Is New Money Changing High Society's Favorite Summer Destination Forever?

·23 min read
Photo credit: Getty Images / Town and Country - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Getty Images / Town and Country - Hearst Owned


“Hearst Magazines and Verizon Media may earn commission or revenue on some items through the links below.”

With a net worth of around $116 billion, Larry Ellison is the seventh-richest person in the world. He could live anywhere on the planet, but Newport, Rhode Island has captured his attention since 2010. That year, the Oracle co-founder purchased Beechwood, a Gilded Age mansion on Bellevue Avenue that was once a summer residence of the Astor family, for $10.5 million. Ellison now owns four properties in Newport, including Seacliff, an estate adjacent to Beechwood for which he reportedly paid $11 million in 2019. With that purchase, Ellison now owns all four properties between Rosecliff and Marble House, two of the “Newport Mansions” open to the public by the Preservation Society of Newport County.

Ellison has spent more than $100 million to renovate Beechwood and create a museum to house part of his art collection. He has had security guards posted at the construction site 24/7, according to a neighbor. So, with a mix of eager anticipation and worried trepidation, locals wondered if this would be the summer that Ellison would finally put down roots in town and bring his 288-foot yacht, Mushashi, to Newport harbor.

Photo credit: Phillip Faraone - Getty Images
Photo credit: Phillip Faraone - Getty Images

Ellison’s arrival in Newport coincides with two other famous faces buying property in the area: “Judge Judy” Sheindlin and comedian Jay Leno. In 2019, Sheindlin purchased the Bird House for $9 million. The estate was previously owned by Campbell’s Soup heiress Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton. Leno, meanwhile, paid $13.5 million for Seafair in 2017. The crescent-shaped, 15,861-square-foot home on Ocean Drive played host to President Barack Obama when he attended a Newport fundraiser in 2014.

And while the so-called nouveau riche have been buying and building estates in Newport since the Gilded Age (memorialized in an upcoming HBO series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes), insiders say the current influx of wealth—spurred on by the recent pandemic—has many wondering whether Newport is heading the way of the Hamptons.

“The money has been going out of the traditional families in Newport for a long time,” says photographer Nick Mele, who has been called a modern-day Slim Aarons. “The new generation are not able to sustain the lifestyles that their parents were able to.” He knows from experience. Following the 2018 death of Mele’s grandmother Marion “Oatsie” Charles, the noted Newport and Georgetown society figure, his family decided to sell her former house. Located on six acres, Land’s End had previously been Edith Wharton’s summer home, and it was listed for $11.7 million in 2019. The house sold for $8.6 million in April 2020. The new buyers were identified in the Wall Street Journal simply as “a family from Connecticut who had previously spent summers in the Newport area.”

Photo credit: Sam Dangremond
Photo credit: Sam Dangremond

“Anytime you get an old community that has had the same families in it for generations, you do get a sense of a sense of encroachment (‘this is our town’), but I think it’s just as much a sadness that the money is not in those families any more than it is that these new people are coming in, because there’s really no choice,” Mele says. “You see fewer and fewer of these iconic properties that we grew up in staying in the families of our friends, but that’s no one’s fault but our own.”

He added that while the properties might not be expensive compared to destinations like the Hamptons, real estate taxes are incredibly high in Newport, and many of the old houses, especially those along the oceanfront, require a significant amount of upkeep.

How Newport Became Newport

David Ray, who owns the legendary Clarke Cooke House, remembers when the U.S. Navy announced in 1973 that it was pulling its Atlantic destroyer fleet out of Newport. “It totally changed the town, because it was a white-hat sailing town,” Ray says.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

Ray moved the Clarke Cooke House building to its current location in 1973 and bought Bannister’s Wharf, on which it sits, in 1975. In 1976, tall ships arrived in Narragansett Bay and paraded under the Newport Bridge as part of a July 4 celebration for the Bicentennial. “The town got a tremendous amount of publicity—there were tens of thousands of people walking up and down this wharf,” Ray says. Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II visited around that time too.

The following year, Ted Turner won the America’s Cup in Newport Harbor. “That’s what really started putting Newport on the map—the tall ships and the America’s Cup, big events year after year,” Ray says. “Up until that point in time, nobody came here. There was no tourist business—zero.”

Ray says that the number-one ingredient that separates Newport from any other resort town in America is its deep-water harbor. It was a deciding factor in the New York Yacht Club’s purchase of Harbour Court as an outpost for the club in the 1970s. A sailor and former owner of the Newport Shipyard, Charlie Dana led the charge (along with Ray) for the yacht club to purchase the former Brown (of Brown University) family home. Completed in 1906, the striking house on a hill overlooking the harbor was sold to the club for $4.5 million.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

“Newport was sort of dying on the vine,” Dana says, “and the summer of ’77 was a big deal because Ted Turner brought a lot of attention to the America’s Cup and to Newport.”

