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Now that American tennis has gone frankly commercial, the diehards of the country-club, grass-court set may at last be able to face this long-forgotten fact: the Newport Casino, birthplace of U.S. tournament tennis and genteel home of the Tennis Hall of Fame, was not primarily designed for the sake of tennis at all. It was conceived in a fit of anger by the crass and flamboyant James Gordon Bennett Jr., who was not even much of a tennis player.
Bennett, the wealthy publisher of the New York Herald and a front-rank Newport "cottager" when society's summer gathering place was at full flower, was not acting sportingly at all when, nettled and on his own, he put in motion the Casino project in 1879. He was prompted by what he considered an affront to a friend dealt by another Newport club: the socially formidable Newport Reading Room. The Reading Room, which was chartered in 1854 and is believed to be the country's oldest club still occupying its original building, had (and has) its quarters in a simple frame structure fronting on Bellevue Avenue, then Society's main promenade. Its title was somewhat misleading, for the Reading Room's membership—male only—was given more to socializing and wassailing than to the pursuit of literature. As Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer wrote in 1905, "The young men who throng the corridors or fill the windows are the smartest around town, and they are attractive features as they saunter about in their faultlessly cut garments, with their hats cocked in the latest fashion, with an indescribable air of self-satisfaction known only to the well-turned-out male."
That then was the atmosphere into which this friend of Bennett's rode a horse on an August afternoon in 1879. The man on horseback was one Captain Candy (inevitably nicknamed "Sugar"), a former British cavalryman and Bennett's polo-playing crony. Bennett had encountered the game in England in 1876 and with Candy's help had introduced it in this country. Whenever Candy was at Newport, which was often, he enjoyed all the privileges that close aquaintanceship with Bennett rated, including a card as Bennett's guest at the Newport Reading Room.
It has never been firmly established what caused Captain Candy to perform as he did on that August day. Perhaps it was a bet, a dare or a too-long stay at the tavern. One school holds that Bennett himself put Candy up to it. In any case, Candy and his mount set a course that brought them to the front of the yellow-colored building that houses the Reading Room. Then, to the astonishment of those thronging the corridors and filling the windows, in he rode. He went up the front steps, across the piazza, through two sets of broad doors and into the main hall. "Sir," the white-coated steward is said to have informed him at that point of the journey, "you cannot ride a horse in here." Candy ignored this. He proceeded along the hall for some 20 feet, made a left turn through an archway into what is called Reading Room No. 2, then into the South Room, which at the time housed the bar. Once there, he wheeled about, retraced his course out to the street and galloped off.
Taken purely as a feat of horsemanship, Captain Candy's ride was not much, but it had an electric effect on the membership of the Reading Room, on Newport at large and, hence, on all of Society. The act was taken as "a clear violation of the rules," as a brief reference to the happening in the Newport Mercury put it, and Bennett was notified that the guest card held by Captain Candy in his name was revoked.
Now James Gordon Bennett, stirred and under full throttle, was a formidable man. His drive and his news sense had made his Herald the most powerful publication of the day, and he ran it with a bold and totalitarian hand. Once, for example, he promoted a copy boy named Billy Bishop to the post of sports editor of the European edition simply because a pair of Bennett's Pekingese, trailing their owner through the paper's Paris office, had taken a liking to him.
Bennett was also enormously rich and, in his social as well as business life, a leader and a doer. " Mr. James Gordon Bennett reached Newport on Wednesday," the Newport Mercury proclaimed in its issue of August 2, 1879, "and everyone at once looked for the opening of the festivities and sports of the season, for Mr. Bennett has the energy and push needed to give the coach of gayety a good start."
Within days of the Candy incident, Bennett bought and paid $60,000 for a cottage called "Stone Villa," about one quarter of a mile up Bellevue Avenue from the Reading Room, intending to make it a rival clubhouse. He soon decided against converting, though, and took Stone Villa as his own residence, because he had a better idea. He would build an all-new structure for the new club and to that end, in early fall, he bought 126,000 square feet of land across from Stone Villa.
By October, Bennett had formed a joint stock company and offered shares in his project, at $500 each, to a select number of friends. The list of shareholders read like a reprint of the Social Register. For the architectural work, he commissioned the firm of McKim, Mead and White: Stanford White, the junior member, was to be primarily responsible for the form the Casino (as he decided to call it) would take.
What White brought from his drawing boards was a three-building complex in which space was provided for a bowling alley, a billiard parlor, reading rooms, restaurant, a court-tennis court, a theater-ballroom, bachelor lodgings and, on the ground floor facing Bellevue Avenue, space for shops to be occupied by "first-class tenants."