The peculiar thing about Newport and its present success is that it is essentially an anti-American theme park, featuring, as it does, the idolatry of mansions and yachts. Despite our simple classless hearts, this gorgeous little Rhode Island seaport, so rich in natural beauty and American history, calls up an abiding affection for Midases and monarchs. Appropriately, our almost-king, John Kennedy, married his Guinevere in Newport, and at his death he was seeking to buy an estate there. That property is a scenic inn now, and nearby, for only a couple of bucks, goggle-eyed visitors can also inspect Jackie's childhood residence, Hammersmith Farm, just as if it were Opryland, Cypress Gardens or Al Capone's limousine.
As many as a million of our republic's middle-class subjects will pay to inspect Newport's mansions this year, to swoon over how the nabobery lived before the advent of the graduated income tax, and although much of the rest of vacation America is struggling with recession, Newport has never been busier. The sorting out of boats for the America's Cup, a triennial divertissement of the rich, is taking place this summer, and it is estimated this will boost business in town by 20%. This is one of the most fascinating commercial figures extant, because as a genuine spectator event, America's Cup racing is nil. It is contested way out on the ocean where few can see it, fog or no fog, and even for the folks who can, the competition is the most boring and lopsided in all of sport. In Newport's harbor, where the lovely 12-meter boats are docked, conscious effort is made to keep the hoi polloi from seeing these magnificent creatures of man. Still, the closet snobs keep coming to "see" an America's Cup match, even though they won't. O.K., we'll have another drink instead, and buy an Instant Cup Challenge Lottery Ticket and a commemorative T shirt.
But then, Newport has always been a curious place, often a victim of its own charms. It is a town of great antiquity, founded on Aquidneck Island in 1639, but only in its early years was Newport a robust and mature city, one of the most prominent in the colonies. No town paid so dearly for the Revolution. Newport was occupied—manhandled, in fact—by the British for more than three years. The power in Rhode Island moved north to Providence, and ever after Newport has been like a beautiful but frail little girl, a helpless ward, always dependent on some interloper more wise and powerful to decide what's best for her. Among municipalities, Newport is Little Orphan Annie.
At one time the city was a plaything of Dixie; wealthy Southerners, following the prevailing southwest winds, would voyage up in their packets every summer to escape the feverish Tidewater vapors. Then, in its most famous era, Newport became a gilded outpost for the rich of the new industrial America. When that era began to fade, Newport sold its soul to the U.S. Navy. Now the town wears a brighter smock, though it remains still the obedient little girl, curtsying before a new foster parent, Trendy Tourism. Moreover, lurking about the town these sunnier days are some lean and hungry outsiders who believe that Newport's extensive history of subjugation makes her an ideal prospect for the role of fallen woman: they would love to sell her into the House of Gambling.
Summer 1980, and the narrow streets are jammed, as are the surrounding waters, where the fishing boats and pleasure craft fight for what little space is left like so many ranchers and sheepmen battling on the old prairie. The institution of the 200-mile fishing limit for foreigners and Newport's commercial rebirth have revived the island's maritime industry—it has become the largest lobster port in America—but the private leisure fleet rules the harbor.
"The red-pants crowd" is how working-class islanders sneeringly characterize the yachting set, though many visiting little skippers fight to be embraced by that slur. The red pants can easily be obtained in the shops downtown. They are of a special rich color—"Breton red," wearers call it—and are further distinguished by a constitutional inability to take a crease. The rest of a yachting man's costume includes blue blazer for dress-up, a tennis-type shirt, no socks, and Topsiders, those purposely unstylish dirt-brown loafers, which appear to have been fashioned by the inmates of some backwoods remedial institution.
"Hi! I just got off my boat!" says Skippy Topsider III. "Buy you a drink?"
Gail W. shakes her head. She is a pretty divorc�e from across the bay, what is known in Rhode Island as "South County," even though no county has such a name. Gail is sitting at the bar in The Candy Store, the most crowded hangout on Bannister's Wharf, the heart of tourist Newport and where the 12-meters Courageous and Clipper are berthed beyond a forbidding portcullis, out of sight and mind.
"Everybody who talks to me says they just got off their boat," Gail says. "If a guy ever said to me, 'Hey, I just drove here in my Toyota,' I'd be so impressed, I'd buy him a drink."
Barclay Warburton, the stepnephew of Harold S. Vanderbilt, the only man ever to defend the Cup three times, returned to Bannister's Wharf in 1967, back when Newport was a grubby Navy town, when almost all the boats in the bay were gray and armed. Warburton had a 72-foot brigantine, The Black Pearl, which he lives on now. He has always been about the water; it was largely through Warburton's efforts that the Tall Ships were brought to the U.S. (including Newport) for the Bicentennial. At Fort Adams, the 18th century fortification that guards the harbor, Warburton founded and runs the Sail Training Association, which teaches young people to sail.