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New York City

The Bradley-Martin Ball

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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

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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March 25, 2009 is the 98th anniversary of the fire that tore through the workrooms of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and left 148 women dead. It had been a normal day in the factory where hundreds of young immigrant women worked in fourteen hour shifts for six or seven dollars a week to make shirtwaists for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. The company in which these young women labored was located on the top three floors of the ten-floor Asch Building at Greene Street and Washington Place, just east of Washington Square. Hard-worked they were, but these young women had won a notable victory just two years before, putting the shirtwaist factory in the public eye when they struck boldly for higher wages and better working conditions in event known as the “Uprising of 20,000.”

That day the young women stretched their arms and cramped fingers, joking and chatting with one another as they tidied their workstations and shoved their arms into their coats as the clock’s hands pulled closer to 4:45. Then someone yelled “Fire!” Within moments panic broke out amongst the workers and everyone scattered, jamming doorways and halls in an effort to escape. Outside, United Press reporter William G. Shepard happened to stroll near the area when he suddenly saw smoke:triangle

I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound–a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.

Thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead. Sixty-two thud—deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.

The first ten thud—deads shocked me. I looked up—saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow I knew that they, too, must come down, and something within me—something that I didn’t know was there—steeled me.

I even watched one girl falling. Waving her arms, trying to keep her body upright until the very instant she struck the sidewalk, she was trying to balance herself. Then came the thud–then a silent, unmoving pile of clothing and twisted, broken limbs.

To his horror, and that of the crowd rushing to the scene of the fire, more young women jumped from the burning building. Firemen appeared on the scene, but the ladders were too short, and the life nets held aloft for the jumping girls to land on tore upon impact. All around the building lay dead bodies, broken, charred and covered with blood. The fire was put out not an hour later, and firemen rushed to the top three floors and were met with dozens of burnt bodies. They cleared the building of the last body by 11 that night.

triangle3The following day, grieving relatives and curious onlookers streamed through the morgue set up on the 26th Street pier to identify the dead. By April, the public outcry against the unsafe working conditions in New York forces the authorities to do something about this long-neglected blight on the city. That same month, owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck are indicted for manslaughter in connection with the fire deaths. Further reports indicated that the escape route from the ninth floor was blocked by a locked door. Harris and Blanck were brought to trial in December and to the horror of the crowd, they were found “not guilty” after a deliberation of two hours. blankharrisThe family of the victims and the survivors took Harris and Blanck to court in a civil suit and in 1914, the twenty-three individual suits for damages against Triangle were settled for an average of just $75 per life lost. In the aftermath of the fire, New York created a Factory Investigating Commission to examine the need for new legislation to prevent future fire disasters. In part because of the work of the Commission, “the golden era in remedial factory legislation” was launched and over the next three years, New York enacted 36 new safety laws.

Today we are linked to the tragedy through Rose Freedman, last living survivor of the fire, who died in 2001 age 107 and the designation of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building (Brown Building) as a National Historical Landmark. For more information, please visit the following websites:

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial
The Triangle Factory Fire
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Memorial

The fire in fiction:
The Locket: Surviving the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire by Suzanne Lieurance
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory by Charity Barger
Triangle: A Novel by Katharine Weber
Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch

Lobster Palace Society

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great-white-wayFrom the late 1890s through the 1910s, there emerged a spectacular, dazzling nightlife along Broadway. At that time, Broadway was a two mile stretch of din and dazzle between Madison and Longacre Square (renamed Times Square in 1904). One might rub shoulders with sparkling showgirls and squalid prostitutes, cops and confidence artists, panhandlers and the wealthiest men of Wall Street. Nicknamed the “Gay White Way” because of the never-ceasing splendor of lights from street lamps to marquee boards, the classic way to spend a night on Broadway began with cocktails, then to a show, then to one of the gaudy, extravagant “lobster palaces.”

These “lobster palaces,” defined as “one of the elegant, expensive new restaurants that emerged in New York City, which specialized in lobsters and attracted the rich and famous,” catered to the theatrical crowds that nightly surged out of limousines, taxis and theatres in search of dinner or an after-theatre supper. And “lobster palace society,” comprised of playboys, professional beauties, stars such as Lillian Russell, chorus girls, kept women, sportsmen, newspaper men, celebrities of the Bohemia of the arts, and businessmen from the hinterlands. Beginning with the opening of Café Martin in 1899, the lobster palace, and its accompanying society both challenged and changed the components of New York society and its nightlife, proving a worthy ancestor of the “café society” of the 1920s and 1930s.

