To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the super rich are different from you and me — they keep camels in the conservatory and have playhouses for their children that are bigger than the average American home.
There really were live camels kept at the Doris Duke house, Rough Point in Newport Rhode Island. 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. .Likewise, the Vanderbilt family were the richest family in the USA in the late 19th century. Visiting their Newport mansion on a guided Breakers tour really just highlights what a rarefied world the Vanderbilt lived in.
Being a millionaire in an era when the world was not full of billionaires meant Doris Duke and the Vanderbilts had the freedom to do exactly as they pleased. And, they certainly did.
The Mansions of Newport
Taking Gilded Age Newport mansion tours is an obligatory experience when visiting this Rhode Island town. 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.
There are several Newport mansion tours each with their own take on this historic slice of American social history. With children in tow though, we had to limit our choices down to two Newport mansion. So we visited one Vanderbilt house (the Breakers tour) and Doris Duke’s mansion in Newport.
Rough Point Newport Rhode Island
Rought Point in Newport Rhode Island 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 Breakers Tour
Among the most popular of the Newport Mansion tours, we also visited The Breakers. The grandest of these summer cottages, the Breakers Vanderbilt house seems to be one of the obligatory mansions that everyone visits. One of America’s great industrialist families, the Vanderbilt were not only huge in numbers but also rulers of American high society.
This Cornelius Vanderbilt house was constructed in 1893 at a cost of more than $300 million in today’s money. Built in the Italian Renaissance style, the house is a cold marble mausoleum which is the furthest thing I can think of from today’s idea of a summer home.
The Breakers even comes with its own (relatively) apint-sized replica which served as a playhouse for the Vanderbilt kids.
Poor Little Rich Girl
On the Breakers Tour, 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.
Consuela Vanderbilt was locked in her bedroom by her mother until she agreed to marry the future 9th Duke of Marlborough. It’s a safe bet that Mama Vanderbilt was as cold as the marble that encased the Breakers Vanderbilt home. Consuelo wrote her sad story down in her 1950’s autobiography, The Glitter and The Gold.
Consuela’s 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.
Doris Duke Newport RI
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.
Another Poor Little Rich Girl
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.
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 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 rumour millsreported that she had been drunk.
The Suspicious 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.
You Can’t Take It With You
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
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 115 rooms so there are plenty of spare bedrooms.
Doris Duke Mansion Tour
The Doris Duke mansion 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.
Doris was 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 the Doris Duke house in Newport Among the many treasures are paintings by Renoir, van Dyck and Gainsborough, Belgian tapestries and Chinese porcelain.
It seems that Americans have long been fascinated with importing crumbling European architecture to the USA.
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 Doris Duke estate 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, why were there camels at the Doris Duke house in Newport?
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 Doris Duke’s Newport mansion.
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.
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 and The Breakers
Rough Point on the famous Bellevue Avenue is definitely worth seeing. It provides a counterpoint to The Breakers Vanderbilt extravaganza. The Vanderbilts may not have liked it, but there were other rich people in the USA!
Newport Mansion Tours
The Doris Duke Mansion 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!).
The Breakers is open daily from May to March annually except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. For the summer of 2018, a Welcome Center was opened at The Breakers. In addition to the main house tour, you can sign up for a Beneath the Breakers Tour which explores the life of the servants who kept this grand mansion humming.
Where To Stay in Newport RI
The hotel where we stayed, the Grace Vanderbilt , was also another Vanderbilt mansion the family discarded. After all, no visit to Newport would be complete without some tangential Vanderbilt connection.
Check out the excellent reviews for the Grace Vanderbilt on TripAdvisor!
For the latest rates for the Grace Vanderbilt, here are a selection of travel booking sites:Booking.com Expedia Hotels.com
Tips for A Family Taking Newport Mansion Tours
Newport Rhode Island is known for its Gilded Age summer cottages. There are several ways though to make a Newport mansion tour fun for kids.
Limit Your Newport Mansion Tours
There are so many Newport mansion tours and you should choose just a couple of mansions. The mansions themselves are massive with lots of art and objects d’art and so not the easiest of topics to engage children.
We stuck with just two Newport mansion Tours:
- First, The Breakers because it seemed an obligatory Newport mansion tour and it had the ginormous children’s playhouse.
- We also went to the Doris-Duke house because it was a non-Vanderbilt mansion and we thought the kids would like the camels connection.
Take the Newport Trolley
Take the Newport Trolley to Bellevue Avenue because that is very cute and the kids will like it. It’s easy to walk between the Breakers and the Doris Duke house.
Explore the Cliff Walk and the Landscaped Lawns
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 the Doris Duke estate.
Bonus: Lots of lawn space in front of the Newport mansions for the kids to have a run.
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