Monday, April 1, 2024

A Belated Post for Women's History Month: The Women Who Shaped American Society, for Better or Worse 😆

*Editing still in progress.

Now, it's no secret that I've been obsessed with The Gilded Age, ever since I read Anderson Cooper (son of Gloria Vanderbilt and CNN anchor) and Katherine Howe's first book together about the history of his own Vanderbilt family, un-whitewashed and unfiltered -"Vanderbilt:  The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty."

In fact, I wrote two posts on it three years ago, HERE and HERE.

Then The Gilded Age came out on HBO, which was originally pitched as an American spinoff to Downton Abbey, but the premise was changed last-minute.  It is, like Downton Abbey, good TV, but not great TV - and yet I couldn't stop watching it 😂

Then I began Cooper and Howe's second book on The Gilded Age ladies, "Astor:  The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune" ...

... which I put aside during Christmas, and have just begun rereading.

*SPOILER ALERT* - the reasons both the Astor and the Vanderbilt dynasties fell/they lost all their money? 

1) Extravagance/overspending/squandering, with inability to make more since they were generations removed from the original family moneymaker or from needing to work or be educated for a living. 

2) The implementation of a Federal Income Tax in 1913,  50 years after France, and more than a century after the UK - thus why European nobility often married American heirs and heiresses during this time - a title by marriage in exchange for cash money to upkeep estates.

3) Putting most of their money in stocks, so they lost most of it (some losing all) in one day in October 1929 and The Great Depression that followed.   At the time, use of credit for stocks was legal, and there was no federal banking insurance yet, so they lost most, if not all, of their wealth, and what they didn't lose, they later  mostly squandered, unable to curb their lifestyles. 

In between, I watched Hulu's "Feud:  Capote VS. The Swans" ... 

... which was essentially high-society history repeating itself 100 years later, in so many ways, to include their once-celebrated gay "walker" later writing a scathing expose on them all, to his own detriment - Ward McAllister in The Gilded Age, then Truman Capote and his swans in the 1960s.

Now, my obsession isn't so much in admiration of this era, but more about my disbelief that such extravagance, ruthlessness in business and labor (including employing children), and hypocrisy went unchecked for so long, its cultural myths and remnant rot still remaining today -  as well as my fascination with sociology and cultural change in general -  how we, as the relatively new society that was America - attempted to create and adhere to our own identity, how and why we did that, and how successful were we at doing so? 

But okay, I have to admit - it's also a little bit about  - those fabulous dresses!  

From the everyday Victorian strolling-in-the-park or shopping frock ... 

To the semi-formal charity-brunch attire  ... 

To the American-Victorian ball gowns and opera wear, complete with capes and gloves on arrival. 

However, unlike British Victorian fashion, the American twist was, for formal occasions, you could expose the neck, shoulders, and upper arms like the French (but the French went deeper with the neckline and allowed more exposure of the arms)  - but whether French, British, or American, gurrrrlll, you better never expose those ankles! ...

Of note:  The above portrait is a Giovanni Boldini of Elizabeth Wharton Drexel.  

Though John Singer Sargent and Carolus Duran were the preferred Gilded-Age portraits of the day, lauded for their realism, both did better with male portraits; thus, Gilded Age women often found their work a bit too dark and austere, instead chosing Boldini (and who could blame them)?  

Because here's a Singer-Sargent of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler ... 

Versus a Carolus Duran of Emily Vanderbilt (who also did the famous Caroline Astor portrait below).

Who would YOU choose? 

Boldini, Duran, and then Singer-Sargent, in that order.  

Don't get me wrong, Singer-Sargent did a fantastic job of capturing the men, such as this portrait of George Vanderbilt ... 

George was indeed an intellectual, fairly shy, and prone to Depression, and yet he and his wife, Edith, adored and were faithful to each other, and preferred Biltmore Estate country life in North Carolina. 

However, the same dark, austere, realistic technique just didn't work out as well for the women, which is why Edith instead chose Boldini, who had an impressionist flare, for her portrait.

Isn't she fabulous?