The first official lobster palace was Café Martin, which was opened in 1899 by Louis Martin, who had successfully operated a small hotel on Ninth St that was a favorite of French visitors. When he learned that Delmonico’s was vacating its site on Twenty-Sixth street to move uptown, he leased the building and created an intimate restaurant that introduced side-by-side eating known as a banquette. This cozy atmosphere was very attractive to men who wished to entertain young women who were not their wives and not surprisingly, Café Martin became the rendezvous of the smart set for luncheons and dinners. Another beguiling feature was his dining terrace, which was placed just above the street and covered with a brightly striped awning. Seated behind shrubs, flowering plants, and palms, guests could admire the splendid view of Madison Square without being seen. Martin hired an orchestra for his cafe and allowed women to dine there if escorted, and even served drinks to them (cafes normally operated as masculine preserves).

lillian-russell Café Martin was quickly followed by the Café des Beaux Arts, founded by a former employee of Martin, Jacques Bustanoby, and his two brothers. Located a Forty-Second and Sixth, Bustanoby’s restaurant was immediately popular with theatergoers and the headliners of the shows. The attraction for the theatre stars were the soirees artistique, which Jacques cajoled them into performing. Lillian Russell, for example, would enter the restaurant to applause and in the company of Jesse Lewishon, Diamond Jim Brady and his wife Edna, and producer Florenz Ziegfeld and his wife, Anna Held, and it was in this restaurant that Lillian and Diamond Jim, both famous for their girths and appetites, wagered that if she could match him course for course, he would give her a huge diamond ring the following day. According to Bustanoby, Lillian slipped into the ladies’ room and came out with a heavy bundle under her arm, wrapped in a tablecloth. She told the proprietor to keep it for the next day and then returned to the table and ate plate-for-plate, beating Jim fair and square. diamond-jim-brady

The bundle she handed to Bustanoby was her corset.

“Diamond Jim’s” given name was James Buchanan Brady, and though a successful financier, he was most known for his love of the items which gave him his name, and his astounding appetite. It was not unusual for Brady to eat enough food for ten people at a sitting. A typical Brady breakfast would be: eggs, pancakes, pork chops, cornbread, fried potatoes, hominy, muffins, and a beefsteak. For refreshment, a gallon of orange juice—or “golden nectar”, as he called his favorite drink. Lunch might be two lobsters, deviled crabs, clams, oysters and beef, with a few pies for dessert. The usual evening meal began with an appetizer of two or three dozen oysters, six crabs, and a few servings of green turtle soup, followed by a main course of two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin and a host of vegetables. For dessert, the gourmand enjoyed pastries and a two pound box of candy.

Lillian Russell, his longtime amour–though the actual details of their relationship (romantic or platonic?) are murky–“airy, fairy, Lillian, the American Beauty”–after whom America’s favorite rose was named–whose hourglass (while corseted) figure with its ample hips and very full bosom weighed 200 pounds; she was the Belle Epoque ideal. She was known equally for her legendary beauty, her voice and stage presence, and her appetite, as it was said she ate more than Diamond Jim! Whatever the case was, restaurateurs and maitre d’hotels sighed in ecstasy alike when the two descended upon a lobster palace after a performance, with Rector’s being the ideal place.

Rector’s, though making its debut in New York City after the restaurants of Bustanoby and Martin, was the premiere lobster palace. Though sharing fame with such entities as Shanley’s and Murray’s Roman Gardens, etc in terms of opulence and grandeur, something about Rector’s placed it ahead of the crowd. It didn’t help either that everybody went to Rector’s.

Lobster palace society indulged itself in a healthy exhibitionism which led to its most characteristic ceremony, the “entrance.” At no other place could one make an entrance as at Rector’s. A sturdy, imposing building of Greco-Roman design, the interior was breathtaking, Charles Rector lavishing $200,000 to transform the interiors into a mirrored paradise of green and gold, providing linen especially woven in Dublin, hand-stenciled silver covered a hundred tables on the ground floor and seventy-five on the second. Four private dining rooms completed the interiors. In a neat coup before opening, Rector wooed saucier Charles Parrandin, the maitre d’hotel Paul Perret and the business manager Andrew Mehler from Delmonico’s. His staff of 165 were impeccable, most having graduated from professional schools in Switzerland and though the hours were grueling (10 am to 3 am with three hours off in the afternoon) and the salary meager ($25 dollars weekly), Rector’s was the place to be for both patrons and employees alike.

