To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the super rich are different from you and me — they keep camels in the conservatory. And, no, not just for a game of Clue (Cluedo for the British). There really were live camels kept at Rough Point Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, the family home of Doris Duke. Born as the only child of a tobacco tycoon in 1912, Doris Duke was designated as ‘the richest little girl in the world’ by the press. Being a millionaire in an era when the world was not full of billionaires meant Doris Duke had the freedom to do exactly as she pleased. And, did she ever.
The Mansions of Newport
Touring one or more Gilded Age mansion is an obligatory experience when visiting Newport Rhode Island. The American elite at the turn of the 20th Century flocked to Newport for their summer holidays. The mansions are just so surreal in their obvious display of wealth, magnificence and occasional lapse of good taste.
Rough Point is one of the great mansions of Newport. Rought Point was built by a member of the Vanderbilt family (Frederick). If you think a lot of Newport mansions were Vanderbilt cast-offs, it is probably because they were a large family. For example, Frederick was one of 8 siblings and his older brother built The Breakers. When Frederick tired of Rough Point, he sold it to a tin mine mogul who sold it eventually to the Dukes. The hotel where we stayed, the Vanderbilt Grace, was also another Vanderbilt mansion the family discarded.
No visit to Newport would be complete without some tangential Vanderbilt connection. We also visited The Breakers which seems to be one of the obligatory mansions that everyone visits. My daughter was fascinated with the room in which Consuelo Vanderbilt was locked until she agreed to marry the future Duke of Marlborough in 1895. Consuelo’s mother, Alva Vanderbilt, took no prisoners in securing the family’s social position. Her sister-in-law was another American heiress, Jennie Jerome, who became the mother of Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain during World War II. Until Consuelo produced an heir and a spare, Jennie’s sons would have been heir to the dukedom and you can bet Alva was not best pleased. Consuelo wrote her sad story down in an autobiography in the 1950’s, The Glitter and The Gold.
For a fictionalised account of American Gilded Age Princess marries an impoverished British Duke, check out My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin.
Another Poor Little Rich Girl
Conventional wisdom say money doesn’t make you happy and the politically correct response is to agree with this sentiment. On the other hand, money gives you plenty of leeway to be as eccentric as you want.
Doris was 12 when she inherited Rough Point (and $80 million) upon the death of her father in 1925. The family money had come from tobacco plantations which her grandfather had scooped up during the chaos that ended the American Civil War. The Dukes lived large but were also generous with charitable donations. The family gave a sizeable donation to a little college in North Carolina which renamed itself Duke University, still one of the foremost universities in the United States today.
Doris was also a shrewd businesswoman and managed to increase massively the inheritance her father left her. She used some of that money acquiring fabulous art and antiques for the home, much of which is still available to view now at Rough Point. Among the many treasures are paintings by Renoir, van Dyck and Gainsborough, Belgian tapestries and Chinese porcelain.
The public though were fascinated with the scandals that Doris created. She was married three times but also had a child out of wedlock who unfortunately died. She travelled the world, met with mystics and witch doctors, and fell under the thrall of her butler. Doris died in 1993 from complications from a facelift she had. She was choking on breakfast and the butler refused to call an ambulance. Doris left the butler control over her entire fortune (approximately $1.2 billion) which lead to a court case. The butler lost the rights to her fortune but the court couldn’t find evidence Doris was murdered.
Rough Point was opened to the public in 2000 as a museum upon Doris’ death. Much of the rest of Doris Duke’s money went to her relative, a heroin addict, who had twin children he treated like slaves and locked in a basement. Thank goodness there is plenty of money still left for good therapy for those children.
Rough Point Mansion in Newport
Rough Point was built in the style of an English country house in the late 19th century and named after a promontory on the cliffs it overlooked. When the Dukes purchased the house, they enlarged the outside and modified the interior. Rough Point has 1115 rooms so there are plenty of spare bedrooms.
The tour itself was a great experience because they are lead by tour guides. Our guide was great with our children (keeping them engaged with look and find questions). There’s plenty of details for the kids to search for. She was also a knowledgeable source of information for the adults. For example, the ballroom/music room was planned out by Doris herself. She bought 2 lots of Chinese wall hangings at auction which were near enough in appearance to decorate the whole room.
Doris notoriously ran her car over her interior designer of Rough Point and killed him. Perhaps he disagreed with her flamboyant choice of mother-of-pearl, purple and yellow for the master bedroom suite? Although the police deemed it an accident, she reached a financial settlement with his family in court. The rumours reported that she had been drunk.
The grand staircase was imported in whole from an English manor house and installed at Rough Point. The stained glass depicts the coats of arms of the signers of the Magna Carta. Likewise, the wood panelled rooms had the panelling imported from an English manor house which was being stripped. One such room is the Great Hall which is effectively used as an art gallery.
The conservatory was supposed to have been Doris’ favourite room. The conservatory has fabulous views over the manicured lawns to the Atlantic Ocean.
The gardens were laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead, the renowned landscape architect famous for designing Central Park in New York City.
Doris Duke and her Camels
So, what’s the story with the camels?
Doris Duke kept her camels, named Baby and Princess, sheltered in the conservatory of Rough Point during a hurricane in 1991. The rest of the time they had their own sheltered tent just outside the conservatory. A little window in the room (a “camel port”) let people feed them treats.
Doris purchased planes from Adnan Kashoggi (Saudi Arabian business man and international arms dealer) and insisted 2 camels be thrown in as well. She got the planes but not the camels. What’s an eccentric heiress to do? She went and bought her own 2 camels and billed Kashoggi for their cost.
The camels travelled in a horse trailer up from her New Jersey mansion to summer in Newport. They were infamous for chasing the security guards around the grounds for the occasional bite.
The camel topiaries no doubt keep the spirit of Princess and Baby at the house (and the security guards on their toes).
Visiting Rough Point Mansion
Rough Point on the famous Bellevue Avenue is definitely worth seeing. It provides a counterpart to the Vanderbilt stories you will hear in Newport. The Vanderbilts may not have liked it, but there were other rich people in the USA!
I would have loved to take more photos but photography is limited inside Rough Point because of all the priceless treasures it contains. Tours are limited to 12 people at a time and are available from May to November. Mercifully, there is no gift shop you have to drag the children out of because Doris though gift shops were tacky (yay!).
Tips for A Family Visit to The Newport Mansions
- There are lots of mansions and you should choose just a couple. The mansions themselves are massive with lots of art and objects d’art and so not the easiest of topics.
- We chose The Breakers because its so famous and it had the ginormous children’s playhouse. We chose Rough Point because it was a non-Vanderbilt house and we thought the kids would think the camels were funny.
- Take the Newport Trolley to Bellevue Avenue because that is very cute and the kids will like it.
- We took part of the Cliff Walk in between our mansion visits. Clambering around on rocks was fun and also expended some extra energy. You can get on the Cliff Walk by Bellevue Avenue and it is basically between the mansions and the ocean. For extra fun, there is a little bridge over the water where the Cliff Walk meets Rough Point Mansion. Bonus: Lots of lawn space in front of the mansions for the kids to have a run.