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Iris Apfel: Out and About in Newport

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Visitors always give us an opportunity to see Newport through someone else’s eyes. Imagine the fun when those eyes belong to Iris Apfel (and special access is afforded). Saturday presented us with beautiful, dry-ish weather, perfect for enjoying a whirl of visits to a few of Newport’s “summer cottages,” including a most special lunch with friends. Off we go…

The Elms with Curator Paul Miller


Iris loves all things French (to which her Park Avenue apartment is a testament) so we started with the Elms (built in 1901), special to many of us with an interest in historic preservation. Had it not been for the intervention of ten Bellevue Avenue philanthropists back in 1962, this grand recreation of Chateau d’Asnieres (circa 1750) outside Paris was slated for demolition and a shopping center to go in its place. Can you imagine?


Indeed, the entire contents of the house had already been auctioned off; many of the pieces were purchased by Doris Duke to end up down the street at her home, Rough Point (Newport’s auction’s are a story unto themselves). One of the few rooms that was left intact is the small, jewel-like breakfast room with its walls covered in Coramandel-style black oriental lacquer panels.

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We also had the rare opportunity to see the breathtaking vista from the rooftop of the Elms which provides a peek beyond the grounds to the harbor.


Lunch in the Elms Conservatory

As a garden lover, this room is one of my favorite’s in Newport. Who couldn’t be inspired by the lattice designs, the statuary, the art?



It’s both a “plant house,” as well as a formal space for summer high tea in the afternoon…back in the days of the Berwind family. And fresh flowers are always to be found within the houses. It was a delight to see the very familiar and popular sunflower treated in a fairly formal “mass arrangement” style.


One thing I love about Newport, and well-suited Iris’ sensibilities also, is that we’re very comfortable being “low key.” Case in point…in a space where we would normally have been in black tie for a formal event, we were eating a picnic lunch, complete with potato chips. The juxtaposition of casual with formal was part of the fun.


Informal dessert staples just happened to match the flower centerpiece.


A Stop at Marble House

Is it Swarovski? Look what Iris and I discovered in the grand hall at Marble House — a crystal waterfall at the base of this large planter.


On an interesting note, it was not just for the typical reason, but for a very personal reason, that Iris wanted to visit some of the Newport “cottages” — she and her husband, Carl, owners of the eponymous fabric firm Old World Weavers (which they founded in 1950), had provided the fabric for some of the furnishings at these large house museums (and she had the stories to go with them).

A trip down memory lane for Iris. Curator Paul Miller escorted us to the small study on the first floor of Marble House to point out a pair of draperies  made of Old World Weavers damask.


An impressive statistic and well-represented here in the very formal dining room…Marble House contains 500,000 cubic feet of marble.


On to Doris Duke’s “Rough Point”

What differentiates Doris Duke’s home from others on Bellevue Avenue that are open for tours is that she lived in it up until the time of her death in 1993 at age eighty.

No sooner had we entered than Iris spotted these William and Mary-style wingback chairs in the Grand Hall, prompting a coincidental story related by curator Kristen Costa. Just the week before, when researching the source for recovering the chairs, it was learned that the fabric, still available, was from Old World Weavers. Of course, Iris had to have her picture taken beside the chair (the only occasion over the whole weekend when she requested a picture be taken, rather than obliging her cell phone-toting fans).

A spectacular pair of mirrored glass panels with carved and gilded lindenwood overlays which Doris Duke purchased from yet another Newport house auction in 1977 at Bois D’ore.IMG_20160827_144544

And back to Parterre for the Birthday Party

I had learned only the night before that, for sundry reasons, Iris had never had a birthday party. Her expression when her birthday cake was presented will stay with me forever. How much it meant that in some small way I was able to bring her such pleasure.


A late Sunday morning breakfast in the kitchen signaled an end to this magical weekend, but not before Iris and I had one last visit to the garden…and the Parterre Bench (see opening picture). How much we all treasured her company.

To see more holdings of The Elms, Marble House and Rough Point, visit

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Bettie Bearden Pardee

About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

2 thoughts on “Iris Apfel: Out and About in Newport

  1. Bettie,
    What a lovely and fascinating visit with Iris Apfel. Your photographs and detail of her visit made for the finest of sharing her birthday and entertainment to all who opened this this morning. Her joy of the cake is a priceless image of her day. Must get back to Newport and see more. Will look for Iris fabrics on next visit. Houses that people have lived in and left intact are so much more interesting…we have Biltmore in N.C. that has the feel of the family is out traveling.
    Most cheerfully,

    Well, your photos here and on Instagram show that SHE DID have a MARVELOUS TIME!
    What a TREAT to do the COTTAGES in YOUR HOOD with HER!
    I was told DORIS DUKE brought CAMELS in from outside during a storm……….can you verify that story?I would have LOVED To see HER home as well……………….just have to GO BACK someday!

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