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September 08, 1958
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September 08, 1958

Events & Discoveries

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In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine navigator, may have discovered Narragansett Bay; at any rate, he swung at anchor for a pleasant fortnight off what was not quite yet the staid, leafy city of Newport, R.I. and then sailed back to tell King Francis I of France about it. It was the most singular occurrence on Narragansett Bay until the 1920s when the Coast Guard shot up the fast rumrunner Black Duck. Newport was founded in 1639 by a band of Antinomians evicted from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for disagreeable beliefs. Antinomians regarded themselves as elect personages who were predestined to salvation and therefore absolved from moral law and any duty to repent. When, several centuries later, Newport became a celebrated and sumptuous watering place, many of its transients maintained a similar attitude.

Between 1739 and 1760, Newporters made considerable fortunes in, as every schoolboy knows, the Triangular Trade, in which an isosceles triangle, rum, sugar, molasses, slaves, Africa and Barbados were all involved. The first synagogue in the United States was built in Newport in 1763; the Jews did a whale of a business in spermaceti. In 1770 Newport's foreign trade was greater than New York's but the British destroyed the town during the Revolution, and Newport wasn't any great shakes until the moneyed, with their ponderous equipage, commenced to summer there after the Civil War.

Newport has been and is a stately, properly gay but rarely giddy resort; in the days of rotogravure sections, for instance, Newporters were always said to be "sauntering." The following are some of the signal events in its history: Richard Sears won the first U.S. national tennis title there (1881); the first functioning flush toilets in the U.S. first functioned in Newport; Charles V. Macdonald won the first U.S. amateur golf championship there (1895); Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont threw a champagne party to introduce a chimpanzee to society; the notable fop Ward McAllister coined his phrase "the four hundred" on the sea-girt peninsula; and a brand of cigarets assumed the city's glamorous, prestigious name.

The Gilt-edged Age of Newport was, of course, the day of the grand families—the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Belmonts, the Oelrichses, the Fishes, the Harrimans, the Rhinelanders, the Van Alens—and the mansions they built like ziggurats on Ocean Drive and Bellevue Avenue in preposterous nonconformity—Greek Revival, Gothic, Norman, Renaissance, Tudor—burdened with gambrels and cupolas, loggias, turrets and towers and landscaped with broad lawns, woods, deep drives and ornamental shrubbery which took as many as 10 gardeners to maintain. The most notorious was The Breakers, erected on Ochre Point for Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1895. The footmen wore silk knee breeches and shoes with silver buckles and it took 150 tons of coal to heat it during the winter, even though it was tenantless. The Breakers is now a museum. Some of the other palatial residences are a seminary, a convent, a church, a school, a motel-restaurant, apartment houses and great, drafty pigeon roosts, though still others continue in the elegant tradition—butlers, footmen, gardeners and all.

Today Newport is chiefly noted for its tennis tournament, its jazz festival, President Eisenhower and the America's Cup races. Last week Ike made his second vacation trip to Newport, but he wasn't the first President to sleep there. George Washington was, and there were 15 Presidents between them. President Eisenhower will sojourn this year at Fort Adams, a Navy installation across the harbor from Newport proper. Last year he stayed at Coasters Harbor Island. This year the President will be much nearer the Newport Country Club. Last year he had to take a boatride to get to its golf course. This year he can reach it by automobile, and heaven help his spine if they haven't filled in the bottomless potholes in the entrance road.

The sailors of the America's Cup yachts are, for the most part, luxuriously berthed. Weatherly's crew is put up at Seafield, a mélange of white towers on Ocean Drive. Owner Henry Mercer and Skipper Arthur Knapp entertain there in a genially generous manner. This is typical of Weatherly's social approach to the trials—they have taken as many as a dozen passengers out for a pleasure cruise after a day's arduous sail. A little farther down the peninsula is the 19th century château hired by Briggs Cunningham for the Columbia. Theirs is a more ascetic regime. Quite early in the morning the crew marches out of the huge, ivory entrance hall so they can clamber aboard at 9 a.m. (preceded, often by hours, by Rod Stephens who, perhaps, is up the mast in the fog, tinkering and, if Columbia is on the ways at the Newport Shipyard, hallooing with his brother Olin in a Mercedes 19SL below). Columbians often remain on board for extra drills until 6 p.m., thence to the chateau for a skull session which often persists from the short cocktail hour through dinner and on until lights-out at 11 p.m. Vim's crew holes up at Lily Pond, a monstrous pile camouflaged by a massy forest. Easterner's crew divides its sleeping between Chandler Hovey's power cruiser and a hotel. Indeed, sleeping is the major liberty occupation of the crews; partying is hardly up to traditional Newport standards.

The British challengers, 24 strong, live in a rambling old home built in 1884 called Horsehead. Horsehead, which stands not in Newport but across the bay in Jamestown, an area favored by Philadelphians, was lent free to the British by Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Wright. ("Nobody in Newport ever gave anything away," says a Newporter, underlining this Jamestown generosity.) The Sceptreians arise at a military 6:30 and leave for their boat by 7:30; they return in the evening around 6:30. When they get ashore, a number of the crew bathe in a natural pool at the foot of the cliff Horsehead sits on. They like the pool and the prospect because it reminds them of the Cornish coast.

Off the fire-red hull of Brenton Reef lightship, where the racers rendezvous for the trials, the palatial atmosphere lingers like the frequent fog. Henry Mercer of the Weatherly syndicate is there in his 110-foot Blue Jacket; Gerard Lambert of the Columbia syndicate is aboard the 85-foot Vergemere; Harold S. Vanderbilt rides the 88-foot motor ketch Versatile, an edged card table and rattan bridge chairs fastened over the stern skylight. Also on board, on occasion, is Vanderbilt's wife Gertrude, a veteran of these affairs and perhaps the woman who best knows precisely how to dress for an America's Cup—a small cloche-type straw hat, a rather highly styled middy blouse, blue slacks and superbly made, soft white leather shoes quite narrow in the toe.

Vanderbilt usually carries two of the NYYC selection committee, the other three watch from the white, 110-foot motor vessel Vedersein. She ties up at Christy's wharf in the afternoon, the late sun glinting off the sliding glass bulkheads on her after-lounge, where in a conspicuous but silent world, as though in an aquarium, the committeemen deliberate, highball glasses in hand.

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