The Classical Greek poet Hesiod envisioned humanity’s gradual decline as a succession of ages: the Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron. When Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warren collaborated on a novel satirizing the corruption of American public, financial, and social life under the Grant Administration, they named their work. The Gilded Agegilt being the merest layer of gold on a baser substance, giving the whole an appearance of solid gold without the reality.
It was a time before the income tax, minimum wage, pure food and drug laws, government regulation of most businesses, a time when unrestrained capitalism dominated almost every area of American life, the time witnessed and described by Edith Wharton in her novels, short stories, and memoirs, the period from the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th Century, the period known as the Gilded Age.
The Gilded Age saw old money and new money struggle for social prominence in New York and elsewhere. A generation before, James Fenimore Cooper had written, “In a country where wealth is constantly bringing new claimants for consideration into the arena of fashion (for it is, after all, no more than a struggle for notoriety, that may be more bloodless but is not less bitter than that of the gladiators), those who are in its possession contribute all possible means of distinction between themselves and those who are about to dispute their ascendancy ”
As Cooper had foreseen, New York’s old society, based on the wealthy landowning descendants of Dutch and British immigrants, disdained the newly rich: the short-order would-be aristocrats whose fortunes derived from questionable financial manipulations and who lusted for acceptance by the Old Guard as a token of respectability. William Dean Howells noted, “Inequality is as dear to the American heart as liberty itself.” Gilded Age America may have believed all men were created equal, but most wealthy Americans spent much of their time trying to be as unequal as possible.
The newly rich had survived what had often been vulgar, swindling, money-grabbing ascents, whether on Wall Street or wartime profiteering. Once they’d made their piles, many started erecting palatial Beaux-Arts mansions along Fifth Avenue, elegance busting out all over. Then, to borrow a line from AJ Liebling, there came “the historic split-second for the elegance to harden — like a quick cake icing,” followed by the struggle for social dominance.
The term Gilded Age has suddenly reappeared in contemporary popular culture through the recently broadcast HBO series, which had its season finale last week. The series closely focused on the relationship of old and new wealth to social position, and one of the odder, more affected characters is the Society gatekeeper Ward McAllister, played by Nathan Lane with tongue firmly thrust in cheek.
McAllister’s predecessor had been Isaac Hull Brown, the dignified, witty sexton of Manhattan’s Grace Church for 35 years. He knew everybody worth knowing, and everybody knew him. “A fashionable lady,” some unknown observed, “orders her meats from the butcher, her supplies from the grocer, her cakes and ices from the confectioner, but her invitations she puts in the hands of Brown.”
“The Lenten Season,” he said, “is a horridly dull season, but we manage to make our funerals as entertaining as possible.”
The real-life McAllister was also odd and affected, yet still renowned as the Gilded Age’s arbiter elegantiarum. Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1827, McAllister and his father struck it rich practicing mining law in California during the 1849 Gold Rush — yet another example of how lawyers, whores, and grocers made the real money out of the Gold Rush. After returning east in 1853 and marrying an heiress, he spent several years in Europe, devoted largely to the study of wines, haute cuisine, and the etiquette of balls and formal receptions. He came to New York after the Civil War.
Contractors and speculators had made enormous fortunes during the war, and many newly rich New Yorkers believed their wealth alone entitled them to enter society — to be elected to exclusive clubs and receive invitations to exclusive social functions. While America is intrinsically open to the self-made, these men and women hammered at the gates of an upper-class society that felt social boundaries were best based on “old connections, gentle breeding, perfection in all the requisite accomplishments of a gentleman.” and an unstained private reputation. “
Nonetheless, some of the Old Guard felt change was inevitable. If so, someone had to housetrain the parvenus.
Enter McAllister. He believed he could create and maintain a self-sustaining aristocracy by creating a shared sense of identity among New York’s wealthy families — class consciousness, if you will. No one else had a better idea.
So it was that this short, pudgy, balding, eccentrically tailored Southerner with an Imperial (a bushy mustache and goatee in imitation of Napoleon III) became the Petronius Arbiter of New York in the Gilded Age. Pompous — he called a picnic a fte champêtre without irony, after the “country feasts” of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles — and far more humorless than the version of McAllister presented in the series, he was a hardworking, efficient precursor to the modern-day event planner, from invitations (he could spend 10 minutes discussing the wording of an invitation) to ensure that the carriages awaited the guests’ departure.
