I married into a family of native Newporters descended from the European immigrants who worked in Newport's mansions. As I result, I have heard many amazing stories about Newport's gilded age families. Among my favorites are my husband Paul's recollections of Elizabeth Parke Firestone and his visits to her Newport, RI Firestone Estate, Ocean Lawn.
After her husband died, Mrs. Firestone (a.k.a Betty) summered alone at Ocean Lawn, a sprawling 1888 Peabody & Stearns mansion overlooking the water on the corner of Narragansett Avenue and Cliff Walk. She was the widow of the late Harvey Firestone, Jr., son of the founder of Firestone Tire.
In those days, Mrs. Firestone didn't get out much, but she enjoyed a little sherry and conversation with occasional afternoon visitors. Somehow, my husband, Paul, and his pal, Matt, became part of this tradition. (I must admit, I cannot imagine a more unlikely trio.) She enjoyed their company and told them what it was like when Henry Ford's auto business took off, and the money started flooding into Firestone Tire.
According to Mrs. Firestone, her father-in-law was reluctant to make tires for Henry Ford. But as he ramped up his tire business, the auto industry took off and so did the Firestone fortune. According to Mrs. Firestone, "Each day we had no idea what the postman was bringing, where it was from and whether the amounts were correct." They had no idea how much money was coming in, how much was was outstanding or how to account for it all. "So, of course," Mrs. Firestone said, "we had to start a bank." The Harvey J. Firestone Bank of Akron, Ohio is still in business today.
On another visit the conversation turned to more domestic matters. Mrs. Firestone told Paul she was looking for a cleaner and asked him who he used. Paul told her that Plaza Cleaners on Aquidneck Avenue was the best. Mrs. Firestone replied, "I'm still sending my linens to France, and I'm just not happy with the way they're coming back." (Apparently she was unaware of Madame Bonnetat who ran a French laundry right off Van Zandt Ave.)
On another afternoon, Mrs. Firestone took her gentleman callers to see her couture dress collection. She had hundreds of custom made dresses in her closet each with two diminutive pairs of hand made shoes on the floor underneath. In the 1950s Mrs. Firestone was regarded as one of America's best-dressed women, and she liked her shoes. She was a size 4 and a half.
When Mrs. Firestone needed a place to store her Jamaica furniture, she bought the mansion next door. She said it was good for the furniture, and lIfe was more peaceful without neighbors. Both this house and a spectacular pool house she built for a favorite granddaughter are now grand private homes.
Mrs. Firestone died in 1990. Her home was sold, and the property was subdivided into several large lots between the Cliff Walk and Annandale Road. Today the original mansion, the converted pool house and several new homes coexist behind the original iron gates.
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