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Seamy Saga of Belcourt Castle Joins List of Newport, R.I., Scandals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An enormous crystal chandelier hovers above the 38-person refectory table at Belcourt Castle here.

From St. Petersburg, coos Harle Tinney as she guides a visitor through her family’s 60-room mansion, built a century ago in the style of Louis XIII. Baloney, rejoins her adopted brother-in-law, Kevin Tinney, a plumber who showed up in 1974 to fix the heating system and ended up owning a third of the castle. Kevin Tinney--who is suing Harle Tinney and her husband, Donald, in an attempt to force the sale of Belcourt Castle--says the light fixture is a fraud: Really, it came from an old-time movie house in western Massachusetts.

Antiques that pretend to be what they aren’t, a plumber who wants his piece of the palace, an iron-willed matriarch who in her 80s became a coquette--Mrs. Astor, mistress of Beechwood, another of Newport’s legendary mansions that is just down the road, must be doing some serious rolling in her grave. Kevin Tinney portrays his co-owners as inept and possibly larcenous, and Harle and Donald Tinney paint Kevin as a gigolo who preyed on the vulnerabilities of Donald’s aging mother.

The judge who is hearing the case says the whole thing is straight out of Dickens, and the neighbors view it as very bad soap opera.

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Scandals Aren’t Up to Snuff

In Newport, even the scandals aren’t what they used to be.

Ever since the robber barons arrived 100 years ago, scandal has stirred the soft sea air of this island the size of Manhattan. Sunny von Bulow and Doris Duke, whose troubles spiced the tabloids for years, kept mansions near Belcourt Castle. In fact, Alva Vanderbilt left her husband, William, in 1895 to marry the castle’s first owner, a banker named Perry Belmont.

But, sad to say, much of this onetime playground of America’s fanciest families has lost its luster. Yes, young, single professionals flock here on weekends to carouse and to browse among tacky T-shirt shops and tattoo parlors. Tour buses thunder up and down Bellevue Avenue, offering folks from the hinterlands a glimpse of 10 spectacular residences. Few of these grand mansions remain in private hands today. One, Hammersmith Farm--which hosted the reception when Jacqueline Bouvier married John F. Kennedy in 1953--was sold not long ago to a Fruit of the Loom underwear magnate.

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Among the Eastern super-rich, this city of 24,000 has lost rank to Nantucket, the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard and Shelter Island. A recent appraisal produced a price tag for Belcourt Castle of $3.2 million, almost a tear-down in parts of Los Angeles.

In this environment, the castle’s current battle seems like just another tawdry family fight over dollars and real estate. Revolting, cluck some of the locals.

“It’s ‘As the Stomach Turns,’ ” said Newport City Council member Kate Leonard.

For now, Kevin Koellisch Tinney, 47, is riding out the feud on the castle’s third floor, where he lives with his male companion and his Rottweiler in an area once used to store linens. On the second floor, Donald and Harle Tinney share their apartment with their own Rottweilers. Not even the dogs are on speaking terms.

Outside, the terra-cotta urns are crumbling and the lawn is turning brown. A superior court judge is weighing Kevin Tinney’s lawsuit demanding that Belcourt Castle be partitioned--or sold--and that the proceeds be divided among the three owners. Intent on preventing the sale of the estate, which was purchased in 1956 for $25,000, Donald and Harle Tinney contend that Kevin cajoled the late Ruth Tinney into adopting him when he was 37 years old. Next, they say, he sweet-talked her into adding his name to the castle deed.

Far from Newport nobility, Ruth and Harold Tinney were parvenus with pretenses and a pocketbook large enough to land the mansion then known simply as Belcourt. Newport’s Gilded Age was little more than a memory when the Tinneys took over. They added “Castle” to the title and set about filling it with antiques and occasionally odd collectibles. They cemented their reputation as eccentric poseurs by often appearing in formal attire and by fraternizing only with each other.

