The opulent Gold Room of Newport’s historic Marble House provided the perfect setting for “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes to regale reporters at a press conference July 26 with stories about the real-life characters and historical events that inspired his latest series, “The Gilded Age,” filmed partly in Newport.
Fellowes also appeared at The Breakers for “An Evening with Lord Fellowes,” where he accepted the Antiquarian Award from the Preservation Society of Newport County.
He told the group at Marble House that he’d never been to Newport prior to scouting the mansions as possible locations for “The Gilded Age” two years ago.
“I’d read about the Gilded Age, of course, but I had never been here. The Gilded Age is in the town . . . In New York, there’s not the same sense of being in a Gilded Age town. We use Newport not only for Newport, but also for the palaces of New York, because they used the same designers and architects.”
Flanked by Preservation Society of Newport County CEO Trudy Coxe and Rhode Island Film and Television Office executive director Steven Feinberg, Fellowes said he was inspired by Marble House, completed in 1892, because it was the home of the powerhouse socialité, Alva Vanderbilt, the model for the show’s character, Bertha Russell, played by Carrie Coon.
“Bertha is completely Alva. Marble House was the creation of Alva Vanderbilt and the acme of the whole idea of the Gilded Age. She was an extraordinary character,” said Fellowes. “Her first imperative was to get money, and when she met William K. Vanderbilt, she married him. I don’t think he knew what hit him . . . Nowadays, she’d be an American ambassador to the U.N. or something, but that wasn’t available to her. So, she moved to the stage that was society and dominated it.
“George [Russell, Bertha’s husband] isn’t really Willie K. He didn’t make his own money; it was all inherited. He was not a dynamic businessman.”
Instead, George, a railroad tycoon played by Morgan Spector, is based on Jay Gould, “one of the most ruthless of the robber barons,” said Fellowes.
Set in New York and Newport in the 1880s, “The Gilded Age” debuted in January on HBO and was a hit with viewers. Season two is now in production and will premiere in 2023. Audiences can expect to see more of Newport in the new season.
Broadway star Laura Benanti has been added to a cast already stocked with Tony Award winners. She’ll play Susan Blane, a recently widowed socialite who moves to Newport and begins renovations on her home.
Newport mansions, including Marble House, The Breakers and Rosecliff, served as settings in season one with their lavish interiors and exteriors also standing in for the characters’ Fifth Avenue homes. Fellowes said his personal favorite mansion is The Elms, and its bedrooms and servants’ kitchen were featured prominently in many scenes.
“My house is the Elms, no doubt about that,” said Fellowes. “I love everything about it; the entrance, the rooms, the dining room, the terrace garden, the ballroom is the prettiest in the town. The servants went on strike once; they all marched out because they didn’t have enough time off. I love that!”
When Coxe quipped that this might be a potential storyline, Fellowes replied, “Don’t tempt me!” before revealing that he was under strict orders from HBO not to reveal any of the plots in season two.
But Fellowes still found plenty to talk about. An Emmy and Oscar winner and the author of several novels, Fellowes said despite the historical characters and events in “The Gilded Age,” he prefers the freedom of fiction.
“At one time in my life, I entertained a series about the Vanderbilts, but I feel if you have real characters, you must make them say what they really said and do what they would have done,” he said. “That is limiting. With fiction, you can take events from anyone’s life and make them happen . . . One has a duty to be true. I do have real characters in Mrs. Astor, Ward McAllister, Stanford White . . . But you need principals who are not real so you have that freedom.”
“The Gilded Age” storyline about writer Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) and her family is also rooted in historical fact. Fellowes credited his cowriter Sonja Warfield and historian Erica Dunbar for helping to shape this and other plot lines.
“I already had the Scott family [in the story] since ‘The Gilded Age’ was a long time in gestation. I was very keen on two elements: I did not want it to look like an English period drama; I wanted it to look American and an African-American story gave me that,” he said.
At first, Fellowes wasn’t sure how a storyline about Black Americans fit into “The Gilded Age.” Then he discovered the book, “Black Gotham,” by Carla Peterson, about Black upper-middle class families in Brooklyn in the second half of the 19th century who’d created wealth by starting drug store chains.
Peterson’s own family had started such a chain, said Fellowes. “So, I lifted that for [Peggy’s father] Arthur Scott, because I knew critics would say, ‘Oh, come on,’ and I wanted to have an ironclad basis for the story. And historians did say it was right. It’s a difficult balance, of course. There was racism everywhere you looked and I did not want to be sentimental.”
As they await the second season, fans of “The Gilded Age” may get their fix with the Preservation Society’s new tour, “Inside the Gilded Age,” which will take a limited number of visitors through the mansions featured in the series.