(Edited - content added)
One of the things I'm loving about this book is it's written from the perspective of two people who clearly think the New York Society BS, especially during the gilded age, is/was exactly that - complete BS lol.
So here's my synopsis of how the NY social scene happened, according to Anderson Cooper (Gloria Vanderbilt's son) and historian/historical fiction author, Katherine Howe.
So after the Civil War, America was struggling for its own identity, but also a way to unify.
So what does famous gilded-age NYC socialite, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (Knickerbocker family descendent, wife of William Backhouse Astor, mother of John Jacob Astor IV, the NY real estate and hotel heir, who died on the Titanic) decide to do?
Caroline finds herself a well-connected gentleman "walker" named Ward McCallister, and the two of them create a "branding" strategy for America, literally creating a NYC social register called "The 400," which still exists in some form today.
What's a "walker?"
A walker is an affable male party cohost and planner that you're not married to, who also doesn't work and lives off his family's money, and helps make all the party arrangements and invitation lists - he's your party planner and cohost.
The reason a "walker" was required was supposedly because the husband was "off working" and it was viewed as inappropriate for a woman to host coed parties alone - so the woman needed a chaperone for her "safety."
Wink wink, nudge nudge - since the rules for entrance to the 400 club were already that you couldn't work and had to be three generations removed from the moneymaker - and was actually code speak for the husband actually living with his mistress or kept woman/women, since most married for money/social status, in the gilded age.
Sometimes the walker was the woman's lover, but not necessarily - because as we know, only men were allowed affairs socially (and actually common practice, even encouraged, since marriage was a social-networking arrangement), women couldn't, shunned first by other women if they did - so daring was the woman who made her lover her social walker - and in fact, as we also know - many "walkers" in the gilded age were married for social status, but were actually gay - so the walker was actually their gay best friend party-planner lol.
Though we don't know that Ward was gay for certain, we know that it was strongly suspected - because though he supposedly had an "invalid" wife, no one ever met her, saw her, and she never attended the parties, and they had no children, and though he flirted much with women, and preferred their company, he had no known affairs - so who knows?
Now - the supposed up side of this "branding" plan was it was a semi-effort to unify the country after the civil war, create an American identity, and bind new and old money together in unity.
The bad side, however, of course, is obvious - its main intent was creating an elite class of wealthy layabouts and snobs, whether new or old money, who had nothing to do but spend money they didn't make themselves and party, and look down on and gossip about everyone else.
There are many rules, but in order to be included in the 400 list, the 4 basic rules for admission to "The 400" that struck me most (as determined only by Caroline and Ward) were:
1) You must be at least 3 generations removed from the person that made the family fortune - meaning the members, male or female, could not work - relying only on family fortune.
(No, I'm not kidding.)
2) You had to be able to trace your roots to Old Wealthy Europe - but only certain parts of it.
Prior income level now didn't matter, because the goal was to unify old and new money into one "better" social class and regiment society (with them on top, of course).
But old money, of course, automatically included you in the 400, who often still snubbed the nouveau riche, especially if they were still actively working.
However, when I say Old Europe, I mean English, French, German, Dutch, Danish, or Belgian. (Norwegian countries too - IF they could trace to royalty or old aristocracy.)
Italians (unless you could prove Venetian heritage), Irish, Scottish (with rare old-money/royal exception like Ward McAllister), Asian, Eastern European, Cuban, Haitian, Caribbean, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and especially African, need not apply - because they would never even be considered - even if royalty or of Spanish or French royal or Aristocratic descent - your dark skin and country of birth precluded you from acceptance regardless.
Russia, like Spain and Portugal, were on the fence - it depended on if you could trace your roots to actual royalty or not - but of course not if you were Jewish and from Russia or Eastern Europe, you need not apply, either :/
(Once again, and still - not kidding).
