Sorboni Banerjee


Tommy Baxter


Theresa Edo


Erin Jang


Michelle Kearns


Madelyn Rosenberg Lazorchak


Jay Rubin


Sarah Williams

Introductory Essay


By Sorboni Banerjee

The thick, streaked limestone exterior of the Breakers mansion rises from an immense, flat, lawn as though suddenly forced vertically out of the ground by shifting tectonic plates. And the double front door, shadowed and dwarfed by a carved, stone awning looks like a pair of close-set eyes narrowed with suspicion. Who are you, to come in here? Who is this that enters the gold and marble “summer cottages” of those 18th century railroad moguls, the Vanderbilts?

Arnold arrived late. He walked in with his chin tipped slightly up, hands half swinging with his shuffling steps. He didn’t say a word until Alberta the Seasoned Guide mentor, asked in her FDR lilt, if she could help him.

“Uh, hello there. I’m Arnold Frucht…. here to learn to be a tour guide… am I, uh… Am I… Am I in the right place?”

Arnold was 68-years-old in June of 1999 when I trained to be a guide with him at the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island. We reintroduced ourselves for Arnold’s sake and he told us he was a retired psychiatrist at Sing Sing prison in New York.

I looked up Sing Sing prison recently. The name comes from the Native American phrase sin sinck: stone on stone. It was the prison where Edison introduced the electric chair. Sing Sing was where Arnold Frucht used to work.

“Reeeeeally,” said Alberta, plucked brows arching, pulling the pink flesh of her face towards her puffed white hair. “Good to have you with us, Dr. Frucht.”

Dr. Frucht ate all my fruit.

I offered him a few green grapes and he finished the entire bunch. Then, without looking at me again, he reached a thick-fingered hand across the table, picked up my nectarine, and pulled off the paper towel. Arnold’s watery gray eyes would focus only on the fruit as he bit into it. Then, he’d swallow, nectarine sliding down in a not-chewed-enough lump behind the thin folds of his throat.

Arnold glanced side-to-side, scraggly eyebrows raised, and with a tiny shrug of his tweed coated shoulders when he realized no one was really looking at him, took the next bite.

I’d offered him my fruit after our mentor Alberta, asked if he felt okay, and he murmured, “Oh… yes. My blood sugar’s just low. I’m diabetic, you know, and sometimes if I don’t eat on time, I feel a little bit… tired.”

Arnold had an expression on his face like a little boy who had just grabbed a hold of the wrong mother’s leg at the supermarket. Because I was annoyed that he’d eaten more than I offered, I started to be bothered by his lost look, his slow speech, and the patchy gray leg hair showing between his slouched, black sock and pant leg.

I asked him why he hadn’t brought any food with him.
“Oh… I just forgot,” he said. “I woke up and just came in this morning. I wasn’t really thinking about lunch yet. It was still morning. And I was late.”

That first day of training, Alberta the Seasoned Guide mentor instructed me to sit and wait for the others, in one of the chairs by the gentleman’s parlor. I perched tentatively on the gold leafed velvet upholstered throne.

“These are chairs you can sit on,” she informed me.

I had arrived too early for the training session, because I was worried I’d get lost. I had never driven to Newport before, over the bridge, down the streets compressed too tightly by the flat colonial houses, towards the cliffs and the mansions.

Arnold was worried about getting lost in their house. Sitting in front of the guide room windows, still covered with iron security bars from when the room was a nursery, he wondered out loud, how… to find… such rooms… as the logia… or the library.

“Usually everything is a right turn,” Alberta told him, looking puzzled by the question. “You basically go around the house in a circle, two times, upstairs and then downstairs.”

During Alberta’s tours, Arnold rocked onto his toes, or stood tilted slightly forward, with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his baggy pants. He scanned the room, completely preoccupied with the furniture, the murals on the ceiling, the pictures of the Vanderbilt children on the wall. Sometimes Arnold said he was thinking about a book he read last night. He told me he liked M&M’s.

“Stick to the script and never hold up the house,” Alberta would chime. “You don’t want to develop a reputation…And never, never, never let anyone touch any of the artifacts.”

Downstairs near the dolphin fountain, Arnold grabbed my elbow. “Hey what did the vampire say to the…” I don’t remember the joke anymore. But it made me laugh.

