As year-round busloads of tourists attest, people will always be fascinated by the stately mansions along Newport's Bellevue Avenue, more than a century after robber baron money and such financed their construction. Even more compelling, upon close examination, are the lives of the American aristocrats living in them, the town's social elite.
'LAST OF THE GRANDE DAMES' Slocum in 2000.
That old-money crowd is the subject of the 60-minute documentary feature Behind the Hedgerow: Eileen Slocum and the Meaning of Newport Society, directed by David Bettencourt and written by G. Wayne Miller. It is the opening night film of the 14th Annual Flickers: Rhode Island International Film Festival, which is taking place throughout the state from August 10-15 (see sidebar). The soirée will be at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence, with the documentary screening at 7 pm. (It will also be shown on Saturday, August 14 at 2 pm at Salve Regina University's O'Hare Academic Center.)
Behind the Hedgerow focuses on Eileen Gillespie Slocum, a descendent of the Browns of Brown University and wife to a US diplomat, the final product of the Gilded Age of the Astors and Vanderbilts. When she died in 2008 at the age of 92, she was the last of the grand dames of Eastern society, equally at home in the upper-class drawing rooms of New York and Philadelphia. As her obituary in the New York Times put it, her "family history is dotted with connections to the most moneyed and powerful of the American aristocracy."F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." Although Ernest Hemingway immediately shot back, "Yes, they have more money," there are serious consequences to people seeing not just you but also generations diminishing behind you.
The initial impetus of Behind the Hedgerow was a six-part 2000 series by Miller in the Providence Journal, titled "A Nearly Perfect Summer: Travels Through Old-Money Newport" (with photographs by Connie Grosch, it is available online at projo.com/specials/newportsummer). From those recorded interviews, Slocum becomes the initial narrator in the film, discussing with Miller her eventful life and milieu in a cheerful voice as dignified as a female Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Other family interviews round out the collective picture. Cousin Nicholas Brown tells us how wealthy Southern planters exchanged oppressive Southern heat for Newport sea breezes prior to the Civil War. After the war there were no more such Southerners, so rich New Yorkers filled the gap, including the Browns of the eponymous university.
Slocum's grandson Sherman Powell speaks of how as a child he would adventurously explore her Bellevue Ave mansion. As we see the endless rows of family photographs on mantelpieces, we get a sense of how intimidating it might have been for the boy to be "reminded everywhere we looked as to where we fit into the bigger picture of things."
The broad scope of the family's heritage comes into the picture as he tells us that his grandfather was Adam Clayton Powell, the African-American Democrat Congressman from Harlem. Family members responded to this marriage with varying degrees of grace and racism. Beryl Slocum Powell, his wife, quotes a great-aunt writing her mother that "you have my deepest sympathy for this tragic misalliance." As for Eileen Slocum, a longtime staunch mainstay of the Republican National Committee, she looks perfectly sunny at that wedding, walking down the aisle on the arm of one of her new relatives.