Newport, Rhode Island—celebrated for its stunning seascapes, famous mansions, Jazz Festival, annual Flower Show, and world-class sailing—is 375 years old, making it one of the oldest cities in the United States. What makes this majestic town all the more striking today is its reverence for history and its preservation of the past, not as an antiquated thing, but as a living energy, a continuous present tense.
Newport attracts a class of people that become stewards of the city’s legacy, people who feel charged to maintain the continuity of a way of living that is the epitome of sumptuous elegance and graceful gentility. In celebration of this way of life, Bettie Bearden Pardee has just released her new book, Living Newport: Houses. Places, Style (Glitterati Incorporated), an inspiring and evocative look at entertaining at home, in the garden, or on the sea.
As Bearden Pardee writes in the book’s introduction, “Since its founding in 1639, our fabled seaport has displayed an intriguing ability to evolve. And with each iteration, Newport has not only survived but thrived keeping its identity constant throughout. It has built up a patina, generation upon generation, creating ‘good bones’ as my mother used to say. What touches us is not how much Newport has changed but how, in an endearing way, it has appeared not to change.
“As if on cue, it is Newport’s sophisticated charm which is again attracting a vibrant new crowd and social energy to our shores, a ‘vibe’ that heralds the next chapter in this town’s history-repeating-itself scenario…. It is these impressions that have inspired me to take pen to paper again, to celebrate the private side of this City by the Sea through the prism of those who had the means and opportunity to live anywhere but chose Newport. Whether heirs of the old guard providing a contemporary continuity to traditional Newport or newcomers with their distinct aesthetics, each tastemaker brings a fresh twist to this life.”
Bettie Bearden Pardee sits down with The Chic to discuss Newport in the new millennium. She recalls, “I’ve always had a fascination and a connection with Newport. My husband is from here; that is how we came to live in Newport year round. We first arrived in the early 90s, and in 1999, we built our home next to Rosecliff. The sense of history touches me. I adored growing up in Beverly Hills, but my family is originally from the South. So much history was destroyed during the Civil War. In Newport, the past and present exist seamlessly. There is comfort to that. There is a genuine history that I appreciate.
“The people who live here year round have daily ups and downs. The houses have chips on them. There is an authenticity to life. Newport is not a pastiche. There is no phoniness. Newport attracts people who are taken with the city’s authenticity. I don’t think they come here as preservationists, but they fall in love with the iconic homes that they buy. They don’t do anything to the property but refresh it. They make cosmetic updates, such as paint, rewiring, and polishing the bronze sconces.
“Newport attracts great wealth, and not a person comes and thinks about tearing down a house. They become stewards of a legacy and the restorations they make are to the original house.”
As Bearden Pardee writes in the introduction to Living Newport, “This new generation appreciates that Newport’s assets are only the frame around a more intimate portrait—that of ‘home.’ This is nowhere more obvious than in the iconic houses that have changed hands…. Stewardship requires a force of personality, individual taste, and a creative passion. Style by another name.”
Bearden Pardee observes, “Elm Court, for example. Six generation have lived in that house with a very European way of doing things. The ethos is, ‘We don’t care about breaks or spills. We’re about creating memories.’ They don’t eat in the kitchen, but in the dining room. You live with these homes; they don’t own you.
“I created my first book, Private Newport: At Home and in the Garden in 2004 on a personal needs basis. When we began to design our house in 1997-98, there were no reference books on private homes, only books about the public mansions that are holdings of the Preservation Society of Newport County. I didn’t have any plans to do another book.
“I chaired the Newport Flower Show for eight years. We had people come from all over the United States, and we created VIP itineraries providing a private experience: tours of private gardens, private lunches in private homes, we provided access and experiences. And that is when I came to realize that Newport is a brand. Newport has the ability to evolve and has remained vital and vibrant over the years. I am in awe: 375 years and you keep yourself together!”
Bearden Pardee writes in the book’s introduction, “In a town with such cachet, I feel it is important to reveal this personal side, this Newport style, charming in its lack of pretense. For each house, each owner, each reminiscence is part of the wonderful tapestry that is Newport. There is an intimacy in these recollections, these amusing tales, these personal asides, as though you have just chatted with a close friend (one wit characterized the renovations at Seaweed ‘as though an old dowager had taken a new lover’).”
When reflecting on the idea of chic, Bearden Pardee observes, “To me, chic is a sense of appropriateness. That is more important than ‘good taste.’ Chic is subtle understatement. Chic is not being a slave to trends. It behooves us to bring some self-expression to our homes, to the way we dress, to the food we cook and serve, to the way we entertain. Chic is being comfortable with yourself. It is also having the courage and the flair to push the envelope a little bit.”