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New York City

How A Bitter Family Feud Resulted in Gilded Age New York’s Most Luxurious Hotel

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The Waldorf-Astoria was born from a feud. As we explored in the discussion of New York’s Four Hundred, after the death of her father-in-law, Mrs. William B. Astor Jr (Caroline) declared herself “Mrs. Astor”. Her nephew, William Waldorf Astor,  felt that his wife should be called simply “Mrs. Astor” since he was head of the senior branch of the Astor family. Caroline refused to budge and W. W. Astor exacted his revenge by tearing down his side of the connecting Astor brownstones to build the Waldorf Hotel (1893). This move was tantamount to throwing down the gauntlet to his aunt. W.W. Astor moved to England and watched with glee as the thousands of visitors to the hotel invaded his aunt’s staunchly-held privacy. Caroline eventually capitulated. Her move uptown conceded both to her nephew’s vengeful behavior and the social prominence of the Vanderbilt family, who in the early 1880s, built their massive Fifth Avenue mansions well above the streets the Mrs. Astor considered fashionable.

waldorf-hotel-mrs-astors-brownstoneJohn Jacob Astor IV (yes, the one who went down on the Titanic) was now titular head of the family after W.W. Astor’s defection to England (who became a British citizen). J.J. Astor decided to build a hotel on the site of his mother’s former residence to accompany the Waldorf Hotel. Four years after the Waldorf Hotel opened its doors, the Astoria Hotel made its debut and the neighboring hotels soon became the Waldorf-Astoria. This double luxury hotel was an immediate sensation and outshone any other built before, with its forty public rooms and 1300 guest rooms. The Waldorf-Astoria also opened its the doors for public dinners and dining in a way Sherry’s and Delmonico’s had been unable to do as mere restaurants.

Known colloquially as “the Hyphen,”  the Waldorf-Astoria was the place to see and be seen between noon and the early hours of the morning. At the 34th Street entrance, a wide, three-hundred foot amber-marble corridor where guests could relax on the luxurious chairs and sofas, became known as “Peacock Alley.” The primary restaurants of both hotels featured wall-to-wall mirrors, allowing easy viewing of other diners while one supped. So coveted were seats in the Palm Room that tables were frequently engaged weeks in advance, and at seven o’clock, the velvet rope placed across the entrance signaled that those without reservations would have to dine at the less prestigious Empire and Rose Rooms overlooking Fifth Avenue.

peacock-alleyPrior to the 1890s, high society ate at home or in an exclusive restaurant like Sherry’s, but as the smart set began to “dine out,” hotels such as the Waldorf-Astoria (and later, the Ritz-Carlton, and the Hotel Regis) quickly adapted to this new form of social amusement. Now there was a great emphasis on eating well and people “thought out their meals and hired foreign chefs more extensively than before. Americans began to explore menus with French names more confidently and found that the dishes they signified had as exotic a flavor as the cooks who created them.” Oscar Tschirky, better known as “Oscar of the Waldorf,” guided this new movement. Born in Switzerland, Tschirky emigrated to America in the 1880s and set about changing the way 19th century society ate one step at a time. He advanced quickly in the restaurant world and by 1891, had become maître d’hôtel of Delmonico’s Restaurant. His fame spread throughout New York City and he then went with Hoffman’s to take charge of its famous Down-Town Restaurant, where he remained until he was hired by George C. Boldt to take charge of the Waldorf’s restaurant.

oscar-sauceUnder Oscar’s delicate tutelage, gastronomy became a form of art for even ordinary Americans. Despite not being a chef, he lent his name to such dishes as Veal Oscar, and aided in the popularization of Thousand Island dressing. However, it was the Waldorf Salad that remained immortal, and this simple yet exotic salad made of chopped celery, walnuts, and apples drenched in mayonnaise and displayed on a bed of lettuce was wildly popular, no doubt because of the ease with which ordinary housewives could recreate some of the glamor of the hotel in their own homes. Chicken a la King and Lobster Newburg were specialties of the hotel, and the chafing-dish, introduced by the hotel, became a very popular wedding gift in which the two dishes could be made. So famous was the hotel, and so aligned it was with fine dining, that Oscar Tschirky was certainly one of the first persons to have a nationally distributed food product with his “Oscar sauce.”