Edith is my favorite Vanderbilt, for a multitude of reasons, the first of which is that she hands-on raised her daughter, rather than a multitude of nurses and nannies, far away from the social-class pressures, rules, snobbery, and games of NYC high society, in a magnificent estate in the North Carolina mountains known as The Biltmore Estate.

(That is, until Cornelia became bored, felt socially isolated, and wanted to study art, so Edith begrudgingly consented to allow her to attend a Northeastern boarding school as a teenager.).

In fact, unlike most Gilded-Age Women, she is rarely painted or photographed without her beloved Cornelia 😊

She also agreed to hide priceless works of art at Biltmore at the request of the National Art Gallery in DC during WW2, in order to protect them should the nation come under attack.  They included Rembrandts, Raphaels, Goyas, Vermeers, and Gilbert Stuart's famous painting of George Washington, which were all hidden within the Biltmore Estate (along with their personal collection of Renoirs, Monets, Boldinis, and Singer-Sargents).

Also, after George died, managing the estate became increasingly expensive, especially with the advent of federal income tax, so she sold 87,000 acres, but refused to sell it to developers; so instead, she sold it to federal government, in to create the nation's first federally-protected national forest, Pisgah National Forest. 😆

But more importantly to me, she gave away most of her wealth to local Asheville friends and the poor, rather than squandering it on luxury items (other than that house, of course), making her a much-beloved Asheville NC icon.

As for Cornelia, she may have been a little too spoiled and given too much freedom?

As stated above, she became bored with country life and wanted to experience at least some of the hustle and bustle of the world like her her cousins in New York.

However, the social constraints there weren't exactly her style either,  as she considered herself an artist, so instead of following in her mother's footsteps of sanctuary and hands-on charity OR becoming a NYC "swan," she instead became a Bohemian - the 20s and 30s version of a hippie - dying her hair pink to rebel against society and spent her life traveling the world with artists on her family's money. 

Now, don't get me wrong - none of the above lifestyle choices iindicate being spoiled or having too much freedom.  I say, if you want to travel the country or world with artists and musicians in a Bohemian or Hippie lifestyle - even dye your hair pink to defy social expectations, you should do it  - IF you're young, single, make safe/smart choices, and most importantly, can afford to.

No, the problem was, Cornelia wasn't single - she abandoned her husband and her two very young sons, in order to do so   😢

But I digress, ahem - back to my sociological and cultural fascination, in the end, I am left with this simplified-but-glaring overall impression:  Despite outward Victorian propriety, they hid their immorality and degeneracy, perhaps even from themselves, in favor of being masters at convincing everyone else that they were the epitome of good breeding, unyielding Christian morality, and upstanding character - not unlike today's Republicans 😂

In short, they, themselves could not adhere to their own impossible - and often nonsensical - strict social and moral standards, but convinced the rest of the country that they could and that everyone else should aspire to do the same.

Though the men set the moral codes and ran the political and business world, it was the women who shaped and ran American society - both for better or worse - and at the center of both was money; who had the most money, particularly those who had amassed it at least three generations prior, rather than actively working (which literally became a high-society rule).

Initially, this began with old money in the New World in New Amsterdam, which would become what we now know as New York, with Dutch families such as the Knickerbockers, The Van Rensselaers, the Stuyvesants, and the Schermerhorns, which evolved with the advent of nouveau riche, who acquired their wealth after the Revolutionary War with new industry and exclusively American goods.

Then, after the Civil War, we had the carpetbaggers picking up the spoils from the South, the robber barons of the industrial revolution, combined with an American explosion of new ideas, technological advancements and inventions that happened so fast during the late 19th century, their heads must've spun, and created nearly unlimited (and wasted) wealth, which lasted until The Great Depression.

After World War II, new advancements in science were encouraged and flourished again, but this time, we seemed to semi-successfully find a way to combine newly socially-reformed government regulation and government social insurance with an income-taxation system  (or some might say, some found a better way to hide it from taxes).

