When I was eleven years old, my mother was in the naval reserves, and spent two weeks each summer serving at various ports around the country and internationally. That year, she was sent to Newport, R.I., and we decided to make it a vacation, having family that lived in Boston. I have incredibly fond memories of the coast and the ocean, with a similar nostalgia to a trip that my mother and I took when I was five or six to Bar Harbor, Maine. The east coast was a surreal, strange world of formality, foliage, and landscape that differed greatly from my hometown of Pittsburgh.
During that trip to Newport, my most pronounced memories were touring the mansions tucked into a cliffside of the town, raised with grandiosity above the ocean below. They were the summer playgrounds of the country’s wealthiest families during the booming age of industry. The Vanderbilts, especially, were enamored with the rugged coastline granting endless views of the ocean, and silky, smooth beaches in the towns below. I remember touring home after home, feeling as though the entire purpose of each was just to outdo what I had seen in the mansion prior. Of all these, my favorite obsession became Breakers, so named for the water that jumped in angry, upward sprays as it hit the jagged coastline directly below, huge boulders rising from the waters to protect the hillside above.
Breakers was built to be the grandest of the grand. Composed of an obscene amount of marble and stone, it was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the first version, and is adorned with the trappings of luxury that would almost be unheard of now: rooms painted with so many gold accents that they glow; platinum walls; wallpaper made from embossed leather stippled with gold leaf for a more ‘subtle’ effect. Elaborately carved furniture, enormous stained glass windows, silk covered chaise lounges. Everything in the home spoke to how important Vanderbilt regarded not only his status, but what he felt he deserved as a result.
My favorite room in the house was always the kitchen, with its elaborate stove system without open flames (thanks to the pesky, previous fire), and huge, zinc-covered table in the center of the room for preparation, with an enormous pot rack suspended above, housing every kind of copper pot and pan imaginable, hanging at the ready for whatever was needed to prepare the elaborate and fine meals that were expected and demanded. When I decided to extend a college reunion trip and travel to R.I. to visit family this fall, I knew that Newport had to be a stop along the way, along with Breakers.
It was the final day of my trip when I finally got the opportunity to check out the mansion. Riding up through the harbor center of town, and along Belleview Avenue, where other mansions and extraordinary homes sit, some behind fences for privacy, most open to the eye and inviting attention, felt like being a foreigner in an unknown country. This neighborhood was not just wealthy, it is status of elite and money that will be unimaginable to all but a very few.
After navigating the side streets, I finally came upon the parking lot for Breakers, situated my rental car, and trudged through the fine mist spitting at me from the overcast sky. The entrance was unmistakable, announced by an enormous, towering wrought iron gate attached to a cut stone wall, shielding the property from the street. Walking through the gates, shoes crunching on the gravel of the driveway, the house immediately announces its presence with its incredible size and ornate details: carved stone figures and columns, large windows, marble inlay.
Walking inside, the tour is now self-led, carried on with an ipod-type device and headphones that activate in each room. The Great Room, with its carpeted red staircase created specifically for women to be ‘presented’ to society; glassy, smooth marble columns; and ceiling painstakingly painted with the sky, immediately lets one know that this is not a place where ordinary people spent their days.
And so, the tour went, every room on the first floor a bit more ornate than the next, from hand-cut marble, mosaic tiling to the room with so much gold leaf you can almost feel the warmth of the sun reflected in its walls. Furniture covered in velvet and leather, appearing as fresh as it might have a century prior. A home designed as a palace, with the same barely-lived in appearance. The second floor boasted more modesty, with softly carved bedroom sets and muted colors and tones in direct opposition to the bold reds, blues, and greens below. It lacked the same Victorian disposition above thanks to the designer who favored clean lines and less clutter.
Walking room to room, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to live in such splendor day after day. In the bedroom of one of the daughters, the tour lamented to my ear how she was distressed to learn she was an heiress, concerned about finding someone who would be able to look past her wealth and love her for her as a person. I ruminated on how that is the basic desire of any human: rich, poor, or more than ever, those caught in various economies between, and how simple a request it was from someone who had more than she could ever desire.
After the tour concluded in the Butler’s pantry, a huge storage room by the kitchen displaying the various china and silver the family possessed and used, I stepped outside into the miserable, cold weather and wandered about the quiet grounds. The feeling I left with was also chilly, not the fond moment from my childhood. I couldn’t shake the perspective I now carry as an adult, and as a hard-working, single parent for whom that life of luxury is not something I desire to pursue or engage, but basic survival is an everyday part of my consciousness. For most of us, it would be enough to just have enough. To not have debt, to not worry about rising costs of food and healthcare, to not have to mortgage our future when funding our education. But to have so much that you can make your walls with one of the most precious metals on earth simply because you can…that’s just outside my comprehension.
