The ritual of brunch at Bailey's Beach, a private club where the oldest Newport families still come to be rich and thin together, is an ancestral and vaguely incestuous mosh pit. A turn-of-the-century institution that was rebuilt after the hurricane of 1938 and frequented by a succession of nicely aged bloodlines, the rambling assortment of simple cabanas and no-fuss buildings is still run by the Spouting Rock Beach Association (it takes its name from the tidal spume that gushes up through a nearby cliff).
Next to the haves of life who typify Bailey's are the denizens of tiny "Rejects Beach," an eternal joke used by members to describe the unanointed who lurk and swim around the fringes of the club, which is nestled in a rock-adorned cove. Save for the cutting wire of class, no fence separates the public from one of America's most exclusive and secretive clubs, a very private enclave of WASP aristocracy. All beaches are open to ordinary mortals in Newport, though the aesthetic hierarchy is as invincible and mysterious as the pecking order among stray dogs: Bailey's has the best-looking, thinnest, best-mannered crowd; Rejects is close behind; and the larger beaches down the road, such as Gooseberry, are dotted with potbellies, beer coolers, and average Joes.
In Newport, as in many places across America, country clubs are semiotic semaphore, guideposts to a certain kind of existence on the hamster wheel of status. Bailey's Beach is particularly intricate. A sign at the clay courts reads TENNIS WHITES ONLY, but there's also that primal summer aroma of cheeseburgers and hot dogs, as well as a saucy cartoon in the lobby, of dogs standing at a urinal. Weekends are a gentle hum of giggling children, clinking glasses, the prancing of golden youth, clambakes, and where-have-all-the-good-times-gone hangover chatter.
Throughout a cozy meal, I'm careful not to openly take notes, my hosts having warned me that journalists—especially visiting social reporters like myself, from nouveau Miami—are beyond the pale in the Bailey's pantheon. But after lunch, one of the glossier kids introduces himself and promptly dismisses the circumstance of his last name on the Bailey's legacy list. All that old family nonsense is so, well, old to bright young things leaping into the new age: "You're from Miami, right?" he says. "I DJ all over the place. I'm going down to South Beach next week to spin at this club. You should write about me, maybe something like, 'The little rich kid who could.'"
And so it goes in Newport, the little rich town that could, firing on all cylinders on the kind of flawless day that inspired Newport devotee Henry James's unequivocal utterance to Edith Wharton: "Summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." Much of the beauty remains the same—countless classic wooden sailboats still tack across Narragansett Bay, though surfers are also now part of the equation—and downtown contains America's largest collection of 17th- and 18th-century architecture. As in Wharton's day, the clash between old and new money is always bubbling up through the shiny surface of life in Newport—a battle sharpened by a real estate boom and flare-ups of Hamptons-style flash. The cultural tone of the town is still poised between the bold sophistication of New York and the quieter cultivation of Boston, a subtlety perhaps lost on the endless day-tripping hordes swarming over the T-shirt-and-taffy-shop-filled harbor area. For regular Rhode Island folk, the Providence crowd and such, Newport is just a day at the beach and a stamping ground for nightlife. The weirdest little resort in America, Newport is a place with muscle—like Key West, Maine, and Plymouth Rock going out on a bender and spawning a hardy mutant. It's everything at once to every kind of visitor (sometimes too much in summer), but somehow, it all works.
Newport's claim to intellectual and moral rectitude has a tenuousness that goes back to 1639. The early settlers included not onlysummering plantation owners but also a motley crew of refugees from rampant Puritanism—slave-traders, pirates, smugglers, rum distillers, whale-blubber tycoons, and general vulgarians. Such cultural luminaries as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry James, and his brother, William, came later. For a short time before the American Revolution, Newport rivaled New York and Boston as a seaport. Things slacked off throughout the Depression; it then entered a raucous whorehouse-and-tattoo parlor period as a Navy tomcat town. After the Second World War, the Preservation Society of Newport County helped resuscitate the town's romantic past, especially along Bellevue, the avenue of dreams where the robber barons built their grand "summer cottages." The houses cost millions in 19th-century dollars, with the great architects of the day—Stanford White, Richard Morris Hunt—moving in for a killing. Each property has a morsel or two of beauty, such as the whimsical 1914 Chinese Tea House on the grounds of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont's baronial Marble House, or Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs's 1902 Rosecliff, which found its way into the Robert Redford film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. But the cumulative effect is Beverly Hills with a chill, depressing in a Day of the Locust way. On the hour, every hour, the bus tour crowd shuffles through the vast rooms and gapes at all the gilt like atavistic pilgrims, genuflecting before their dead betters.
In the end, many American creations have the potential to turn into Disney World, though Newport's history is put to good use day and night. Cliff Walk, a public path that winds along the oceanfront behind all the epic assertions of commerce, is a unique experience in this era of gated communities: on pretty days, local families have picnics on the lawns of unused mansions. And the best social sightseeing value in the country might be the summer rite of the $40-a-ticket garden party at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum, a kind of cultural clubhouse brimming with civility and Gilbert Stuart portraits, in continuous and well-bred operation since 1747. Outside, amid the gentle lawns and stylized topiary, a roiling ocean of Ascotesque sun hats, straw boaters, and colorful blazers—apparently inspired by the sherbet counter at Baskin-Robbins—make air-kiss conversation.
Saturday night at the candy store, where Warhol dined in celebrity state and the Farrelly brothers once worked as bartenders, is a New England version of New York in its 1980's a-go-go heyday.The circa-1780 building is officially named the Clarke Cooke House: natives call it the Candy Store, in memory of the days when the first floor was a combination bar and candy shop. Now it's a 25-year-old institution of the American caste system, a swarming anthill that contains the entire social hierarchy of Newport: the basement level is the Boom Boom Room, a sloppy dance club, and the first floor is for non-connected tourist-trade chumps. Most of the second floor, blocked off with velvet ropes, is for locals and yacht crews. On the awning-covered roof, the Sky Bar, protected by yet another set of ropes, a certain strain of society—from decadent trustafarians to patrician members of the ruling class—shows up every single summer weekend for dinner, dancing, and the indigenous art form of gossip.
Around midnight, the staff pushes back the tables at the Sky Bar, and the dancing commences with the eerily prophetic "Play That Funky Music White Boy." The arrival of Dennis Conner, who's won the holy grail of the America's Cup, creates an instant buzz: Newport is the national capital of yacht racing, and the town has never been the same since Conner lost to Australia off Newport in 1983. Conner is traveling tonight with his benefactor, Bill Koch—a great big piñata—and a man introduced as Rod Stewart's guitarist. The well-born Harper's editor Lewis Lapham turns up on the dance floor among the frug and fox-trot set, a glistening assortment of brand names that includes Andrew Roosevelt and the stunning Hilary Dick, a du Pont by birth. "As kids, we couldn't wait to sneak in here," Dick says. At closing time, the DJ plays the last-call standard, Kate Smith's version of "God Bless America."