Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Breakers

Summer “cottage” my foot. Yet that’s what the wealthy set of the Gilded Age called their mega-mansions in Newport.

The Breakers is the largest of these mansions and is used in the climax of my novel An Unlikely Suitor. Encompassing 65,000 square feet of living space (not to mention the cubic feet) it’s the size of thirty homes in one—and one family lived in it. A little about them: 
Cornelius Vanderbilt II
by John Singer Sargent

Cornelius Vanderbilt II was the grandson of the Commodore who ignited the Vanderbilt fortune decades earlier by getting into steamships and railroads. Cornelius was the favorite grandson and was bequeathed $5 million upon his grandfather’s death in 1877. When his father (William Henry) died in 1885, he received $70 million. Quite the nest egg. But C-2 didn’t sit around doing nothing. He took over the helm of the his family’s railroad legacy.

But backing up…C-2 met his wife Alice Gwynne while they were teaching Sunday school. They married in 1867 and had four sons and three daughters. Mrs. Vanderbilt was a leader in New York Society. Here’s a picture of her at one of her costume balls in 1883, dressed as "Electric Light".

This portion of the Vanderbilt family was very generous and gave to many charities including the YMCA, Salvation Army, Red Cross, their churches, as well as donating Vanderbilt Hall at Yale in memory of their son William, who died of typhus while in his junior year there in 1892. I think it's important to note that when C-2 died he had not added to his fortune, but had given away what he had made over his lifetime. We’re talking millions.
Breakers 1909

When they built the Breakers they had five living children, aged 9, 15,18, 20, and 22. The first Breakers burned to the ground in 1892. Its replacement was started a year later, and finished the year of my novel, 1895. But Mr. Vanderbilt suffered a bad stroke the following year, so this was the only year the Breakers was fully enjoyed by Alice and Cornelius. The 70-room mansion purportedly cost $7-12 million to build ($150-260 million in today’s dollars.)

Alice and daughter Gertrude
 Because the first house had burned down (as did many houses in the Gilded Age due to the use of open flame lighting and fireplaces) C-2 was determined the new house not suffer the same fate. And so he built the house without the use of wood. It used steel trusses, and C-2 even had the furnace placed away from the house, under the street. Set on 13 acres, commanding a view of the sea, the Breakers represents the epitome of Gilded Age extravagance with Italian and African marble.

Dining Room
The Music Room is decorated in real gold, and the Dining Room has columns of alabaster. Richard Morris Hunt was the architect. Looking at the detail…the artistry… I have a degree in architecture, but I can’t imagine envisioning such design, much less finding people with the talent to implement it. And once you have the house designed, you have to furnish it! All this done in two years? It’s astonishing. How could I resist having my own fictional ball in this massive hall? (below) 
Neily and Grace

When the Breakers was finished in 1895, the Vanderbilts were going through a bit of a personal crisis, as their son Cornelius III (Neily) had fallen in love with Grace Wilson, who had been secretly engaged to his older brother Bill, before Bill died of typhoid. In spite of his parents’ objections, Neily and Grace were married in 1896 and were cut out of the will. They were married their entire live. Neily’s mother didn’t reconcile with him until 1926.
Morning Room
Alfred, the third Vanderbilt son, died in the sinking of the Lusitania. Next son, Reginald, was the father of Gloria Vanderbilt—the grandmother of journalist Anderson Cooper. Daughter Gertrude married Harry Payne Whitney and became a patron of art and formed the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931. She was also a sculptor and designed the Titanic monument in Washington, D.C., honoring the men who gave their lives so women and children could be saved. Their youngest daughter became a countess by marrying Hungarian Count László Széchenyi.
Gladys Vanderbilt
by John Singer Sargent
C-2 didn’t have long to enjoy the Breakers. He had his first stroke the year after it was finished, and died in 1899 from a cerebral hemorrhage from a second stroke at the young age of 55.
He left the home to his wife, who left it to Gladys—who always loved the estate. In 1942 she leased it to the Newport Preservation Society for $1, but in 1972, the Society purchased it from Gladys’ daughter Countess Sylvia Szapary for $365,000. The family still owns the furnishings. What a bargain! When Sylvia died in 1998, she left the estate to her two children, who continue to spend time there, up on the third floor, away from the tourists. Over 300,000 people visit the Breakers every year. You really should be one of them. Newport Mansions//Nancy


  1. Oh my word...what an incredible building. I'd love to visit it some day. The history of it..amazing!! Thanks for sharing it with us even if only in pictures.

  2. So, Nancy ... how about a second life organizing "Novel Tours" ... take us to the Breakers and tell us what we're seeing while we read your book!

  3. Gloria Vanderbilt is Anderson Cooper's mother, not his grandmother.

  4. With kind intent...Alice's photo commemorates her sister-in-law Alva's famous housewarming costume ball, an event so epic Mrs. Astor attended and thus wordlessly brought the whole clan into high society. The carriage photo is Alice with her youngest child Gladys. It is she who married Count Laszlo Szechenyi, and inherited the Breakers. Alice and C2's objections to Grace Wilson were: Her father was a Southern war profiteer in the Civil War; The Wilsons climbed into the "Prince of Wales' Set" in England, which was notorious for lax morals and adultery, and Grace had a reputation as "fast;" She was older than Neily, probably by 3 years, but the V's believed by 8 years; She was reputed to have pursued both JJ Astor IV, and their own late son Bill. She and Bill had not affianced. Neily genuinely fell in love with her. C2's will left Neily $500k and some trust income. Next-in-line brother Alfred settled $6mil on Neily, and after coming out of mourning Alice publicly reconciled with the couple by inviting Grace to a reception. She never came to like Grace, but she was a fond grandmother to the couple's 2 unhappy kids. The story of Neily and Grace was romanticized by the American press as it happened, and has been a magnet for apocrypha since then, so it's not your fault if you picked up inaccurate info. It's incredible how many books have printed falsehoods and embellishments within the Vanderbilt clan's history, right up to today. I'm so glad you mentioned the philanthropy of C2 and Alice, I think they get a bum rap as cold and superficial socialites. Thanks.