It’s a sparkling July morning and Lord Julian Fellowes is in the Gold Room of the Newport Marble House. It’s only fitting — the creator of the famed “Downton Abbey” has a new HBO series “The Gilded Age,” which films in the historic homes of Newport — even this very room.
“I always felt part of the show — the home — would be in Newport,” he said. “I was thrilled when I saw it,” he said of the seaside Rhode Island locale. “Of course I knew about it, but I’d never been before. I had no idea how complete the setting is.
“You see this?” he said, pointing up at the gilded ceiling with massive chandeliers, “This is where Alva (and Bertha, the character based on her) would look at her designer and say, ‘I think those chandeliers should be a bit bigger. And — more gilded ceilings!’”
Imagine seeing Newport’s history through his eyes? You can — either by watching “The Guilded Age” (Season one is streaming on HBO Max; season two begins filming in Newport again soon), or by visiting Newport — as I did — to take in the opulent locales that center the show.
Sure, Lord Fellowes may not be on hand to point things out himself, but thanks to the self-guided tours created by the Preservation Society of Newport County, you can learn all about not just the mansions and rooms and how they guide the story told in “The Gilded Age,” but also about how the show goes about filming in those spots.
Fellowes said the idea of viewers visiting Newport for background hits just right in his storytelling goals.
“My fantasy is that people are tapping out (character) names on Wikipedia to see if they really existed because in most cases, they really did,” he said.
In fact, the main female character in the series, Bertha, is based on original Marble House grand dame Alva Vanderbilt, who was gifted the home by her then-husband Willie K. Vanderbilt for her 39th birthday.
And while her husband on the show, George, is more of a mash up of Newport men (for instance, his rare closeness with his children and admiration of his wife is based on real-life Jay Gould, perhaps one of the richest in the world who, at a time when Fellowes said, “Most men barely knew their children,” was warm and caring toward his family), his story line is tinted with true stories that happened back in that time.
.“The Gilded Age” and Newport relationship is solid, but it took time to grow. Fellowes was already at work on the show concept more than a decade ago when “Downton Abbey” demanded most of his time and had him back burner it.
Newport had already begun courting him, said Steven Feinberg, executive director of the Rhode Island Film and Television Office.
Once chosen as a central filming location, Newport proved itself to Fellowes.
His first big inspiration came not in one of the grand halls, music rooms or sweeping lawns, but in a “smaller” room at the top of the stairs at Marble House; the study where Alva met with her team to plan her days and events.
“I had a tremendous sense of the woman sitting there, planning her day. I had such a feel for the mechanics of that room,” he said. “It’s where I knew she was in charge.”
The show uses four mansions in Newport in scenes regularly: Marble House is central, but rooms in the Breakers and its stable and carriage house, Rosecliff and the mansion Fellowes said he’d make his home given the chance — the Elms — are central to the story.
Other Newport spots show up in the show as well — like the Newport Tennis Hall of Fame, which has a history and sense of preservation that inspired Fellowes and his team to include it.
So too, he said, is the history of Newport at that time. While post-Civil War fortunes soared and mansions (or cottages as they called them) sprung up, so did something else: Because the men worked all week in New York and other big cities, the women were left to their own devices in Newport all summer and there they thrived as leaders. Alva — as reflected in Bertha’s ways — was led to reach for more than social status in life and moved on to fight for women’s rights.
“This (Newport in that time) was a society dominated by women,” he said. “They were not reduced citizens here. They were leaders.”
In the Breakers Billiard Room, visitors hear about the filming of a scene in which characters George Russell and Patrick Morris play a game of billiards on the Vanderbilt’s’ own table — with a protective covering, of course.
In the Elms’ cold kitchen, you learn how HBO replaced the original electric light fixtures to have the effect of gas lamps, because electric lights were very rare in the 1880s when “The Gilded Age” is set.
Guests who choose to stay overnight for the Gilded Age immersion can take a small, guided tour with insider information as well. Offered each Friday through September for guests at the Newport Marriott, the Vanderbilt and the Chanler, the four-hour tour is a Lord Fellowes fan dream day.
Lord Fellowes is delighted with the setting and the access visitors can have to get right into his scenes.
“That these interiors are here for us is incredible,” he said. “We very much benefit from that. And so does the rest of the world. Those who have not seen them can (via the show). It’s a win/win for all.
“We were always meant to film in these rooms,” he said, once again smiling at the opulent Gold Room setting. “It was a relief to find them.”
You can learn more about visiting the mansions and settings at NewportMansions.org.