Now - being that America originally struggled to find its own identity, being a mixture of so many countries and cultures, as well as old money and new - some bored, wealthy NYC women took it upon themselves to formally create an American aristocracy with our own culture and societal rules.

Though they declared that the difference between European aristocracy and the new American aristocracy was that they were creating was that titles and wealth weren't necessarily a birthright, that anyone in America could obtain this wealth and power: "Yes, you TOO can obtain this lifestyle in America if you work hard enough."

They failed to mention that if you weren't already from European wealth, weren't white, weren't protestant, weren't male, and/or currently worked for a living, the original moneymaker and your current companies didn't engage in ruthless, cutthroat, and inhumane business and monopolizing practices to attain that wealth, there was no way you could ever attain the dream, regardless of how hard you worked. 

So basically, what they did is create an exact replica of British and French Aristocracy with new families, after being snubbed by these nobilities themselves, and behaved the same way towards everyone else, and the only hope you had of becoming one of them was to have more money and socially outsmart them.

Thus, it was these women - particularly Caroline Astor, we have to thank most for peddling the myth of the American dream versus reality.

Most - but not all (see below) - of these wealthy women were of the set that not only wanted to make the rules, but wanted to create a societal empire, being barred from having a business and political voice, as well as to simply outshine everybody else by using their husband's or family's money.

Make no mistake, though - the social connections that these women made were vital to, and nearly equal in, power to the business power of their husbands.  

In fact, if one of "The 400" women snubbed you, your entire family was snubbed as well by default, including your husband in business - so these women gained quite a bit of power, mostly through the art of - manipulation.

At the head of this set was Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, who came from old money, and created a new elitist-snob American aristocracy, under the guises of "unifying" the country again after the Civil War by creating a formal social code, and giving the nouveau riche a guidebook of how to aspire to be a part of it, which is the part she found truly American - that anyone could eventually enter into this elite club after enough money was gained. 

All of this to say, we have THIS bitch to thank for being the original American Mean Girl - Caroline Schermerhorn Astor ... 😂

... who intentionally greeted guests in her foyer while standing in front of this larger-than-life Duran portrait, in order to look more foreboding, as if she was towering over everyone else, despite her actual diminutive stature  😂

Mind you, she may have been from an old-money family herself, but she married into the Astor family, whose original rise into money was due to the ruthless, murderous business of American fur trading, particularly cheating, abusing, and murdering Native Americans - over mostly beaver pelts, and also alcohol! 

However, few knew that, because John Jacob Astor later turned to New York real estate, later in life, buying up much of New York, and so most people of her day only knew the Astor family as owning most of New York.  Plus, her husband was three generations away from the money-maker and having to work, so she could fit into her own newly-made rules (which are pretty much the same as British and French aristocracy).

Now, she claimed to be creating a separate American identity, but what she was really doing was borrowing from, and even stealing, European culture and design, calling it American, and further excluding the nouveau riche from ever entering the old-money set, by making an elite group of "The 400." 

"The 400" was an exclusive list - created by Caroline Astor and her walker, Ward McAllister - of New York's richest and most powerful, but it also included a set of rules in order to be on it, such as:  

1)  You had to be at least three generations of actual work or making money - being anywhere close to dealing with money or work was considered "vulgar."  
2)  You had to own European antiquities, particularly French - which was, they paid someone to literally rip out and steal from French palaces that were in decline, as both Britain and France implemented income tax before we did, and nobody could afford their upkeep. 
3) You had to have least $1 million dollars cash in the bank, but more is preferable, as Caroline considered that base amount as poverty-level wealth, and did not guarantee your invitation to every event the 400 had.

But of course, regardless of how much money you had, how many generations away you were from the moneymaker/work, or how many European antiquities you possessed, you could not be part of the 400 if you were:  Jewish, a person of color, practiced certain doctrines of Christianity (especially Catholic), or were any other ethnicity than French, British, German, Dutch, or Russian.

(Though Danish, Scandinavian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Slavic royalty and nobility were recognized and accepted among European nobility, not so much by the American aristocracy that was the 400, at least until later.)