“Like many places, it was centered around club life, and people wouldn’t buy house unless they could get into Bailey’s Beach,” he says, referring to the exclusive beach club officially named the Spouting Rock Beach Association. Having the New York Yacht Club open a clubhouse in town “did huge things for Newport because all of a sudden the boat people came.”

Wharfs like Bowen’s Wharf and Bannister’s Wharf, where the culinary institution The Clarke Cooke House is located, began to fill up, Dana says, and life ceased to revolve exclusively around Bailey’s Beach.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

Doris Duke’s actions after the famous automobile accident in which she was involved are another reason Newport gained national prominence, especially for its architecture. In the days following the 1966 car accident that killed her interior designer friend Eduardo Tirella under suspicious circumstances (Duke was at the wheel of the car that fatally crushed him against the gate of her estate, Rough Point, after he got out to open it), the tobacco heiress reportedly donated $25,000 to restore the Cliff Walk and $10,000 to Newport Hospital. A few months later, she established the Newport Restoration Foundation, which has renovated more than 80 Colonial-era buildings in Newport and neighboring Middletown.

“Until her death in 1993, saving Newport’s colonial architectural heritage would remain a singular philanthropic focus” for Duke, her biography on the Restoration Foundation’s website states. There is no mention of the accident—or any deal Duke may have struck with local authorities that resulted in the police chief at the time calling it an “unfortunate accident” and declaring, “There is no cause to prefer charges against Miss Duke and as far as this department is concerned this case is closed.”

That changed in early August, however, when the only known eyewitness came forward and spoke with the author of a recently released book about Tirella’s death, Homicide at Rough Point. Bob Walker was a 13-year-old paperboy intending to deliver a newspaper when he biked up to 680 Bellevue Avenue on the afternoon on October 7, 1966.

Photo credit: Stan Godlewski - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stan Godlewski - Getty Images

“I initially heard the argument and screaming of two people,” Walker told the book’s author, Peter Lance, according to Vanity Fair. “The arguing stopped for a couple of seconds, and the next thing I heard was the roar of a motor, the crash, and the screaming of a man.”

Walker, who is now 68 and a former Marine, told Lance that he approached the scene and saw a woman get out of her car. “She was a rather tall woman—regal,” Walker says. As Walker approached from behind her, he says, “She spun around and looked at me. I said, ‘Can I help you, ma’am?’ And she said,”—screaming and pointing her finger—“‘You better get the hell out of here!’”

Walker’s statements prompted the Newport Police Department to reopen the case. “I can confirm that I’ve been assigned to follow up with this case due to new information provided by Robert Walker,” Newport Police Det. Jacque Wuest told the Newport Daily News on August 5. The “case is now open for further review due to new facts coming forward,” Wuest said. “It is an active investigation.”

Celebrities in Newport

“I ended up in Newport because I was driving down Ocean Avenue with my wife, and she said, ‘Look at that house” as we passed Seafair,” Leno says in a telephone interview. “I said, ‘Let’s go back.’ Just as we drove by again, the gate opened and the caretaker came out. I asked if the house was for sale, and he said technically it was for sale but wasn’t listed. He gave us a tour and got the owner on the phone, and he agreed to sell it to us furnished.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Lila Delman Real Estate
Photo credit: Courtesy of Lila Delman Real Estate

Leno, who grew up in Andover, Massachusetts and first visited the area when he went to the Newport Jazz Festival as a high schooler to watch Slip Wilson perform, now uses the house to host family gatherings. “When you live in California and all the relatives want to come visit, it’s a nightmare because I spend weeks clearing the house,” Leno said. “In Newport, it’s all taken care of—I don’t even have to vacuum—and everybody has their own room.”

“I got a mansion for the price of a condo on Wilshire Boulevard,” Leno says of his 2017 purchase. Since then, prices have increased dramatically, and Leno expects Seafair is worth twice as much as he paid for it, if not more.

A more well-heeled crowd isn’t so bad for the city, he said.

“I eat at a place on Thames Street, the Handy Lunch, and they’re thrilled because bigger tippers come in and they spend more money,” Leno says. The downtown area “used to be a mix of knick-knack shops selling ash trays made out of lobsters, and now you’ve got five-star restaurants going in there and they’re quite good.”

