No matter how many houses of the rich and famous I visit (with the George Eastman house in Rochester, N.Y. probably being my favorite), I still feel a little strange traipsing through someone else’s home, no matter how long ago it was abandoned or ‘donated’ to a historical society. Do I really need to know whose owners went cheap on the bathrooms? (Caramoor in Katonah, N.Y., you know who you are.) Can I really imagine what it was like to be married and sleeping in single beds (hello, Rosecliff in Newport, R.I.)? As much as some of these homes make me feel like a nosy neighbor, I can’t help but gawk.
Driving up to the Breakers in Newport, I begin to wonder about the Vanderbilt family, who the Commodore was and why we call him that, how Gloria fits into the fold, how vast the family still is. How is the Vanderbilt family of Newport linked to Vanderbilt University in Nashville? My head is full of questions before I even think about how the Vanderbilts summered in Newport, in a place full of marble and servants.
I still feel like I am snooping, but I like that the stories of some of the servants are included here. Some liked the opportunity provided; some weren’t so enthused about always using the back stairs. I think that no matter how flush I someday become, I probably won’t opt for quite so much marble.
Next on this Newport adventure is Rosecliff, a place I learn that John Kennedy once sought as a summer White House but whose owner respectfully declined. From this little tidbit, I am reminded that power and money sorts seem to be incestuous, all part of a very small crowd. Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepfather lived nearby , Jack and Jackie were actually married in Newport, if you’re not someone’s sister or cousin or stepdaughter, do you really belong?
Then I’m riffing about insulation in the White House, what with the Truman Annex in Key West, Fla., and Richard Nixon’s winter place in Key Largo, Fla. Summer White House, Winter White House, when were presidents actually working? Did the government procure Camp David to try to keep the commander in chief on the job a bit more often?
Imagination soars on these mansion tours, from envisioning living in a place to hobnobbing with its inhabitants to critiquing the style decisions of matrons long gone. Then I’m brought back down to staff level as I exit through the gift shop.