Stepping Out

At home with the Vanderbilts

In their mansion it's still 1936


The historic Vanderbilt Mansion, which overlooks Northport Bay, offers visitors a glimpse into the gilded past of its former occupants, William K. “Willie K” Vanderbilt II and his second wife Rosamund. Along with various family members, the Vanderbilts summered at the grand estate during those years when titans of industry were prevalent on Long Island’s Gold Coast.

Those 20 acres that Vanderbilt bought in 1910 on a wooded hill above Northport Bay eventually became Eagle’s Nest, the home he commissioned the renowned New York City architecture firm of Warren & Wetmore to build. The partners had designed and built Grand Central Terminal for his great-grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt’ s New York Central Railroad.

Between 1910 and 1936 the architects expanded what was a modest bachelor’s retreat into a stunning Spanish Revival mansion as Vanderbilt purchased more land, eventually owning 43 acres. This remarkable mansion offers an intimate look at the life of a privileged family from the Jazz Age through World War II, filled with priceless art, furnishings and personal possessions .

Visiting the Vanderbilt Mansion, which was deeded to Suffolk County, after Vanderbilt’s death in 1944, is like entering a time capsule of a long ago era.

This is especially so during the summer, when the 24-room mansion welcomes visitors to its Living History tours. During these popular tours, which are offered until Sept. 2, guides appearing as Vanderbilt family members, friends and household staff relate stories about the home’s famous residents and their renowned visitors of the day.

Tour the mansion this summer and you’ll find yourself in 1936. Vanderbilt’s sister, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, is enjoying some time with her friends in the women’s suffrage movement.

“We always try to relate our [Living History] themes to current events,” says Stephanie Gress, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs. “Last year, 2017, was the centennial of suffrage in New York State so this is perfect for us. Alva Vanderbilt [William K. Vanderbilt’s mother] was instrumental in getting New York women the right to vote.”

Based on the historical events of the time, along with some “poetic license,” according to Gress, visitors will find themselves among a reunion of suffragettes.

“The movie “Captains Courageous” with Spencer Tracy is playing in the theaters at that time, and Agatha Christie’s new novel “Dumb Witness” is in the bookstores,” says Gress. “Legendary aviator Amelia Earhart is lost at sea in July, and European leaders are faced with threats of German expansion. And the U.S. Post Office issues a commemorative stamp in honor of women’s voting rights activist and social reformer Susan B. Anthony on the 30th anniversary of her death in 1906.”

Earlier in 1936, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who supported women’s voting rights, had been the keynote speaker at a dinner at the Biltmore Hotel to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s City Club in New York.

LaGuardia is invited to Eagle’s Nest to join a few of the Vanderbilt family members — including Vanderbilt’s brother, Harold, a three-time winner of the America’s cup and contract bridge expert; Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlborough; and her guests Elizabeth Arden, Anne Morgan, and her nephew, Henry Sturgis Morgan.

Visitors will also encounter Pietro, the Italian chef, and William Belanske, the curator and artist who traveled with Vanderbilt on his epic journeys.

“The setting is that Consuelo and her friends Elizabeth Arden and Anne Morgan are recalling their time in the suffrage movement. We’ve tied actual events into a rich historical program,” says Gress. She notes that this group of women was called the “mink brigade” at the time. “They were wealthy women who were activists.”

The “actors” portraying the Vanderbilts, their staff and guests are all guides at the museum. Appearing in costume they interact with one another and museum guests. “They really draw visitors in,” says Gress. “They’re very clever and have a thorough knowledge of the house and the program. They have so much fun with this, sharing a detailed history about the house and the family.”

The cast all relate to one another in character throughout the tour. Elizabeth Arden, for example, the famed cosmetics entrepreneur, will share chit chat with Vanderbilts and guests about her products, including her Bluegrass perfume, which she introduced in 1934.

Guests will see tems relating to the suffragette movement among the authentic household furnishings, including banners and sashes, an enlargement of a Susan B. Anthony stamp and an outfit worn by Consuelo.

“It’s such a unique and fascinating piece of history,” says Gress. “And, of course, the Vanderbilts were a prominent family with an interesting group of friends. It’s truly like stepping back in time.”

Vanderbilt Museum

When: Saturday and Sunday, through Sept. 2. Tours are given at 12:30, 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. $8 per person, available at the door.

Where: 180 Little Neck Rd., Centerport. (631) 854-5579 or