Photo credit: The Washington Post - Getty Images
Photo credit: The Washington Post - Getty Images

While Judy Sheindlin, through a representative, declined a request to be interviewed, a source familiar with her Newport life said she likes to keep a low profile when she is there.

Leno and Sheindlin are not the first celebrities to settle in Newport. Nicholas Cage owned one of the largest houses in the Newport area, Grey Craig—in Middleton, where St. George’s School is located—from 2007 through 2011. He paid $15.7 million for the 24,000-square-foot house on 27 acres when he purchased it from Charlie Dana. Cage listed it for $15.9 million in 2008; it sold for just $6.5 million in 2011, a loss of $9.2 million.

But the first celebrity to call Newport home arrived nearly a century ago. In the 1940s, Broadway star Gertrude Nielsen became the owner of Rosecliff after her mother purchased the home at auction for $17,000. Life magazine featured her in an article titled “Life Visits a Palace at Newport.”

Ruth Buchanan, the late Dow Chemical heiress, and her husband Wiley T. Buchanan Jr. bought Beaulieu, next to Marble House on Bellevue Avenue, for $100,000 in 1961. One weekend, the Buchanans invited Elizabeth Taylor as a houseguest. “My grandmother called the hostess of the dinner she was invited to that Friday night, Anita Young, and asked if she could bring her houseguest to dinner,” the Buchanans’ grandson, entrepreneur and former U.S. Ambassador to Austria Trevor Traina, says.

Photo credit: Douglas Friedman/Trunk Archive
Photo credit: Douglas Friedman/Trunk Archive

“Mrs. Young said, ‘Absolutely not, we would never have an actor in the house,’ so the butler had to serve dinner to Elizabeth Taylor alone because my grandmother could not unaccept an invitation, which would be rude, nor could she bring an actress, which would be rude.” Traina also noted that Taylor had her bathtub at Beaulieu filled with ice and kept it stocked with beer all weekend, “which I think reaffirmed some of the doubts in the community about inviting her for the weekend.”

“What has changed today is that most of the people in Newport would kill to get an invitation to an actor’s house today rather than refuse to entertain them in yesteryear,” Traina says. “When you walk around Bailey’s Beach, much of the talk is about who bought which house, including Larry Ellison and Jay Leno’s recent purchases, of course.”

Will Newport Become the Hamptons?

“I think Newport will stay uniquely New England, because the people here seem to like the not-so-flashy, not-so-Hollywood lifestyle,” Leno said. “I can walk around as shabbily dressed as I usually am, and no one thinks twice about it.”

Leno’s friend Donald Osborne, who serves as Director and CEO of the Audrain Auto Museum (for which Leno is a major fundraiser) and has made a number of appearances on the TV show Jay Leno’s Garage, has an idea about why the area will remain low-key. “On Aquidneck Island, in addition to Newport, you also have Middletown and Portsmouth, which are very nice middle-class communities that offer the opportunity for people to live in a place very adjacent to the best real estate in the state. Anything affordable in the Hamptons is at least seven towns away.”

Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images

In addition, Osborne says, “Newport will never be like the Hamptons because it is a uniquely historic city. Newport is a city founded in the 17th century with great history, so it has a totally different feeling than resorts that can’t match the history.” It also has a strong social fabric, with younger generations returning to the same places their parents frequented when they were children to take part in traditions like the sandcastle contest at Bailey’s Beach and ending dinner at the Clarke Cooke House with a Snowball in Hell.

“The generations all interface at parties,” says Bettie Bearden Pardee, whose books Private Newport at Home and in the Garden and Living Newport: Houses, People, Style chronicle how people live and entertain in the seaside town. “You don’t have only old people and only young people. I had a conversation at a luncheon the other day with someone who said he’s never seen that in any other summer community—this mix of generations.”

Piper Quinn, who owns the buzzy Buccan and Grato restaurants in Palm Beach and spends summers in Newport, says that while the general vibe hasn’t changed much in the past four decades, he has noticed high-profile yacht owners coming to town more recently. “That is something that was not here 20 years ago,” he says.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

“The timelessness of Newport makes it different from the Hamptons and Nantucket. The Hamptons could use some of Newport. Nantucket could use some of Newport,” he says.

It’s also harder to get to from New York on public transportation than the Hamptons, as Ray explains: “Psychologically, the Hamptons are a lot closer.” Newport is not serviced by luxury buses like the Hampton Jitney and the Hampton Luxury Liner, and those who take Amtrak from Penn Station have to find transportation for the final leg of the journey Kingston to Newport—about a 25-minute drive.

