Newport – the ultimate in summer luxury destinations – has been a home to America’s well heeled for morethan 300 years. But this grande dame of the Gilded Age is more than just mansions like The Breakers and Rosecliff. We spoke with Bettie Bearden Pardee, author of Living Newport, to get the insider’s view on what really goes on behind those well-trimmed privet hedges– and why she suggests living the servant’s life for an afternoon.
Read on, for our exclusive Q&A:
This is your first book in more than a decade. Why did you decide to write another?
Newport is about evolving and staying vibrant, something it has done very effectively for 375 years. Over the past decade, technology has made it possible to work from anyplace and that has brought a wave of young families here year ‘round. They are the future lifeblood of our town.
You’ve spent many years in Newport. How has the city changed during your time there?
All for the best. For me, the most important, long term change has been with respect to the private homes. Some open-to-the-public properties have been returned to private status (Hammersmith Farm), other large ones that had long ago been converted to condominiums or apartments are now once again private (Seafair) and some of Newport’s true iconic properties have been purchased by people with a sensitivity to preservation (Seaweed). I like to say they’ve been “refreshed.” These new homeowners bought these houses because they loved them for their architectural character, cultural significance, historic assets and quality of workmanship.
As I travel on my lecture series, I’ve come to realize how unique to Newport this is. In other cities you see homes (and large ones!) torn down or reconfigured to the point that they’ve lost all their character.
Newport has many famous sites, but as a local, I’m sure you have a unique perspective. How would you spend a day with out-of-town guests?
A question I love! Here are some of my favorite sites:
- The Redwood Library and Athenaeum. The oldest circulating library in our country (1747) and the first public Palladian structure in America. I love the “reading room” for its intimacy, the periodicals from all over the world and the leather wingback chairs in the windowed alcoves where you can read for hours.
- The very small, precious chapel in the Seaman’s Institute where you’ll almost feel as though you’re in Venice.
- The Tennis Hall of Fame. The museum has interactive exhibits that really bring the game to life. Make time for lunch next door on the porch of La Forge overlooking the grass courts of the old Newport Casino (where the Hall of Fame is located), site of the first US Tennis Open held in 1881.
- Lunch at Belle’s on the Newport Shipyard site where you can see all the beautiful, unusual sailboats as well as big yachts getting spiffed up.
- The “Servant’s Tour” at the Elms, to get a real behind-the-scenes look at the upstairs/downstairs dynamics of Gilded Age life in Newport.
- Going out on one of the big schooners for a sunset cocktail cruise in the harbor.
Living Newport is different from your previous works in that it goes inside individual homes and features the owners as well as the houses. How did you choose the homes to capture in this work? Were there any homes / people who refused your request?
Each home had to be first about architectural integrity, and then it’s about achieving a balance to give an interesting, compelling mix…different periods, age of home, architectural style. And for this author, it was key that the guests in my book had the sensibilities and values that represent what has historically kept Newport great… But it’s always about telling a story!
I find it a great compliment that so many friends put their trust and faith in me. These are very private people. And yes, there is always one who chooses not to be included and all for good reasons, which I respect.
The grand homes and entertaining of Newport feel almost from a different time. Do you think the way of life of this upper class you capture in your books is changing, and how?
There is much less change here than most towns and cities. Certainly, there’s an element of informality and casualness that distinguishes life today, but Newport has a European attitude about this. As for example, Elm Court (pp. 150-163.). The twins are the sixth generation to live here and as their mother said, “we’re about making memories and enjoying life.” They don’t worry about spills and breaks; the family eats dinner in the dining room every night (not the kitchen), but it’s also a testimony about not taking “things,” like antiques, too seriously, keeping a perspective. But really, you can live casually and informally in a “grand home.”
What is next for you? Are you working on another book?
Once an author, always an author, I always have a few in mind (i.e., entertaining, gardens), but right now I’m so excited about my new, beautiful website, Private Newport, and stepping up my blog schedule from bi-weekly to weekly. A year of blogs is almost a book in itself!