Prologue: The Gilded Age in New York City PROLOGUE The Gilded Age in New York City
The Vanderbilt grand costume ball, planned for Monday, March 26, 1883, was Manhattan’s most anticipated party of the year. The gala was to be thrown by Alva Vanderbilt, the wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt, known as Willie, who had been fortunate enough to be born the grandson of the railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. Willie, about six feet tall, with dark hair carefully parted down the middle of his head, was well known for managing his family’s railroad investments; as a man of wealth he also bred horses and later enjoyed “motor racing.”
Willie and Alva were determined to make their mark in New York society. Alva had attended boarding school in France and had a passion for all things French—the language, architecture, tapestries, clothes, and jewelry. She wanted her home to resemble the largest, most chic mansions in France, and her costume ball to be a spectacle of excess that would amaze and impress the lucky twelve hundred colleagues and friends of the Vanderbilts who would receive invitations. Any New Yorker who was wealthy waited desperately in hopes of witnessing the lavish affair Alva would create.
At that moment in the Gilded Age, New York was known for the behaviors, customs, and density of its wealthiest citizens, most of whom preferred to live among similarly affluent folks. Indeed, many well-heeled New Yorkers had moved away from Manhattan’s waterlines along the Hudson and East Rivers, away from the busy docks and shipyards, which had become rough and dangerous. Alva Vanderbilt and the other wealthy women in New York were dogged about impressing upon others that their families were rich and therefore important. The greatest wealth of the city was now found in the townhouses, apartment buildings, and hotels concentrated within a wide swath of city blocks in the center of the island, running from Bowling Green Park at the southern end to Washington Square Park in the Village, then on up to Madison Park, and from there to Central Park and 57th Street, which glimmered in Thomas Edison’s newly invented streetlights.
Meanwhile, on the Lower East Side, neighborhoods of poor immigrants—Jews, Italian, Germans, and Chinese—lived packed in small apartments that often housed multiple extended family members. Families even rented out rooms to make ends meet. The immigrants brought their own cultures with them to New York and would in time form new communities intermingled in the melting pot. Many of the working class gathered on the Bowery after work, where a dime could buy distraction in a bar or some other convivial venue. The Age may have been Gilded, but a great disparity endured between the few rich and the many, many desperately poor.
Yet even Alva Vanderbilt, as wealthy as she was, had her share of what she might consider a struggle to move up in the world. When Mrs. Vanderbilt decided to throw a ball at her home, she took direct aim at the older Mrs. Caroline Astor, who then dominated the social scene in New York. Mrs. Astor and her social secretary, Ward McAllister, had in earlier years created a list of four hundred of the wealthiest people in New York, called “The Four Hundred,” the only ones acceptable in fashionable society. On Mrs. Astor’s list were prominent businessmen, politicians, society matrons, people who were born with fortunes—unlike the Vanderbilts, who had earned their wealth with the railroads, and were thus considered nouveau riche and therefore inappropriate guests for any celebration of Mrs. Astor’s.
The Astors’ massive fortune derived from generations of Astors, including William Backhouse Astor Sr., and was passed down and expanded by his two sons, John Jacob Astor III and William Backhouse Astor Jr., Caroline Astor’s husband. Their estimated net worth was well over $100 billion in 2019 dollars. Even so, William Backhouse Astor Sr. regretted the bargains he had missed in real estate. When a reporter asked him why, the senior Mr. Astor said, “Could I begin life again, knowing what I now know, and had the money to invest, I would buy every foot of land on the Island of Manhattan.” Given the Astor fortune and the fact that the Vanderbilts were not on the list of the privileged four hundred, Mrs. Astor felt that Alva and Willie’s costume ball was well beneath her and had no interest in attending.
Her daughter Carrie felt differently, though. She begged to attend the party, because she didn’t want to be left out from her friends. There was a problem, however—Mrs. Astor had not received an invitation, because she and her daughter had never properly “called on” Mrs. Vanderbilt, which amounted to a major faux pas in the upper echelons of Gilded Age society. Now, despite Mrs. Astor’s view that Mrs. Vanderbilt was made of “new money,” Mrs. Astor recognized that Mrs. Vanderbilt was a social force to be reckoned with. When Mrs. Astor swallowed her pride and dropped her visiting card at Mrs. Vanderbilt’s home, she received an invitation to the ball the next day.
