A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age
2008, Non Fiction
Wiley, $35.00, 528 pages, Amazon ASIN 0470185694
America does not have royalty or a peerage, but for a period of time right after the Civil War, until the outbreak of World War I, an observer of the social scene in New York might think we did. During this time, known as the Gilded Age, members of society gave lavish balls, built spectacular homes, adorned themselves with priceless jewels, collected art and lived very much like British lords or continental aristocrats. Greg King, who chronicled The Court of the Last Czar, gives us a picture of the people, places and events of this lavish era in his new book A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York.
Before the Civil War, New York society was composed of families descended from the original Dutch and English settlers. These old families were known as the Knickerbockers. Some of the Knickerbocker families were wealthy, but they mostly lived quiet lives and paid more attention to bloodlines than bankbooks. After the Civil War, things changed. The Goulds, the Belmonts, the Vanderbilts and other upstart families had become wealthy – very wealthy indeed (King estimates that William Vanderbilt’s fortune was equivalent to 4 billion in current dollars), and they wanted to move into the closed circle of society.
The most prominent member of old Knickerbocker society was Mrs. William Astor, the former Caroline Schermerhorn. She was known simply as Mrs. Astor - the Mrs. Astor. Mrs. Astor did not want the old order to be totally overtaken by the new rich, yet she realized that it was impossible to keep them out. She and her advisor Ward McAllister (who was a crashing snob) set out to codify the rules that would govern society. Mrs. Astor and McAllister took it on themselves to be the gatekeepers and they would decide who was and who was not socially acceptable. Ward McAllister turned out to be a man who enjoyed his own press, and he coined the phrase “the 400” which according to him was the total number of people who could be considered acceptable to be allowed in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.
However, there were some newcomers with money, ambition and drive and they very much wanted to break into the magic 400. Eventually, Mrs. Astor had to capitulate and receive the Vanderbilts when Alva Vanderbilt gave a costume party that Mrs. Astor's daughter Carrie wanted to attend. Eventually Alva Vanderbilt and two other newcomers displaced Mrs. Astor as queens of society. When one of these upstarts, Mrs. Styvesant Fish, gave a party that Mrs. Astor considered vulgar Mrs. Fish’s reaction was, “Mrs. Astor is an elderly woman”.
As time went on, the activites of the members of the now much more than 400, became more lavish and more vulgar. There were parties where the guests dressed as servants, or babies or members of the Court of Louis the XIV (which necessitated them spending lavishly on costumes). One man gave a dinner where all the guests ate on horseback (yes, the horses ate as well). One of the more notorious soirees was a party in honor of the Prince del Drago. The guests turned out ready to meet royalty, only to discover that the prince was a monkey in formal attire. The guests were amused, the press was not.
Finally a series of events put an end to the Gilded Age. Mrs. Astor died, there was a deep downturn in the financial health of the country and people did not want to read about the wasteful habits of silly socialites. Finally World War I halted the party entirely.
There is nothing new in A Season of Splendor, but King has brought together a lot of information from many different sources and arranged it into a compulsively readable book. He gives information about the people, places, houses, yachts, jewels, marriages and scandals that characterized the Gilded Age. Yes, the Gilded Age was basically a shallow time populated with characters who could be cruel - read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and you will get an idea of the reality behind the gloss, but it was visually splendid. Just go to Biltmore House or the mansions in historic Newport and you can see a little bit of how splendid it was.
-- Ellen Micheletti
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