This true Rhode Island socialite inspired a character in ‘The Gilded Age’

Carrie Coon plays Bertha Russell in “The Gilded Age”. The character is based on Newport socialite Alva Vanderbilt. (Photograph by Alison Rosa/HBO)

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and for Julian Fellowes, that’s certainly true.

After all, the Oscar-winning writer and director didn’t have to look far to find inspiration for Bertha Russell, one of the main characters of his hit HBO show, “The Gilded Age.” The character is based on Alva Vanderbilt, the true socialite who swirled around Newport’s highest circles (when she wasn’t throwing fancy balls for New York’s elite).

“Bertha is completely Alva,” Fellowes said during an interview at Marble House, the Bellevue Avenue mansion that was Alva’s thirty-ninth birthday present.

To note.  This photo must be credited: Photo Nick Briggs.

Julian Fellowes. Photo by Nick Briggs (Courtesy of the Preservation Society of Newport County)

Fellowes spoke to reporters on Tuesday during a visit to Newport commemorating his work on ‘The Gilded Age,’ which was largely filmed at the historic summer cottages of the real-life elite of the United States. era. 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 dinner while trying to secure Newport as a filming location in 2019. (“The deal was done for me long before. I probably wasn’t allowed to say that in town,” Fellowes says.)

The women who inspired ‘The Golden Age’

The director, best known for his work on ‘Downton Abbey’, says Newport fascinated him even before he set foot in Rhode Island. While researching the historical period of “The Gilded Age”, he read extensively about the wealthy families of the 1800s and the elaborate homes they built for themselves in Narragansett Bay. Yet, he says, he was surprised on his first visit how vivid the memory of these families is.

“I don’t think I realized how complete the Golden Age image is in the city,” he says. “In New York you have beautiful buildings that come from the golden age, and there are various clubs and things built by Stanford White and so on, but they don’t have the same feeling of being in a city of the golden age that you do here and we use Newport not only for Newport but also for the interiors of the palaces of New York because it is the same designers, it is the same architects who made these buildings .

Alva Vanderbilt, who inspired social rise Bertha Russell (played by Carrie Coon) on the show, was one such New Rich socialites who made their wealth known through their residence. Born in Alabama, she eventually married William K. Vanderbilt and settled 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.

“She was a woman who meant business,” Fellowes says. “Nowadays, of course, she would be the American ambassador to the UN or something, but that wasn’t available to her, so she went to the scene that was – that was social, the scene of the society and dominated and ruled it.

At a time when most of society was ruled by their husbands, Fellowes says, women had an outsized role in Newport. Most of the wealthy industrialists returned to New York to work during the week, leaving their wives to direct the social (and, in some respects, political) life of the city. Alva was among the most influential of these women, hosting balls and parties whose guest lists determined who was among the elite. Although she wasn’t immediately accepted, she found ways to convince the other women that she belonged. In one particularly intriguing moment, she tricked Caroline Astor into attending a party, an episode that found its way into “The Gilded Age.”

“In series one, we have a story where Bertha tricks Mrs. Astor (portrayed by Donna Murphy) into involving her daughter in a celebratory dance to be performed at her ball,” Fellowes explains. “And then when Mrs. Astor refused to come, cancels the girl. And the girl is then in a terrible state, Carrie Astor cries and moans, and finally her mother gives in and agrees to attend the ball.

“That’s exactly what happened between Ms. Astor and Alva Vanderbilt,” he continues. “She deliberately encouraged Carrie to attend the dance, then kicked her out when her mother said she wouldn’t come, and Carrie’s tears persuaded Mrs. Astor to attend the ball. And after that Alva was basically in New York society I felt it was totally justified (to be included in the series) I didn’t do anything to Mrs. Astor in the series that wasn’t done to the real Mrs. Astor in life.

Eventually, he says, Alva grew weary of society life and turned to women’s rights. Later in her 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 have been if this all happened 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 an actual industrialist, though not the one one would expect. Fellowes says he drew inspiration for George from Jay Gould, one of the toughest robber barons of the time, who had a reputation as a loving husband and father who led his children through the yard on a pony.

“I like that contrast. It struck me as very interesting that the man would reserve all his sweetness and kindness for his own family, and all the others he was happy enough to cut at the knees. And so it is kind of George Russell,” Fellowes says.

Fellowes also drew heavily on the history of African Americans in 1800s 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 started by black entrepreneurs in the years following the Civil War. Fellowes says he learned this story by reading black gotham by Carla Peterson, in which the author traces her own family roots.

“I wanted Peggy to be an accomplished person,” 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 had to put up with. And the scene where she’s walking down the street with her dad and then the white couple expects them to stop and walk away – I mean, this kind of thing happened all the time. And people had to I found it moving, actually, that they’re fighting in this mud all the time. But some people made it, and there were women writers, there were women novelists, novelists African-Americans who were posting. So, for me, that was kind of an inspiration for her character.

Another trip to Newport?

His favorite house in Newport is The Elms, built in 1901 for the Berwind family. In the series, The Elms kitchen makes its appearance as the kitchen of the Russell family (whose ballroom is actually The Breakers’ music room).

“I love it all,” Fellowes says of The Elms. “The entrance, the layout of the rooms, the dining room, the ballroom I think is one of the prettiest in town. And while of course the Rosecliff Ballroom is fantastic, it still requires a fantastic ball. I think The Elms Ballroom is a bit more manageable for the type of entertainment I was going to host.

Although he didn’t have much opportunity to explore Newport during filming – a typical evening consisted of Chinese takeout and a black-and-white film in his hotel room due to COVID- 19 – Fellowes may spend more time here in the future. Season two resumed filming last spring, and eager fans are hoping for a multi-season long 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 show’s first season accounted for 1,200 jobs and worked for 500 local vendors during the 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 footage of locations used during filming. Fellowes says the opportunity to film inside the mansions has been amazing.

“They add a kind of sparkle to the program that we would be the poorest without,” he says. “We have benefited a lot from it. It is a pleasure to show these houses, these rooms, this city to the American public, to those of them who have not been there. And let them know it exists. I think it’s all win-win, really.

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