In the summer of 1973, as the surf broke over the rocks of the wind-worn shoreline behind Rosecliff, the Great American Novel became a motion picture.
The film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, directed by Jack Clayton, starred Robert Redford as the newly wealthy businessman Jay Gatsby trying to win the affection of his former love Daisy Buchanan, played by Mia Farrow. Set against the rich social landscape of the Roaring Twenties, the film explores the decadence of the American dream and the nature of wealth and class division. The actors, draped in pastel seersucker, fine speckled cashmere, and silk ties and scarves in every color, played their roles against the backdrop of the gleaming white terracotta Rosecliff, standing in as Gatsby’s grand Long Island estate.
Rosecliff played its role perfectly. Theresa Fair Oelrich, a silver heiress from Nevada, commissioned the mansion in 1909, as a place for summer entertaining on a grand scale. Stanford White, the principal architect, modeled the estate after the Grand Trianon retreat of Versailles, with a classical arcade of arched windows and paired columns. The mansion offers unexpected views of the surrounding area through an en filade special arrangement; the doors dividing rooms are aligned on a single axis with those of connecting rooms, providing vistas from one end of the house to the other. The house includes a grand ballroom and a swooping limestone “sweetheart staircase” that greets guests when they enter. The back lawn, ideal for a leisurely roam, overlooks the Newport Cliff Walk and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1902, at the time of its completion, Rosecliff cost $2.5 million, the equivalent of about $65.5 million today.
During the residency of the Oelrichs, servants kept Rosecliff in notoriously clean condition, with Theresa Oelrich conducting an inspection of the house every morning and instructing her domestic staff to change the beds daily regardless of whether or not guests had used them. Mrs. Oelrich was known to engage in the maintenance herself, taking a mop and a pail to any marble floor that fell short of her standards. “When I die, bury me with a cake of sapolio [soap] in one hand and a scrubbing-brush in the other; they are my symbols,” Mrs. Oelrich once said.
The last private resident of Rosecliff, J. Edgar Monroe, became known for lavish parties, often with a Mardi Gras theme and involving fancy costumes. In contrast to the formal dinners thrown by the Oelrichs, the Monroes’ parties were notable for being relaxed and easygoing, with an air of conviviality uncommon in the social scene of the time, but perhaps more recognizable to Jay Gatsby.