NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — The leaders of the private beach club tied to U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse broke their silence Wednesday after getting pummeled for days by national news reports suggesting the establishment limits its membership to white people.
Whitehouse’s family has belonged to Bailey’s Beach Club for years, a byproduct of his status as a wealthy blue-blood Yankee. He has faced persistent criticism over being part of such an elite institution while advocating for racial justice and other progressive policies.
The current controversy exploded after a local website asked Friday whether the “all-white” membership at Bailey’s had become more diverse. “I think the people who are running the place are still working on that, and I’m sorry it hasn’t happened yet,” he replied.
After days of controversy, the third-term Democrat issued a lengthy statement Wednesday afternoon saying he “wasn’t prepared for the question” from the website, GoLocalProv, and “made the mistake of accepting her premise.”
“I then checked the assertion and was assured that, first, the assertion was wrong, there is diversity in the membership and there are non-white club members; and second, that improving diversity remains a priority and an active task for the club’s new board,” Whitehouse said.
Bailey’s — formally known as the Spouting Rock Beach Association — is a notoriously private institution that has been frequented by wealthy Newporters since the Gilded Age. Its leaders have generally declined to engage with reporters in the past, but they changed course after national news outlets picked up the allegation that the club is “whites-only” or “all-white.”
“Recent characterizations in the press and in other commentary about Baileys Beach Club are inaccurate and false,” the club told 12 News in a statement issued Wednesday.
“Over many years, Club members and their families have included people of many racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds from around the world who come to Newport every summer,” the statement continued. “Our membership comes from all over the globe to our small club and we welcome the diversity of view and background they bring to our community.”
The club provided no statistics or other data showing the number of non-white members who belong. Its general manager, Jack Nolan, said the organization would have no further comment.
But 12 News obtained a lengthier message that the president of Bailey’s, Alexander Auersperg, sent to its members on Wednesday afternoon.
“As a private club, we have a duty to protect the privacy of our members and we have exercised great restraint in not commenting to the press inquiries,” Auersperg wrote in the email. “However, we also have a duty to correct this mischaracterization which is so offensive to all of us, our staff and our friends in the Newport community.”
He added, “Let me be very clear, as president of this club and on behalf of my fellow governors and management, we do not discriminate against any race, religion, or ethnic background when it comes to our membership process or to the hiring of our staff – I can assure you that there is no one on our Board of Governors who would ever tolerate such an offensive practice.”
Auersperg — son of the late Sunny von Bülow and an Austrian prince — also pleaded with other Bailey’s members “to be mindful of any comments you make to avoid these kinds of devastating mischaracterizations.”
In his own statement, Whitehouse obliquely suggested that his wife, Sandra, is the one who has decided to remain a part of Bailey’s.
“I have no membership to resign, nor will I ask my wife or any other family members to do so,” he said. “First, they are on the right side of pushing for improvements. Second, and more importantly, my relationship with my family is not one in which I tell them what to do.”
Whitehouse went on to say the contretemps over Bailey’s had led him to reflect on other organizations with which he is affiliated, and he disclosed that he belongs to a sailing club in Newport which doesn’t have a diverse membership. (While he did not identify the place by name, 12 News has confirmed it is the Ida Lewis Yacht Club, another haven of the Newport elite.)
“Failing to address the sailing club’s lack of diversity is squarely on me, and something for which I am sorry,” he said. “I commit to working with the club and the community to build a more inclusive membership and to better connect with the local community.”
The other three Democrats in Rhode Island’s congressional delegation all came to Whitehouse’s defense over the last 24 hours as the story picked up steam in Washington.
“I don’t know anything about the club, but I do know that Senator Whitehouse is an aggressive champion for justice, inclusiveness, and people from all walks of life,” U.S. Sen. Jack Reed told reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill. “It’s who he is and what he fights for every day.”
Congressmen David Cicilline and Jim Langevin both sent tweets supporting the senator:
In an analysis essay published Tuesday afternoon, Washington Post political writer Aaron Blake argued that Whitehouse was partly to blame for the way he has handled questions about Bailey’s, even if accusations about the makeup of its membership were overblown.
“After several years of this being an issue … one would think we’d have some more precise facts on this from Whitehouse and the beach club — especially given the premium that Democrats like him are placing on racial diversity and equality,” Blake wrote.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook