On a hot afternoon in the waning days of Newport's high season, I found myself outside an enormous red sandstone estate called Rough Point, trying desperately to get a green 1969 MG Roadster into gear. The last resident of the late-19th-century mansion, commissioned by a scion of the Vanderbilt family in the English country manner, was the tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Late in her fascinating, scandal-ridden life, she founded the Newport Restoration Foundation, which is credited with saving many of the town's historic buildings. After her death, Rough Point became a museum decked out in her extravagant and whimsical furniture—an everlasting tribute to how the top one percent of the one percent once lived.
The car had been arranged by The Vanderbilt, where I was staying, and I was late for an “experience” that had been planned for me—sampling absinthe at the hotel's clandestine bar. As I finally found first gear and haltingly exited the enormous circular driveway, two tourists walked past. “Did they film any scenes here?” one asked excitedly.
“Not that I saw,” replied the other. “But I'm only on episode four! I did hear, though, that the owner ran over her decorator by the front gate.”
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The tourists were chattering about The Gilded Age, the hit HBO television series that has added yet another incentive for travelers to visit this storied enclave, in addition to the rich American history, the over-the-top ostentation, the epicurean delights, and the never-ending social scandal. Set just off the mainland, on Aquidneck Island, Newport is arguably America's most enduring playground for extreme wealth—a position, it must be acknowledged, that the city achieved partly through its role in the trade of enslaved people, an aspect of its history that it has only recently begun to acknowledge.