3) Having a million dollars during the gilded age was not enough to enter the 400, despite being today's equivalent of around 3 million - it was considered minimum "poverty level" and only gained you entrance into the 400 if you were old money that had lost it. If you were new money and just had a million, you likely wouldn't get in, and even if you did, it meant you observed from the periphery, rather than guided the social scene.
4) You were expected travel to Europe, especially France, and literally rip out architectural pieces such as fireplace mantels and tapestries from manors and palaces that were abandoned or falling into disrepair - often without paying the owning family for them - then put them in your brand-new NYC or Newport home, and call them your own, whether they were your family's or not.
So basically, they literally stole from/ripped off European culture, by raiding manors and palaces falling into disrepair due to money issues - sometimes displaying them in their homes in a mish-mash style and gauche way, especially by European standards (which is when we Americans initially got the reputation for being both overly extravagant and tacky) - and called it their own - thus contributing to the term "robber barons."
So much for creating a unique American identity?
Well, I guess they did, in the end - because if the American identity is wealthy people appropriating other people's cultural innovations and calling them our own, whether we are related to them in some way or not - then they succeeded ;) lol
Also, to keep her choke hold control over the NY social scene, when receiving guests, she'd stand in front of this colossal and imposing picture of herself, to make herself appear larger than she was and in total control lol.
Hmm. If anyone ever needed a swift kick in the backside, rather than thanks, it was Caroline Astor.
Because she's responsible for the rigid, often nonsensically snobby, nearly social-caste system we Americans still foolishly cling to.
I'd be happy to have done that, but Lord knows I never would've been invited to her party and wouldn't have wanted to be lol.
In fact, I wonder if you had money and lived in New York, the best way gain Mrs. Astor's approval may have been to not care if you had her approval - and make it very clear in your social circles that you thought she, and her endless competition, social scheming, and manipulations, were beneath you - if not in wealth and social class, then definitely in character and integrity.
Then it would be she clamoring for your acceptance, rather than vice versa, especially if you had more money lol.
I mean, why did anyone listen to are care what some lazy, glorified Mean Girl said - who earned nothing by her own merit, already being born into American aristocracy and marrying well - anyway?
Actually, I don't know who was worse - Caroline Astor, or her later rival and successor, Alva Smith Vanderbilt (wife of William Vanderbilt the II, mother of Duchess Consuelo Vanderbilt Spencer-Churchill Balsan) - but we'll get to her in a second.
First, we need to talk about how the Vanderbilts were initially excluded from the 400, despite $1 of every American $20 belonging to Cornelius Vanderbilt, at the time, and the Vanderbilts being the richest family in the country.
It wasn't only because they were nouveau riche, but also because the Commodore Cornelius himself was the moneymaker (and remember you must be at least third generation removed from the moneymaker to belong), but because he was considered coarse and ill-mannered, and barely literate.
His son, second-generation William or "Billy" was well liked, but doubled the family fortune, also a moneymaker - so he was also excluded from the 400.
BUT - then this happened.
So the original New York Opera was held at the Academy of Music on 14th Street and only old money could attend.
This wasn't an actual rule and intentional exclusion so much as there were no boxes or seats that didn't already belong to those old-money families.
In fact, Billy once offered $30,000 (which was close to 100K in today's money) for a box, but was denied, because it went to the former box owner's heirs.
So what does Billy do?
He builds his own opera house - now known as the Metropolitan Opera ("The Met," as we Americans call it), in its original location on Broadway in Manhattan (before it moved to its current location of the Lincoln Center in 1966) ...
... three times the size of the AOM, in height, length and width - lol.
It was so grand, gilded, and lavish, it made the AOM look like a shabby shed - PLUS - there were more boxes available than at the AOM (about 40 compared to 10) to whomever could afford to pay for them (Billy bought 10 - two for himself and 8 for each of his heirs).
He also paid the biggest sum for performers and symphonies to perform there, and after a time, the AOM closed and the old-money set were forced to join the new-money set at The Met.