Even the Dutch Vanderbilts, though they had twice the money as the Astors through railroads and shipping, were repeatedly snubbed by Caroline Astor, because they were not originally from money, they were only two generations away from the moneymaker instead of three, and because the still-alive "Commodore" Cornelius had no formal education and was self-taught, as well as being quite plain and brusque in his speech, all of which they found vulgar. 

Caroline was especially miffed when, after the Vanderbilts were denied seats at the Astor-supported Academy of Music Opera House, the Vanderbilts built a new Opera House (which would become The Met), which was larger, more lavish, and had the funds to steal away the best talent.

Caroline wanted the Academy of Music to stay the venue because it was small, which meant she could still be exclusive, and now Alva had ruined it, so there was no way she was getting in the 400 now - or was there?

Because Alva Vanderbilt (later Belmont) beat Caroline Astor by  using the rules of her own game against her. 

You see, the social rule that Caroline created to further make things exclusive was, you could not invite anyone to a party who had not  first "called" on you - which meant simply bringing a calling card to be delivered to the person's house.

Clever Alva planned the most expensive ball the city had ever seen,  only holding it just after the ball season, making it a masquerade ball, and leaking certain elements to the press (all of which Caroline Astor found "vulgar."

Thus, Alva did not invite Caroline Astor, which would ordinarily be social suicide; however, there was a method to this madness - she cited Caroline's own social rule against her - that you couldn't invite anyone who hadn't called on you.

BUT, you see, Alva knew that Caroline Astor's daughter, Carrie, was to be a debutante and that balls were a chance to be seen and increased the chances of wealthy marriage proposals.

Thus, Carrie begged and begged her mother to call upon Alva, and she finally relented, having her footman deliver a calling card, then promptly leaving - thus securing herself, and her daughter, an invitation to the $600K event (which is several million in today's money). 

Oh, but Alva wasn't done - she wasn't satisfied just breaking into the 400, she wanted to replace the Queen Bee Mean Girl herself, Caroline Astor.

So though she took no aim at Carrie, allowing her, and her own daughter, Conseulo, to be BFFs and perform the first quadrille - she found out beforehand (likely through Carrie), what sort of costume Caroline was going to wear.

Caroline was to dress as a Venetian princess, dripping with diamonds.

Thus, also dressed as a Venetian princess, only with long strands of even-sized pearls, which at the time, were more rare and more expensive than diamonds, and procured real doves to perch upon her for the photographs.

Alva Vanderbilt versus Caroline Astor, both dressed as a Venetian princess, at the Vanderbilt Masquerade ball. 

The result was a success, the Vanderbilts could not be denied into the 400 - BUT - Caroline was, and always would be, the Queen Bee.

However, Alva did command a certain amount of power, enough to change certain rules; for example, she was the first of the Guilded-Age women to file for and be granted a divorce, without losing a pity or losing social status, and she also became a suffragist.

Unfortunately for her daughter, Consuelo, however  - despite being named for Alva's scandalous, free-spirited, half-Cuban Godmother - Alva allowed no such similar freedoms and later admittedly controlled her entire life, just as men had controlled hers.

She brokered a business-arrangement marriage to a Spencer-Churchill, the Duke or Marlboro, who simply wanted money for his estate upkeep, and she even feigned serious illness to guilt-trip Conseulo into marrying him.  (It is said that Consuelo wore a thick veil on her wedding day to conceal the fact that was sobbing, due to being in love with someone else and feeling forced into it by her mother.)

So essentially, Alva changed some of the rules of the game for women, only to take them back centuries, when it came to her  own daughter - which she later regretted, after her daughter's marriage was a disaster, and thus approved the divorce.

I was exhausted just from reading about all of this emotional manipulation and game-playing - I can't even imagine what it must be like to live it - and yet some women still do!

This is what life is like when women can't work and don't have enough to do, folks 😂

Otherwise, oddly juxtaposed against all of this greed, Christian charity and philanthropy occupied much of a high-society's woman's time, and was a requirement -  so sayeth Caroline Queen Bee - but never given to the extent that the receiver might rise out of their misfortune and circumstances and  hope for obtaining a better station in life, they were to always still "know their place" beneath them,  as if God had ordained the social order that they, themselves, had created.

