This Real-Life Rhode Island Socialite Inspired a Character in “The Gilded Age”
Academy Award-winning writer and director Julian Fellowes of "Downton Abbey" and "The Gilded Age" fame talks Newport, filming at the mansions and the inspiration behind the hit show.
They say truth is stranger than fiction, and for Julian Fellowes, that’s certainly true.
After all, the Academy Award-winning writer and director didn’t need to look far for inspiration for Bertha Russell, one of the lead characters in his hit HBO show, “The Gilded Age.” The character is based on Alva Vanderbilt, the real-life socialite who revolved in Newport’s highest circles (when she wasn’t throwing luxurious balls for the New York City elite).
“Bertha is completely Alva,” Fellowes says during an interview at Marble House, the Bellevue Avenue mansion that was Alva’s thirty-ninth birthday present.
Fellowes spoke to reporters on Tuesday during a visit to Newport commemorating his work on “The Gilded Age,” which was largely filmed in the historic summer cottages of the period’s real-life elite. Later that evening, the Preservation Society of Newport County presented him with the Antiquarian Award, its highest honor, during a dinner at The Breakers. Tuesday’s interview took place in the Gold Room, the same room where Preservation Society Executive Director Trudy Coxe and others hosted Fellowes for a dinner while trying to secure Newport as a filming location in 2019. (“The deal was clinched for me long before. I probably wasn’t allowed to say that in the town,” Fellowes says.)
The Women Who Inspired “The Gilded Age”
The director, best known for his work on “Downton Abbey,” says Newport already fascinated him before he’d ever set foot in Rhode Island. While researching the historical period for “The Gilded Age,” he read extensively about the wealthy families of the 1800s and the elaborate homes they built for themselves on Narragansett Bay. Still, he says, he was surprised when he first visited just how strongly the memory of those families lives on.
“I don’t think I was aware of how complete the image of the Gilded Age is in the town” he says. “In New York you have wonderful buildings that come from the Gilded Age, and there are various clubs and things built by Stanford White and so on, but they don’t have the same sense of being in a Gilded Age town that you do here. And we use Newport not only for Newport, but also interiors for the palaces of New York because they were the same designers, they were the same architects who were making those buildings.”
Alva Vanderbilt, who inspired the social-climbing Bertha Russell (played by Carrie Coon) in the series, was one of those nouveau riche socialites who made their wealth known through their residence. Born in Alabama, she eventually married William K. Vanderbilt and settled down with him in New York and Rhode Island. Marble House, a gift from her husband, was meticulously designed as a place where her influence would be on display for all to see.
“This was a woman who meant business,” Fellowes says. “Nowadays, of course, she’d be the American ambassador to the UN or something, but that wasn’t available to her, so she moved on to the stage that was — which was social, the society stage. And dominated it and ran it.”
In an age when most of society was run by their husbands, Fellowes says, women had an outsize role in Newport. Most wealthy industrialists returned to New York for work during the week, leaving their wives to run the social (and, in some ways, political) life of the town. Alva was among the most influential of these women, running balls and parties whose guest lists determined who was in and out among the elite. Though not immediately accepted, she found ways to convince the other women she belonged. In one particularly scheming moment, she tricked Caroline Astor into attending a party, an episode that found its way into “The Gilded Age.”
“In the first series, we have a story where Bertha tricks Mrs. Astor (portrayed by Donna Murphy) by involving her daughter in a celebratory dance to be performed at her ball,” Fellowes says. “And then when Mrs. Astor refused to come, cancels the daughter. And the daughter is then in a terrible state, Carrie Astor weeps and wails, and finally her mother gives in and agrees to attend the ball.”
“This is exactly what happened between Mrs. Astor and Alva Vanderbilt,” he continues. “She deliberately encouraged Carrie to be part of the dance and then threw her out of it when her mother said she wouldn’t come, and Carrie’s tears persuaded Mrs. Astor to attend the ball. And after that, Alva was essentially in New York society. I felt that was completely justified (to include in the series). I wasn’t doing anything to Mrs. Astor in the show that wasn’t done to the real Mrs. Astor in life.”
Eventually, he says, Alva became bored with society life and turned her attention to women’s rights. In later life, she campaigned for women’s suffrage and was one of the founders of the National Woman’s Party.
“You can see in that, I think, the modern woman she would’ve been if the whole thing had taken place 100 years later,” Fellowes says.
Robber Barons and New York’s African American History
Bertha’s husband, George Russell (played by Morgan Spector), is also based on a real-life industrialist, though not the one you would expect. Fellowes says he drew inspiration for George from Jay Gould, one of the era’s harshest robber barons, who had a reputation as an affectionate husband and father who would lead his children around the yard on a pony.
“I love that contrast. It seemed to me very interesting that the man would reserve all his softness and kindness for his own family, and everyone else he was quite happy to cut off at the knees. And so that’s sort of George Russell,” Fellowes says.
Fellowes also drew heavily from the history of African Americans in 1800s-era New York City when developing the character of Peggy Scott (portrayed by Denée Benton), a young writer who works as a secretary. In the show, Peggy’s father owns a pharmacy, a business opportunity pioneered by Black entrepreneurs in the years following the Civil War. Fellowes says he learned of that history while reading Black Gotham by Carla Peterson, in which the author traces her own family roots.
“I wanted Peggy to be an achiever,” he says. “It’s a difficult balance because of course there was still racism everywhere you looked. I tried not to be sentimental or dishonest, so we have reminders of what people were having to put up with. And the scene where she’s walking down the street with her father and then the white couple just expect them to stop and get out of the way — I mean, that kind of thing was happening all the time. And people had to put up with it. That I found moving, actually, that they were fighting through this mud all the time. But some people did achieve, and there were women writers, there were women novelists, African American novelists who were publishing. So that for me was sort of an inspiration for her character.”
Another Trip to Newport?
His favorite house in Newport is the Elms, constructed in 1901 for the Berwind family. In the series, The Elms kitchen makes an appearance as the kitchen of the Russell family (whose ballroom is actually the music room at The Breakers).
“I love the whole thing,” Fellowes says about The Elms. “The entrance, the disposition of the rooms, the dining room, the ballroom I think is one of the prettiest in the town. And although of course the ballroom at Rosecliff is fantastic, nevertheless it requires a fantastic ball. The ballroom at The Elms I think is a little more manageable for the type of entertainment I would be lining up.”
Though he didn’t have much opportunity to explore Newport while filming — a typical evening consisted of Chinese takeout and a black-and-white film in his hotel room due to COVID-19 restrictions — Fellowes might be spending more time here in the future. Season two resumed filming this past spring, and eager fans are hoping for a lengthy, multi-season storyline to rival “Downton Abbey.” It’s a hope shared by Rhode Island state officials: According to Steven Feinberg, executive director of the Rhode Island Film and Television Office, the first season of the series accounted for 1,200 jobs and work for 500 local vendors during filming.
The Preservation Society is also taking full advantage of the renewed interest and will be launching a Gilded Age tour featuring behind-the-scenes looks at locations used during filming. Fellowes says the opportunity to film inside the mansions has been incredible.
“They add a kind of luster to the program that we would be the poorer without,” he says. “We very much benefited from that. There’s a pleasure in showing these houses, these rooms, this town to the American public, those of them who haven’t been there. And letting them know it exists. All of that I think is a win-win, really.”