R.L.S. in Newport
On the afternoon of Sept. 7, 1887, Robert Louis Stevenson stepped onto American soil for the first time in seven years, which made it his “second coming” in the words of his friend Will Low, an artist living in New York.
The scene was a pier on the Hudson River in lower Manhattan. Low was there to meet the Scottish invalid author and help him navigate his way through the unrelenting attention Louis had been attracting since his ship, the Ludgate Hill out of London, had steamed into New York Harbor.
But in the figurative sense, Stevenson’s ship had also come in. He was already known in the States, and his star was perceptibly rising, but with the advent of the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Louis was suddenly rocketed into a new category and found himself riding the crest of the latest craze which was his little horror story. That made RLS the newest celebrity in the American cult of celebrity, an honor he took lightly thanks to his British way of thinking, which scorned the American trait as “idiotic to the last degree.” That’s how he put it to Sidney Colvin and to Henry James, he said, “America is as I remembered, a fine place to eat in, and a great place for kindness, but Lord, what a silly thing is popularity. I envy the cool obscurity of Skerryvore.” (Skerryvore was the name of his home in Bournemouth, England.)
Robert Louis Stevenson and his family were en route to Colorado Springs, where the mountain air was beneficial to victims of TB, like Stevenson was presumed to be on account of his hemorrhage-prone lungs. However, a cold he caught on the banks off Newfoundland would profoundly effect the itinerary of the Stevenson expedition, the label used in this series of articles to collectively identify its members, who were RLS himself, his wife Fanny, his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, the author’s mother Margaret and their traveling Swiss servant Valentine Roch. The recent death of Louis’ father Thomas Stevenson had triggered this most recent and more dramatic migration to yet another health resort in the never-ending quest to keep the expedition’s leader alive. Margaret, or “Maggie,” was new to the game. She was a widow now and needed something to do, but she would get more than she bargained for on this trip.
Charles Fairchild was now living up to the promise he made to the Stevensons when first they met in Bournemouth, England. Fairchild was the millionaire American banker who had commissioned the two famous portraits of RLS at Skerryvore by their mutual friend John Singer Sargent, to be a present for his wife Elizabeth. Fairchild had told Louis and Fanny in England that when they got to the States, he would look after them. Will Low had been a student in France with Sargent in the 1870s, and he knew the Fairchilds, too. While Low and RLS were surrounded by reporters on the pier that fateful afternoon, a carriage arrived courtesy of Charles to take the party to a party. Many years later, when Low got around to writing his book “A Chronicle of Friendships,” he wrote, “I remained behind to arrange for the transfer of their luggage, and the whole party repaired to the Victoria Hotel on Broadway, where everything had been arranged for their reception by their kind friends, whose guests they were to be at Newport.” Everything included hotel rooms for the night for the travelers, all expenses covered by their host, Mr. Fairchild.
The cold Stevenson had caught aboard the Ludgate Hill was like any cold could be for this patient, meaning that it was life-threatening since colds almost always preceded more hemorrhaging, meaning a return of “Bloody Jack,” who had the potential to kill every time he paid a visit. “Seedy” is the word Stevenson often used to indicate he was having a worse than usual day, and unfortunately that was his condition upon arriving in NYC, thanks to this new cold.
“When we got to the hotel, interviewers from all the papers began to arrive at once. Louis who was very tired and far from well, had gone to bed immediately, to have a rest, so they had to be dismissed and told to come back later, but it was hard to persuade them to go away, and they kept sending up their cards even after Louis finally settled down for the night.” That’s from a letter Stevenson’s mother wrote to her sister, Jane Balfour. Margaret’s letters throughout this adventure were edited and published by Scribner’s in 1903 with the title “From Saranac to the Marquesas” and provide an intimate view of life inside the Stevenson expedition from August 1887 to January 1889.
Getting RLS out of the city as quickly as possible was the first order of business, so in the morning after the day Stevenson’s ship had come in, he was sent off to Newport, Rhode Island, in the charge of Lloyd and Valentine, where they would be guests of the Fairchilds. However, Margaret and Fanny stayed behind to see the first performance in the Big Apple of Richard Mansfield’s adaptation of “Jekyll & Hyde” for the stage at Madison Square Theater on Sept. 12. Once inside, T.R. Sullivan, the script writer for the play, offered his box seat to Fanny, saying that the author’s box certainly belonged to her since the real author was too ill to attend. Margaret would tell Jane “that the play was most thrilling and a great success. Hyde is the most dreadful creature you can imagine …” which sounds like a compliment to the acting of Richard Mansfield. “How he can change form from one to the other is past my comprehension — it’s marvelous.”
The Fairchilds had a summer residence at 94 Washington St. in Newport, where the Stevenson expedition soaked up some quality American opulence for a week-and-a-half. Lloyd and Margaret stayed in a nearby boarding house, presumably because there wasn’t enough room at the Fairchilds’, who didn’t seem to mind that their star guest spent most of his time in bed. After all, he was ill. One of their friends, Maude Howe Elliot, left us her impressions of RLS in her book “This Was My Newport”: “I carried flowers from Oak Glen to Robert Louis Stevenson during his Newport sojourn. Stevenson was very ill during the visit, and was rarely visible — spending his days lying full length on a couch, wrapped in a scarlet dressing-gown, smoking endless cigarettes, and at times pouring forth a stream of talk that left his listeners tingling with the thrill of his rare and exquisite personality.”
On Sept. 20, the day before she left Newport, Margaret wrote a letter to Miss Alison Cunningham, her son’s devoted nurse, his “Cummy” in earlier times, to whom he dedicated “A Child’s Garden of Verses”: “I have just heard that we are to go to the Adirondacks, a mountainous district not very far from New York. The climate is said to resemble Davos, and so may be just the thing for Louis.” Colorado as a destination was never mentioned again.