Inside the Astounding Auction of a Gilded Age Socialite's Newport Mansion
Of all the superb houses Newport grand dame Eileen Slocum occupied before her death ten years ago, the most important to her role and image as a formidable social leader was 459 Bellevue Avenue. It was built for her uncle and aunt, Harold and Georgette Wetmore Brown, in 1894; the austere granite exterior of the baronial structure designed by local practitioner Dudley Newton.
An interior décor of opulent dissonance was devised for the home by Ogden Codman. An exceptional architect, Codman was Edith Wharton’s dearest friend and together they co-wrote the best seller, The Decoration of Houses. Along with his personally designed pieces, all the contents in Slocum’s house were considered the finest merchandise obtainable; all custom made or supplied by prestige firms like Tiffany & Co., Wedgwood, Cartier, and Waterford.
The house's ground floor was built for entertaining.
Understandably then, the auction of her marvelous possessions on Saturday, September 22 by Nadeau's Auction Gallery was a
The sale’s variety included gold hat pins, porcelain services for 20, 30 or 40 and their remnants, antique textiles, festooned finger bowls, fine furniture, and examples of every sort of object possible to craft from sterling silver. In this last category were 18 Chinese export silver place card holders, designed as spider’s webs. While a set of six ravishing Louis XVI style gilded chairs, upholstered in cherry-colored silk, realized a mere $700 these objects of esoteric arcana were hammered in at a whopping $7,000.
“The prices were great!” said curator Bill Stout, who scooped up high-quality glassware and
“Mrs. Slocum spent a lifetime gathering, cherishing,
“She’s my grandmother and everything you say is true," agreed Phyllis Trevor Higgerson. "But we ten cousins concurred: there was no other fair way. We’re all spread out, and a chair like that,” she added, pointing to one that is rumored to have belonged to King Louis XIV, “those proportions don’t fit the way we live today.”
Slocum hosted former presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush along with other political figures like Dick Cheney and Elizabeth Dole.
All told, a tireless auctioneer dispatched over 400 lots, mostly of inherited bounty gathered over three centuries from around the globe by Mrs. Slocum’s New England ancestors. Dealing in slaves, opium, real estate, the railroad industry, and high finance, the Browns,
Born in 1915, Eileen S. S. Gillespie married John Jermaine Slocum, a noted bibliophile
As shocking to some as the rejection of an Astor was the wedding of Mrs. Slocum’s elder daughter Beryl in 1969. She’d had several proposals from wealthy friends before meeting African American journalist Adam Clayton Powell III. Their union made national headlines and
Beryl had lived with her aunt during high school when her parents, John and Eileen Slocum, were away, occupied by a combination of cultural and secretive diplomatic duties. And it was this substitute-mother who promised, “Of course, if you do this, we can never speak to you again.”
Not only was this threat carried out to the letter, but the new bride was also summarily stricken from the Social Register.
Eileen Slocum was a determined member of, and fundraiser for, the Republican party. Lamenting how half her family’s seemingly inexhaustible fortune went to inheritance taxes and how one by one their imposing abodes were each let go, Mrs. Slocum saw the GOP as her savior. “Eileen imagined that wealth was not a matter of chance, but of cunning, know-how, and intelligent strategy, including advantageous marriages,” Lewis Lapham told me.
Her daughter Beryl Powell drew a different conclusion for her mother's motivation: “I think it’s fair to say that few people who live in big houses are ever really happy.”
Rearing her family and entertaining lavishly and often, Mrs. Slocum happily led a Downton Abbey-like existence. Retinues of servants in livery assured that fires were laid and lighted, that brass and silver were kept brightly polished. In the same way, well-ironed Irish linen bed sheets and elaborately monogrammed pillow-slips were changed daily. Afternoon tea, featuring Lapsang souchong, was a comforting ritual. And, although it was permissible for friends to request a highball or cocktail, coffee was never served to guests at tea.
Without question, things will be different here from now on. Try as they might the new owners were not successful in acquiring all the specially designed Codman pieces they bid on. Reaching their $10,000 limit for the immense mahogany dining table, they were outbid by the owner of a bed and breakfast offering $11,000.
The property’s new owners Jim McCann and Tara Griffin with Beryl Slocum Powell, Sherman Powell, Mrs. Daniel Leckrone, and Sophie Giran.
The home's new owners are Wall Street star Jim McCann and his wife Tara Griffin, who works for Apple. They have raised their four children in a series of historic houses. In the
In truth, almost no one’s is. But one important thing seems unchanged. Parting after discussing the sale, the new master of 459 Bellevue Avenue urged me to return. Finger bowls may have vanished, but a tradition of gracious welcome endures.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.