The peculiar thing about Newport and its present success is that it is essentially an anti-American theme park, featuring, as it does, the idolatry of mansions and yachts. Despite our simple classless hearts, this gorgeous little Rhode Island seaport, so rich in natural beauty and American history, calls up an abiding affection for Midases and monarchs. Appropriately, our almost-king, John Kennedy, married his Guinevere in Newport, and at his death he was seeking to buy an estate there. That property is a scenic inn now, and nearby, for only a couple of bucks, goggle-eyed visitors can also inspect Jackie's childhood residence, Hammersmith Farm, just as if it were Opryland, Cypress Gardens or Al Capone's limousine.
As many as a million of our republic's middle-class subjects will pay to inspect Newport's mansions this year, to swoon over how the nabobery lived before the advent of the graduated income tax, and although much of the rest of vacation America is struggling with recession, Newport has never been busier. The sorting out of boats for the America's Cup, a triennial divertissement of the rich, is taking place this summer, and it is estimated this will boost business in town by 20%. This is one of the most fascinating commercial figures extant, because as a genuine spectator event, America's Cup racing is nil. It is contested way out on the ocean where few can see it, fog or no fog, and even for the folks who can, the competition is the most boring and lopsided in all of sport. In Newport's harbor, where the lovely 12-meter boats are docked, conscious effort is made to keep the hoi polloi from seeing these magnificent creatures of man. Still, the closet snobs keep coming to "see" an America's Cup match, even though they won't. O.K., we'll have another drink instead, and buy an Instant Cup Challenge Lottery Ticket and a commemorative T shirt.
But then, Newport has always been a curious place, often a victim of its own charms. It is a town of great antiquity, founded on Aquidneck Island in 1639, but only in its early years was Newport a robust and mature city, one of the most prominent in the colonies. No town paid so dearly for the Revolution. Newport was occupied—manhandled, in fact—by the British for more than three years. The power in Rhode Island moved north to Providence, and ever after Newport has been like a beautiful but frail little girl, a helpless ward, always dependent on some interloper more wise and powerful to decide what's best for her. Among municipalities, Newport is Little Orphan Annie.
At one time the city was a plaything of Dixie; wealthy Southerners, following the prevailing southwest winds, would voyage up in their packets every summer to escape the feverish Tidewater vapors. Then, in its most famous era, Newport became a gilded outpost for the rich of the new industrial America. When that era began to fade, Newport sold its soul to the U.S. Navy. Now the town wears a brighter smock, though it remains still the obedient little girl, curtsying before a new foster parent, Trendy Tourism. Moreover, lurking about the town these sunnier days are some lean and hungry outsiders who believe that Newport's extensive history of subjugation makes her an ideal prospect for the role of fallen woman: they would love to sell her into the House of Gambling.
August 17, 1980
Summer 1980, and the narrow streets are jammed, as are the surrounding waters, where the fishing boats and pleasure craft fight for what little space is left like so many ranchers and sheepmen battling on the old prairie. The institution of the 200-mile fishing limit for foreigners and Newport's commercial rebirth have revived the island's maritime industry—it has become the largest lobster port in America—but the private leisure fleet rules the harbor.
"The red-pants crowd" is how working-class islanders sneeringly characterize the yachting set, though many visiting little skippers fight to be embraced by that slur. The red pants can easily be obtained in the shops downtown. They are of a special rich color—"Breton red," wearers call it—and are further distinguished by a constitutional inability to take a crease. The rest of a yachting man's costume includes blue blazer for dress-up, a tennis-type shirt, no socks, and Topsiders, those purposely unstylish dirt-brown loafers, which appear to have been fashioned by the inmates of some backwoods remedial institution.
"Hi! I just got off my boat!" says Skippy Topsider III. "Buy you a drink?"
Gail W. shakes her head. She is a pretty divorcèe from across the bay, what is known in Rhode Island as "South County," even though no county has such a name. Gail is sitting at the bar in The Candy Store, the most crowded hangout on Bannister's Wharf, the heart of tourist Newport and where the 12-meters Courageous and Clipper are berthed beyond a forbidding portcullis, out of sight and mind.
"Everybody who talks to me says they just got off their boat," Gail says. "If a guy ever said to me, 'Hey, I just drove here in my Toyota,' I'd be so impressed, I'd buy him a drink."
Barclay Warburton, the stepnephew of Harold S. Vanderbilt, the only man ever to defend the Cup three times, returned to Bannister's Wharf in 1967, back when Newport was a grubby Navy town, when almost all the boats in the bay were gray and armed. Warburton had a 72-foot brigantine, The Black Pearl, which he lives on now. He has always been about the water; it was largely through Warburton's efforts that the Tall Ships were brought to the U.S. (including Newport) for the Bicentennial. At Fort Adams, the 18th century fortification that guards the harbor, Warburton founded and runs the Sail Training Association, which teaches young people to sail.
He has witnessed Newport's revival. The main downtown drag, Thames Street (pronounced un-London-like, as it reads, to rhyme with "names"), was once known as Blood Alley for what the drunken sailors left of one another on the street—local color. Back then the wharves were filthy, filled with dives, warehouses, sheds. There was even an ancient blacksmith shop. But Warburton took over one joint and renamed it after his boat. "It was just a saloon then," he says. "Besides the booze, just chowder and sandwiches. And we added a parrot for character."
But The Black Pearl restaurant was the harbinger of revival even before most of Newport understood it needed reviving. That knowledge came to the town when, just like that, the Navy pulled the fleet out in '73. Newport—as ever, the big-eyed baby doll—felt lost and betrayed. Even now, some oldtimers still ask each other, "Think the torpedo station will come back soon?" The Navy phased that out in '46. Now in '73, the whole fleet...gone. How could the town survive without the federal dole? The Newport Daily News agonized over the island's economy as "this quagmire." Incredible as it seems now, despite the town's recreational splendor and its unique historical presence, tourism was then officially "nonexistent."
But the fleet's departure was a blessing in disguise. The town had to save itself. One group, led by Doris Duke, the heiress, restored nearly 400 Colonial structures. Old Navy apartments were made over into pleasant dwellings and condominiums for vacationers or the retired. Goat Island, site of the old torpedo station out in the harbor, was spruced up with a seven-story hotel and marina. Blood Alley and its environs were gutted and a spanking new America's Cup Avenue was created to run along the waterfront. Wharves were turned into Boutiqueland, crystallized cutesy-poo, surrounding The Black Pearl and The Candy Store. Here, for posterity, are the names of a few shops in the tourist area: Goodies, Splash, The Fragrance Factory, Fancy Pantry, Sweet Sensations, Honey Chrome, Forest Flame, The Cookie Jar, Pete's A' Place, Leather Feat, Kitchen Pot Pourri, Cloud 9, Confetti, The Bear Necessities, The Irish Dandelion, The Chocolate Soldier, Flashback, The Rocking Horse, The Nostalgia Factory, The Whimsical Unicorn.
Jim McGrath is a musician whose group, The Reprobates, specializes in sea chanteys and drinking songs. He and The Reprobates left Newport recently to ply their trade in another old seaport, Baltimore. McGrath discovered that in Newport none of the swinging singles who crowd the wharf wanted to hear that kind of indigenous music anymore. "The interest in a local band with local traditions seems to have disappeared," McGrath says. "Newport used to be filled with real people. But now everyone looks alike, dresses alike, talks alike. It's all too cute for words."
A few weeks ago Ted Turner, who is, of course, the skipper of the 1977 Cup defender, Courageous, and is out there sparring with Freedom and Clipper for the right to defend yet again next month, went to one of the Vanderbilt mansions, Marble House, to discuss America's Cup race scheduling and procedures with the other helmsmen and officials. Everybody except Turner and his lieutenants were in unpressed blue blazers. Turner and his men were in unpressed green blazers. He said, "When I first came here, this was a real rough-and-tumble sailor's town. I liked it more in the old days. You can't move around the damn place now." He turned to an older fellow in unpressed red pants next to him. "Whadd'ya say, Commodore, wasn't the old Newport better than this one, with the condominiums and boutiques and all that crap?"
The Commodore wasn't going out on a limb this day. "I just like Newport," he said. "I like Newport." Of course, the Commodore actually gets to see the America's Cup boats. But there will be three million other tourists visiting this year, and even if they don't get to see the boats, that is nearly three million more than used to come a decade ago, before there was a single Cinzano umbrella or whimsical unicorn on all the island.
Because sport is leisure and because, not so long ago, leisure belonged to the leisure class, of which Newport enjoyed an abundance, the town boasts an impressive sporting heritage. The first public roller-skating rink was established in Newport in 1866, and the first major international polo match in the U.S. was played there in 1886—inspired by that combustible communications magnate and sportsman, that original Ted Turner: James Gordon Bennett.
The first U.S. Open golf championship was played in Newport in 1895. The first bicycle society was formed there, too, and, it seems, automobile racing was established in 1899 when a most fascinating obstacle race was held at Belcourt, the mansion that belonged to O.H.P. Belmont. The lead horseless carriage was driven by Mr. Belmont himself, who, accompanied by an intrepid grande dame, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, steered his noisy automobile around a series of dummies dressed up as policemen, butlers, nursemaids, etc. It was a diverting way to while away a summer's afternoon. Years later Mrs. Fish recalled, "Nobody dreamed that automobiles would come into general use."
Tennis, though, was the activity for which Newport was most renowned. It was at the Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue in 1881 that a Newporter named Richard Sears won the first U.S. Nationals, and the championships were played at that site for the next 34 years. The Casino was built in 1880 after Bennett induced his British pal, Captain "Sugar" Candy, to ride into the Newport Reading Room astride his horse. This did not amuse the gentlemen taking their ease in the Reading Room, an exclusive private club. Bennett was so aggrieved at their lack of humor that he decided to build his own club. He commissioned Stanford White to design the Casino.
In the intervening century, "casino" has come to mean gambling emporium, but at the time its literal meaning—"little house"—had some currency. The Newport Casino was not, of course, little, but such understatements were quite the fashion in a place where great mansions passed as "cottages." The Casino is a magnificent rambling affair, assuredly the grandest old sporting structure in the nation. A complete 500-seat theater (needing $125,000 to be restored) is tucked away in one corner largely forgotten; the whole damn Newport Jazz Festival began in 1954 on the Horseshoe Piazza; and the International Tennis Hall of Fame is out front.
This sprawling period piece is run by a retired army colonel, Robert Day, from whose office window can be seen the lawn where Richard Sears won in 1881 and where the U.S. tennis centennial will be celebrated next July. "Newport Week," played immediately after Wimbledon, is the only Grand Prix grass-court tournament left in this hemisphere. It is now called the Miller Hall of Fame Tennis Championships and mid the Victorian splendor, above the white chalk lines on the fog-fed green grass, under a towering red maple, the linesmen sit in little red boxes that read: IT'S MILLER TIME. Proof again: there's no such thing as a free lunch.
But the Casino carries on. Driving away from it, down mansion-lined Bellevue Avenue and around the bend to beautiful Ocean Drive, a visitor is reminded that most of the colony and its heirs have cut and run, turning their "cottages" over to the Preservation Society of Newport County and the paying tourists. These vacationers appear to be no different from their kind everywhere—the hideous tank tops, cutoff jeans, jogging shoes, loud children. They seem cowed by the huge scale of the mansions, awed by the detail, and there is very much the sense—this may be why Newport works so well—that none of this was ever real. "It's like, you know, The Beverly Hillbillies," a father tries to explain to his children at The Breakers, the 70-room Vanderbilt edifice.
The Preservation Society hostesses who guide tourists through these mansions say that very seldom do they express any resentment toward the Vanderbilts or the Astors and their ostentatious ways. The remove is too great. Certainly at, say, Williamsburg, there is much more of a feeling of history. And there is an identity there, too: our forefathers actually lived this. No one could ever feel that way about these opulent Newport houses. It is not like visiting the past, or even a different America; it is, for most of the tourists, a trip into a fairy tale.
Boats—and the America's Cup—fit in perfectly with the mansions. While expensive cars can make the average man jealous, because—Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish notwithstanding—we all do have cars, yachts are no longer real, either.
J.P. Morgan once said, "You can do business with anyone, but you can go sailing only with a gentleman."
Ted Turner says, "Why should anyone be resentful of us? It's just like the United Fund."
It is a summer Saturday, 5 p.m., the very apex of a week at the height of the season. Both the Americans and foreigners have been out racing today, and the gorgeous 12-meters are coming back to dock through a wall of fog that has just moved across the bay. But virtually no visitors look up. At Christie's, a Dixieland band is playing on the dock. Down on the wharves, more commemorative T shirts, mugs and posters get turned over. "You can sell anything with the name Newport on it now," says Jock West, who manages the new Newport International Sailing Show. "Anything." The day-shift waitresses and bartenders serve the night-shift waitresses and bartenders. No one seems to wonder who won the boat races. The America's Cup is merely an "attraction"—its name draws tourists to Newport. But once there, they don't see it, so who cares?
By contrast, a couple of hours earlier, Turner strolled down Bannister's Wharf. Courageous was not to race this day. People stopped in their tracks, came out of the boutiques to point him out. It was so nice to see something real, something that actually was part of the America's Cup.
But then he was gone, and it was back to basics, back to souvenirs. It is especially important to buy memories of the America's Cup, because, if you don't ever see anything of it, how can you remember it without a little memento?
America's Cup, Newport 1980, says the commemorative T shirt. Skippy Topsider III is in madras Bermudas today. "Time for a little chowder action down at The Pearl," he says. It is nearing night-shift time, when the day-shift waitresses and bartenders can become the customers. Someday, not so long from now, they will all be housewives and insurance salesmen in Harrisburg and Hartford, reminiscing about the America's Cup of 1980 in good old Newport, but for now—and good for them—they have put off the more earnest aspects of life and have bought one more hazy summer as a child behind an apron. "Are the boats back yet?" somebody at the bar asks without really caring.
Newport has learned to live with its past. Not only does it thrive off the mansions, but it also still profits from the Navy. It was only the fleet—and the poorly paid sailors—that left. The War College, with its genteel officer corps, stayed behind and grew larger. Even today the Navy is by far the largest single employer on Aquidneck, with a payroll of 8,750, half of that civilian.
So Newport got the best of both worlds. There has even been a reordering of history; many locals claim that the building of the Newport Bridge (finished in 1969) was what really got the town going. Of course, no one was saying that in '73 when the fleet left, but the fact is that the bridge did join Aquidneck Island with South County, and with Connecticut and New York beyond. Always before, visitors from those states had to get to Newport via the Jamestown ferry, an anachronistic nuisance.
The fact that Newport was an island originally was its strength. Aquidneck Island is the Rhode Island in the state's title, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations—and Aquidneck has always been a very separate place unto itself. Not until the 1930s did a bridge connect it to the rest of Rhode Island, and although Providence is only 30 miles away, it was "upstate."
Given its size, the whole state—Little Rhody—is inclined to be insular and insecure. Says Joel Cohen, a native and a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, "If you were just dumped here and could ignore the accent, your impression would be that Rhode Island is like some backwater Southern state. We're one party and predominantly one church, too—really much more homogeneous than you would expect. Everybody in Rhode Island always talks about what a corrupt government we have. It's just accepted. But I honestly don't believe we're as bad as everyone assumes. It's just that we're so small, everybody knows each other, and so there's no secrets. Our corruption is merely better known."
