Beyond the Breakers: The Newport Homes of Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Children
The Newport Cottages of Vanderbilt siblings Cornelius, William K, Frederick and Florence Twombly are widely known, playing a large role in shaping people’s perception of life there in the Gilded Age (and rightly so). To understand just how wide and pervasive the influence of the family was at the resort however, especially as the next generation became adults and began renting and owning cottages themselves (when it wouldn’t have possible to spit in Newport and not hit a Vanderbilt) it is helpful to look beyond the “Big Four “ at some of the other homes associated with the family. This post will look specifically at those of the five children of Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt, all of whom summered in Newport throughout their lives.
Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.
While Cornelius incurred his family’s wrath and social ostracism when he married Grace Wilson in August of 1896, it didn’t stop the couple from swiftly establishing themselves as a force in Newport. Beginning with the 1897 season and over the next several years they leased a number of different cottages at the resort, including Rhua House, Westcliff and Lands End (from Edith and Teddy Wharton).
In 1901 they took out a multi-year lease on Beaulieu, William Waldorf Astor’s cottage on Bellevue Avenue.
While it became the scene of some of Grace’s biggest social triumphs
it was well over a decade before the Vanderbilts finally purchased it outright (as late as the 1915 season it was still referred to as the William Waldorf Astor Estate). Perhaps they were holding out for a hint that Alice would eventually give them the Breakers as the relationship between her and Grace thawed over time. One year she went as far as loaning it to them for the season, but the offer was never repeated. Once fully theirs, the Vanderbilts embarked on a major remodeling of Beaulieu, stripping away much of the exterior’s Victorian excesses while installing the pale color schemes and boiseries so dear to Grace’s heart inside.
Beaulieu was sold after Grace Vanderbilt’s death in 1953.
Today it remains a private residence, impeccably maintained by Ruth Buchanan Wheeler.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
Gertrude Vanderbilt and Harry Payne Whitney were married a few weeks after Cornelius and Grace’s wedding in August of 1896 but with a big difference, her parents approved of the match. Like her older brother and his wife they also wasted precious little time establishing themselves in Newport. In December of that year it was announced that Harry had purchased The Reefs on Bellevue Avenue. The Italianate Villa, while considered one of the showplaces of Newport when built in 1853, was not quite on a palatial scale. The Whitneys set about remedying that, employing a small army of builders, artisans, and decorators to gut the house down to its shell, stucco over the former clapboard exterior, add a ballroom wing and wide loggias while completely reconfiguring the interior spaces. Work progressed at a furious pace to ready it for 1897 season.
The results were universally praised.
Around 1900 Gertrude had a shingle style studio built on the property over the Cliff Walk. It was there she first studied sculpture under the tutelage of Hendrik Christan Andersen, soon becoming an accomplished sculptor in her own right. The studio was swept away in the great 1938 hurricane that devastated Rhode Island. Undaunted, Gertrude replaced it the very next year with a new arte-modern style building.
Months after Gertrude’s death in 1942, the Reefs (then occupied by her sister Gladys and her family) caught fire, severely damaging the mansion. Several years later the surviving ballroom wing was torn down and the property was sold. Today a brick Georgian home occupies the property.
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt
It is not surprising to learn that handsome, sporty, and dashing Alfred Vanderbilt decided it was time to move out of his mom’s place and get his own Newport bachelor padat the age of twenty-two , leasing Rockry Hall on the corner of Bellevue and Narragansett Avenues for the 1900 season.
That all changed (at least temporarily) when he married Elsie French, whose family was also part of Newport’s summer colony in January of 1901.
While the couple rented the Spencer Villa and one of the Pinard cottages for the 1901 and 1902 seasons, his attentions increasingly turned towards Oakland Farm in nearby Portsmouth, which he had inherited from his father.
The farm, which had supplied the Breakers with produce, was already a showplace. He greatly expanded and embellished the property and residence,
while keeping it as a working farm.
It soon became the couple’s principal Newport residence which they used year-round, frequently entertaining there.
It was from Oakland Farm that Elsie abruptly left Alfred in March of 1908, finally reached her limit with his philandering, taking their young son with her. Alfred then immediately departed for Europe to spend the summer, perhaps longer there as the papers pondered the uncertain future of the abandoned Oakland farm. Much to their pleasure they were soon able to report Alfred had changed his mind would be returning from Europe at the end of the summer season.
