The Bradley-Martin Ball

The backlash against this ball finds a parallel in today’s current economic situation, as the excesses of Wall Street and the free-for-all spending of bailout money by executives has evoked as much anger and resentment in people today, as our Gilded Age counterparts were during that eventful night over 100 years ago.

While Rome–or in this case, New York City–burned, the Bradley-Martins fiddled. The year was 1897 and since the Panic of 1893, America had been mired in a depression which had its roots in a banking crisis of twenty years before. As a result, Americans were inclined to look upon the lavish spending of the Gilded Age’s idle rich with a jaundiced eye. Having struck a social coup years earlier by marrying their 16 year old daughter Cornelia to the Earl of Craven, the Bradley-Martins moved easily within both New York’s “Four Hundred” and England’s “Marlborough House Set.” During a visit to New York, Mrs. Bradley-Martin was moved by the plight of the city’s thousands and thousands of unemployed, impoverished and hungry, and began to form an idea for alleviating the financial burden of New Yorkers–and their boredom.

According to Bradley Martin’s brother, Frederick:

One morning at breakfast my brother remarked–mrs-bradley-martin

“I think it would be a good thing if we got up something; there seems to be a great deal of depression in trade; suppose we send out invitations for a concert.”

“And pray, what good will that do?” asked my sister-in-law, “the money will only benefit foreigners. No, I’ve a far better idea; let us give a costume ball at so short notice that our guests won’t have time to get their dresses from Paris. That will give an impetus to trade that nothing else will.”

Mrs. Bradley-Martin was the former Cornelia Sherman, and daughter of a wealthy Albany merchant. She met Bradley Martin at the wedding of Emily Vanderbilt to William Douglas Sloan, and they quickly set out to conquer the exclusive society of New York. Besides marrying young Cornelia to an earl, Mrs. Bradley-Martin added a hyphen to her husband’s names and set about throwing the most spectacular, lavish parties society had ever seen. A ball held in 1885 was so massive they built a huge temporary supper room in their backyard just for the ball, and the enclosure was so enormous that the insurance companies required that that the Bradley-Martins buy fire insurance for the entire city block. Their balls had always been a hit with both the Four Hundred and the gossip-hungry press, so Mrs. Bradley-Martin rightly divined a gigantic ball held that winter would go over just as easily.

panic-of-1893She was largely correct. The second the invitations were spent, tidbits about the ball leaked from all corners. It was to be held at the magnificent Waldorf-Astoria, which had unveiled the Astoria side earlier that year, and guests were to arrive attired in costumes of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Each day brought new reports of the stunning flower arrangements, costumes and decorations to be seen, of the sumptuous feast to be served, and the glittering jewels to be on display at the ball. The news excited most of the dazzled city who lapped up each nugget of gilt eagerly, and those who opposed the spectacle. “Yes,” one cleric raged, “you rich people put next to nothing in the collection plate, and yet you’ll spend thousands of dollars on Mrs. Bradley Martin’s ball.” A few other clergymen denounced the ball, and soon, “threatening letters arrived by every post, debating societies discussed our extravagance, and last, but not least, [the Bradley Martins] were burlesqued unmercifully on the stage.”

But the show went on–with Assistant Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt sending ten squadrons of police to surround the hotel against any troublemakers and to cordon off the walkway into the Waldorf. At ten o’clock, tall footmen with powdered hair spread a crimson carpet for guests, and half an hour later, carriages clip-clopped down Fifth Avenue carrying their time-traveling occupants through the jammed streets. Contrary to fears, the crowds pressing against the cordons cheered and clapped rather than booed and hissed, as the lavishly-attired socialites and their spouses stepped onto the carpet laid for them and entered the hotel. Inside, Mrs. Bradley-Martin and her husband, costumed as Mary of Scots and Louis XV respectively, greeted their guests from atop a crimson dais. The room was filled with hothouse flowers, twinkling electric lights, gilded candelabra, potted palms and crystal and ormolu chandeliers hung with pink roses and asparagus vines.