Snubbed, they say, by the Preservation Society of Newport County, which sponsors tours of the major mansions, the Tinneys began providing their own Belcourt Castle house tours for $8 a pop. With no Old Masters but a lot of old stuff, they called the place a museum and set up their own umbrella organization, the Royal Arts Foundation. To defray expenses, they rented the castle for 20 to 30 weddings, social events and ghost parties each year.

Harle Tinney (her first name is pronounced like the motorcycle) began her relationship with Belcourt as a 17-year-old tour guide. In 1961, she and Donald married, in the castle, of course. She found herself living with a man who kept suits of armor in his bedroom, and whose parents demanded undivided devotion.

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At 58, Harle Tinney is a round, earnest woman with short, graying hair. One recent afternoon, she began a tour in the Italian banquet hall. The floor is a mosaic of rose-colored marble--nearly the same hue as her own silk pants. She noted the priceless tapestries, splendid sideboards and the huge chandelier. With 13,000 pieces of crystal, the light fixture appears to pose a threat to the lives of diners as it dangles perilously close to the table. Harle Tinney said it is impossible to estimate its actual value, but certainly it is worth plenty.

“That galls me, that huckster stuff,” Kevin Tinney said in an interview in his lawyer’s office. “I find it vulgar when they take people around and say this or that object is worth a million and a half. What’s important about antiques is their history.”

Donald and Harle Tinney’s position is that Kevin unduly influenced Ruth Tinney after the death of her husband in 1989--so much so that the rigid, 84-year-old matriarch turned giggly and flirtatious, wearing youthful clothing and referring to Kevin, who is homosexual, as her lover.

Donald and Harle Tinney had no children, so to placate “Mom,” as most everyone referred to Ruth Tinney, they agreed to her plan to legally adopt the man who by now had graduated from plumber to handyman to general manager of Belcourt. As a licensed real estate broker, Kevin knew a bit about inheritance laws. He urged “Mom” to add his name to the deed. She complied. Again, Donald and Harle failed to intervene.

“It was easier to go along with my mother-in-law than to argue with her,” Harle Tinney explained, sounding weary.

Ruth Tinney died in 1995--without a will, says one side; with a will perhaps destroyed by Kevin Tinney, says the other.

Kevin, Donald and Harle Tinney may not agree about much, but the significance of rescuing and preserving objects from days gone by is a subject on which they all wax eloquent. Harle Tinney notes that to repair the castle’s stained glass, the entire family--minus Kevin, who had not yet arrived with his plumber’s tools--bought a stained-glass factory and learned to replicate medieval craftsmanship. She has an encyclopedic knowledge about the castle’s content.

“The cylindrical second-floor family dining room features indirect lighting done by Thomas Edison himself,” she related. “In Mrs. Belmont’s day, you couldn’t eat here unless you made at least $3 million.”

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Legal Ruling Imminent

Small and frail, Donald Tinney was dwarfed as he sat in the castle’s French ballroom with its 35-foot Gothic ceiling and plunked out a few tunes on a piano once owned by the late Polish composer Ignace Jan Paderewski. Some days, he dismisses his adopted brother as “a guttersnipe from God knows where"--New Jersey, actually--but as a decision in the case seemed imminent, Donald, 65, was feeling almost generous.

“I don’t like Kevin, but I would get along with the devil if it meant preserving Belcourt,” he declared. “His words were always framed in the most positive sense. He said everything we wanted to hear.”

After Ruth’s death, the family dinner discussions became less refined, then ceased altogether. Kevin says Harle embezzled and misused the castle’s funds. Harle says Kevin drained Belcourt’s accounts, never overly solvent in the first place.

Harle, Donald and their lawyers also contend that Kevin previously ingratiated himself with two other elderly women in other cities who granted him large loans that he never repaid.

“This was a man with a plan,” said their lawyer, Keith B. Kyle.

Superior Court Judge Frank Williams expects to render his decision June 30. Known here for his knowledge of Abraham Lincoln, Williams often quotes from the 16th president in his rulings. In the matter of Belcourt Castle, Williams expects to turn elsewhere.

“It’s pure ‘Pickwick Papers,’ ” the judge said in an interview. “Come to think of it, Kevin Tinney is just like Uriah Heep.”


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