LOL - this makes me laugh, for some reason - until I realized the Vanderbilts became just as snobby and exclusive as the people that had been snobs to them :/
This took longer than you might think, though, because the one thing Billy forgot to do, when building this grand spectacle was - the acoustics. They were, indeed, better at the AOM - but today, The Met at its current location has one of the best acoustical stages in the world.
After this, Billy was now invited to a few 400 parties, but still not included on "The 400."
Now, in comes the third generation, who owns controlling shares, but doesn't really work - Billy's son, William Vanderbilt II, and his wife, Alva Smith Vanderbilt - so it's a matter of observation time by Caroline before they're accepted into the 400.
Caroline continued to snub them, however, until Alva outwitted her - and eventually succeeded her at having a choke-hold on NY society and snobbery.
You see, Alva was a former Southern Belle from Mobile, Alabama, who often bragged about abusing slave children as a child, and forced her daughter, Consuelo, into marrying the Duke of Marlborough, in a large-dowry-in-exchange-noble title scheme, in order to save his ancestral home, because he had no money left
That is because remember, the UK started a national-level income tax over 100 years before we did, in 1799, which began to increase for nobility over time - but we didn't have a federal income tax in America until 1909, and when we did, it broke many gilded age families even before the depression.
Awww, poor things - now rich power abusers couldn't spend millions on a single party anymore and they might have to work - don't you feel sorry for them? ;)
(Despite this event being the equivalent of an American royal wedding, at the time, sensitive and shy Consuelo cried all the way up until the day of her wedding, before, during, and after the ceremony, after being forced into this wedding instead of marrying the man she loved, but eventually divorced him, because he was a tremendous A-hole, who was never around, and only grew meaner towards her when she became more popular than he was, in his own country, due to her legendary charitable giving and compassion - but that's another story - slightly reminding you of Princess Diana :()
Regardless, Alva set her sights upon not just being included in the 400, now - but usurping control over it from Caroline Astor.
So - at the time, there was a strict social rule that you did not invite anyone to a party that had never "called" on you.
Being "called upon" did not mean an actual visit with the person - in fact, it often meant you simply dropped by the hostess's house during receiving hours, had your footman deliver your calling card with the hostess's butler, and then promptly just left lol.
So what Alva did was decide to hold the most expensive party yet, but after the typical social season for parties was over, after Easter, so there would be no competition (and changing the official party season until later, ending with hers with a bang) - and to casually drop hints about it to create a buzz, then formally announce it in the NYT, so that people would wonder aloud if they would receive an invitation or not.
At this time, Caroline Astor's oldest daughter, Carrie, had just debuted and Caroline was looking for a suitable husband for her, which often happened at such parties.
When asked whether Caroline Astor would be attending, Alva replied, "Oh, I can't invite the Astors, because Caroline has never called on me."
What may have been otherwise considered shocking, actually worked - because Alva was being socially correct to the letter - the social rules were you couldn't invite anyone to your party that had never called on you - and the rule was created by Caroline herself.
So what was Caroline to do?
Leave her debut daughter out in the cold at the biggest party of the year, missing one of the biggest opportunities to find her a suitable husband, or actually have to "step beneath" herself to actually "call upon" Alva Vanderbilt?
It was a brilliant social chess move by Alva - and so soon afterwards, Caroline Astor's carriage was reported outside of Alva's Vanderbilt's house, with Caroline's footman carrying her calling card to Alva's butler lol ;)
Oh, but it didn't end there - Alva took it all the way - because remember, again, she didn't want to just be accepted into the 400, she wanted to take over Caroline's social empire - the woman lived for competition with other women.
So what does Alva do?
Not only does she spend the equivalent of $6.5 million of today's dollars on this masquerade party, but she:
1) Received guests in the same way as Caroline, with a large foreboding portrait of herself behind her.