Not simply a place for after-supper dining or afternoon tea and lunches, the Waldorf-Astoria was also a favorite hotspot for gentlemen. The Men’s Cafe, a lofty, spacious hall paneled in dark wood, was liberally provided with tables and arm chairs, and the four-sided mahogany bar was the magnet for such financial luminaries as J.P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick and “Bet-A-Million” Gates. The bar dominated the room where eight bartenders slung out drinks of nearly five hundred varieties, and not far from it was the “free lunch” table where habitués could snack on Virginia ham, Vermont turkey, various hot delicacies in casseroles, and an assorted cold buffet. The concept of the “free lunch” was new, and one that paid off for bars since much of the food offered for free was of a salty, dry nature that required a drink. A man who was liable to linger in the cafe snacking on free food was likely to purchase a surfeit of cool, refreshing liquids to quench his thirst.

Palm Room, Waldorf-AstoriaBesides dining and gawking, the Waldorf-Astoria was the perfect venue for social events, and the hotel’s most famous and infamous event was the Bradley-Martin ball of 1897. The publicity reaped by the hotel was such that the ballroom in which the ball was held was promptly renamed the Bradley-Martin room, and visitors to the hotel for years afterward were anxious to see the site of this much-derided night. Other less hearty events the Waldorf-Astoria hosted was the investigation into the Titanic’s sinking in 1912. But on a lighter note, the hotel witnessed the habits of many celebrities, from princes to presidents to Wall Street tycoons to diplomats. The Waldorf-Astoria reigned supreme until the late 1910s, and as with all wild successes, it is inevitable that it suffer from a decline. In the case of the Waldorf-Astoria, the passing of the old guard in society, the subsequent shift of the younger generations away from Fifth Avenue, and the onset of Prohibition (which devastated many of the Gilded Age’s popular restaurants) sounded its death knell. The hotel closed in 1929 and was razed to make room for the Empire State Building. A new Waldorf-Astoria was built on Park Avenue in the 1930s, and it was purchased in 1949 by Conrad Hilton who added the double-hyphen flourish, “completely in the spirit of gilded ornamentation.”

Further Reading:
Incredible New York by Lloyd R. Morris
The Story of the Waldorf-Astoria, Old and Sold Antiques
Peacocks On Parade by Albert Stevens Crockett

The New York Social Season

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During the 1870s and 1880s, the social season was divided into two: winter and summer. The winter season stretched from mid-November until the onset of Lent, and was marked by the opening of the opera season at the Academy of Music. It was here, at this grand old theatre, whose boxes were guarded jealously by the Knickerbocker elite and handed down from generation to generation, that Countess Ellen Olenska made her first appearance in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Because of this exclusivity, those “swells” who hammered at the Knickerbockers’ doors pulled together resources to fund the Metropolitan Opera House, whose “Golden Horseshoe” of 122 prominently placed boxes proved irresistible to Society. academy-of-music-new-yorkAfter 1883, even the old guard abandoned the Academy of Music for the more fashionable and opulent Metropolitan Opera House, and attending the opera on opening night and thereafter on Friday nights was de rigueur. As in other social cities, the opera was the place to see and be seen, and throughout the evening, the Four Hundred turned their lorgnettes to the boxes opposite and paid visits. Mrs. Astor sat regally in her box, recieving the homages of her subjects, but never leaving to visit someone else. She rarely remained past the first act, and it was a serious breach of etiquette for someone to leave before Mrs. Astor left.

Over the twelve weeks of the winter season, society “flung itself headlong” into a bevy of balls, receptions, parties, dinner and other activities. Besides the opening of the opera season, the New York Horse Show each November, and Mrs. Astor’s annual ball, held in January, also became demarcations of the rise and ebb of the season. The month of December became fixed as the month for coming-out receptions for debutantes, who made their entrance into society in the Patriarchs’ Balls (until 1897) and the junior cotillions. February’s Charity Ball, which cut across all coteries and sets, signaled the end of the winter season and the onset of Lent. During the Lenten season, social events were less public, less showy and generally less ostentatious. The Four Hundred occupied this “quiet time” with fundraisers for charities, informal dinners and preparing themselves for the onset of the summer season.

