NEWPORT, R.I. — "You've come to see Mrs. Astor's summer cottage?" asked one of two butlers at the door of Beechwood, 580 Bellevue Ave. "Very good. The dusting maids are just finishing up in the library, where Mrs. Astor will welcome you in just a few moments. She looks stunning in her new gown. Do compliment her."
"You have your calling cards, of course?" inquired the second butler. "Ah, thank you. And where is the children's governess today?"
Caught off guard by the butlers' role-playing, their swallowtail morning coats and their impeccable diction, I mumbled something about it being the governess' day off, as my family and two other couples were led into the library.
There we waited . . . and waited. Suddenly, the double doors opened.
"I'm so sorry, but Mrs. Astor is indisposed at the moment."
The First Footman
It was Charles Brown, the first footman, also impeccably dressed. "Oh, late arrivals? Come in, come in. Mrs. Astor insists on punctuality, but don't worry, I'll keep it under the roses. Now allow me to tell you a little about this cottage."
Charles was such a smooth talker, he almost convinced us that the machine in the front of the room actually was a prototype "stereoptic device" designed by the Astors' friend, Thomas Edison.
It was a videotape player with a projection screen.
Between Charles and the video, we learned how the first John Jacob Astor rose from peddling pastry on the streets of New York to making international business deals as one of the richest men in America. How Caroline Schermerhorn became Mrs. William Backhouse Astor and reigned as the queen of Newport's summer colony until she "retired" in 1906 and became a recluse. How she devised the famous "Four Hundred," a list of 213 socially prominent families and individuals whose lineage could be traced back at least three generations. And how her only son, John Jacob IV, perished on the Titanic.
"You all will be staying for dinner, of course," Charles said. "You children will eat upstairs with me and the other servants."
"I don't want to stay for dinner," whispered my 4-year-old when the first footman wasn't looking.
The Uncouth John Jacob
We also learned a bit of gossip about the Astors: The first John Jacob was so uncouth that he ate peas with his knife and wiped his greasy fingers on the dress of the lady dining next to him; and when those Johnny-come-lately Vanderbilts were building Marble House next door, Mrs. Astor thought it so ostentatious and crass that she had her own marble mantel removed from her morning room.
"We servants like to say it was the first time she lost her marble," Charles said. "But you'll keep that under the roses, won't you?"
We "just missed" Mrs. Astor in the music room, but we did meet the Contessa Glorianna Dominic Ester Fortuna Fitzgibbon, who told us, among other things, the origin of that expression "under the roses."
(Sorry, but to learn the origin, you'll have to visit Beechwood.)
In the ballroom, we met debutante Ashton Eliza Barkley, who was to have her coming-out party that very weekend.
After the dining room and the children's favorite, the secret passage, news came that Mrs. Astor had come down with a "touch of the vapors."
"Oh, I'm sorry, children aren't allowed on the grand staircase," said Wisteria Mae Baldwin to my 8-year-old, just as we were about to see the second floor. "Unless, of course, you are royalty. What? You are a princess! Then go right ahead, my dear."
Miss Baldwin Departs
But after three rooms, Miss Baldwin had to dash off--croquet, you know. "You won't mind if a dusting maid shows you the rest of the house, will you?"
"What a come-down!" said the woman behind me with mock disgust.
Finally we were in the kitchen, sipping strawberry tea and listening to Mrs. Crabbleblossom, the cook, tell us how up-to-the-minute her 1890s kitchen was. Then she began going over the dinner menu, asking our preferences. "Turtle flippers: tender or crispy?"
Suddenly, Maggie the maid peeked out the door and panicked. "It's Mrs. Astor," she screamed. "She's coming down the hall!"
And we, bona fide members of the "Four Hundred," were about to meet our famous hostess--in the kitchen, of all places. Something had to be done. . . .
Mrs. Astor receives guests at Beechwood--the only Newport mansion to offer theatrical tours--daily between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., from May 17 to Oct. 31. Calling cards are $4.50 for adults, $3.50 for children, but not required by those 5 and under. And please, do make a fuss about her gown.