Returning guest blogger Sunny Frazier, whose first novel in the Christy Bristol Astrology Mysteries, Fools Rush In, received the Best Novel Award from Public Safety Writers Association, is here today to tell us about her time in Newport, RI, and how the rich lived in the Gilded Age.
The third Christy Bristol Astrology Mystery, A Snitch in Time, is in bookstores now.
“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” So said Pulitzer Prize winner and historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in a 1976 American Quarterly article. Actually, a version of it was coined between 1668 and 1735. Author Therese Anne Fowler used it as a title of her book about Alva Vanderbilt.
Born Alva Smith, she came from a Southern family left destitute after the Civil War. She married into the Vanderbilts, who were ignored by New York’s old-money circles. Undaunted, Alva set out to break the Gilded Age’s stained-glass ceiling. She wound up building 9 mansions and foisted her daughter on a duke—a common practice when rich Americans pawned their daughters off on impoverished aristocrats. It was a title traded for a castle’s upkeep.
During what was termed “The Gilded Age,” the wealthy built summer “cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island. These were incredible mansions, with each wife trying to outdo each other. The clique was dubbed “The Four Hundred” because that’s how many people fit into a ballroom. I bought a cookbook while I was stationed at the Navy base. One menu listed 19 choices of main courses and 13 dessert choices. I don’t think I could pull off the Escalope of Veal Saute a la Macedoine. I might be able to handle clam hash. Perhaps a Wickford Quahaug Pie since I lived above a quahaug shop.
It was 1973 and Newport was my first duty station out of dental school. I wrote home that the town was like “Disneyland without rides.” Many of us rented apartments instead of staying in the barracks. I rented an attic apartment built at the turn of the century. The street was paved with cobblestones. From one window I looked down on the village green and the tall ships at the pier; from the other window I saw the church where JFK got married. All this for $60 a month and an obstinate radiator.
We toured the beautiful mansions, went to bars to sing sea chanties and ate twin lobsters for $7. All this on my salary of $300 a month. Some of my friends rented coach houses; the men off the USS Forrest Sherman rented the converted kitchen and the top floor of a mansion where we played frisbee and flew kites on the lawn.
I enjoyed my time until I woke up one morning and the radio announced “It’s a beautiful 12 degrees out!” I started crying and couldn’t stop. I’m from California. I don’t do snow. That’s when I took a transfer to Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. On New Year’s Day I was suntanning at Blue Beach. And that is a whole other adventure for another time.