NewportThe Summer season was, famously, held in Newport, Rhode Island. Initially a resort which attracted wealthy planters prior to the Civil War, the beautiful views and agreeable weather began to attract New York’s millionaires. Practically overnight this sleepy Colonial town on the coast of America’s smallest state turned into an exclusive enclave for some of the country’s wealthiest citizens. Every square mile of available land was snapped up by millionaires, old structures razed and grandiose mansions dubbed “cottages” were erected. The lack of hotels and the staking of Bailey’s Beach–where changing rooms were purchased at a cost of $500–kept away sightseers, though later on in the 1900s, tour guides began to ply trade in Newport, the most famous incident being when a tea held by the former Alva Vanderbilt was interrupted by a guide remarking on her former residence at Marble House and her present residence at Belcourt “above the stables with Mr. Belmont.” So exclusive was Newport society, it was considered the ultimate place in which to test one’s acceptance into the Four Hundred. Chicago society’s grand dame, Mrs. Potter Palmer, was ignored during her first forays into the resort, as her husband, a hotelier, was considered little better than an innkeeper.

entrance-to-georgian-courtBy the 1890s, the fragmentation of society into sets and cliques manifested itself in the variety of places in which prominent families chose to spend their time. The establishment of golf and country clubs and the construction of large mansions on Long Island, particularly Southampton and Glen Cove, lured numerous people away from Newport. Saratoga was popular with the racing set. George Gould settled in Lakewood, New Jersey, and a thriving community there added itself to the social season. Some members of the Four Hundred even went to the resorts native to the elite of Boston or Philadelphia, summering in such places as Martha’s Vineyard, Bar Harbor or Cape Cod. Another place for summering were the Adirondack Mountains, and hardy New Yorkers placed their indelible stamp on this site by building “camps” that rivaled their “cottages” in Newport. Here, men and women were informal, donning casual clothes and enjoying the vogue for outdoors life.

shadowbrookThe turn of the century craze for outdoors life led to the development of a “suburban” season in the autumn. This overlapped somewhat with the Newport season, though the enclaves of the Berkshires, the Hudson River and Tuxedo Park were even more exclusive. In the Berkshires, society indulged in sports such as hunting and riding, and in-home entertainments like card games, acrostics, and amateur theatrics. Centered around the quiet towns of Stockbridge, Lenox and Pittsfield, those who chose to spend time in the Berkshires were of a more sober nature. Those who visited the Hudson were typically of old Knickerbocker stock as the early Dutch settlers built farms upon the banks of the Hudson, and here English-style week-end house parties were held. Tuxedo Park, founded in 1886 by Pierre Lorillard, was a private “resort” just north of Manhattan. This was an ultra-exclusive place, with just 20 families owning “cottages” on five acre sections of a 600,000 acre estate. These families took up residence in autumn and remained there until around Thanksgiving, and returned again at Christmas and New Year’s, where they met for dinners and dances at the Tuxedo Club. Another alluring, new activity for the Four Hundred were winter sports, and winter resorts catering to the craze for skiing, tobogganing and sledding, sprang up around the Adirondacks’ lakes, most notably the Lake Placid Club organized in 1895 by Melvil Dewey (he of the Dewey Decimal system). Other winter spots included the balmy climate of Palm Beach and Daytona Florida, where a number of fashionable hotels and bungalows were built to cater to the wealthy visitors.

Picture No. 10045150aAs did their European counterparts, during the 1900s and 1910s, members of the Four Hundred no longer placed as much importance on their native social seasons as they did in the past. During the early 20th century, the elite of all nationalities mingled in different locations: London or Paris during the spring, Rome or the French Riviera in winter, with possible stops in Berlin, St. Petersburg or Vienna, depending on whether the visitor possessed the proper social cachet. A typical itinerary for a New Yorker was to travel to Europe in late spring to take part in the Parisian or London seasons, spend the summer months touring Italy or visiting a German spa, and then returning to Paris in early autumn to pick up the orders made in the couture houses along the Rue de la Paix. They would then cross the Channel and embark on a steamer from Liverpool headed to New York to begin the social game all over again!

Further Reading
A Season of Splendor: the Court of Mrs. Astor in the Gilded Age by Greg King
Displaying Women: Spectacles of Leisure in Edith Wharton’s New York by Maur Montgomery
Edwardian Life & Leisure by Ronald Pearsall

The Four Hundred

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Boston had its Brahmins, Philadelphia its Main Line, and Virginia its First Families; however, the upper class of New York, unlike those venerable cities, did not remain unassailed and unsullied by nouveaux riche. No, New York was different, and its constant injection of fresh blood into the upper classes was mirrored in the general atmosphere of the city. New York was the pinnacle of America’s “melting pot,” and never more was this true for the old Colonial and Knickerbocker society.

