Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age

Having grown up near the famous Newport mansions, especially the now-private Astors' Beechwood which featured a troop of young actors portraying the Astor family and friends. Since watching Downton Abbey, I have become more curious about what Lady Grantham's life may have been like growing up in New York and Newport. I turned the book A Season of Splendor : The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York by Greg King. The book details the rise and fall of Gilded Age Society and provides details on the history of the families, social life and customs, architecture, fashion, transportation, scandal and more. One doesn't need to read every chapter to get a good sense of Gilded Age Society. Each reader can choose what interests them and learn a lot.

Here are some interesting facts about the Gilded Age.

*        The Gilded Age lasted from 1865-1914

*         The Gilded Age was very much like England's Regency era. It had formidable matrons presiding over lavish parties, gorgeous dresses and even a Beau Brummel like figure.

Portrait of Mrs. Astor by Carolus-Duran
*          Society was presided over by Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor (known as THE Mrs. Astor), who was of an old New York Dutch family. She was married to William Backhouse Astor who was the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant who made money in fur trade and the China trade.

*           Initially Society consisted of old monied families like Mrs. Astors who had a tradition of wealth and lived in the quiet manner of the English Aristocracy.

*          After the Civil War, an industrial boom created a new class of monied people considered "new money" by the old Dutch families.

*          The new money families, presided over by Alva Vanderbilt, wished to buy their way into the social circle of Mrs. Astor.

*          Mrs. Astor's social adviser Ward McAllister advised Mrs. Astor to admit some new families into her social circle. He devised the famous "400 Club" of the fashionable elite who really mattered in Society.

*       By the 1890s Mrs. Astor was beginning to be too old and too old-fashioned to reign Queen of Society. In her place rose three august matrons: Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt (Alva), Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs (Tessie) and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish (Mamie).

Marble House
*       The Vanderbilts were new money and social climbers. Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt was a notorious pushy, demanding woman who wanted nothing but the best. She never hesitated to show off her wealth and use it as a stepping stone to greater things. She had a Newport Mansion "Marble House" built for her as a 38th birthday gift from her husband. She shocked society by divorcing her first husband William K. Vanderbilt, and marrying his old friend (and younger man) Oliver Belmont and moving into his Newport mansion Belcourt Castle. She ruled her household with an iron fist and her daughter Counselo remembers being dreadfully unhappy, not allowed to go against her mother's will, especially in regards to marriage to the English Duke of Marlborough.

*     Tessie Oelrichs had her grand Newport mansion Rosecliff built after the Grand Triannon in Versailles. She was a fussy housekeeper, often seen on her hands and knees cleaning her own house. She held many lavish parties in the ballroom at Rosecliff. She was known for her theme parties where people came in costume and danced the night away in the ballroom and out on the terrace overlooking the ocean. Rosecliff has a beautiful heart-shaped staircase which is now a popular place for bridal photos and moving theater productions. 

*    Mamie Fish had a love/hate relationship with Society. She both reveled in throwing grand dinner parties and popular entertainments with the help of her social adviser Harry Lehr. She was quick witted and often had shocking quips at the ready. A dowager, Mrs. John Drexel had a male secretary who was her especial companion. One day a friend of Mrs. Drexel was looking for her and asked Mrs. Fish. 'Mamie, have you seen Cousin Alice?' she asked. 'I've looked everywhere in the house,' 'No,' replied Mrs. Fish. 'Have you looked under the secretary?' " Her home was more modest than some of the grand mansions that visitors can still see today. A postcard of her drawing room can be seen on Card Cow. You can read more about her at NineteenTeen.

*    The new money families tossed money around like there was no tomorrow. They spent money on fashionable clothes from Paris, social seasons in New York, Paris, London and Newport and of course lavish entertainments. 

*    One such luxurious entertainment was for the dogs, literally. 100 dogs in fancy dress dined on stewed liver and rice, fricassee of bones and shredded dog biscuits. One dachshund ate so much he fell over in a stupor and had to be carried home. 

*    A dowager drove down Bellevue Avenue in Newport with a pig seated beside her and a monkey on each shoulder!

Belcourt Castle
You can learn more about the Newport Mansions at the website of the Newport Preservation Society and view antique postcards of the mansions online at the Newport Postcard Museum.

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