The Gilded Age

Have you been watching The Gilded Age?

Alva Vanderbilt (left) and The Mrs. Astor

For those who haven’t, it’s a series about the ultra-wealthy and the ultra-elite in 1882 New York City. I’ve heard several people complain about the exterior settings and the costumes, but what Julian Fellowes gets right, are the characters and the general attitude of new money verses old money.

I’m fascinated by this era. It’s where Frances has come from, albeit she didn’t attempt to break into New York society until 1889. It would have been just as difficult for her as it is for Gladys Russell. In fact, it seems a little too easy for the Russells, who I think may be based on the William K. Vanderbilts. But I think this only because the fictional Bertha Russell rules over her children with an iron fist, very much like Alva Vanderbilt.

Unlike Bertha Russell, Alva worked much harder to gain acceptance in Mrs. Astor’s New York society. Little by little, inch by inch, she gained ground in her campaign—not just to be part of society, but to rule it. To do so, she had to gain Mrs. Astor’s acceptance. She planned a ball to celebrate the completion of her fabulous new mansion on Fifth Avenue and let it be known her guest of honor would be her long-time friend, Consuelo Yznaga, who made one of the first Trans-Atlantic marriages to the heir to the Duke of Manchester. Nobody in society would miss their chance to meet a future duchess, not to mention the entertainment Alva was planning for the evening.

Vanderbilt Mansion on 5th Avenue.

Alva sent out 1600 invitations, but she didn’t send one to Mrs. Astor, whose beloved daughter, Carrie, was beyond eager to attend. It made perfect sense that Alva didn’t invite the Astors, since she couldn’t claim any sort of acquaintance with Mrs. Astor. There were rules in New York society after all. One of them was that the older, or longer established family made the first move toward friendship. Mrs. Astor had never called on the Vanderbilts, so Alva could never call on her. Mrs. Astor may not approve of the Vanderbilts, but neither did she want to be left off any guest list or have her daughter be the only young lady who didn’t attend the ball.

Mrs. Astor sent her calling card to Alva and Alva immediately sent the invitation. The ball, held in 1883, cost more than $250,000, but it made Mrs. Astor acknowledge the Vanderbilts and it made Alva a shining start in New York society. From that point on, there was no stopping her.

Now that I think about it, Bertha Russell still hasn’t been acknowledged by Mrs. Astor. Maybe there will be a ball in upcoming episodes.

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2 Responses to The Gilded Age

  1. QNPoohBear says:

    I’m fascinated by that time period too. I haven’t seen The Gilded Age yet but I hope to soon. Every time we have visitors from far away we want to impress we drive off to Newport to look at the cottages from the Cliff Walk side. I heard that story about Carrie and the ball at Astors’ Beechwood when they used to have a theater company in residence portraying the Astors’ friends and servants. Carrie and her friends had been practicing their dancing for weeks when the invitation did not arrive and Mrs. Astor had to suck it up and call on Mrs. Vanderbilt who claimed the invite got “lost in the mail.” (next door). Imagine Mrs. Astor’s horror when Alva Vanderbilt constructed her Marble House (Marble monstrosity!) next door to Mrs. Astor’s summer cottage in Newport! Marble House is worth a visit if you’re in Newport. It says a LOT about Alva and her attitude. I love her and fear her at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have seen Marble House! It was a long time ago, before I ever thought about writing a book in that era, but I definitely remember being overwhelmed! We also stopped at Rosecliff, which seemed so quiet by comparison. I’d love to go there again. I think now that I know more about the owners, I’d see those “cottages” in a different light.


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