An erstwhile boxing promoter from Massachusetts has placed a casino gambling referendum on the Newport ballot this November. Arguments that this would open doors in Newport to the Mafia have little effect because it is instinctively assumed that the mob controls most of everything anyway.
But the historic, hangdog lack of confidence in Newport was offset by a trust and intimacy that came with isolation. Even in its worst days, almost nobody ever thought of leaving Aquidneck, and ultimately, the citizens had to stop groaning about the fleet and the torpedo station and get cracking. Curiously, while so many of the natives have had a sort of inferiority complex—the result of generations of cleaning up after summer colonists and sailors—pride in their hometown was never missing. Newporters might have leased out their city, but they never gave up the title.
The Irish, who were shipped over in the early 1800s to build Fort Adams, bulwarked the town with the Fifth Ward—the Old Fifth, Faithful Fifth. There are only four wards now, but the Fifth remains a living entity to many Newporters. It was in the Fifth that the rich were taught to know their place.
It may seem odd that the grass courts at the Casino are the only lawn courts in America open to the public (in Newport of all places!) but that is consistent with local history. The red-pants swim club, Bailey's Beach, has always allotted at least a portion of its beach for non-members. And no matter how grand your mansion, it was bounded on the ocean side by the Cliff Walk, a well-defined pedestrian thoroughfare, open to all.
Don Booth, the director of the various service clubs at the Naval Education and Training Center, grew up in the Fifth Ward during the Depression, a rare Scotch Protestant there. He says, "You accepted your role very easily. The Irish tended to be laborers, the Italians were gardeners and fishermen, the Englishmen were the house help, the fancy servants. I caddied at the country club as a boy, and the quarter tip I got was needed. I'd rush it right home, so we could eat hamburger that night. Yet, however odd this sounds, Newport was a helluva good place to be poor.
"Somehow, there wasn't that much difference between caddying or playing golf, and on some glorious autumn afternoon, it didn't seem to matter whether you were raking leaves at a mansion or sitting there having a cocktail. Either way, you smelled that ocean. I can remember eating food smothered in mushrooms that we picked wild off the golf course, and coming down for breakfast to a fresh blackfish my father just caught.
"But the winters were hard for us after the colony left. My father was a brick-mason, and there was almost no work for him in the winter. Easter was important. It meant spring, the start of the good times. By then, the coal bin was almost empty, and the root vegetables you'd put away for the winter were almost gone. Yet at that moment, when you had the least, it was crucial that you come up with new Easter clothes for everyone in the family. That was understood in the Fifth Ward.
"And so, every year, a couple weeks before Easter, my father would start his rounds of the big houses, trying to get one piece of early work—mending fences, whatever. Usually it was too early, though, so he always saved one particular mansion for last. Now at this house there was a statue of a lion in the front, which he would pass by on the way to the trade entrance. And inside, my father would say, 'Looks like that back wall needs some patching,' something like that, but just about every time, the people would reply, 'No, thanks, we think it can go for a while.' So my father would put his hat back on and start to leave.
"He'd take a couple steps toward the door, and then he would stop, like it just occurred to him, like it really didn't matter, and he'd say, 'Oh, you know, the tail is off your lion again.' And they'd say, 'Well, O.K., go and patch that up.'
"And almost every year that job would take care of our Easter. But you see, what it was, my father finally told me: he would knock off that lion's tail as he passed by, so that he'd get a job. That was why he always saved that house for last. He was an honest man, but he had to have a job for Easter.
"Years later I was far away from Newport and I remembered that story, and I was laughing about it to myself, and it suddenly dawned on me—of course, those people knew what my father was doing; they knew he knocked the tail off the lion every year, but they went along, they didn't say anything, they just gave him the job. They knew they had to let that man have his dignity. The rich knew we belonged here. Otherwise, it couldn't have worked on this island."
Having grown up with an appreciation of this sensitive interdependence, Booth fears for the present fragile prosperity. He started the campaign against casino gambling. "When the Navy left, we had to get off the federal dollar, so we hustled for ourselves, and look what we did," he says. "If we let gambling in now, we settle for a master-slave relationship all over again."