2) Found out what costume Caroline was going to wear - and wore the same type of costume - only even more elaborate and bejeweled lol. In other words, both Caroline and Alva came as Venetian princesses, but Alva, who was not at all attractive, but just as intelligent as Caroline, if not more so - still managed to outshine the pretty Caroline Astor by wearing Katherine the Great's pearls and spending more money on the costume ...
And here they are, photographs taken from that famous (or infamous) multi-million dollar Alva-Vanderbilt party, Caroline and Alva now both dressed as Venetian princesses - only Alva's costume contained even more jewels (including strings of evenly sized pearls on her bodice, extremely rare and valuable before culturing, that had belonged to Katherine the Great), several taxidermied doves on her hands to look as though she was feeding them, and partially bared her arms.
Alva's Venetian Princess Costume Caroline's Venetian Princess costume
Thus, Caroline Astor's Queen of New York status began to fade, and Alva began to take the reins.
Whew, how exhausting all of those machinations must have been, can you imagine?
And how absurd - because what's it all for, what's left of it?
Meanwhile, on the same day Alva spends a record amount on this party (the equivalent of $6.5 million today) - the Diamond Coal Mine collapsed in Illinois, killing dozens of men, who could no longer support their wives and children and had no benefits, couldn't even pay for their own funerals, and had to rely on charity - to which the 400 donated a whopping sum total of ... $1,720 dollars :/
I'm left thinking, "What a bunch of a-holes, clearly bored, not having enough to do because they don't work, such that they have to create social manipulations and games to amuse themselves."
"I can't believe our entire culture is based on a bunch of selfish, wasteful, greedy, power-abusing thieves and snobs, who never worked a single day of their lives, and instead, lived off their family fortunes, as well as our backs as labor, wasting all of it - why are we supposed to respect them again?"
"And more importantly, why do we work ourselves to death and comply with their whining about having to pay taxes, and even entertain their shaming about people needing public assistance - when to this day, those who didn't lose it after federal income tax of 1909 or during the depression - many just live off that money or the shares from the companies (later corporations) that their grandparents, great parents, great-great grandparents, or great-great-great grandparents started, and whom we work for, even during pandemics (they pretend don't exist) - and many even received entrance, and even degrees, from ivy league colleges based on their family name and privilege alone, rather than merit?"
The good news is, Anderson Cooper (a Vanderbilt) and Katherine Howe apparently agreed with me about these people lol?
Ah well, the times, they are a changing - we hope?
PPS - I knew, before reading this book, that Alma was a suffragette, which I found completely at odds with not only her above overly competitive social antics with other women, and basically selling her daughter for a noble title, but also at odds with her proudly abusive racism and belief in slave-holding from her Southern belle days.
Then I read the next chapter on Alva.
Alva was a manipulative, abusive, demanding, power-hungry control freak and racist, yes - but as pieces of her own memoirs emerge, we come to understand that she was, above all - lonely - as well as pissed that women had to "pretend" to be passive and enjoy doing whatever tasks men didn't want to do for themselves - BUT - she blamed women themselves for it, more than men, for cow-towing to it.
She was also a highly intelligent woman, disallowed to study at college or work, embarrassed by her husband's numerous affairs, all the while trying to maintain the appearance of perfect propriety (which was the sole job of any high-society woman of the gilded age).
She paints a very sad picture of woman who missed the initial affections of her husband, and really wanted his friendship, his conversation, the connection - but this simply wasn't done at the time, because asking a woman's opinion or input on anything was, considered by men, the equivalent to "asking for advice from a professorial butterfly,"
Worse, one of her husband's dalliances was with was her best friend, Consuelo Yzaga - for whom she named her first-born daughter - but then no one really has a best friend in high society, which she already knew, but had hoped for, anyway.
She decided the only way to feel accomplished and less powerless, as a woman, was to work within the system and manipulate it to get what she wanted - marry well to get the things that she wanted, and insist the same for her daughter - incredibly still imagining herself a "pioneer" when it came to women.
