Casino was the choice.
"The grounds were picturesque and the courts well kept," a frequent Newport participant, Henry Slocum Jr., national champion in 1888-89, noted later, "and Newport being then as now, a very fashionable resort, the most beautiful women of the country graced the tournament with their presence." Or as another player chose to put it, "The ladies bestowed sweet smiles upon the players."
Most of the sweet smiles, undoubtedly, were initially directed at Richard Dudley Sears, Harvard '83. Sears won the singles title in the 1881 tourney, went on to defend the title for the next six years and then retired undefeated from national competition.
The national championships, singles and doubles, continued to be contested at Newport every summer until 1915, when the event was moved to the West Side Tennis Club's new quarters at Forest Hills, N.Y. New porters protested this move, but the New York group was able to convince the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association that tennis at the Casino was a social event to which even championship tournaments came second. It was an argument not without fact. Newport's reply, once the switch was done, was to put on its own invitational tournament for amateurs each August. That continued, except for war years, until this summer, when the Casino elected to follow a growing tennis trend by replacing the traditional event with a tournament for professionals.
During World War II the upper floor of the Casino's main building was taken over as a club for officers at Newport's several Navy bases, but the Casino was otherwise dormant. After the war, it reopened quickly and bravely. But in terms of patronage and, more so, ambiance, it somehow wasn't the same, and times became relatively hard. A corner of the Casino's property was sold off to a realtor and later became the site of a supermarket—and at the time it was thought that any good offer could have bought the rest of it for commercial uses.
Then a fourth-generation Newport cottager, James H. Van Alen, came to the fore. A wealthy, indefatigable worker for a variety of causes, whose activities included captaining the 1924 tennis team at Cambridge University, England, Van Alen was elected the Casino's president in 1952, and rescue operations began. In 1954 he obtained the USLTA's sanction to establish the Tennis Hall of Fame at the Casino. He had it in business by the next year, and nearly every year since he has seen that appropriate people are named to its roster—with accompanying publicity for the Casino. He has also established a solid financial base for both the Hall and the Casino. From his office as president of the Hall of Fame's corporation, a title he assumed in 1957, Van Alen has been able to induce many of the Casino's shareholders to donate their Casino holdings to the Hall of Fame. By 1960 the Hall of Fame thus controlled more than 51% of the shares and by March of 1968 it owned 75% of them.
Van Alen has had all the Casino buildings and grounds spruced up, has leased out the theater-ballroom—a longtime white elephant—to a community group fostering the performing arts, and has improved the tennis setup from a spectator's viewpoint. He also has moved to give the place a more democratic mien, though not too much so. In 1965 he put on a tournament for professional players at the Casino, in addition to the regular amateur invitational.
Not all the Van Alen innovations have been totally accepted by the cottagers but none can deny that he has made the Casino once more a going concern, and that is what the crusty Bennett, a businessman before everything else, wanted most of all.
As for Captain Candy, the man responsible, he seems to have ridden straight off to oblivion.