Colonized first by the Dutch and later by the English, New York society of the first half of the 19th century was rather sedate; staid almost. This close-knit community, bound together by family ties and mutual veneration of bloodlines that stretched to the earliest settlers, clustered towards the bottom of Fifth Avenue in neat rows of brownstones Edith Wharton described as “coat[ing] New York like a cold chocolate sauce.” Their days and nights were ruled by customs and mores no one dared to break lest they find themselves ostracized. From this coterie emerged Mrs. William Backhouse Astor Jr. Caroline Astor, known as “Lina” to her intimates, was born a Schermerhorn, and was firmly entrenched in the Knickerbocracy. Her rein on society was light before the Civil War, which allowed her ample time to devote herself to raising her five children and running her household.

After the war everything changed. Not only were scores of the newly rich clamoring to enter Society, but Caroline was embroiled in a family feud for supremacy that culminated three decades later in the founding of the opulent Waldorf-Astoria.

Caroline was known as “Mrs. William Astor” until her sister-in-law’s death in 1887, whereupon she promptly considered herself the most senior female family member and became simply “Mrs. Astor.” Her nephew William Waldorf Astor, as the son of the elder brother of Caroline’s husband, felt his wife should be “Mrs. Astor.” The gleeful press egged on the battle and in their clippings added the infamous article that made the Mrs. Astor remain imprinted forever in history.

BE042306 W.W. Astor, smarting from this loss and the political losses he attempted, decamped to England–but not without the last laugh. Caroline had migrated up Fifth Avenue as fashion dictated, but had yet to move even further up the avenue where fashionable society had gone to build their magnificent urban chateaux. To her horror she watched as her nephew’s adjoining mansion was torn down and a hotel built in its place. She moved to a new mansion built by Richard Morris Hunt a few years later, and the brownstone in which she’d lived was demolished for an accompanying hotel built beside the Waldorf. Her side was named the Astoria, and despite the hyphen in the name and the connecting passageway, they remained unerringly separate entities.

While this family feud played out, Caroline was determined to keep newcomers out of New York society. Aiding her in this goal was the debonair Ward McAllister, a member of a prominent Savannah family and a man-about-town. It was he who coined the social index “Four Hundred”–a reference to the people who mattered in society, and the number of guests who could fit into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom. The press noted sarcastically that his list fell short of 400, but the name caught on, and soon every new millionaire who entered the city wanted to be on that list. As Mrs. Astor’s courtier, McAllister set about molding and shaping upper-class New York society, determining who was in and who was out, what was correct and what was not, and those whom Mrs Astor would accept and those whom she would not–but he was no match for the newly-married Alva Vanderbilt.

vanderbilt-family-1873Until the uncouth, foul-mouthed Commodore (Cornelius) Vanderbilt died, no member of the Vanderbilt family was accepted into the Four Hundred. Some of the younger members were able to participate in the less intimate entertainments, but being invited to the Mrs Astor’s annual ball? Nope.

The Vanderbilts and a few other nouveaux riche families scored a social coup when they built the Metropolitan Opera House to rival the exclusive Academy of Music, but they met roadblocks in every other avenue. A windfall fell into their lap when William Kissam Vanderbilt married the tenacious Alva Erskine Smith in 1875. With the Vanderbilt millions at her disposal, she pushed the family into social prominence. The Vanderbilts astonished everyone by their rapid house-building, by the opulent European architectural styles and treasures imported to America, and particularly by their boldness in building quite far up Fifth Avenue. Alva threw down the gauntlet when she planned an enormous house-warming costume ball complete with expensive favors and elaborate quadrilles. For weeks everyone buzzed excitedly about what they would wear, the food they would eat, and the dances they would execute. No one was more excited than Caroline Astor’s favorite daughter Carrie, who was to take part in the Star Quadrille.