BE052273The grande dame of the Four Hundred, the Mrs. Astor came as Mary Stuart in a gown of dark-blue velvet and some $200,000 worth of jewels (Right: her son, Titanic victim John Jacob Astor IV). Among the hundreds of guests invited, there were duplicate costumes, with three Catherine the Greats, eight Madame de Maintenons, ten Madame de Pompadours, and a host of courtiers, cavaliers and courtesans. Oliver Belmont took another route, arriving in a suit of gold-inlaid armor worth about $10,000, that was so heavy, he could barely move. Soon after arrival, the guests began to dance, opening the ball with the quadrille de honneur, and several hours later, they sat for a 28 course supper that included caviar-stuffed oysters, lobster, roast English suckling pig, terrapin, canvasback duck stuffed with truffles, and plover’s eggs–all washed down with four thousand bottles of 1884 Moët et Chandon. By the time the evening had ended, the Bradley-Martin’s spent $369,000 (apprx $8.5 million in 2008 dollars).

The following morning, all was well. Newspapers enthused over the display and the opulence, each one fighting for exclusive details of the ball with which to regale their less fortunate readers. Soon however, the press began to look for a new angle to keep the story fresh and as lavishly as they praised the ball, they rushed in to condemn it. Within days, the Bradley-Martin ball had taken on monstrous proportions and the couple and the ways of the Four Hundred were viciously condemned. Many current accounts have the Bradley-Martins fleeing the attacks, but in reality, though smarting by the volte-face, their decadent party caught the attention of the New York City tax authority, who brought a suit in court in which they asserted that the Bradley-Martins’ property wealth was higher than reported and the city could collect a higher property tax from them. The suit was dismissed as the couple lived in both England and America and rarely stayed in NY longer than the social season. In the aftermath of the scandal, the Bradley-Martin’s remained in England, to return to American shores but once fifteen years later.

Further Reading:

A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs Astor in the Gilded Age by Greg King
The Elegant Inn: The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, 1893-1929 by Albin Pasteur Dearing
King Lehr and the Gilded Age by Elizabeth Drexel Lehr

Elinor Glyn and “Three Weeks”

In 1812 with the publication of Childe Harold, Lord Byron “awoke and found myself famous”. The same could be said of prolific Edwardian author Elinor Glyn who, after stirring a bit of attention for herself with The Visits of Elizabeth, awoke one morning in 1907 to find herself infamous with the publication of Three Weeks.

A native of the Isle of Jersey, that same island from which the equally alluring Lillie Langtry sprung, Elinor and her sister Lucy, who became the first socialite couturier Lucille, also came from humble backgrounds to take London society by storm. Glyn turned to writing after her marriage to landowner Clayton Glyn soured due to his spendthrift ways and their incompatible personalities. She quickly produced a series of light, frothy peeks into high society that proved successful with the public: The Vicissitudes of Evangeline (a series of vignettes detailing a young debutante’s observations of the love affairs of high society, which scandalized the reading public not by its subject, but by a scene where Evangeline is described as becoming in her lingerie!), The Visits of Elizabeth and its sequel Elizabeth Visits AmericaThe Reflections of Ambrosine and The Reason Why.

three-weeksIt wasn’t until she published Three Weeks however, that Elinor Glyn began to rhyme with sin. Three Weeks was the story of a clandestine affair between Englishman Paul Verdayne and a mysterious older woman he meets while on vacation, whom he only knows as “The Lady.” The most sensual and enduring scene which made Elinor immortal took place on a tiger skin, which inspired the doggerel:

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err with her
On some other fur?

elinor-glyn2The resulting scandal “helped to ensure worldwide sales of more than five million in the 25 years after it was first published.” The furor surprised the demure Mrs. Glyn who, in an article with the New York Times, mere said she merely attempted to “show what an educated Slav in love would think and do.” Because of this book, Glyn was considered the leading expert on romance, passion and sex, and was asked around the world to discuss such topics, where she left audiences of both men and women hanging onto her every word as she uttered such pronouncements as “Love is a trinity–body and soul and the desire to reproduce love’s image.” In time, Elinor’s flamboyant persona and flair for words brought her to Hollywood of the 1920s where she promptly coined another enduring word: “It,” that is, the innate sexual appeal some people had and most others didn’t. “It” was the title of her 1927 release and also that of a movie adaptation starring Clara Bow, which helped Glyn parlay her Edwardian success far past that era, where she convinced the cynical post-Great War generation that theirs was not the only period for love and sin.

