Mrs. Astor’s Ballroom
The Gilded Age and the Ultra Fashionables
New York’s high society would patronize the theater and would mingle and mix with Aimée Crocker Gouraud and her lively Broadway friends. These upper echelon blue bloods would not, however, invite this entertaining crowd back to their homes. Stage actors were barred admittance to the grandiose palaces. Song writers like young Jack Gouraud, Aimée’s third husband, were also kept out. They were considered “upper servants” at best. While opera stars were welcomed in the parlors and sitting rooms of Manhattan’s manors after performing, they couldn’t dine with the posh company. Banishing the Broadwayites was an easy decision. Deciding who among the nouveau riche could gain admittance to 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 the crass and unsophisticated nouveau riche—mining bonanza kings, railroad barons and industrialists, many of whose fortunes rivaled or even surpassed the affluence of the oldest and most refined New York families.
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 vast 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.
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, being a leader in society was not a pleasure but rather a duty imposed by ancestry, tradition, and wealth. America’s aristocracy had to preserve all that was worthy, promote all that was noble, and 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.
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.
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 polish the unpolished, 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. In these refineries, the apprentices 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 Nicholls, once dubbed “Ward McAllister’s first Apostle on the Philosophy of Society” scanned the entire country and, by 1912, added another sixty-nine names to Ward’s famous list. Nicholls preached about the unmitigated power of Mrs. Astor in his book The Ultra-fashionable Peerage of America:
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.
Several of Aimée’s cousins, in spite of their short pedigree, made it into New York’s prestigious inner circle. George Crocker, who built the country manor Darlington on 1,000 acres some 25 miles from Manhattan, became popular in high society (that estate is currently the highest priced piece of residential real estate on the market in New Jersey). The elegant and charitable Hattie Crocker Alexander was touted as Mrs. Astor’s potential successor in society columns. Cousin Ethel Crocker was called the “Leader of the Ultra Fashionables” on the West Coast–San Francisco’s version of Mrs. Astor by Dr. Nicholls. Aimée’s brother-in-law, State Senator Jacob Fassett, who famously fought the corruption of Tammany Hall, was invited to an exclusive Patriarch’s ball in 1890. A year later he was nominated to run for governor on the Republican ticket. (He lost).
Aimée Crocker’s reputation as a libertine and a provocateur forever got in the way of joining the ranks of America’s version of royalty. Her fate was sealed when she married her ragtime husband and was outed as a woman with tattoos in a full-color, full-page article in The New York World. She would be branded a Bohemian and an adventuress (a nineteenth century word for hussy) for the rest of her life. 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, freelance Bohemian friends who mingled and mixed with all the classes.
Aimée did have the temerity to throw her own soirée 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 rollicking 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 dwarf actor, humorist, sketch artist, favorite of the British Royal Family, and close friend to the Gilligs chose to attend Aimée’s party as a special guest, much to her delight.