Alva “accidentally” discovered Miss Carrie Astor’s plans and explained to the tearful girl she couldn’t participate since Alva didn’t “know” her mother. Extremely disappointed, Carrie Astor did exactly what Alva knew she would do: run to her mother. Despite her exacting exterior Mrs Astor loved her children and for the sake of her daughter (who, incidentally, would cause more palpitations by marrying the son of Richard T. Wilson, a man rumored to have grown wealthy by selling cheap blankets to the Union Army), Caroline Astor paid a call on Alva Vanderbilt. The second the Mrs Astor’s calling card hit the silver salver, an invitation to the ball made its way to the Astor mansion. Society sat up and took instant notice when Mrs. Astor sailed into the costume ball covered in her requisite diamonds and dark velvet. The Vanderbilts were officially “in.”

harry-lehrMeanwhile, the antics of Ward McAllister grew grating. He began to make a habit of speaking to the press about the inner workings of New York society, and in his overweening pride he elevated himself not as courtier to Mrs Astor, but as the absolute authority on what made up good society. He overreached himself in 1890 when he had the temerity of not only writing a book about the Four Hundred, but publishing it! His memoir, Society As I Have Found It, made McAllister look like a pompous fool, and the society he had created as self-conscious, undemocratic and arrogant. The press had a field day in repeating McAllister’s bloated dictates, and New York retaliated by closing its doors to him. McAllister tripped along after this setback, but when his bombastic insult of Chicago society while the city hosted the World’s Fair was met with stony silence, his time was up. When he died in 1895, barely any of his friends could be bothered to attend his funeral and he no longer existed to Mrs Astor, who tellingly didn’t think of canceling a dinner party scheduled that same night.

But Mrs. Astor had long ago replaced Ward McAllister with Harry Symes Lehr, a Baltimorean who existed on the gifts of clothing, jewelry, champagne and housing provided by businesses eager for him to put in a good word for their products. Lehr had been born wealthy, but a few bad turns destroyed his father and the family fortune when he was a young man. He neither forgot nor forgave when Baltimore turned their backs on the suddenly impoverished Lehrs, and Harry was determined to never be poor again. He was far from attractive, being described as overweight and possessing a high-piping voice, but Harry used his gift and skill for mimicry and for creating fun to overcome this. Soon, he was in high-demand at parties. He found his way to New York where the restless millionaires of the city were in need of more outlets than spending money. Mrs. Astor immediately latched onto him and he became her “court jester.”

triumvirateHe married a wealthy widow from the Drexel family to supplement his lack of income, and became indispensable to New York hostesses. According to his wife Elizabeth, he “chose their dresses for them, planned their house parties, taught them how to manage their love affairs, and found them husbands.” As Mrs. Astor’s power, influence and health waned, Harry migrated to Mrs Stuyvesant Fish, better known as Mamie, who was more his style. The two quickly embarked on their “bloodless reign of terror,” where dinners with monkeys, on horses, dressed as servants, and hosted by fake royals destroyed the sedate pace that characterized Caroline Astor’s rule. Co-rulers with Mamie were Mrs Hermann Oelrichs, the former Theresa Fair and a Comstock Lode heiress, and Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont, better known as the former Alva Vanderbilt (div W.K. Vanderbilt in 1896). These three women made up what was known as “The Triumvirate” and under their aegis, the Four Hundred reached its apogee.

Caroline Astor’s death in 1908 marked a general decline in society. She slipped away quietly, but her absence was felt nonetheless. From as far away as Texas, journalists like William Cowper Brann, filled newspaper columns condemning the excesses of the Four Hundred and the multitude of cities who strove to emulate them. Colonel William d’Alton Mann, who owned the gossip magazine Town Topics, considered it his duty to expose the sins of society–while doing a little blackmail on the side. However, without the Mrs Astor, the Four Hundred lacked a focal point and began to split into dozens of overlapping cliques. Oh, the Four Hundred remained exclusive, but longtime staples such as summers in Newport and autumns in the Berkshires were no longer as regulated and rigidly scheduled, nor were they de rigueur for being a part of the society. By the mid-1910s, the old standards for what constituted society began to loosen and shift, paving the way for the Café Society of the 1920s and ’30s.

Further Reading:
The Upper Crust by Allen Churchill
A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York by Greg King
“King Lehr” and the Gilded Age by Elizabeth Drexel Lehr
To Marry an English Lord, or, How Anglomania Really Got Started by Gail MacColl & Carol McD. Wallace