The industrialists of the Gilded Age—Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, etc.—held political and financial power tightly within their fists. The business districts of New York and other major cities were a man’s domain. Yet, each summer, when society converged on Newport, Rhode Island, it was very much a woman’s world, and men were expected to do as they were told.
That’s right: do as they were told, appearing when and where their wives dictated, dressed appropriately. Newport was the center of summer entertainments, including balls, yachting, golf, and tennis, but it was also where women established their places on the social ladder, for themselves and their entire families. It was where reputations were established, dynasties safeguarded, and new alliances forged. It’s no random occurrence that Newport is home to so many of this country’s most opulent mansions. These were not just houses, they were statements, and the statements were being made by the great wives of society.
Around the middle of the nineteenth century, development began along Newport’s Bellevue Avenue. These homes, though grand and beautiful, were much less ostentatious than those that followed. For example, Beechwood, which belonged to Mrs. Caroline Astor, is a lovely, graceful house in the Italianate villa style. But compared to some of its neighbors, it seems subdued. Mrs. Astor boasted a pedigree stretching back to New York’s earliest Dutch settlers. She was the most prominent and influential woman in society—the grand dame—and didn’t have a thing to prove to anyone. But Alice Vanderbilt did, as did her sister-in-law, Alva.
Backing up just a bit, in 1887, Frederick Vanderbilt and his wife, Louise, commissioned the building of Rough Point, a sprawling mansion with Gothic elements in the style of an English country manor. At the time of its completion in 1892, Rough Point was the largest house in Newport. The couple’s peers quickly took notice.
The Vanderbilt wives constantly vied for the title of the Mrs. Vanderbilt, much as Caroline Astor was considered the Mrs. Astor by society. Alva, wife of William Vanderbilt, took one look at Rough Point and, when her husband told her he would build a house for her in Newport, decided she would have a marble palace built in the style of the Petit Trianon at Versailles.
Guess who wasn’t happy about it? The original Breakers, owned by William and Frederick’s older brother, Cornelius, and his wife, Alice, was a Queen Anne–style house with steeply pitched gables and a dramatic tower. In the 1880s, it was considered one of Newport’s most magnificent estates. But when the house burned down in 1892, Alice saw her chance to outdo both sisters-in-law by commissioning an extravagant Renaissance-style palazzo.
Conspicuous consumption became a way to establish oneself as a society leader, and while men generated the income, women led the charge in how to effectively spend it. Parties, as well as houses, became increasingly lavish, as a way to make one’s peers clamor for invitations. But social-climbing didn’t stop at houses, balls, and Mrs. Astor’s approval. There was still one thing American millionaires didn’t have, and that was titles of nobility. A new phenomenon emerged: marriages between young American heiresses and impoverished European noblemen. Once again, fathers provided the means but stepped aside while mothers showed off their daughters during trips abroad, eager to make matches with men of the highest title possible. Enter, once again, Alva Vanderbilt. She arranged one of the biggest triumphs of all: the marriage of her daughter, Consuelo, to the ninth Duke of Marlborough.
Such women may seem shallow, but I believe they were intelligent, ambitious, and driven—like their husbands. But unlike their husbands, they had no socially approved outlet for their talents, so they put them to use in the only manner available to them. Later in life, Alva became a dedicated leader of the suffragist movement. Edith Phelps Stokes became instrumental in establishing kindergarten as part of the American public school system. Edith Wharton became one of America’s greatest authors. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney became a renowned artist and sculptor and founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. But such achievements came later, as restrictions on women eased and society, in general, became less structured. Meanwhile, their houses stand today as a tribute to their vision and aspirations, reminding us of what is possible when human beings, and especially women, dream large and refuse to compromise their goals.
About Murder at Crossways
In late August 1898, reporter Emma Cross attends the final fête of the Newport social season and discovers the party’s over for a visiting prince . . .
The days are getting shorter as summer’s end approaches, which means it’s time for the Harvest Festival, the last big event of the season, held by Mamie Fish, wife of millionaire railroad tycoon Stuyvesant Fish, at their grand “cottage,” Crossways. The neocolonial mansion is decked out in artificial autumn splendor, and an extravagant scavenger hunt will be held. But the crowning jewel of the evening will be the guest of honor, Prince Otto of Austria.
As acting editor-in-chief of the Newport Messenger, Emma had hoped to leave her days as a society reporter behind. But at the last moment, she must fill in and attend the Harvest Festival. With nearly every eligible daughter of Newport high society in attendance, Emma can almost hear romantic dreams shattering like glass slippers when the prince fails to appear. The next morning, he is found dead in the side garden at Crossways, making it clear a murderer crashed the party.
The prince has been stabbed in the same manner as another man, recently found on nearby Bailey’s Beach, who strongly resembles Emma’s half-brother Brady’s father, presumed dead for nearly thirty years after a yachting mishap. As Emma investigates a connection between the two victims, she is joined on the hunt by Mamie Fish herself. But they must hurry—before the killer slips away like the fading summer.
About the Author
Alyssa Maxwell knew from an early age that she wanted to be a novelist. Growing up in New England and traveling to Great Britain fueled a passion for history, while a love of puzzles of all kinds drew her to the mystery genre. She and her husband reside in Florida, where she loves to watch BBC productions, sip tea in the afternoons, and delve into the past. You can learn more about Alyssa and her books at AlyssaMaxwell.com and on the social media platforms below.