newport, ri

A floor detail at the Breakers.

Third day here, first time sitting down to write.  We done a lot of walking and have seen a few of the big mansions.  This morning, Julia wanted to go to a beach, I made a wrong turn and we are at a shell and sand bay beach where she can play with sand a bit.  It is warm today.  I think it is heading towards hot but it rained most of the day yesterday and the humidity today is very low.

Comparing the vacations that my Facebook connections show—I have a cousin in the Grand Tetons snapping trees and rocky sunsets, a friend whose is traveling in Spain with her family. I note that some of her Madrid photos remind me strongly of Paris, a young friend posting pictures of her wedding and another friend posting her daughter’s wedding pictures.  There is such a surfeit of wedding pictures these days.  I still marvel at how we are burst at the seems with places and activities.

For our part, we’ve spend a few days looking at the homes of very rich Americans whose greed and ambition created million dollar homes (when a million dollars was a lot of money) that they would use for a few weeks a year.  The Newport summer.  I am both curious and interested, and repelled by what I see.  Grand excess!  Extravagance for no reason other than they could do it.  I imagine the armies of designers, builders, artisans and other workers who were employed in the building of these “cottages,” as they were known.  Good for the economy local and internationally, I suppose. And then the arms of servants needed to care for the house and the wealth family residing there.  I note that although we have no seen servant quarters, there was at least one of these cottages that seemed to have had a back porch off the servant’s floor, always at the top of the house and so, probably hot during the summer.  Another tour talked about the great back lawns on which the children of the owner families and the children of the servants flew kites, played catch and tag and other games.  During one tour, there was a mention that they needed 40 servants to keep the house running. Walking around the house, it must have been 40 hard working people!  Forty suddenly seemed like a modest number.

Pre-income tax fortunes of rail and oil and bank barons threw parties and balls and picnics and dinners for hundreds.  Invitations to such parties could come with instructions like, everyone must wear white clothes and the women should don white powdered wigs.  For that party the mistress of the house procured sailing ships with tall masts strung with Japanese lanterns to sit on the water beyond the great back lawn and wall to light up the night in white even on the surf.  The favors given to guests are these parties, each one, exceeded the wages of the young girls cleaning up after the parties.  

The taste on display whether it harkens back to royal castles beyond the sea or something slightly closer to home grown is the most conspicuous consumption that I have ever seen.  Admittedly, I am not invited into the homes of the ultra rich today.  If I was, I wonder if I would see connections and evolution.  

I note that the families, some family, maintained these homes for their summer pleasure until the cost of running them became too much.  Then the families graciously “gave” the homes to some historical foundation, and I assume was able to write off the value for a hefty tax deduction.  

But I have visited the homes of similarly rich, titled (and entitled) people in Europe and never felt such ambivalence.  I do wonder about that in myself.  Why do I begrudge the right of an oil baron to summer in Newport in luxury while not forming any similar feeling about Italian or British aristocracy.  Indeed, I remember learning that Roman generals built grand summer estates on Capri two thousand years before our own gilded ?? age. 

I ramble not sure where I am going with this. In the back of my mind, even on this short vacation, I cannot shake the harm that has been done to this country last week.  

When the Taliban came back into power last year, they promised to honor women’s rights and encouraged women to return to work and school; however, as of May, 2022, women have lost their jobs, been barred from schools, been told to stay at home and if they must go out to wear head-to-toe clothing in public. How similar are our new conservative justices of the Supreme Court stated during their confirmation hearings that they would follow the law of stare decisis and respect the precedent that was Roe v. Wade. How long has it taken to walk those oath taken statements back?  Are radical conservatives the same everywhere?

I am heart sick and angry.

Julia and I started watching the HBO series, The Guilded Age.  I watch the first two when it came out and although I liked the work of the actors, I did not find the story compelling enough to tune in each week.  But now!  Now, it makes much more sense—I wonder about the story itself being more compelling once some part of the characters’ background are known.  Now, we know where they summered.  We know where they lived. To anyone who has not seen the series, the characters are both completely fictionalized and based on real people.  In the second episode, Julia recognized the pool room that we saw on our Sunday tour.  That part of the series takes place in NYC and not Newport, but it was probably a good representation of the pool rooms of those East 60’s stone mansions that are directly across from the park.  

I cannot help but wonder what I would be like if I had the privilege of unlimited funds. The style of homes we are seeing is interesting, intriguing even, but not beautiful in my eyes.  Could my eyes have been changed with a different life experience? And what would it be changed into?

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