Ruthie Sommers, an interior designer who lives in Newport during the summer and is currently working on a book about the area with Mele, says the values that Newporters have will prevent it from going the way of the Hamptons. “I believe people who are drawn to Newport are drawn to the nature of the rocky coastline or to the idea of community, Sommers said. “Shared values allow all ships to rise with the tide. Our values are human connection, modesty in terms of discretion, love of entertaining, philanthropy, and nature. If people choose Newport, I feel they are choosing that.”

As Traina put it, “Newport has always been a crucible where new fortunes go to get established, where the new money goes to become old.”

The Exploding Real Estate Market

“It’s billionaires pushing out millionaires,” Leno says of the current market for Newport real estate. “When I bought my house, I think it was the most expensive house in Rhode Island. Now I’m not even in the top 50! People are paying $25 million, $37 million.”

Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images

Realtor Kara Malkovich of Gustave White Sotheby's International Realty, who grew up in Newport, says that while the city has been known as the first resort and a sailing gem for decades, “we’ve always been able to scoot under the radar.” No longer is that the case, she says. “I really feel like Newport has totally been found out.”

She and others attribute much of the new attention paid to Newport to the pandemic. “Since Covid,” Malkovich says, “people are putting a lot more thought and emphasis on the quality of their lives and how they want that to look moving forward. I’ve seen a huge influx of buyers relocating here from metropolitan cities like New York and Boston, and from Connecticut and California.” Many of the buyers are planning to live there year-round, Malkovich added.

She said she has never seen a real estate market like the one Newport has experienced in the past year. “It’s unprecedented. People are coming here in droves, and relatively speaking you can still get a great deal here for a fraction of what you would pay in the Hamptons, Nantucket, or Martha’s Vineyard.”

Photo credit: Michael Osean
Photo credit: Michael Osean

There is, however, limited inventory and high demand from buyers moving to Newport. That, coupled with low interest rates, has led to some of the highest prices in the area in years.

The average list price of a single-family home in Newport, for example, has risen steadily over the past few years, from $967,486 in 2016 to $1,386,150 in 2021. In June, Normandie, an estate on nearly four and a half acres along the coastline, hit the market for $15 million and is currently in contract.

Another waterfront estate, Honeysuckle Lodge, was listed for $10.9 million and had multiple offers before going into contract earlier this year. A Bellevue Avenue spread called Ocean View, which had been listed at $18.85 million, went into contract in August, and an Ocean Avenue property selling for $17 million went into contract on August 19.

“Our high-end properties typically take longer to sell, but in the last six months things have changed drastically,” Malkovich says. “Properties of all price points are being snapped up with multiple offers to boot. It really feels like a feeding frenzy with homes selling well above their asking prices.”

Photo credit: John Greim - Getty Images
Photo credit: John Greim - Getty Images

Another issue affecting the market is that many of the so-called legacy homes that have been owned by the same families for decades are not passing on to the next generation. “The families that have owned them are getting older, and they don’t have the time or the wherewithal to maintain them,” Malkovich says.

“That’s why we’re seeing people with the financial means to do what is necessary to keep these homes alive purchase them. They have the funds to restore these houses and a true desire to continue the upkeep and preservation of these landmark legacy estates, which is a beautiful thing,” she said.

One fear among the old guard, however, is that wealthy new owners will overdo the restorations, Dana said. “Oatsie Charles had a great expression, which you can quote me on: ‘Blessed be the poor because they cannot over-restore.’ You worry about too many chandeliers going up where there were none, and there is a little bit of that happening,” he says.

Esmond Harmsworth, president of the literary agency Aevitas Creative Management, started spending summers in Newport in the early 1980s. “It’s always been this mixture of the more summer Social Register people and other groups, and there’s always been turnover and speculation about new people coming,” he says. “The great thing about Newport, though, is that its character has not changed very much at all in my lifetime. There is a wonderful joie de vivre and a focus on entertaining and parties in the summer, but there is also this community of historians and experts.”

As an Englishman, Harmsworth says Newport’s eccentricities and eccentric residents appeal to him. “Newport is far too eccentric and quirky to turn into Southampton,” he says. “I remember when I was a teenager gate-crashing the most fabulous and frivolous parties, and I would vote for more of that, so I hope some of these people [moving to Newport] will do more of that.”

Mansions Still in Private Hands

While the Preservation Society of Newport County now owns and maintains 11 historic properties—including The Breakers, the 70-room mansion Cornelius Vanderbilt II built in 1893—a few oceanfront Newport estates remain in private hands.

Beaulieu, for example, was completed in 1859 and designed to resemble a French château and has been in the same family for decades. Following her mother Ruth Buchanan’s death, Dede Wilsey purchased the house in March 2020.