Now - the manner in which she did so was appalling - but the sad truth about women, which many men don't understand, is that both men and women share this single commonality, if nothing else - we all need a sense of accomplishment, male OR female - in other words, the need for a sense of accomplishment is not gender-specific.
However, in the gilded age, there was simply no legal way for women to fulfil that human need for sense of accomplishment, other than child-rearing and being a proper societal hostess to the letter.
Thus, in the gilded age, in both America and Britain - the only way women could legally attain a sense of accomplishment for themselves (and feel less powerless) was to manipulate the social constraints if the "proper" social system to gain social power - and make the always-straying high-society husbands pay, for their extramarital activities (which was common social practice for men, but a scarlet letter for women) - quite literally - meaning with actual money.
That is the socioeconomic system that we created in America (and Britain) - aren't we proud? :/
Because let us not forget, by this same time period, even though the Gilded Age society pined for everything French - at the same time, they did not follow French progressive ideas on women; instead, they followed British social convention.
Because by that time, even though the French still didn't allow women the right to vote, they did legally allow women to attend university alongside men - i.e., the 1909 Nobel Prize winner in Physics was awarded to Madame Curie.
In America, we did things the other way around - women were first allowed the right to vote in 1920, then allowed to attend university along with men (which many women didn't take advantage of until the 1930s).
In France, however, though women had been allowed attend university alongside men for decades, they still weren't legally given the right to vote until 1944.
In other words, though France conceded women had brains long before we Americans and British did, they were still just as terrified that we women might actually use them, when it came to having a voice on issues affecting our everyday lives lol
However, Alva took the truth in this situation too far - because in her strange way of thinking, the reason she hated/blamed women for their own mistreatment by men - AND black people - is because she believed both actually had a choice in being treated as possessions - that they "allowed" themselves to be owned and mistreated, continued to cater to white male ideas of what a woman or a black person should be, and continued to "pretend" to be passive and what the white male wanted, instead of showing their own will and personality, and refused to ever buck the system.
Erm - I'm pretty sure women and people of color did NOT have a choice or there'd be hell to pay, which in all likelihood, in its best scenario would end in an all-expense-paid, one-way trip to the local insane asylum for women, if they tried to buck the system (like Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt's first wife, Sophia), and that's if they're lucky - because worst-case scenario was beating and death for both women AND people of color.
Which Alma knew very well - but somehow still convinced herself that she was a pioneer that had "bucked the system "and refused to allow herself to be owned - rather than reality, which was she didn't buck the system at all, she just used it/manipulated it - because she absolutely did allow herself to be initially owned by both her 1st husband and social society - she simply manipulated the situation to her advantage, the same as many other woman did, during that time ;)
After her very high profile divorce in which she was the first woman to win and gain money from after initiating (questionably her goal in marrying a Vanderbilt the whole time) - and having married off her daughter for prestige and money, she now poured herself into the suffragette movement full throttle - in her mind, paving a way out of the future generations having to do the same as she did, as she forced her daughter to do.
Bottom line, I still think she was a power-hungry, racist tyrant - but then so were men, especially at the time (robber barons?) - but I also feel just a tiny bit of empathy for her (which quickly fades when one realizes how much she enjoyed and abused power when she attained it, and how much rabid competition with other women she enjoyed).
I don't think we should applaud Alva as a suffragette, no, despite her imagining herself to be, especially since she was so incredibly competitive with other women and abusively racist (and those things simply are incompatible with being a true suffragette).
And though we may have a little more empathy for her, confined by gender rules at the time - we cannot forget that her definition of equality for women meant that women should be allowed to to behave in the same power-abusing, ruthless way she had witnessed in the worst of men, at the time - instead of realizing that humans - male OR female - shouldn't be behaving, or treating other human beings, in this way.
Well, I do think we at least better understand her, in the end.