When Peasants Venture Into The Palace

Since the 1800's, the small, seaside resort of Newport, Rhode Island, has always been filled with palaces: grand chateaus, soaring villas, and elegant mansions all cheekily referred to as "cottages" despite their owners being worth millions upon millions, sometimes billions, of dollars, their square footages being quadruple that of most average homes and costing a fortune just to build. These homes were built with the wealth and grandeur seen only, up until that time, in the royal palaces in Europe and elsewhere overseas and housed the kind of wealth that most Americans couldn't even imagine. Naturally, these palaces-by-the-sea have sparked the curiosity of the general public.

When these homes were first built, that wasn't a problem. What is any showy mansion built for? These palaces served to show off the owner's wealth - do you think The Breakers or Marble House were built the way they were out of comfort? They were status symbols and statements in society, just like all their neighbors homes were. The owners liked having the public awe over what they could create with their wealth. But by the 1960's, the public's curiosity was starting to overreach and become a problem. . .

The heiress and socialite Doris Duke, notable for founding the Newport Restoration Foundation, circa 1953.

Rough Point, Doris Duke's Newport cottage. 

Ever since her father, the wealthy tobacco tycoon James B. Duke, died, leaving her the majority of his $100 million fortune (equivalent to a little more than a billion dollars nowadays) when she was only twelve, Doris Duke had attracted the public's attention. The public was fascinated with Doris and the way she spent her wealth, which included maintaining her family's residence, Rough Point, in Newport, where she continued to spend her summer's following both of her parent's deaths, though she'd spent several years away from the home, living full-time in New York City, before returning to the residence in 1958. By that time, the Cliff Walk, a public walkway that stretches for several miles along the shore and which her estate bordered on, had been damaged severely by hurricanes, giving curious Newporters an excuse to trespass on her property, with the particularly bold ones going up to the main house and peeking in the windows. Doris wasn't pleased.

First she put up a barbed wire fence, adorned with a "no trespassing" and thorny bushes, though after the city told her she had to remove it, she instead purchased two German shepherd to serve as an additional warning, besides security officers, that unannounced guests weren't welcome. She also sprinkled the edges of her property with broken glass. It worked for awhile, until in May of 1964, when the dogs bit two intruders and the police told her she had to get rid of them.

The Cliff Walk.
Doris Duke wasn't the first person to experience ordinary Newporters trespassing on private properties. In the 1870's, William Beach Lawrence, a Governor of Rhode Island who lived in the cottage "Ochre Point," used an angry bull to try and dissuade people from trespassing, only they'd torn down the stone wall he'd built to prevent them from coming onto his property. He, too, added shards of glass to keep people out. By the 1890's the problem had become so severe that several estates were sinking the Cliff Walk bordering their properties.

'Wakehurst,' the Van Alen cottage which didn't sit along the Cliff Walk, but further inland. 

Mrs. Louis Bruguiére, formerly Margaret Post Van Alen, the mistress of 'Wakehurst.'

Even cottages that didn't sit along the Cliff Walk were subject to the invasion of the public. On one sunny afternoon, Mrs. Daisy Bruguiére, the then-remarried wife of the late James Laurens Van Alen, looked out the window of her Newport cottage 'Wakehurst' to find a couple and their children had spread a blanket out across her precisely clipped and we having a picnic. Her butler asked if she would like them removed, and though she had him record the license plate of their car, which was parked alongside them, she told him to leave them be. Once they left, she had him follow them home, though still she did nothing. She had something better in mind for her uninvited visitors.

The following Sunday, the Mrs. Bruguiére's chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce pulled up to the family's middle-class house, where her footmen proceeded to set-up an elaborate picnic for their mistress, complete with crystal cups and gilded candelabra. Upon hearing the owner of the house ask what she was ding, Daisy replied: "You honored me with a visit last week and I wanted to return the compliment!"

Duke Library
Golden Newport by Deborah Davis
Newport Historical Society


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