It's also interesting to note that in addition to owning some of the most coveted land and buildings in New York, John Jacob Astor was also the original New York slum lord, responsible for leasing most of his land to tenement-housing developers for immigrants packed into one-room closet-size apartments that had no sanitation, ventilation, indoor plumbing, sewage, or electricity, overcharging them for rent.  

Thus, John Jacob Astor was the original Monopoly Man, Ebenezer Scrooge, and urban Gentrifier, all rolled into one - great guy! 😂

You might also find interesting - or shameful - the identity of the second biggest slum lord in NYC after John Jacob Astor, at that time?

Trinity Episcopal Church, the church that all of "The 400" attended.

They considered it "charity," but they actually made a profit it on it, by overcharging for space in rooms without running water, electricity, sewage, or proper ventilation!

Back to Caroline Astor, despite giving all appearances of "family values," propriety and morality, in fact, her marriage was a business arrangement; her husband, William Astor the III no longer even lived in the home, spent his money on horses, booze, yachts, and prostitutes, which eventually led her to her own affairs.

Thus, for her own lavish parties, they were cohosted with a "walker"  named Ward McAllister.

A "walker" is a witty gay male chaperone (either openly or secretly gay, but considered "safe") who cohosted parties in the stead of the husband, who wasn't present, and often living elsewhere.  

This walker was often married to a woman for appearances (a "beard"), who either was substantially older and already a widow or led her own life and this was a business arrangement.

Now, a smaller set of wealthy women felt that they weren't satisfied with social manipulation and power for their own benefit, and sought other means of obtaining a sense of accomplishment - and this is the subset of women that I dig the most! 

Though born wealthy, instead of imagining themselves, or their families, as self-made, moral people whom God had blessed for being so, they were honest about their backgrounds, realizing that no one is ever truly self-made -  either you inherited the wealth, somebody helped you, or you were a slave-driving, ruthless, cutthroat prick - they also realized that it's only luck that they were born into this privilege and these circumstances versus others who weren't afforded the same opportunities. 

They felt that God had given them a responsibility that came with such privilege - not to create a social order, but to change the centuries-old existing one, now passing itself off as "American."

They preferred finding fulfillment through academia, journalism, and social-justice activism through direct communication,  rather than obtaining social power by manipulating men and bullying other women.

We call this subset of women of the Gilded Age, social reformers, suffragettes, and/or muckrakers - with all three categories often influencing the other, and all of the women in the first two groups joining the suffragist cause. 

Also, all were devoted Christian women, who instead of interpreting Christianity as a God-given right to moral superiority over others, interpreted Christianity to mean they had the responsibility to not just give to, but speak and represent the most vulnerable and try to change society - they did what they could for others to make this world a better place, as Christ did.

Of course, there were wealthy women that brought about social reform before the Gilded Age, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Julia Ward Howe, and the less wealthy Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman, all helping to ultimately end slavery, but the Gilded Age is when wealthy women were allowed to hold lectures, giving a physical voice to their writing - even if we still didn't have the power.

What are muckrakers?

The muckrakers were Gilded-age pioneers of investigative journalism, committed to exposing corruption, as well as unsafe and inhumane labor practices, including child labor, unsanitary living conditions, pay, and healthcare for workers, as well as lack of government regulations for our food and drugs. 

The term "muckraker" itself came from President Theodore Roosevelt, who in turn, derived it from "Pilgrim's Progress" by John Bunyan.  Basically, it's a person who digs up and rakes through muck!

It was mostly meant in a positive way, though, as President Roosevelt was a progressive himself and often helped create and promote legislation for social change; however, he supported them to a point, stating this: 

"The men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck."

I chuckle at that, because in my interpretation, he's saying there's a difference between raking up the muck versus actually creating it - and either way, know when to stop before inducing panic.

Wise words, for today, my friends, yes?  

He was the Leader of what was known at the time as a subset of Republicans known as The Progressives.