On to the “entrance”:

The time is somewhere between eleven thirty and midnight. The orchestra is playing, when it is suddenly called to a halt. The leader has caught sight of a star just about to enter (if she is not a star recognizable on sight, he has probably been tipped off in advance as to her identity). There is a pause of silence during which all conversation ceases. Then the orchestra strikes up the song currently associated with the star who, blushing faintly, glides swanlike to her table, skin dazzling, diamonds winking, profile at the proper tilt. Her escort, probably hidden behind the blanket of violets, her evening’s tribute, knows his name will go down in history.

By the 1910s, competition for patronage became fierce, particularly after the ragtime dance craze swept across both sides of the Atlantic. As restaurateurs and patrons sought new diversions, into America came the cabaret. Initially existing on the fringes of New York society, and mainly known through Parsian caf-concs of the 1890s, the cabaret first reached beyond the vice districts to the attention of respectable New Yorkers in the spring of 1911 when Henry B. Harris and Jesse Lasky, two vaudeville entrepreneurs, opened the Folies Bergère Theater on Forty-Ninth in the heart of the theatre district. Two shows a night were offered: first, an elaborate revue from 8 pm to 11 pm, and an after-theater cabaret performance from 11:15 pm to 1 am. The two promoters introduced a champagne bar, a balcony promenade, and the first American midnight performance. Soon after its opened though, the Folies suffered a financial decline. Offering only 700 seats, the theatre could not sustain its huge redecoration costs and entertainment investment. Designed as a theatre-restaurant, the Folies’ two elements didn’t work well together. The restaurant only comprised 41% of the floor plan.

Nonetheless, people latched onto the idea of supper, dancing and a show, and by late 1911 and early 1912, a number of lobster palaces picked up the cabaret idea and began experimenting with the presentation of entertainment along with the sale of food and drink. Jacques Bustanoby opened the Domino Room at Columbus Circle and introduced midnight ’til dawn dancing. Reisenweber’s, which could claim to have introduced cabaret to America, had four rooms and a ballroom. At various times, it had its large restaurant divided into the 400 Room–where the Dixieland Jazz Band were introduced –, the Sophie Tucker Room and the Doraldina Hawaiian Room–was the first in New York to echo with the pitter-pat of turkey-trotting feet–, all offering patrons a choice of environments. Later cabaret/lobster palaces were The Midnight Frolic and the Century Roof (Cocoanut Grove), who charged relatively expensive covers of $1-2 for a couple without drinks! Once inside, drinks cost 25 cents for cocktails and highballs, $2.50 for a pint of champagne, five dollars for a quart. Sans Souci, founded by Vernon and Irene Castle, was the first cabaret not associated with a preexisting lobster palace. Designed after Parisian models, the club opened Dec 1913 in a basement on 42nd Street. Other places followed suit, opening special cabaret establishments. Finally, theatres converted their roof gardens to cabarets and ballrooms.

Dancing girls were the sole attraction of this first show, and within two weeks every lobster palace with a dance floor had a chorus line. At first, the development of the floor was almost accidental, as restaurants merely followed Lasky and Harris’s policy of presenting a few entertainers as incidental diversions. restaurant managers would hire a few special intimate acts, such as singers and dancers, from rathskellers or the lower rungs of vaudeville and have them circle among the tables as incidental attractions to the dining and drinking. Rather than putting up stages, the restaurants cleared a space in the dining room or installed small platforms. It was only after 1915, after the ragtime dance craze had made the cabarets profitable that owners were convinced of their earning potential and began to implement more elaborate stages.

The seating of patrons at tables was the other distinctive feature of the cabaret, one that encouraged greater intimacy between audience and performers and among the audience itself. Guests watched the entertainment from dining chairs at tables. As the years went by, the size of meals declined as guests spent their time watching the acts or dancing, but the restaurant setting and the table continued as an important locus for patrons’ dining, drinking and personal interactions.

Lobster palaces died with the closing of the Great War, and despite efforts to revive the old restaurants of both lobster palace society and the Four Hundred, society had changed too much. Most notably was the sudden popularity of Harlem in the 1920s, and finally, Prohibition, which put many legitimate restaurants out of business who were unable to sustain profitability without the sale of liquor.

Further Reading:
On the Town in New York by Michael Batterberry & Ariane Batterberry
Diamond Jim Brady by Harry Paul Jeffers
Empire City by Kenneth T. Jackson, David S. Dunbar
Steppin’ Out by Lewis A. Erenberg
Welcome to our city by Julian Street
Incredible New York: High Life and Low Life of Last Hundred Years‎ by Lloyd R. Morris