2016-01-07 / Front Page

Following the Dots .... Over the Years

By Betsy Sherman Walker


Marvelle and his wife Lois "cleaning up" the America's Cup trophy on Sept. 27, 1983, for the presentation to the Australians later that day. According to one eyewitness, the "Auld Mug" arrived in Newport sticky with champagne from a group toast at the New York Yacht Club's home base in NYC the previous afternoon. Marvelle and his wife Lois "cleaning up" the America's Cup trophy on Sept. 27, 1983, for the presentation to the Australians later that day. According to one eyewitness, the "Auld Mug" arrived in Newport sticky with champagne from a group toast at the New York Yacht Club's home base in NYC the previous afternoon. On the morning of Sept. 27, 1983, it was business as usual for Rob Marvelle, the head caretaker at Marble House: he received a request to do something slightly unusual.

John G. Winslow, who was then president of the Preservation Society of Newport County, came to ask a favor of sorts. “Mr. Winslow appeared holding a big black case,” Marvelle says, laying out the scenario. Inside was the America’s Cup, the real McCoy, which had been transported to Newport from New York City, via armored car, the night before. At 11 a.m. later that morning, in a private ceremony on the terrace of Marble House, it would be presented to the Australian yachtsmen who had just snapped the fabled 132-year-old winning streak held by U.S. racing yachts since the competition began in 1851. The magnificent silver trophy was in need of a good cleaning. “He asked me to ‘polish it up,’” Marvelle says, so he and his wife, Lois, “took it and put it in the sink of the butler’s pantry and we cleaned it right up.” It was a memorable footnote to what Marvelle calls “a sad day.”


When asked about his favorite place in Marble House, Rob Marvelle did not hesitate. “The dining room. It’s my kind of room,” he said. An avid fisherman, Marvelle said he can relate to the themes, the mythology of the hunt. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in there. Elks, boars’ heads, stags. It’s beautiful.” When asked about his favorite place in Marble House, Rob Marvelle did not hesitate. “The dining room. It’s my kind of room,” he said. An avid fisherman, Marvelle said he can relate to the themes, the mythology of the hunt. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in there. Elks, boars’ heads, stags. It’s beautiful.” A native Newporter, Marvelle received his first Marble House paycheck on Jan. 1, 1975. Earlier this year he received his 40th anniversary service pin from the PSNC. To spend an hour listening to his stories, one comes away with a picture not only of his own life, but also with the realization that a home so grand as to appear unapproachable to most of us has been where his life has unfolded - his home. His castle is a castle.

“He loves that house like one of his children,” said PSNC Communications Manager Andrea Carneiro, “and he knows every square inch of it. He raised his children there. And in fact,” she added, “his son Robbie is now head caretaker at The Breakers.”

Another one of Marvelle’s stories is about the night decades ago, in the dead of winter, when he and Lois were out on a date. Curiosity had him drive into the driveway of Marble House for a closer look, and his car got stuck in the snow. And what he remembers about that night was the fact that he told his future bride, “Someday we’ll live in a house like this.”

That someday did arrive, and the Marvelles would raise their two children there, in an apartment that covered almost half of the second floor. At the time, he knew nothing about what maintaining such a grand residence would entail: with 500,000 cubic feet of marble, 29,000 square feet of living area, 52 rooms, five acres of land, and a front door weighing 3,000 pounds,

He sees his life as a progression of serendipitous events, part of God’s master plan, which he refers to as “dot to dot.” As a young boy he sang in the choir of Emmanuel Church, “until my voice changed, and there was no more singing.” Dot One: a caretaking job at the church, which he did for three years. That led to Dot Two: A parishioner approached him about a job in the dining room of the Officers Club on the Navy base, where he says he mastered the art of “dealing with people.” It was also while working there that he met Lois, whom he calls “the love of my life.” Dot Three was his decision, in the early '70s, to sign up with the Rhode Island National Guard, giving him six years of structured experience as an M.P.

Finally, Dot Four: An acquaintance at the Officers Club was a caretaker at Chateau-sur-Mer, another PSNC mansion. He mentioned to Marvelle that a position had opened up at Marble House. “And that there,” he adds, “was another dot.” He was 20. “That was young,” he says. “But they gave me a shot. And thank you, Lord,” he adds, “for that shot. I am content. I love working with my hands; and every day I am fixing something.”

As much as he revels in delivering his anecdotes and observations, “the bigger story,” Marvelle says, “is the maintenance” and the ongoing support from his “great staff.” With a crew of two full-time and two part-time assistants, he is quick to emphasize that “[they] should be the story.”

When asked what, if anything, in the caretaker-ship of one of Newport’s grandest summer cottages has changed in the last 40 years Marvelle responds, from a comfort zone that not many of us would have, “not much.” He calls what he does “historic housekeeping.” With museum-quality furniture, woodwork, decorative items, fabrics and floors, and the ongoing advice of the conservation department, his goal has been to keep the house, designed by architect Richard Morris

Hunt in 1888 for William and Alva Vanderbilt, as it would have been when it was resident-ready in 1892.

There was far less consistency in the lives of those who lived there: Alva divorced William and married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont in 1896. After Belmont’s death in 1908 she re-established herself at Marble House, and closed it permanently in 1919 when she moved to France. The house was purchased by the Frederick Prince family in 1932, and maintained as a private residence until the PSNC acquired it in 1963, with funding provided by Harold Vanderbilt, the Vanderbilt’s youngest son.

“When my grandfather died in 1962,” Lisette Prince told Newport This Week, “the house was owned in my great grandfather's trust. The trustees deemed that paying high property taxes would be irresponsible.” She added, “One comment stuck in my mind: that ‘It would be too expensive to tear down.’ In the end the trust ‘sold’ the property to the Vanderbilts and gave all the furnishings to the PS.”

More business as usual: Steven Spielberg, Anthony Hopkins, and Matthew McConaughey have passed through. Michael Jackson arrived unannounced in a “big black SUV” in the middle of winter. “He was very shy,” Marvelle says. “He just wanted to walk around.” He has two “favorite” celebrity stories. The first is about Joan Rivers, who was there for a private event and requested a private tour. At the end of the night she asked for the names of his staff, and the next day sent a thank-you present. It was box full of her jewelry. “She was the nicest person I met,” he says.

And then there was the time when Ella Fitzgerald, performing at Marble House in a benefit for the Perkins School for the Blind in the late '70s, crooned lullaby-style to his fussing infant daughter. “Not many people,” he adds rhetorically, “can say that Ella Fitzgerald sang to their daughter.”

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