This meant that although he was fiscally conservative when it came to protecting the free market, he also believed that government should step in, in certain situations; that in fact, the federal government had a duty to protect its citizens, and not just military protection, but to protect the health and general welfare of our citizens as well as their personal freedoms.

Thus, today, Teddy would likely be classified as a moderate Democrat.

He depended heavily on the muckrakers for his policy, and whether he believed in all of the causes he headed legislation for and supported, he virtually had no choice, after the muckrakers exposed all of the shite - with meticulous evidence, mind you.

For instance, ever read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle?

The unsafe, unsanitary practices regarding meat will make you absolutely sick.  Having read it in 8th grade, and though Teddy's response was to create the Food and Drug Act, which led to the later FDA, I still swore off hot dogs for like, 10 years, as a result 😂

Teddy is one of my favorite presidents for many reasons, including the regulation that led to the creation of the FDA, banning other unsafe, unsanitary, and exploitative labor practices (but not far enough (child labor was still legal until 1938), better sanitation, anti-trust/monopoly laws, and paved the way for the federal income tax  -  but I wasn't such a fan of his expansionist/conquest efforts, nor his hunting of international species (though he did also have an environmental and conservation bend, which is why he created the national parks.

And let us not forget, it was this conservation effort that gave us all ... the Teddy Bear :)

He was a bit of a walking contradiction, at times, fierce and passionate, sometimes misguided, but also loveable, like a teddy bear.

And Teddy was right about the muckrakers,  but as he very well knew himself, the muckrakers weren't all men such as Ambrose Bierce and Upton Sinclair.  They also included women such as Ida B Wells, Margaret Sanger, Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, the latter three being born firmly middle class, but whose fathers had come into wealth, after being at the right place at the right time in their fields, and thus were educated at universities.

Ida B Wells, on the other hand, was born a sharecropper's daughter, in Mississippi, who attended one of the first historically black colleges and became a teacher at a school for black children in the south to support her siblings after losing her parents to yellow fever. 


She later wrote national journal articles and lectured around the country to increase awareness on the truths about Jim Crow segregation laws in the South, their efforts to prevent the black vote, and the practice of lynching.  Later, she also became active in the suffragist movement, and had no qualms about confronting white women on their definition of equality for women to include women of color. 

After witnessing her father's small-business struggles in oil, Ida Tarbell's investigative journalism that single-handedly exposed the ruthlessness of Standard Oil in maintaining a monopoly, which led to antitrust legislation that we still use today.

Nellie Bly worked undercover to expose the poor treatment of the mentally ill in institutions at the time, by having herself admitted to them and experiencing them firsthand.

She not only experienced the abuse, starvation, and poor sanitary conditions herself, but the rape of other asylum inmates, as well as the practice of men having sane women committed to obtain their wealth or control them.

Margaret Sanger was a university-educated nurse who worked with the poor and became an advocate for women's health, to include birth control.  She, too, wrote articles exposing the inequity in the health treatment of women versus men, only from a medical and reproductive perspective, rather than mental health like Nelly Bly.

Others took a more straightforward action path and are considered straight social reformers and doers, and they include the likes of my hero and the founder of the profession of Social Work, Jane Addams, who began settlement houses for the poor, regardless of skin color, as well as newly-arrived immigrants, providing basic needs such as housing, food, healthcare, and travel money to job opportunities as well as education.  

She also conducted sociological studies on the reasons for poverty, publishing research that contradicted popular mythic belief about the poor at the time (which still persists today) by including socioeconomic and cultural factors in the equation, rather than sole personal responsibility. 

Though born into a prosperous Illinois family and educated in the Midwest, she gained much respect from New York society for her efforts, and her settlement houses became a popular charity for their donations. 

Following Jane Addams' lead was Florence Kelley, who advocated against child labor, sweatshop labor, and other unsafe, unhygienic, and exploitative labor practices.

After having previously been a teacher and abolitionist, Clara Barton help found Red Cross disaster relief, after serving as an untrained nurse in the Civil War, willing to treat and help men on either side to heal, regardless of skin color.  She is considered one of the "mothers" of modern American nursing. 