Photo credit: Amanda Marsalis
Photo credit: Amanda Marsalis

Wilsey has been visiting Newport with her family since her father, Wiley T. Buchanan Jr., bought Beaulieu. John Jacob Astor III, William Waldorf Astor, and Cornelius “Neily” Vanderbilt III had lived in the house before Buchanan, who served as the Chief of Protocol of the United States and the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg and Austria, bought it. “My father didn't tell my mother when he purchased the house. We were driving to Newport and stopped at Howard Johnson's,” Wilsey told Town & Country in 2016. “Daddy looked at me and said, ‘Don't say anything, but let me show you what I just bought.’ It was a flier for Beaulieu, and it looked like a wreck. My parents were the only young couple in Newport, except for the Drexels. They started bringing ambassadors from Washington and prominent people, and all of a sudden the town really had a life.”

Wilsey says that the new wealth coming to Newport is beneficial for the city. “New blood is good for a place, as long as they don’t want to tear down the traditions.”

She added that Larry Ellison’s real-estate purchasing prowess included some strategic moves.

“His representatives were approaching neighbors to buy their property—they weren’t pushy, they weren’t arrogant, and nobody has anything but nice things to say about his organization,” Wilsey says. “He bought a friend of mine’s house two years ago; his people had made offers to my friend and he turned them down, then after the sale happened, I asked him and he said, ‘he made me an offer I couldn’t resist.’”

Photo credit: George Rinhart - Getty Images
Photo credit: George Rinhart - Getty Images

Wilsey says it is interesting to the Newport establishment that people of Ellison’s magnitude are interested in buying property in Newport. “He could have gone over to Southampton, and so could Judge Judy or Jay Leno. They could have been celebrities there, where people care.”

She added that the famous figures in town have not tried to join the established social clubs. “I haven’t heard a whisper of any of the [celebrities] wanting to join any of the clubs—Bailey’s, Clambake, the Reading Room, or even the Golf Club,” Wilsey says.

Other “new and aggressive” buyers have tried to join the club, but have not been successful, Wilsey says. “They will be fine doing what they are doing but I don’t think they’re going to be adopted by the old guard,” she said. Same with those who try to build houses that do not fit into the architectural landscape, as the New York Times examined in 2016.

“Life goes on generation after generation, even though there are divorces and scandals,” Wilsey says. “That’s been going on forever, and everybody just looks the other way or marries one of your friends.”

And in spite of the new arrivals, aspects of the destination have not changed at all. “Newport is predictable,” Wilsey says. “We all know the history, we know who lived there. All those things are kind of written in the sand. There’s not a lot of surprise about Newport. You can sail, you can play golf, you can play croquet, you can play tennis.”

Other Gilded Age mansions remain in private hands. Miramar, for example, was purchased for $17.15 million in 2006 and subsequently restored by former Goldman Sachs banker David B. Ford, who died in September 2020. The house is rumored to be changing hands soon. According to multiple sources familiar with the transaction, Blackstone Chairman and CEO Stephen Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, are in negotiations to purchase the house. A spokesman for Schwarzman did not return requests for comment. Ford’s son, David B. Ford, Jr., also did not return an email requesting comment. The most recent sale in public records is the 2006 purchase that Ford made through an LLC for $17.15 million. At the time, the price was the highest amount paid for a private residence in Rhode Island.

Photo credit: REDA&CO - Getty Images
Photo credit: REDA&CO - Getty Images

Alex and Ani founder and onetime billionaire Carolyn Rafaelian purchased Belcourt, a 60-room mansion built in 1894, for $3.6 million in 2012. (Historically, the market for such large houses has not been strong, resulting in the Preservation Society acquiring many of them and others going for a song to wealthy buyers like Rafaelian and Ford.)

As for Ellison, Wilsey and others say it is peculiar that the billionaire has not moved into any of his Newport properties. “To spend that kind of money and not have a presence in Newport, why not do New York or San Francisco?” She added that last summer Ellison did no work on Beechwood, which Wilsey says, “just sat there with guards.”

“In the beginning Ellison was very representative of what I’m seeing as the mindset of the people coming to Newport right now: they love it, they’ve got money, and once they move to Newport they find this inner preservationist in them and put in a lot of money and do a beautiful job restoring old homes,” Pardee says. “But I’m not certain he’s ever been seen around with regard to the house. It's been almost 10 years now and it’s not very pretty to look at when you drive by. There are huge boulders on the front lawn.” The boulders that have been added to the landscaping plan in recent months are among the only indications of progress on the renovation.

Wilsey says, “People are just wondering, what is he going to do?”

You Might Also Like