“There are only about four hundred people in fashionable New York Society.
There was, at the turn of the century, a custom of referring to the wife of the acknowledged head of a wealthy family as the Mrs. So-and-so, and McAllister focused on gaining and keeping the patronage of the Mrs. Astor.
Caroline Schermerhorn Astor had inherited and married money. Intelligent and hard-working, today she would undoubtedly be a corporate CEO. As it was, being a creature of both her time and extraordinary ambition, she focused her energy and abilities on becoming the acknowledged first lady of New York’s social elite. She and McAllister were allies, not friends (Mrs. Astor had no intimates). He extravagantly called her “the Mystic Rose,” after the heavenly figure in Dante’s Paradise around whom all in Paradise revolve.
In 1872, McAllister founded the Society of Patriarchs, a committee of 25 “representative men of worth, respectability, and responsibility” enjoying Mrs. Astor’s support, to unite old and acceptable new rich in conducting each season’s “most brilliant balls.” Invitations, being difficult to obtain, became highly desirable, ensuring that anyone “repeatedly invited to them had a secure social position.” Thus, they became the event of the social year. By the 1880s, McAllister, supported by Mrs. Astor, dominated the management committees of most of the society balls. Thus they largely determined who was in and out.
Pride goeth before a fall, and McAllister undid himself. On March 24, 1888, he told The New York Tribune that:
There are only about four hundred people in fashionable New York Society. If you go outside that number you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or make other people not at ease… who have not the poise, the aptitude for polite conversation, the polished and deferential manner, the infinite capacity of good humor and ability to entertain or be entertained that society demands.
The reporter had McAllister define Society as “The Four Hundred,” which he admitted was also the capacity of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.
Yet he hadn’t named names. That happened after four years of titillating the press and the public, on the occasion of Mrs. Astor’s ball of February 1, 1892. He named 319 men, including himself, in a list consisting largely of bankers, lawyers, brokers, real estate men, and rail barons. Some resented the publicity that made them celebrities. Their resentment was nothing beside the volcanic rage of those omitted.
He then compounded his folly by publishing a memoir, Society as I Have Found It. McAllister portrayed a life of fighting for the acceptance of those whom he believed to be his betters, entering their inner circle, and gaining power to exclude others who shared his ambitions: a string of glittering invitations to dinners, country weekends, and yachting parties. Reviewers savaged him: “The degree of fervor that the author puts into undertakings that adults commonly leave to adolescents is really wonderful.” He stood self-revealed as a man of misplaced seriousness, a “dedicated social climber of comical determination.”
As one Patriarch later observed, “Poor McAllister! What a pity it is he wrote a book! ” Less elegantly, some journalists called him a “Mouse Colored Ass.” The Patriarchs promptly dismissed him from his duties, with one Patriarch, Stuyvesant Fish, curtly telling the press, “McAllister is a discharged servant. That is all. “
On Jan. McAllister died 31, 1895, after a brief illness. Only five Patriarchs and less than a score of The Four Hundred attended the services at Grace Church. Mrs. Astor was absent, having a dinner party that night. Two years later, the Society of Patriarchs, which had been McAllister’s life’s work, dissolved for lack of interest.
McAllister had no dominant successor, although some suggest society columnists now fulfill that function. Perhaps the closest was Louis Keller, the son of a former US Commissioner of Patents. Keller, like McAllister, took himself extremely seriously and lacked humor and objectivity, particularly about himself. Born on the fringes of Society, he was utterly fascinated by it: indeed, one writer observed, “The mind of Louis Keller never went beyond Society.” After finding success as a journalist, in 1887 Keller somehow borrowed the registry of the Metropolitan National Horse Show, which listed its attendees and directors. This became the raw material of his most successful enterprise, The Social Register. He copyrighted its contents, thus preventing anyone else from publishing the entire list and making it more secret and exclusive. The Social Register flourishes even today, the semi-annual heavy black volumes, pumpkin orange lettering on their covers, still seen as an encyclopedia of America’s social elite.
One cannot imagine what the Mrs. Astor would have thought of all this. Before her death in 1908, her mind failed. She lived alone to save her servants in Beechwood, her Newport “cottage” of some 12,000 square feet. Lloyd Morris, a man of letters, wrote of her last years, “Still erect, still bravely gowned and jeweled, she stood quite alone, greeting imaginary guests long dead, exchanging pleasantries with ghosts of the utmost social distinction.”