Few, in fact, expect the referendum to carry. Almost all local leaders are opposed to it, and casinos are historically embraced only by a desperately indigent populace—such as was the case in Atlantic City. By contrast, Newport is prospering now as never before, and, besides, right after the fleet left, when Newport was at its most despairing, a referendum to permit one jai alai fronton in town passed by only an eyelash.
Still and all, the siren call of the casino is powerful. Lower taxes! More jobs! Johnny Carson in the Supper Club! Steve and Eydie in the lounge! And the swinging-singles, boutique economy, already in place, is seductive. Holiday Inn wants to throw up a 10-story waterfront motel, and never mind the integrity of the low skyline. There is a lovely little baseball park downtown named Cardines Field. The outfield walls are as ivied as Wrigley's, the configuration as weird as Fenway's—285 down one line, 330 down the other and a jog into center of 315. When it was built, the park had to conform with the town around it, and there was a house in straightaway center. Things had fit together on the island then.
Every night in summer, there are the so-called Sunset League games, played by failed Class A hopefuls and faded old Rhode Island high school heroes, before family and close friends and a few peaceful strangers wise enough to know that baseball is one of the few earthly things (boats are another) that can actually add to summer twilight. But a lot of people say: Cardines Field is too near Boutiqueland. There is a move afoot to raze it and lay out a parking lot in its place.
Understand, of course, boutiques are not evil. Neither are parking lots. And quite possibly, Newport is at its gooiest sweet now. Significantly, right down from Bannister's is another wharf, what used to be the old Johnny Mathinos Boatyard. On winter days, for firewood, Johnny would chop up a few of the hulks rotting about the dock, and the denizens of nearby Fifth Ward could sit around and chew the fat. But the taxes got too much for this sort of luxury, and plans were advanced to dress up the dock with more little shoppes and munch-ins.
Luckily, the dock is owned by an old Newport Irish clan, and it resisted this easy—and profitable—temptation. "There is just so much of the touristy and the artsy-craftsy that you can take," says Tim O'Reilly, who runs the family business. "We might have made more money, but we didn't think that would serve the town—and us—best over the long haul. There is a whole other dynamic here that can't be forgotten." That is, essentially, the water. As a consequence, Johnny Mathinos Boatyard is being superseded by the Newport Yachting Center. It will host sailing shows as well as commercial fishing expositions, plus a boat rendezvous (like a car rally) and an America's Cup Film Festival, which, it is alleged, will be easier and more enjoyable to witness than the actual event. And at the Center, people will—now hear this—even have the opportunity to see 12-meter boats, live; seeing will become commemorative.
Newport has always depended upon the water. The people who have borrowed Newport always came because of the water: the British, the very rich, the Navy. Rising above the lovely harbor, and all the changes that have sailed through it, is Trinity Church, the oldest Episcopal house of worship in New England, organized in 1698, originally built in 1701. Its honest, shingled white tower, whence the church's bells peal over the water, was what a traveler first saw, coming from Jamestown on a boat, before the bridge was built.
Inside Trinity, instead of individual pews there are family boxes, and a pulpit that rises in the middle of the aisle and soars so high, at such a pitch, that it seems, for sure, to have started out as a stairway to Heaven. The rest of the old church is subdued with grace and age, and on one wall, unremarkable, is a plaque in honor of someone named Georgina Clarke Pell, who died in 1851.
Georgina Pell was only 16 at her death. We do not know what felled her. The epitaph begins: "She was of a peculiar beauty, tender and dutiful of heart to God and man, and breathing through all her loveliness, a charm of innocent unconsciousness."
However aptly that spoke for Georgina Pell, it is also the perfect encomium for her city. Beautiful little Newport, there by the ocean in all her rocky elegance and her "charm of innocent unconsciousness," has always fared better as a sweet child of God than as a pawn of man. The words on the wall at Trinity conclude: "The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, until that day when He shall make up His jewels."