Further Reading:
The It Girls: Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon and Elinor Glyn by Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher
Addicted to Romance: The Life and Adventures of Elinor Glyn by Joan Hardwick
Montacute’s Tigress (BBC)
Books by Elinor Glyn

A life of contrast: Daisy, Countess of Warwick

Daisy, Countess of Warwick

by Victoria Fishburn

Imagine a beautiful woman from Edwardian England who married an Earl, became mistress to the Prince of Wales and astonished Society by standing as a Labour candidate for Parliament. Such a woman was Daisy, Countess of Warwick. Her words, written in two memoirs and countless other books, are still quoted by most historians of the period. In her youth, she was famous for her looks. Cartes-de-visites with her likeness were bought by those who followed the ‘Professional Beauties’, society women whose beauty was admired amongst all classes. Her friend Elinor Glyn referred to her as an ‘It girl’. The fair, curvaceous heiress hit London Society in the 1880s but, although she was painted by Sargent and sculpted by Rodin, her beauty was only part of the reason that she was famous in her lifetime. Even today, her name is widely recognized. This is largely because the life that she led followed so unconventional a path. Despite having good looks, a fortune, a lasting marriage and nine successful years as mistress to the Prince of Wales behind her, she embarked upon a radical life as a social reformer.

My interest in her was sparked by the sheer unlikeliness of her character. She leaves a confusing legacy: an heiress, a Countess and a landowner and yet she signed up to the socialist ideal of land nationalization and tried to give her house away. She had the love of the Prince and yet she pestered him with her ideas for reform. Hugely extravagant, she spent lavishly on entertaining her guests, whilst supporting reforms to help the poor and downtrodden. She stood for a parliamentary seat as a candidate for the Labour party but appeared on political platforms dressed in pearls and furs. Daisy’s life was marked out as unusual from the age of three when she inherited the estates of her grandfather, her father having already died.

The self-confidence and determined independence that characterized her approach to life, started early. She rode dangerous racehorses from her stepfather’s stable, she went to the theatre with Disraeli and, most shockingly, she thwarted the plans of Queen Victoria to marry her to the youngest Prince, her haemophiliac son, Leopold. Brookie was a good catch as heir to the Earl of Warwick but did not have the cachet of a Prince. Young, active and gorgeous she swept all before her as she reveled in her position as Lady Brooke. Having produced a son for her husband, infidelity was accepted in the aristocratic circles in which she moved, as long as affairs were conducted according to that all-important quality of the age: discretion. Daisy threw parties, she bought dresses from Paris by the great French designers, Charles Worth and Doucet, she had lovers and she hunted. But the same impulsiveness that she brought to the hunting field made her indiscreet.

Her reputation was first tarnished by a reckless letter she wrote to her lover, Lord Charles Beresford, berating him for his wife’s pregnancy. The affair foundered at the insult to his wife and recognizing the dire threat of ruin to her reputation, Daisy fled into the arms of the Prince. She entertained Bertie and his friends, first at her own Essex estate and subsequently at Warwick Castle, inherited by her husband Lord Brooke in 1893. Her years as royal mistress should have made her reputation unassailable but even then she was criticized for her indiscreet gossip: a gambling deal involving the Prince of Wales, earned her the nickname, ‘Babbling Brooke’. But both Bertie and Brookie were devoted to her and put up with a great deal. Brookie wrote that he would rather have been married to Daisy ‘with all her peccadilloes’ than to any other woman in the world. They remained married until his death.

