Thursday, August 11, 2011

Recent Travels: Third Stop

I was born in Newport, RI, right at the end of WW II.  Nine months after it concluded, actually.  My parents must have been feeling a new optimism.  I never spent any time there and until fairly recently I had only been back once, when I was a teenager.  Still, I have always felt attached to our smallest state and proud to call it my birthplace.

After leaving Boston, we made our way to East Greenwich, RI, where a dear friend of mine lives.  Our visit with her was restorative and relaxing, as well as intellectually stimulating.  I don't want to dwell on her story, but thinking of her makes me ponder once again the value of friendship.  I have almost always had a "best" friend.  My first was a little girl who lived up the street from me in the small town in Pennsylvania where I lived my first nine years.  I don't remember a time when I didn't know her.  I had other friends too; our neighborhood was teeming with kids.  But she was my closest friend, and when we moved to Indiana I missed her terribly.  My little grandson's best friend just moved to New York city, and I sympathize with the boys.  Parting from your childhood best friend is the first loss most of us encounter, and it hurts.

Here's what I find intriguing: how is it that so few of the people we know actually make it to that inner circle of "best friendness?"  Just now I have what I consider a large number of best friends, and I can count them on one hand.  We don't fall in love with every man we know or want to parent our friends' children, so perhaps it's only natural that our intimates are few.  I consider a best friend to be someone I can call on the phone at any time for no particular reason, just to talk.  In order to be completely happy, I need at least one such friend at all times.  There have been times when all my friends were "social" or "couple" friends, and they're fun too.  But I need a friend I can be totally open with and totally myself.  My visit to Rhode Island reminded me just how true this is.

Shifting gears, I'd like to talk now a bit about our day in Newport, where we visited the Elms and the Breakers, two of the many mansions built along the sea by wealthy nineteenth century industrialists, such as the Vanderbilts.  These amazing dwellings were built mainly as summer homes, yet they were as opulent as a king's small palace.  America may not have a certified aristocracy, but we did have our own version of "Upstairs, Downstairs."  The Breakers had a staff of over forty to cook, clean, tend the gardens, and serve the master's family.  That's a lot of people to manage one family's home.  But what really impressed me (if that is the right word) was the house itself.  (Somehow "house" doesn't do it justice.)  It was like a giant jewel box, with intricate designs on every wall, some gilded with platinum, as well as gold.  There were acres of imported marble and chandeliers whose crystals must have reflected candle light in a most romantic way.  The Breakers, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II (I think it was, the brother of the one who built Biltmore House in NC), was designed to impress.  It was the site of many a ball and dinner party, and I have to admit to being a bit overwhelmed by the whole enterprise.  I could imagine being a young woman whose sole purpose in life was to please her family and friends by marrying a wealthy or a titled man.  Those balls and dinner parties were not just fun, they were a high stakes engagement with a larger world where social connections meant everything.

I don't know if the Vanderbilts' several daughters felt their position to be a burden or an entitlement.  At least one of them went on to be a success in her own right.  She married a Whitney (I love how these people refer to themselves as a this or a that, as though a family were a category) and went on to found the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.  I fear I might have felt the whole rich girl role to be too much, but I am sure I would have twirled around the dance floor with abandon anyway.  What else was a woman to do?

I am left with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the whole Newport scene, with its mansions overlooking the Atlantic and its amazing gardens, is beautiful, a wonder to behold.  On the other, it is an egregious display of wealth from a day when there were no income taxes and a rich man's fortune didn't have to be shared with anyone.  I can't help thinking about the poor marble cutters in Italy or the sweating workers in dangerous factories or the frazzled kitchen help who made this whole edifice possible.  There is something unseemly, something gauche, about such flamboyance, yet without these millions there would be no art, no great architecture, no beauty to inspire and awe.  This is something that has always bothered me: is a great disparity of wealth necessary to the creation of monumental art?  I fear the answer is yes.  What would St. Petersburg be without the wealth of the czars?

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