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Sunday
Dec012013

Right Coast Newport and Thanksgiving Leftovers

When I lived in Newport  (the one on the Left Coast), one of the local magazines coined the phrase “Affluenza” which meant visibly (though perhaps not actually) wealthy.  Mercedes and BMW’s aplenty.  Bling everywhere. 

McMansions.  This is actually the neighborhood that become The OC, under construction.

The women wore “short, black and tight.” Surgically enhanced everything.  The men were wealthy.  Or at least highly leveraged.  Shortly thereafter came the rise of “The OC” and “Real Housewives of Orange County” both filmed in my neck of the woods.

That’s nothing compared to Newport, Rhode Island.

What does this have to do with Christmas (you ask?)

We visited the Newport Mansions this past weekend.  In December, three of the largest are open and decorated for Christmas. 

I thought The Hearst Castle was grand, but it’s dwarfed by The Breakers, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s weekend cottage. 

Measuring a mere 135,000 square feet, with 70 rooms, it sits on the Cliff Walk, and dares you to compare it to anything but Buckingham Palace.  We also visited The Elms, a cottage built by the coal magnate, Edward Berwind, who supplied the fuel for Vanderbilt’s steamships, then his railroads, Carnegie’s steel mills, and Rockefeller’s oil refineries. 

Cozy arrangement, no?

Not to be outdone by anyone in Paris, Cornelius’s daughter Alva Vanderbilt, built The Marble House.   Modeled after The Petit Trianon, the smaller of King Louis XV’s palace at Versaille, Alva stole architecture (and sometimes other things like mantels and ceilings) from anything French.

Mrs. Vanderbilt:  “If it’s good enough for King Louis, it’s good enough for us.”

Her husband:  “Whatever, dear.”

Well, she did wear the pants in the family, being an heiress and all.

The dining room chairs were made of bronze and covered in gold, to match King Louis' chairs made of silver.  They weighed in at 75 pounds for the guests, and 125 pounds for the armchairs.  A servant behind each chair was required to help each guest pull up a chair to the table.

The estimates of what it would take to build The Breakers today, at $22 Million, seems way off base.  I’d say more like $100 Million.   Not including the furniture and the drapes.

From my perspective, once you have seen one coffered ceiling stolen from a palace in France, you’ve seen them all.  I was more fascinated by the kitchens and butler’s pantries.

But it was not the buildings that most impressed me.  Yes, clearly these were built to portray immense wealth and power.  And they do.  But it was the men who built them that fascinated me.

The Men Who Built America is a very recent documentary from The History Channel. (See the Link at the bottom of the side panel on the Fun Stuff page.)  We happened to catch it while channel surfing over the Thanksgiving Weekend, and we were hooked.

I don‘t remember learning much about these men in school.  It seems history went from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, to the Mexican American War, to the World Wars.  Yeah, we discussed the Industrial Revolution, but that was a cast of thousands.

Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, JP Morgan and Ford.  Those names are familiar to all of us.  But did we really understand what they did, and how these five changed the face of America?

Did you know they all knew each other?  Did you know they competed, coerced, spied on, blackmailed, attempted murder and partnered with each other? 

They defied the US Government.  They bought the US Government.  They bought themselves a President.  (Sound familiar?)

By today’s standards, Carnegie and Rockefeller had a combined net worth of more than 3 Trillion dollars.  Today, they would blow past Bill Gates and Rupurt Murdoch as if those two were standing still.

Four episodes, 90 minutes each, covering Vanderbilt’s rise just after the Civil War, through Henry Ford’s defiance of the Automotive industry to produce a car that even the workers making the car could afford.  If you have a chance to see it on the History Channel, don’t miss it.  I just purchased the DVD collection from their web site.   A steal at $29.95 with a 25% coupon.

Perfect to settle in front of a fire with a bowl of Turkey Paprikash Soup, and Cranberry Chutney, my take on Thanksgiving Leftovers. 

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