“I feel like a vampire should live here,” he said. “Count Vanderbilt.”

On the last afternoon of training, we entered, for the fifth time that day, the billiards room, a man’s room, with shining mahogany furniture, long pool table, and the room’s chief novelty, the English weighing chair “… which was a conversation piece really. It gives your weight in English stones… But no one actually sat in it. Certainly the Vanderbilts didn’t weigh their guests after a banquet to see how much they ate.”

We were all tired, but Arnold, was especially tired. He plopped down to rest… in the weighing chair. He sat there unbeknownst to Alberta long enough to have gotten comfortable before he was suddenly spotted.

“Arnold!” Alberta and several others exclaimed together.

“Get up right now!” Alberta shouted.

Arnold looked frightened and jumped up. “Oh I’m sorry… I was tired. And it was there… and there was no rope around it…”

Oh, this one was great! The story shot around the house, banging off the carved acorns in the great hall, swooshing up the narrow servant staircase, straight up to percolate in the steamy little guide room.

On the fifth day, we took our oral exam. This 70- room house replaced an earlier wooden house bought from Pierre Lorillard in 1885, which was destroyed by fire in 1892. I stuck to the script, word for word as instructed. And 45 minutes later I had passed, and was waiting to take on my first tour when Arnold’s test began in the gentleman’s reception room.

“The Breakers was built in 1895 after an earlier house had burned down,” he said. “Commodore Vanderbilt was alarmed at the burning of this house. He insisted that it be made as close to unburnable as possible.”

The Vanderbilt who built the house was not the Commodore. His grandfather was. But Alberta had faith in Arnold’s knowledge of the facts, and just thought he had poor delivery, which would improve with practice. She passed him.

I saw Arnold on his first tour. He didn’t go in the right direction when he got upstairs, and his group collided with another group between Gladys’s bedroom and the elevator. He spoke quietly, nervously, to only about four people at a time, while the rest drifted away from him. Then, he got so confused about where to go, he led the group down the grand staircase.

Nobody uses the grand staircase. It still has the Original Red Carpet! But there was Arnold, looking very small and uncertain in the great hall, waving to his group that it was okay to follow him down.

Alberta suddenly appeared behind me near the breakfast parlor.

“Oh my god. I feel sick,” she said. And I thought it was sweet that she cared about Arnold so much.

“I’m so sick with worry,” she continued, “that I am going to get in big trouble with the hostesses of the house for passing him.”

The next morning, the air smelled like rotting seaweed, that sweet and fishy smell, outside the house, inside the house.

“Oh hello,” Arnold said. “How were your tours yesterday?”

“Fine,” I said. “I’m getting the hang of it. What about you? How’d the rest of yours go?”

"Pretty disastrous actually," he responded. "I forgot a lot and mixed some stuff up, you know, called Gladys, Gertrude, and couldn't remember who she married.”

He blinked once or twice and looked down at his feet. “Someone asked for their money back, and I… I got pulled off the tour.”

Arnold tried to force a chuckle. “Now I'm banned to the carriage house. I really think I know this material though. I only wanted a chance to teach them, you know?"

As I drove over the Newport Bridge on my way home, and saw the small houses nestled on the edges of the island, I thought about him going home to his empty house. I wondered if his collection of seven hundred antique books really did keep him company.

“Oh, I think I spend a little too much money on them,” he had told me. “That new one… whooo… how much, I won’t say. I probably shouldn’t have done it. I’ll be in trouble later.”

I didn’t see Arnold for several weeks after that. Then one morning, an ambulance tore past the Breakers toward the stables where Arnold worked.

“Can you believe it,” gushed one guide, crossing his skinny legs and gesturing for us all to come closer. “He ate a whole bag of M&M’s! And he’s diabetic! He totally collapsed! I heard he almost died!”

“Someone like that cannot handle working here,” chimed in a guide with such severe arthritis she can’t take groups up the stairs, or open her fingers all the way.

“We all remember what a disaster his first day was,” the first continued. “And the day he sat in the chair! My favorite! I tell all my groups that story. They so love it.”

“My goodness,” remarked a third guide. “What was he thinking? Sitting in the English weighing chair! . . .You have to have respect for what’s old!”
You have to respect what’s old.