NEWPORT, R.I. — Tourists look at the Breakers mansion and see the gold, marble, and sculpture of a French chateau on the inside, and the limestone arches of an Italian palace outside. To Countess Szapary, the great-granddaughter of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, it simply is a summer home full of happy childhood memories.
The sumptuous great hall was the scene for a coming-out ball for her Aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt, but the countess remembers zipping around it on a bicycle as a child.
The countess is putting her childhood memories on display to mark the 100th anniversary of the Breakers. Some of her personal items will be exhibited in two centennial events: a show of family memorabilia and portraits in the Newport Art Museum, and an exhibit on the business that created the Vanderbilt fortune - the railroad.
The countess was born Sylvia Szechenyi, the daughter of Vanderbilt's youngest daughter, Gladys Moore Vanderbilt, who married the Hungarian ambassador to the United States. Sylvia, too, married a Hungarian aristocrat, Anthony Szapary, making her a countess.
What does a countess do? This one, wearing corduroy trousers with a shirt and sweater, is involved in the running of Newport's top tourist attraction. The Breakers, used for scenes in the Robert Redford film "The Great Gatsby," is the most popular of Newport's seven museum houses.
In the tradition of the Vanderbilts, Szapary lives in New York most of the year and returns to the Breakers during the summer.
Though she's the only resident of the mansion, she's not alone. Every year about 400,000 people take tours through the Breakers' 70 rooms, noting the French and Italian art treasures and the Gilded Age architecture of Richard Morris Hunt. It took 300 workers two years to build the Breakers. Entire rooms were crafted in Paris, shipped to Newport, and reassembled.
The library is Szapary's favorite room, and her favorite part of the ornate house is the curved nook with a trickling fountain under the grand staircase.
Szapary is opening up her family album for public display with the satisfaction of an indulgent grandmother. "I'm very proud of the family. Every single one of them are achievers," she says.
Her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, became a noted sculptor and also founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. An uncle, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, became an Army general and created 30 railroad inventions. Her uncle Reggie Vanderbilt was an expert horseman, whose daughter, Gloria, started a modern fashion empire. It was Szapary's mother, Countess Laszlow Szechenyi, who opened the Breakers to visitors in 1946 to allow the Newport Preservation Society to make money to preserve nearby Hunter House, built in 1748 by Jonathan Nichols, deputy governor of Rhode Island. Countess Szechenyi was reluctant at first to open the house to tours.
"She felt it gave the wrong impression of her parents. The house was so opulent. Her parents were hard working, very serious, very deeply religious," Szapary says.
Countess Szechenyi sold the Breakers to the society in 1972 for the token sum of $1. As part of the agreement, Szapary is allowed to live in the mansion during the summer.
"She continued to pay the taxes and to pay for major repairs, because she didn't want to burden her friends [in the preservation society]," Szapary says.
The exhibit includes a portrait of her mother done in 1906 by John Singer Sargent, the American painter noted for portraits of society ladies of the era.
Szapary hopes the centennial displays will widen the public view of her family beyond summer residents of the lavish Breakers to include their genius, innovation, and accomplishment.
"Everybody thinks all they did was have a good time," she says.