From a less privileged background came Mary "Mother" Jones, a vocal advocate for the working conditions and healthcare of immigrant (and Catholic) labor in America, including women and children, particularly on behalf of the Coal Miner's Union.

As for suffragists, they included all of the above - with the exception of Mother Jones (who stated "You don't need the right to vote to raise hell from where you are" lol)  - plus New York Gilded-Age women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, Inez Milholland, Carrie Chapman Carr, Alice Paul, and Lucy Burns, who primarily were interested in promoting women's rights, particularly the right to vote.

These women differed in tactics, with some of the women keeping a foot in both the old high-society ways of manipulating the men, and at most, attending marches, but refusing to take part in White House protests and hunger strikes along with Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, though it was the treatment of the latter two in prison which ultimately escaped to the press and were ultimately responsible for passage of the 19th amendment.

And then came the great equalizer that was The Great Depression, ending extravagant lifestyles by losing entire fortunes in a single day, and the later implementation of government banking and social insurance, as well as income taxation.

Though social reform appeared to take a back seat to World War II, it continued again in the 1950s, exploding again in the 1960s; however, it appeared that high-society Northeastern/New York women largely stood firmly in the first aforementioned conservative camp of false appearance of family values and morality, as well as God-given superiority of class, regardless of which side of the political fence you were on.

There were, however, a few slight differences, such as Jews and Catholics were now semi-allowed into high society, as were Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese,  as well as Irish, Scottish, and Welsh, provided they had enough money and pedigree in their native countries, but still only a rare person of color or Eastern European, with no Indians or Middle Easterners, or anyone from Latin or South America.  

(In fact, though Mick Jagger's wife, Bianca Jagger, was later considered a New York swan by Capote, and the other NYC swans invited her to parties due to her notoriety and money being married to Mick Jagger, but refused to truly let her in, based on her darker skin color and Nicaraguan heritage, despite being initially raised by a successful merchant father, educated in Paris, married to Mick Jagger and very wealthy, very fashionable and very beautiful.)

West Coast film-industry moguls were a new members, but as a sort of "second-tier" to New York high society, which still reigned supreme.

Though educated at the best prep schools, few high-society women still went to college, but they did now "work" (aka volunteer or receive low pay) in the fashion industry, such fashion-magazine editor positions, but not in positions that required higher education like banking, politics, regular business, or high-ranking medical positions.

Divorce was now an accepted practice, but marital business arrangements still occurred, with infidelity was even more rampant for both men and women, sometimes with their best friend's husbands and wives.

Though philanthropy was still a part of regular life for the upper crust of society, the activism seen by women on behalf of women, labor, and the poor had virtually disappeared, regardless of political party.

There was again, however, a smaller subset of wealthy-family white women who interested in social reform, but chose instead an academic path and career, rather than hobnobbing with the high society into which they were born, and in fact, openly rejected or denounced it, rarely hanging out with the "swan" types in NYC unless forced to.  

These were women like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Madelaine Albright, who were also activists for civil rights and labor rights. 

The middle and working class women began to fill the gap of activism, with a now larger middle class who now had access access to higher-level education, and this included activists such as include course Coretta Scott King, Shirley Chisholm, Ella Baker, Angela Davis, and Dolores Huerta. 

Regardless, in the 1960s, in high-society New York, history repeated itself; at first, intentionally.

As mentioned, despite the right to vote and receive higher education, high-society women didn't feel the inclination or the need to take advantage of these new freedoms, and still preferred to be icons of fashion and hold lavish parties, manipulating the crap out of their husbands and everyone else. 

Gay author, Truman Capote was drawn to their world like a moth to flame, engaging in very close love-hate relationships with only the most elegant of the top-tier high-society New York women, whom he referred to as his "swans."

Though "Feud" only focuses on six of Capote's swans - Babe Paley, Lee Bouvier Radziwell (Jackie Kennedy's sister),  CZ Guest, West-Coast adoptee Slim Keith, and West-Coaster Joanne Carson (Johnny Carson's wife whom Capote also considered a swan, though she rarely hung out with the New York women) ...

