Theresa Fair Oelrichs

Theresa Fair OelrichsTheresa Fair Oelrichs was one of Newport's leading socialites at the turn of the twentieth century.

Born and raised in California and Nevada, "Tessie" was the heiress to a large silver fortune. Her father, James Fair, was an Irish immigrant who became a self-made milionaire in the Comstock Lode.

After her parents' much-publicized divorce, in which her mother Virginia received a $5 million divorce settlement, Tessie lived with her mother and sister in San Francisco. The Fairs summered in Newport, Rhode Island, where Tessie met her future husband, Hermann Oelrichs. They married in 1890.

In 1891, Hermann and Tessie Oelrichs purchased the Newport estate of naval historian and diplomat George Bancroft. The Oelrichs expanded the property and commissioned Stanford White of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White to design Rosecliff, a mansion based on the Grand Trianon at Versailles.

Rosecliff's H-shaped construction surrounded a large gilded ballroom where Tessie Oelrichs hosted many parties during the summer season. Best known was the "Bal Blanc," which highlighted the Astor Cup Race in August 1904. Tessie Oelrichs decorated Rosecliff with white hydrangeas, roses, orchids, and lilies, ordered white swans for the fountain, and had a fleet of white ships constructed to float on the shore beyond the estate.

Tessie's energy and headstrong personality were a formidable match for Newport's other society leaders. She kept a spotless household and held events such as a ballet, an opera, and a circus at Rosecliff.

The Oelrichs grew apart in later years, Hermann Oelrichs living in San Francisco, and Tessie Oelrichs dividing her time between New York, Saratoga, Paris, and Newport. The Oelrichs had one son, Hermann Oelrichs Jr.

After Tessie Oelrichs' death in 1926, Rosecliff passed through many hands. Mr. and Mrs. Edgar J. Monroe gave Rosecliff to the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1971. Today, it is open to the public as a museum.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, ©2001-2003