Newport's nightlife is never boring, unlike that of some choking-with-chowder-and-anomie New England summer towns. In the emerging Broadway district—Newport's version of the East Village—there's Pop, a bright orange-and-yellow spot with candles and a fireplace (the sort of place that serves mashed potatoes and tenderloin tips in martini glasses). El Diablo's, a tiny Asian-Mexican fusion café, has a sound track that jumps from Hank Williams to Iggy Pop. Down the street is Salvation Café, a similarly jolly fifties-style joint. On the fringes of Broadway, Billy Goode's Tavern—a former speakeasy—brims with a cross section of workingman society: a huge former cop is singing a delicate show tune for some Portuguese fishermen. Originally a male-only establishment—the policy didn't change until legal action was taken in 1977—Goode's used to open at 6 a.m. One regular proudly notes: "This has always been an alcoholics' bar." Around the corner, another low haunt is also embracing the life-is-a-cabaret dialectic. A group of lads gone wild have erupted into an inchoate roar, shirtless and shoving one another as if they were Mongol warriors. At all levels of Newport society, a problem drinker is someone who can't keep up—if only the Puritans could come back and frighten off the nightly spectacle of stumbling frat boys and local drunks.
At this hour, the waterfront is looking even more squalid than usual, so my expedition team and I hop into a borrowed Jaguar for a mansion tour. We tool past Lands End, the former residence of Edith Wharton—and stop in front of Clarendon Court, the former residence of Sunny and Claus von Bülow. Out of nowhere, a well-dressed man runs pell-mell down an empty street off Bellevue, up to no good but politely pausing at the stop sign, a bad David Lynch movie come to life.
Unfortunately, the sober Starbucks has set up camp downtown (along with such monstrosities of the 1970's and 80's as the seven-story Marriott on America's Cup Avenue, Brick Marketplace, and the enormous Hyatt Regency on nearby Goat Island). On the other hand, fishing boats still come to the very real docks behind the Aquidneck Lobster Co. on Bowen's Wharf; Clarke Street boasts an unbroken ribbon of 18th-century bed-and-breakfasts; and the Jane Pickens Theater, named after a local society girl radio star, is a conceit of pure fifties movie house charm. Here and there, the clapboard walls of old buildings have bowed out over time like overripe tomatoes, adding an improbable beauty their builders could never have envisioned.
Now downtown works as a model of New Urbanism, obeying all the pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use laws of that development movement without the unsettling perfection of its brand spanking new neighborhoods. A short walk from the harbor is the Point, a time-warp section of town with absolutely no tourist-driven establishments. Many of the simple houses and perfect little gardens are named after their builders—the Elliott Boss House, 1820; Hunter House, 1748—and feature carved pineapples, a seaport symbol of hospitality. The more lavish waterfront properties on Washington Street yield to the slightly funkier ones on Second Street, and on the weathered front porch of an old house converted into apartments, a group of neighbors have gathered for a barbecue. Theresa Wosencroft is enjoying the soft dusk as the host, Artie Jenkins, laughs and hands me a beer: "You're in the ghettoized section of Newport," he tells me. "We don't have yards, just porches. Stay awhile and have some dinner." Earlier in the day, I spent an hour at the Bellevue Avenue house of an acquaintance from Miami and wasn't even offered a glass of water, despite the presence of a hovering butler. Newport is always good for a social lesson or two.
True fun is a democratic proposition, and just out of town on Memorial Boulevard lies a string of beaches—Easton's, or First Beach, then Second Beach—spread out like a familyland paradise, with a vintage carousel, a frozen-lemonade truck, and the Newport Exploration Center, a satellite of the New England Aquarium. Farther along is the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, the wonderful Norman Bird Sanctuary, and the less crowded Third Beach. On the other end of town, picnickers can join the hundreds of kite fliers at Brenton Point State Park, take in the Museum of Yachting at Fort Adams, or simply bask in cocktail nirvana on the vast waterfront lawn of the Castle Hill Inn & Resort, which resembles a great big wedding cake. On weekends, just down the road from the inn, the old-line stalwart Minnie Cushing Coleman, once married to photographer Peter Beard, puts out an assortment of eggs—collected from her own chickens—by the front gate of her cottage, for sale on the honor system to whomever might drive by.
But the absolute best public attraction in Newport is Rough Point, the former home of one of its wealthiest residents, Doris Duke, who died mysteriously in 1993 as a tabloid star, with butler and companion Bernard Lafferty, the U.S. Trust, and assorted lawyers fighting over her billion-dollar estate. These days Duke's Newport Restoration Foundation runs her holdings in town, including some 79 restored and rented-out Colonial houses. (Duke used to buy up stretches of city blocks like a Monopoly kingpin.)
Rough Point had been yet another Vanderbilt outpost,constructed on 10 acres in 1891, with landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1922, Duke's father, tobacco magnate James B. Duke, bought the place, poured money into an ambitious renovation, and then promptly passed on, a phenomenon the natives call "Fix-up, croak, and Sotheby's." Doris was his only child, a 12-year-old whose ineffably sad portrait still hangs in the grand staircase. The poor little rich girl grew up to be a renowned beauty, art collector, pianist, wanderer, and animal lover. Two camels, Princess and Baby, once strolled the grounds of Rough Point.
Duke also kept estates in Beverly Hills, New Jersey, and Hawaii; Rough Point has been left exactly as it was when she died—a 1971 Architectural Digest is lovingly displayed on a table as if it were fresh from the printer—and is deranged in the best possible way. The decorative jumble includes a 1780 Joshua Reynolds portrait of the Duchess of Marlborough, a set of 1510 Flemish tapestries, needlepoint pillows that read MY DECISION IS MAYBE AND THAT'S FINAL, parquet floors imported from a French château, and a mirrored disco ball dangling over the basement pool. Duke's cotton robe and cheap rubber bathing cap still hang in the changing room. In the truly insane master bedroom, a blinding set of Charles X mother-of-pearl furniture is accented by purple curtains, yellow walls, Renoir's Portrait of a Young Girl Sewing, and Duke's 1920's trophy from a Bailey's Beach sandcastle contest.
The longtime estate manager, Phil Mello, has an interesting perspective on the gestalt of Rough Point. When asked about the more celebrated houseguests, he flips through a little black address book to refresh his memory: "Well, there was Liz Taylor, Martha Graham, and Jim Nabors. Burt Reynolds stayed here, along with that pretty ex-wife of his—that's right, Loni Anderson. And Imelda Marcos was always in the house: her maids would sit up all night long in her room while she slept."
The history of loot is everywhere in Newport and not pretty: invariably, the farther you get from the money, that fetishized ecosystem of grand houses and private clubs, the better life becomes. For a supposedly tasteful little resort, the high end of town is awash in an endless din of suffering and schadenfreude. Much of the town's pain emanates from the clubs and all the "unclubbable" newcomers who are excluded from being members. But wherever you go, someone or other can't wait to tell you something juicy about their best friend, or about the mighty doyenne of old-guard society whose son has just been indicted on polite white-collar crime charges, or the unmitigated gall and extravagance of the newest arriviste. Suddenly, none of Bellevue Avenue, the boulevard of ashes and dust, seems worth the cost, a toll taken that Mello understands all too well: "The very rich are funny people and lonely as hell. Even in Newport, there's such a thing as too much money."
Tom Austin is the features editor at Ocean Drive Magazine.