I picked up a book called Era of Elegance at the Grapevine Antique Mall a few days ago. It gives a flowery glimpse of both Gilded Age palaces and their occupants. The author, Andrew Tully, bookends the Era of Elegance in 1865 and 1914.
The first chapter is titled Mrs. Astor’s Couch. It’s appropriate that Mrs. Astor be placed first as it was her parties that limited attendance to 400 New York elite—a number that has often been used in lists of the wealthiest and most powerful.
“Why there are about 400 people in fashionable New York society,” social authority Ward McAllister explained to a reporter. “If you go outside that number, you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom, or else make other people, not at ease.”
“…and yet the Astor Ball probably was the dullest social event of the epoch,” Tully goes on to write and soon describes the presentation of the society queen herself.
Mrs. Astor invariably received her guests alone, standing under the portrait of herself by Carolus Duran, generally dressed in the velvet of her favorite purple or green, and wearing the famous stomacher of diamonds said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette. On her black wig—her hair was falling out—was a tiara of diamonds, and the corsage would be either of orchids or of roses—or both. On various occasions, the hostess would favor white satin embroidered with pearls, with a train of green velvet, at which time she would wear her famous emeralds. Indeed, her dress was a constant problem to the grande dame, for she sought always to wear as many of her jewels as possible, and even on that day the ludicrous could be achieved. Besides, the gems were often a source of physical discomfort. Mrs. Astor’s regal poise, so frequently noted by breathless society editors of the day, as often as not was caused by the great brackets of diamonds overspread on her back, which prevented her from sitting back in her chair.
The book is equally entertaining in other accounts, describing the homes and life of Jay Gould, Charles M. Schwab, William Collins Whitney, J.P. Morgan, and others. It’s available online for around $5.00 plus shipping.