Some years back, I was telling a story about the American Bicentennial, in which I played a small but historic, role.
"So there I was on a boat in Newport Harbor, jumping up and down, desperately trying to hail this Russian -- clipper ship, it was that big -- with almost nothing on, screaming in Russian --"
"Newport." Suzy said, at last. "Newport, Rhode Island? What were you doing, having a peep at the Tall Ships while having a spot of tea?"
Without missing a beat, I said, "That's silly. You don't have tea on a boat. You have gin and tonic."
It was all we could do to persuade poor Susan that perfectly ordinary people a) own boats, b) take them into Newport Harbor, and c) some perfectly ordinary people even live there.
"Really, what you're thinking about -- it's only a very small part of town. Just a few streets, really. No one lives there anymore, at least not who you think...."
But looking back, we were only fooling ourselves. There's really no place even faintly like it...
Let's start at the obvious. The Historic District has houses that are ginormous. High ceilinged, panelled, his-and-her bedroom copies of Italian villas and European palaces, strung along over Bellevue Avenue (land side) and Cliff Walk (sea side) they're emphatically NOT Stately Wayne Manors.
They're Stately Wayne Summer Cottages.
Seems like beginning in the 19th century, the southern plantation set found much more pleasant to move North during the summer. Soon Yankee China traders, not to be outdone, began summering there as well. This began a building war, with successive newcomers vying with each other to see who could toss away the most money on the biggest (athem) erection. Top honors finally went to Anderson Cooper's mother's family (er, what were they called again?) with a $150 million (in today's dollars) nice little Italianate villa called The Breakers of 70 rooms with platinum panelling, rooms taken up from French chateaux and reassembled, rare woods and mosaics, all mod (1893-style) cons and a Children's Cottage in the garden. (If you're lucky, you'll have a tour with a nice Hungarian lady...who just happens to be related.) Other than that, there's Marble House (same family, arguably prettier), Rosecliff (the Grand Trianon, with electricity, plumbing, and a heart-shaped staircase), the Isaac Bell House, The Elms (with secret passages, oh my!), The Astor's Beechwood Mansion (a living history museum...the Breakers people still don't like them), and a few others.
For all that, I don't (or didn't) feel inspired by them. I don't feel like impelled towards better behavior (as I do in Blackstone Library), awed beyond anything human (as I do in the Met), or simply giddily happy (Grand Central Station).
Instead, I feel like smoking hashish. With opium and a little powdered rock in it. They make me want to dress like Norma Desmond, become a rabid radical feminist, cultivate my latent bisexuality, run through the halls and down Cliff Walk naked, paint a Fauvist canvas, do good works in Africa and/or stand spread-eagled in a hurricane.
All of which have been done, at one time or another, by the
inmates...er, summer residents. (There's a reason why they named a cigarette for the town, and what all this has to do with Marlboro you'll just have to look up for yourself...)
Um...I digress. Other than that -- where do we start? Tennis anyone? Newport Casino is home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a Real Tennis facility, and a nice, but pricey restaurant. (Always mention that it's next to a Waldbaum's, after you've gone. One must.)
There's plenty of boats, boating, and boat-related activity, from sailing Sunfishes to a Naval Base (hey, America's Cup and all). If you like sailing at all, you already know what to do. If, like me, your nautical experience is limited to childhood memories of taking family excursions on a long-gone power boat, you can still saunter around town in deck shoes drinking, nibbling, and dancing by the water, in between staring thoughtfully out to sea and murmuring about the weather, or perusing aquatically-themed bricabrac (Nantucket baskets are half the price you'd pay in actual Nantucket) at any number of shops. (Never call anything less than 45 feet a yacht, though. One mustn't.)There's also the usual suspects, like golf and a beach. Plus polo. Yup. Polo.
But is there any there there, or is it just a resort? Yes again.
Newport used to be a center of pirate activity, and once hosted New England's slave trade. On a more positive note, it was also a center of religious tolerance, where Quakers, Jews, and Baptists could live in relative safety. One of the town's more important buildings is Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish temple in the Western Hemisphere. Well worth visiting, even if you aren't Jewish (ask to see the Mystery Light!). The Colonial section is appropriately quaint, especially in the autumn-through-Christmas season.
Oh, and the jazz festival, and the folk festival....Some people even love it in Winter, for that get-away-from-it-all feeling.
But really, it's no big deal...