- the swans also included Gloria Vanderbilt, Gloria Guinness, Marella Magnelli, Pamela Harriwell, and Southern adoptee (from Louisville, Kentucky) by marriage to a count, Mona Bismarck.

Capote fancied himself a new walker, and he even looked like a modern-day Ward McAllister, if you compare him with the photo of Ward above. 

intentionally conspired with Babe Paley to revive the American aristocracy image of the Gilded Age, complete with holding lavish, expensive balls, limiting invitations to create elitist competition and exclude the second-tier folk.

However, as much as Capote appeared to revel in his acceptance as Babe Paley's walker, being a consult and confidante to the country's "finest" women, he apparently also loathed himself for it, or at least we assume he did, based on innuendos he made privately to others about growing tired of their public anti-LGBTQ views, knowing his sexuality, as well as their classism (Capote came from Southern middle class) and racism, making him wonder if they were really friends or were they two-faced and he was their court-jester entertainment and ego-puffer? 

(The answer is likely somewhere in between, as these are people who thought nothing of sleeping with their friends' husbands while smiling in their faces, and had little to nothing to do with raising their own children.)

He also mused privately that they were profoundly vapid, even stupid. 

Whatever the case, Capote ultimately betrayed them all, publishing an excerpt of what was to be an excerpt of an upcoming, incomplete book, called "La Cote Basque" in Esquire magazine in 1965, spilling all of their secrets to the public, telling a reporter the swans were "too stupid" to realize he was writing about them.

The swans did indeed know who they were in the thinly-veiled article, and conspired to remove and shun him from New York Society, as well as ruining his chances for publishing another book.

Now, Capote could be vicious, as we knew - but he had to know that would be their reaction, so why did he do it? 

Some say his drinking and drug use and self-destructive behavior caused him clouded judgment, as well as the tendency to sabotage himself. 

Others say it was out of his love for attention for himself, positive or negative.

Still others say he's a writer, it's his nature to write about what he knows, they knew that, and yet they confided in him anyway (the odd part about that being that the smartest swan, Slim Keith, never trusted him enough to spill her secrets to him, but in the article, he made her the biggest gossip and secret-spiller of them all, apparently out of spite for NOT confiding in him.)

IMO, all of the above might have been a factor, but I think the biggest clue is in his growing tired of their hypocrisy and their private acceptance of his sexuality, but public denouncement of it - and he wrote it as an excuse to be free of them, have them break it off instead of directly doing it himself.

The only "swan" spared in Le Cote Basque was his closest, Babe Paley, about for whom he wrote "Her only flaw was that she was perfect" - as Babe Paley was a stickler for being perfect - perfect hair, perfect outfit, perfect party, perfect etiquette.

And yet due to him spilling all her private family secrets and ruining her perfect facade, Babe never forgave him or ever spoke to him again, though he tried to contact her and even apologize.

In fact, the only swans that did forgive him were CZ Guest and Joanne Carson, who could both handle the critique, only wishing he had prepared them first. 

In fact, he died having lost most of his wealth and in social disgrace from alcohol-and-drug-related complications at Joanne Carson's house in 1983, never having completed his final book.

It is interesting to note that Gilded Age "walker," Ward McAllister, did the exact same thing, and then died very much the same way.

Regardless, these are the women who shaped American society, for better or for worse, whether altruistic or selfish intent.

It'll be interesting to see American history records next as the baton-receivers, now that movie stars and musicians have achieved the same money, status, and prestige as high-society old money.  Also, let us not forget, more women than ever have entered the legal, medical, and political ring since the 1960s.

So will be the next generation of iconic women to shape, or even reform, American culture, for better or worse - Taylor Swift?  Hillary Clinton?  

Only time will tell, I guess. 

Regardless, we're a fascinating bunch, women - and once we've removed men as barriers to our sense of accomplishment, will we now be able to get out of our own way by no longer trying to outshine and compete with each other, supporting each other instead?

I hope so, and amen. 😊


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