Like so many who lavishly entertained their future King, Daisy was extravagant and, what had seemed a great fortune, diminished to the point when she had to sell many of her possessions and property. Her most ignominious episode came about because of debt. After the death of Edward VII, she attempted to raise money by the sale of his love letters to her, offering them, at a price, to George V. The royal advisers were not moved to help her, despite the fact that she had never had the financial benefits and protection given to some of Edward’s other mistresses. She was threatened with an injunction and forced to give the letters to the King. Kept secret at the time, this affair emerged in the 1960s in a book by Theo Lang called ‘My Darling Daisy’ – the affectionate address used by the Prince of Wales in his letters. The name stuck.

daisy-warwick005She was given many labels in her life: Professional Beauty, It girl, Babbling Brooke and My Darling Daisy but, before the end of her life, the Countess of Warwick was known by another, and very unlikely, name: the Socialist Countess. At a time when many Edwardians were clinging to the vestiges of a glamorous Society life which was to end with the First World War, Daisy was again stepping out of the mould. Her kind nature and sympathy with those suffering hardship, had inspired her to many philanthropic actions over the years. She had started a home for cripples and a needlework school for rural girls with a shop to sell their work. She funded a secondary school and championed the cause of women’s education by establishing a training college for women. When her days as royal mistress were behind her, she became interested in the rising Socialist movement. Philanthropy turned to Socialism by 1904, when she joined the Social Democratic Foundation. It perplexed her society friends that she should join the highly unfashionable world of trade unionists and socialists. But Daisy had changed. She was no longer interested in Society, her friends now encompassed many fellow Socialists: George Bernard Shaw, H.G.Wells and Gustav Holst were amongst them.

Bravely independent, Daisy increased her literary output in order to make some money. Although never an author of the calibre of Shaw or Wells, it is through her writing that Daisy Warwick maintains her hold on posterity. Between 1898 and 1934, twelve books came out under her name, the first a book on gardens. The subjects were varied: essays on Socialism; a short biography of the leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris; a well-respected history of Warwick Castle; a book of essays on the First World War and two substantial books of memoirs. She edited and wrote introductions or essays for a further eight books. Daisy sailed to America in 1912, to give a lecture tour in New York and Washington: the newspapers were full of the outfits she wore and were more interested in society gossip than the socialism she wanted to preach. Back home she contributed articles to London newspapers and the Daily Sketch commissioned her as an advice columnist and editor of their womens’ page. This astonishing literary output kept her name in the public eye.

In 1923, Daisy Warwick stood as a candidate for the Labour Party for the parliamentary seat of Warwick and Leamington. Her opponent was her relation, and later Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. But the overdressed Countess of Warwick, who owed money to many of those who might have supported her, was shunned and, ignominiously, beaten into third place. With this result, she left parliamentary ambitions behind her although she continued to support the Labour Party. In the late 1920s she tried to give her house in Essex away, first to the Labour Party and, when that failed, to the Trade Union Congress. Ironically, it was the fact that she was a Countess and a symbol of privilege that caused the rejection of her offer. Disillusioned with socialism, she retreated back to her home and an old age concerned with the welfare of animals.

Daisy Warwick’s seventy-eight years had been eventful: from her birth as a beautiful and privileged heiress to an old age where looks, money and society friends had all gone. But her name lives on today and this is where her literary output has extended her fame. She is a valuable source for most historians of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Theo Aronson in The King in Love, Stanley Weintraub in Edward, King in Waiting, Henry Vane in Affair of State, Leo McKinstry in his recent biography of Rosebery, Andrew Roberts in Salisbury: Victorian Titan and Anthony Allfrey in Edward VII and his Jewish Court are just some of the many historians who use Daisy’s insights taken from her memoirs and other writings.

Victoria Fishburn is presently writing a biography on Daisy, Countess of Warwick and can be contacted by email: victoria [at] fishburns [dot] co [dot] uk.