As the gala drew closer on the calendar, Alva Vanderbilt stirred up excitement by giving a few journalists a sneak preview of what would soon delight her guests. She escorted the newspapermen into the mansion through a large marble door, to see a dazzling world… lovely Japanese lanterns were strung from beautiful columns and the third-floor gymnasium had been converted into a forest filled with palm trees, bougainvillea, and orchids. The newspaper descriptions would soon fill the most fashionable citizens of the city with anticipation.
Finally, on the evening of March 26, 1883, carriages arrived at the mansion at ten o’clock, earlier than Alva Vanderbilt had expected. Uninvited onlookers surrounded her home and strained to get glimpses of the lovely debutantes with their pearls and gloves and any and all other society loyalists, tonight dressed as pirates, ghosts, animals, gypsies, and others. Meticulous research had gone into the costumes, and The New York Times expected men to be there dressed as “Cardinal Richelieu, Otho the Barbarian, or the Count of Monte Cristo, while the ladies have been driven to the verge of distraction in the effort to settle the comparative advantages of ancient, medieval, and modern costumes.” New York police, armed with batons, cordoned off the entrance but still had their hands full keeping those who didn’t belong under control.
Meanwhile, early arrivals were welcomed between ten o’clock and eleven thirty, and New York’s most fashionable women were shown into the house and escorted to grand bedrooms bedecked with tapestries on the walls and mirrors on the ceilings. Their maids stayed behind in carriages and were summoned as needed. Every surface was worthy of ogling and admiration: walls painted with lovely apple blossoms, bathtubs carved of alabaster. In one room, a silent woman dressed as a nun in black robes sat writing at a table. She had been placed at the table as a prop, a fanciful oddity, someone for the wealthy women to watch as they awaited one another’s entrance.
At eleven thirty that evening, Alva Vanderbilt descended the grand staircase dressed as a Venetian princess, complete with a Venetian cap covered with magnificent jewels. She held two white birds in her hands. Willie appeared as the “Duc de Guise,” meaning the Duke from the House of Guise, a noble French family; he was adorned in yellow silk tights, a short yellow jacket, and a black velvet cloak embroidered in gold. Husband and wife led the first dance of the evening as the others joined them in the fantasy world dancing to life around the grand staircase.
All of the women were intrepid in their choice of costumes. Alva’s sister-in-law, Alice Vanderbilt, inspired by Edison, came dressed as “The Electric Light” and carried around the dance floor an illuminated torch powered by batteries buried deep in her gown. Miss Edith Fish dressed as the Duchess of Burgundy, with sapphires and rubies sewn into the front of her dress. Kate Fearing, known as “Puss,” commissioned a gown meant to honor her pets, with a stuffed cat set upon her head and seven cat tails sewn into her skirt. The women had opened their private vaults for the night; they swirled and swished festooned with sapphires, rubies, pearls, and most importantly—diamonds. Wives literally dripped with diamonds, displaying not only their social status but their husbands’ wealth.
Somewhere in this extravagant crush stood Anna Hall and Elliott Roosevelt, a young, prominent couple who would be married later that year at Calvary Church, the socially acceptable Episcopal church near Gramercy Park. They were beautiful and heartbreakingly young. Anna had just turned twenty, and Elliott twenty-three. Anna had been well instructed by her parents and maintained flawless manners. “Fair, frail, and fragile, and therefore a good illustration of beauty in American women,” wrote one society columnist. Once, while Anna sat for a portrait, the poet Robert Browning was so transfixed by her beauty that he rested on a bench and read to her from his latest collection. Everywhere Anna went, she was the most watched and envied woman in the room. She had dutifully followed all the rules of the Gilded Age: she had launched the Knickerbocker Bowling Club, inaugurated a series of dances, promenaded in Central Park in a carriage driven by her handsome future husband, and cheered him on at his many polo matches, yacht races, and horse shows.
On that night, the sparkling events at the Vanderbilt ball would quite naturally have appeared to Anna and Elliot to be another moment emblematic of untold promise and beauty ahead for the two of them. Little could they have known that what they youthfully believed about their own gilded destinies would in time be destroyed.