Mrs. Astor’s Ballroom

New York’s high society would patronize the theater and would mingle with Aimée Crocker Gouraud and her Broadway friends, but never would they invite this entertaining crowd into their homes. While opera stars were welcomed in the parlors and sitting rooms of Manhattan’s manors, they couldn’t dine with the posh company. Stage actors were barred admittance to the mansions of high society altogether. Song writers like young Jack Gouraud, Aimée’s third husband, were also kept out. Banishing the Broadwayites was an easy decision. Deciding who among the nouveau riche could enter old money society was a far more difficult proposition. In the years following the Civil War, Gotham was shaken by the arrival of ever-increasing numbers of crass and unsophisticated nouveau riche—-mining bonanza kings, railroad barons and industrialists, many of whose fortunes rivaled or even surpassed the oldest of families.

Supersnobs Mrs. Astor and Ward McAllister

  

Starting in the winter season of 1872-73, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, self-crowned queen of New York (and Newport) society and cohort Ward McAllister began gathering together a coterie of upper crust fashionables with the purest of bloodlines. McAllister founded the Society of Patriarchs, a committee of 25 “representative men of worth, respectability, and responsibility” who were tasked with conducting each season’s most brilliant balls for the oldest and most distinguished families of New York, those who had “old connections, gentle breeding — perfection in all the requisite accomplishments of a gentleman.” He had a monarch’s power to grant invitations to the city’s most exclusive social events. Being difficult to obtain, invitations became a hot commodity. Anyone repeatedly invited to a Patriarchs sponsored event held a secure social position. By the 1880s, McAllister, supported by the superbly haughty Caroline Astor, dominated most society balls’ management committees. Together they monitored and regulated the aristocracy in America and kept the undesirable new rich of the Gilded Age out.

On March 24, 1888, McAllister carelessly remarked to the New York Tribune about social climbers seeking to enter society:

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… these people 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.

Coincidentally, Caroline Astor’s ballroom could comfortably accommodate 400 guests. The Mrs. Astor (emphasis hers) both inherited and married money. The daughter of a wealthy merchant, Caroline had colonial Dutch aristocracy on both sides of her family tree. Her marriage to William Astor, son of William Backhouse Astor and grandson of John Jacob Astor, united her fortune with an even greater one. She built a glamorous multistory townhouse at New York City’s Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, which became the site of numerous elaborate parties, including an annual ball.

Mrs. Astor’s famous ballroom at 350 Fifth Avenue, which also doubled as the art gallery. Her second house located at 840 Fifth Avenue happened to be the largest ballroom in the city, capable of holding not just “Mrs. Astor’s 400” but 1,200 people. It was one and a half storeys high and had a massive bronze skylight.

In 1892 McAllister provided the New York Times with her party list, a roster of “the people who form what is known as the Four Hundred.” He referred to it as the “authorized, reliable, and, don’t you know, the only correct list.” In no time, making this list and receiving a coveted invitation to an Astor ball became a pathway to citizenship of the ultra-smart set. Mrs. Astor’s balls were by all accounts legendary and her ballroom, by the turn of the century, was considered the inner sanctum of high society. It was one of the most beautiful private ballrooms in America.

In an attempt to position American wealth and breeding on a par with that found in major European capitals, Ward McAllister and Mrs. Astor forged a new understanding of social rank which separated old New York Knickerbocker society and that of the industrial nouveau riche. For Caroline Astor, society was not a pleasure but rather a duty imposed by ancestry, tradition, and wealth. It had to preserve all that was worthy and promote all that was noble. America’s aristocracy was to embody in their lives and actions all that was fine, honorable and Christian. It was McAllister and Astor’s preordained directive to develop a respectable and capable ruling class.

People went to great lengths to become part of the smart set in New York. Ward McAllister, in an act of selfless charity, set out to housetrain the parvenus, to couth the uncouth. Social mentors like Ward were hired, along with press agents, to guide ambitious arrivistes down the clearest path to social stardom. They were shown where to set up a domicile, how to converse with the latest society repartee, how to give a musicale… They were taught drawing room deportment. They were also taught which characters to shy away from lest their names be bundled out in a third-class society column with lists of “detrimentals.” A detrimental was a technical social term that meant a person of however excellent moral character or ability, who does not blend well socially with either the conservative “Knickerbocker” element or the ultra fashionables. Being classified a detrimental would be veritable mill-stone hung about the neck.

The Rev. Dr. Charles Wilbur de Lyon Nichols, once dubbed “Ward McAllister’s first Apostle on the Philosophy of Society” (also the Governor-General of the National Society of Scions of Colonial Cavaliers) preached about the unmitigated power of Mrs. Astor:

Newport, not the White House, is the supreme court of social appeals in the United States; Mrs. Astor, and not the wife of the President of the United States, is the first lady of the land, in the realm of fashion. Strange to narrate, in our free, democratic United States, almost within a decade, there has sprung up an exclusive social caste as valid at certain European courts as an hereditary titled aristocracy — a powerful class of ultra fashionable multi-millionaires, who, at their present ratio of ascendency, bid fair to patronize royalty itself.

McAllister extravagantly called Mrs. Astor “the Mystic Rose,” referring to the heavenly figure in Dante’s “Paradise” around whom all in Paradise revolve. While Queen Victoria was ruling a vast empire where the sun never sets, Mrs. Astor ruled America. Her legacy, according to some historians, defined the Gilded Age.

Astor would throw lavish parties and receptions at her house on Fifth Avenue

Several of Aimée’s cousins, although they were very much new money, made it on to the exclusive list. Hattie Crocker Alexander was even touted as Mrs. Astor’s successor in society columns. Her brother-in-law Jacob Fassett was invited to a Patriarch’s ball in 1890. Aimée’s reputation as a libertine and a provocateur forever got in the way of joining the ranks of America’s version of royalty. Harboring some hurt feelings from being ostracized by New York society (and her extended family), Aimée enjoyed poking fun at her insanely wealthy yet more conservative peers. But this was a pastime rather than a vocation. She left well enough alone preferring the company of her free thinking, free loving Bohemian friends who mingled and mixed with all the classes.

Humorist and sketch artist Marshall Pinckney Wilder

Aimée did have the temerity to throw her own party the same night as Mrs. Astor’s Charity Ball at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1890, when she was newly wedded to second husband, singer Harry Gillig. It was a theater party after the opening night performance of The Gondoliers (or The King of Barataria), Gilbert and Sullivan’s latest London success at the new Park Theater. Mr. Marshall Wilder, the American actor, humorist, sketch artist, favorite of the British Royal Family and hunchbacked dwarf, chose to attend Aimée’s party, much to her delight.