He threw a huge party in September with most of the summer colony in attendance to show their support, decribed as one of the largest and most brilliant of that season. Prophetically, right below the New York Times coverage of the party was an announcement of a Mrs. Smith Hollins McKim (née Margaret Emerson) preparing to host a large dance. The paper went on to say while she and her husband were new to the scene, they planned on buying a large estate in Newport. While she might not have purchased one of the resort’s largest estates, she eventually landed one of its biggest fishes, divorcing her husband in 1910 and marrying Alfred in 1911. Margaret’s tenure as the new chatelaine of Oakland Farm proved to be rather short-lived however when Alfred went down on the Lusitania in 1915. Margaret and her two young sons hurriedly departed for New York to await the reading of Alfred’s will. They were never to return. Alfred left the property to William Henry Vanderbilt III, his son by Elsie.
The farm was kept but operations were severely curtailed until William Henry came of age, when he decided to make it his principal residence. In August 1924, he and his new wife threw a ball for 500 there, heralding the return of Oakland Farm as an epicenter of Newport society.
He lived there until after World War 2 when he sold it.
The property was subsequently subdivided and little physical evidence remains of the once splendid property today.
Alice’s youngest son Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt married Miss Cathleen Gebhard Neilson at Arleigh (which her mother rented for the occasion) in April of 1903.
Prior to that, he already had bought land next to his brother’s Oakland Farm in Portsmouth to establish his own farm and horse breeding operation.
Named Sandy Point Farm, it was formally opened with a large housewarming ball in 1904.
After the couple, long separated, divorced in 1919, Reginald continued to maintain and lavish money on Sandy Point. Weeks after his nephew William Henry held his ball in 1924 he and his new young wife Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt hosted a large costume ball at Sandy Point Farm.
Reginald died in September 1925, leaving Sandy Point Farm (and precious little money) to his young widow. She had no choice but to sell. First, the horse and stock were auctioned off in April 1926, followed by the trophies and silver in May, then the furnishings. She sold the farm itself to Moses Taylor for $45,000, who planned to join it with his adjacent Glen Farm and establish a polo field there. While most of the farm's acreage is gone, the stables, now converted to condominiums, and horse training facilities survive.
Despite modern encroachments all around, one can still get a hint of its past grandeur.
The youngest daughter of the family, Gladys (married to Hungarian Count Laszlo Szechenyi in 1908) ultimately ended up with the Breakers when Alice left it to her in her will. She used it somewhat regularly on her visits to America before moving permanently back to the United States in 1939 as war clouds gathered over Europe.
Shuttered during the war, she stayed at her sister's cottage when in Newport (hence her being there when it burned in 1942). In 1948 she graciously leased the mansion to the Preservation Society of Newport for the token sum of $1 per year, while continuing to pay the maintenance and taxes. She retreated to a suite of rooms on the third floor during the summer, while the Breakers became one of Newport’s biggest tourist draws. She left the Breakers to her daughters and their descendants when she passed away in 1965. The Preservation Society began paying the taxes and maintenance, and formally acquired the title to the Breakers in the early 1970s. Part of the deal was the continued tenancy of the family, who continued to summer on the third floor, unbeknownst to the hordes of tourists below.
The Vanderbilt presence in Newport was expanded by Alfred and Reggie’s ex-wives, who remained fixtures of the social scene.
Mrs French Vanderbilt
Elsie had the advantage of coming from an established Newport family. Once she and Alfred parted ways she moved into her mother’s home, Harborview for the summer.
There she continued on as one of Newport’s leading hostesses, referred to in the press as Mrs. French Vanderbilt before her marriage to Paul Fitzsimons in 1919. Interestingly, her next-door neighbor for several seasons was Mrs. Graham Fair Vanderbilt (the ex-wife of Alfred’s cousin William K Vanderbilt Jr.), when she rented Chastellux. One can only imagine the stories they exchanged of their ex-husbands. After her death in 1948, Harborview was sold and subsequently demolished.
The original brick walls and gate remain today marking its former site.
Cathleen began renting several cottages over the years after separating from Reggie (even while they were legally married), including Gill Cottage and Maplehurst (still standing on Bellevue Avenue).
She later married Sydney Colford and died in Paris in 1927.