It’s also not something that I want to know. Walking around the opulence, my mind kept wandering to how eagerly and happily we live to put wealth on a pedestal. How I paid $24 to help ‘preserve’ a home that stands for what I feel is the absolute worst part of capitalism and its devastating effects: how it gives such ‘wealth’ to so few while forcing the majority to scramble and fight for what little is left, just to get by day in and day out. The further I got into the tour, the more I found that rather than evoking the awe and beauty of my youth, it left me feeling hollow and nauseous.
I thought about the rising cost of housing, and how likely middle class families in Newport are feeling the same pinch as the rest of the nation, as we are in Santa Fe, making it difficult to afford to stay in the communities where we work and want to live. Not dissimilar, my home town boasts empty luxury properties sitting in the mountain hillsides, with multi-million-dollar price tags and enough square footage for ten or more families, while on the desert floor people scramble to find a home that won’t eat away their entire paycheck.
Finishing the tour, I realized that mansions such as Breakers, and the idolization of the those who create monuments to what they conceive as their ‘individual success’, are the great symbolism for how we have been trained to worship those who we deem ‘rich’, while ignoring the needs of those who allow them to profit. In truth, there is never any success to that comes to a singular person alone. It is almost certainly borne by those who toil to create the perception of success, allowing very few to profit heartily in the interim. But we place those select men (and they usually are men) on pedestals, as the exemplary examples that we should follow to our own paths to riches.
What they don’t tell you is that most trails, especially if you are forging your own, rarely lead to the top. They often meander, are littered with thorns, jagged stones, and glass, can be overgrown, and come full circle. Those who have managed to make their way to the top of the mountain often got the assistance and benefit of a shortcut, or a paved road, generated by one of the many men who have come before, and whether conscious or not, have a vested interest in preserving their own white, patriarchal control.
One room felt especially gauche: the music room, covered almost ceiling to floor in gold leaf with settees upholstered in raised maroon velvet on cream fabric. I couldn’t help but think of Donald Trump and the photo of his family, his son riding a toy lion as Trump sits cross-ankled in a footed chair with gold accents to match the ceiling, walls, and tops of his marble columns. Like Vanderbilt, Trump has deemed himself worthy of being granted whatever he desires, be it material goods, the presidency, or women.
I imagine it is a different way of navigating when you have the world at your fingertips: an expectation of fulfilled desires, no matter who is hurt or damaged along the way; an unquenchable sense of want; the concept that nothing is beyond your grasp, even as others suffer in your wake. Because when you are that removed from the people who have built the very pillar on which you stand, the only thing that matters to you, is you.
I have never had that intense desire for either fame or fortune. There are a hundred other ways I’d rather measure my wealth. I’d like to be free from student debt, or from the credit card debt I was saddled with during my divorce because I had good credit and the cards were all in my name. I’d like to be paid what I’m worth and not have to persistently ask for over a year for a raise to try to get to a pay that is equivalent to what other professionals in my field make, as the CEO of my institution brings home seven figures, just so I am able to keep up with the rising rent and healthcare costs. I’d like to have more disposable income to travel even more, and better, able to do so with my children. And I would really love to have extra money in my pocket to give to those who are less fortunate than I am on any given day.
As I bought my ticket for the tour, the female volunteer asked me if I wanted to upgrade to see another home. I didn’t think I would have the time, and declined. She told me not to worry, that I could present my receipt at any point in the future, and just pay the $5 difference for a different tour. She told me that it was good forever, because they wanted to keep us coming back.
Once the tour ended, I was sure I’ve seen my last mansion. There’s no way I could stomach anymore. As it is, this entire country is nothing more than a huge shrine to those who have taken full advantage of capitalism to fuel and fund their own cravings. The bottomless hunger for recognition, and drive for financial obscenity, overshadow the notion that we could ALL have so much more if we stopped buying into a system that tells us if we each do just a bit more, get just one more degree, work a little harder, hang our heads a bit lower, and ignore the discrepancies that exist to give a tiny percentage of the world economic advantage that impoverishes others. Without our allegiance to achievement, capitalism would crumble to dust. But out of that dissolution, perhaps, we could build a system that works to the benefit of all its citizens, and not just those who suffer from Manifest Destiny syndrome. In the meantime, I support political candidates who understand that a basic principle of humanity requires us to recognize each other as humans who all have basic needs to be met, like health, education, and housing, and I’ll be voting for the same at every opportunity.
As for the $5 in my pocket I could spend viewing another memorial to the oligarchy? I’ll be giving that someone who truly needs it, because from where I’m sitting, barons like Vanderbilt and Trump have gotten much more than they ever deserve. And maybe it’s time to let the dream of excessive affluence die, so that something better than mansions can rise from the ashes.
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