Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Discovering Newport

When it’s time for vacation, my family--like most of you--tends to go to a place that’s different from where we live. We live in a big city in the Midwest, so to relax we go to a lake or the mountains in Colorado. People who live in the desert go to a place that’s green and cool; people on the shore go to the mountains, etc.

But during the Gilded Age (the last few decades of the 19th century) where did people go to escape the cities of New York and Boston? One of the most popular destinations was Newport, Rhode Island. Actually, I have roots in Newport--old roots.  An ancestor of my family landed in what would become Newport. The town was founded by Englishmen in 1639 and my very great-grandfather stepped foot there in 1643. Of course, native Americans had been in the area for 5000 years. At first, Newport was a haven for those seeking religious freedom, but it soon became a bustling center of trade.

My husband and I discovered Newport in 2007 and were immediately charmed by the waterfront of tall ships and sailboats, and the amazing Cliff Walk. Edging the east side of the island, the rugged Cliff Walk is a narrow public path dividing the waves crashing on the rocks close by and the stunning mansions of the mega rich.

During the last half of the 19th century, Newport became a vacation spot for the middle class and for the wealthy industrialists of New York and Boston. The mingling of the two classes added interest to a city used to independent spirits.

After the Civil War, beautiful summer homes were built on and around Bellevue Avenue. Owners were senators, bankers, railroad barons, and entrepreneurs. This was a time before income tax, leaving plenty of income to build lavish (and more lavish) mansions. These homes were often inspired by European castles and palaces,  yet they were called “cottages”.  Very funny. Millions of dollars were spent on the homes—homes that were only used for 6-8 weeks each summer.

My husband and I took tours of many of these mansions (the Breakers, Marble House, the Elms…) and were blown away by the gold and the gilt, the marble, statuary, carvings, and furnishings. But mostly, we were impressed by the massive size. The Breakers (I’ll go into more detail in a future blog) encompasses 65,000 square feet. It was built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice. This was a single family home? Its construction was a successful attempt to one-up its neighbor. Next door, Cornelius' brother and sister-in-law (William K. and Alva Vanderbilt) lived in the regal Marble House that boasted 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Talk about keeping up with the Joneses...

The vastness, the decadence, and the image of a summer vacation far different from anything I’d ever experienced, spurred me to write a novel set in Newport. An Unlikely Suitor comes out May 1 (you can preorder it now). It’s the story of an immigrant seamstress from NYC who befriends a rich socialite. The two girls end up in Newport during the height of the summer season in 1895. What a culture shock for Lucy Scarpelli to go from the immigrant slums of Five Points to the opulence of these mansions.  Those of you who've read Masquerade will recognize Lucy as Lucia Scarpelli in that book.  Her mother and younger sister, Sofia, are also vital to An Unlikely Suitor. But it's nine years later and Sofia isn't a little girl any more...

In the coming weeks I’ll share some of the interesting historical tidbits I discovered as I wrote this novel. I hope you’ll enjoy this journey through Lucy’s Cinderella season in Newport.//Nancy Moser


  1. Oooh I can't wait to get my hands on this one. Love your books!!

  2. Hi Nancy:

    Is Lucy Scarpelli related to Lottie Scarpelli form Masquerade? About nine years have gone by.

    I’ve just read three romances that take place in Gilded Age Newport and I really enjoy this location and time period. I hope “An Unlikely Suitor” will be available for the Kindle.

    I really enjoyed the photographs you posted here. Thanks,


  3. Lucy Scarpelli is the same as Lucia Scarpelli in "Masquerade." The "Lottie" you mention was Lottie Gleason, the rich girl from England. Lucia/Lucy is the oldest daughter of the Scarpelli family, who took Lottie in. Her mother and younger sister, Sofia, are also in the new book. I'll add this information to the blog... You're going to be an expert on Newport, Vince!

  4. Nancy, I can't wait to read your new book set in Newport! I loved Masquerade. The Gilded Age is my favorite time period. I wrote The Ladies of Summerhill series for Thomas Nelson--Love on a Dime, Love on Assignment and Love by the Book. (Enough self promotion!) They're all set in Newport which is my favorite place!!!

  5. Nancy, who was your original ancestor in Newport? I'm descended from several old Newport families too--the Bulls, Coggeshalls, Hazards, Perrys and others I can't remember. Maybe we're related!

  6. Hi Nancy:

    Two of the Newport books I’ve read were Cara’s! The other one was a Heartsong. I’ve seen at least five more. I’d say Newport is very popular right now.

    I just love the Gilded Age time period. It is so unusual. It’s fun to read that a character phones his office in NYC and then takes a horse and carriage to the train station to get to NYC.

    I also read in a history book that Grover Cleveland was the first president to have a telephone in the White House and he actually answered the phone himself. Imagine that! There’s a great story in Grover Cleveland and the nation’s love affair with “Baby Ruth”.

    “An Unlikely Suitor” is available for the Kindle. Amazon says May first. The cover is very unique with the heroine’s back to the reader.


  7. Cara, I just looked up my ancestor and I was wrong about the date--it was earlier! This, from an original record of the time, "Inhabitants admitted at the Town of Nieu Port since the 20th of the 3rd (March), 1638...Job Tyler" He was said to have been found by the first colonists in Andover, Mass in 1639-40, a solitary squatter. Yet his great-grandson David moved up to where Piermont, NH is now, and helped found that town in 1768. HIS son Jonathan fought for our country's freedom and was captured by British General Burgoyne's army--and escaped! I adore family history!

  8. Vince, I love the Gilded Age too, for the reason you mentioned. It's such a mix of old and new. But I must say that adds to the challenge of research. For instance, I wanted to know if there was electricity in most buildings in NYC in 1895 for "An Unlikely Suitor". What a chore! The answer was NO. Neither were telephones universal. Or indoor plumbing! The good thing is, because of this it's harder to make a mistake.