How to Get into New York’s Four Hundred

The Mrs Astor at the Assembly Ball of 1902

The Mrs Astor at the Assembly Ball of 1902

The Reverend Charles Wilbur de Lyon Nicholls, Governor-General, National Society of Scions of Colonial Cavaliers (an organization he founded in 1908), is mostly remembered as the author of two very snobbish tomes about the hows and whys of East Coast high society. He also chronicled the mistakes budding social climbers made in their attempts to infiltrate the clannish millionaires of society–and New York in particular–and offered advice on how to breach its citadel!


Marriage outright into the smart set is far and away the surest method of effecting an entrance into it. Another expeditious method is by means of a business deal, benefiting one or more members of the smart set—not a hard cash bargaining for social promotion, although men have been known to form business partnerships for this express object; but, to illustrate—a short time ago a railroad transaction secured admission for a family into an influential section of the ” magic circle.” There are delicate ways of conveying the expression of one’s social needs, and the ultra-smart are endowed with a fine sense of noblesse oblige, provided one is manipulating events so as to fill their purses.

An annually increasing quota of candidates for metropolitan social honors, or rather, adoption, is made up of rich — suddenly rich western people. Such a family, we will premise, is about to estabitself in a New York town house. IF you are socially ambitious, do not set up your domicile on the upper West Side, but fix your abode as near as possible to “Millionaires’ Row,” the Fifth avenue court end of Central Park—not necessarily an unduly ostentatious house which will egg everyone on to asking the dread question, “Who is who?” but letting the show-place come a few years later, after you are well placed socially. A grandiose house on a conspicuous thoroughfare, with no suitable guests to fill it, like the gigantic edifices of the Bank of Italy and Ministry of Finance in Rome, is an exclamation point strongly provocative of irony.

Your household gods suitably enshrined, employ a press agent at once, but be wary of too much publicity, for in the main, the role of inglorious obscurity is the one you will need to play, until you know the ropes better. At the same time you can afford to pay the press agent well for having it inserted in the personal columns of a big daily which caters to fashionable folk, that you sail for Europe on such a date, or have returned from your country house for the season; so that, at least, you will not be hampered by persons protesting, “I have never heard of those people.”

A particular phase of newspaper publicity to fight shy of is that involved in allowing the women of your family to become enrolled as members of certain clubs and charities, and having their names bundled out in the third-class society column of a certain Sunday paper with lists of “detrimentals”* of the first water, numbers of them turning out to be veritable mill-stones hung about the neck of social aspiration. A woman of fashion and a clubwoman are two mutually excluding entities—two totally distinct creations of Almighty God, although the latter often tries to palm herself off as the former.

If your early training in drawing-room deportment has been defective or wholly lacking—and as likely as not it has—place yourself at once under such a social mentor as Miss d’Angelo Bergh, the leader of the metropolitan musical smart set. Have her put the society intonation for a speaking voice into your throat, teach you easy deportment and carriage, how to enter and leave a drawing-room, how to converse with the latest society badinage, and how to give a musicale. To illustrate these points from the ranks of highest fashion: Few society women have been as close students of Delsarte as Mrs. Burke-Roche.

*A “detrimental” is a technical social term and means a person of however excellent moral character or ability, who does not blend well socially with either the conservative Knickerbocker element or the Ultra fashionables.

The next move for the social aspirant will be to cultivate the acquaintance of some fashionable woman whose finances are on the wane, but whose temperament requires the expenditure of large sums of money, and who is, moreover, a walking American De Brett and Burke, in short, a running commentary as to knowing who are the people one can receive. Conceding that introductions may be very sparingly given, her help will, in a negative way, be of much value in warding off “detrimentals,” thus saving you years of undoing and weeding out.

Form the acquaintance of an occasional visiting nobleman, if fully assured he is not an imposter, and that he is received by persons who might be made, possibly, to fall in line some way for furthering your campaigns. Minister well to his gastronomic needs, for in all probability, he has taken lodgings sans meals. But avoid making yourself unduly conspicuous in public print with these people of title, for should any one of them turn out to be a scapegrace, the satirical periodicals will show you up as a nobody caught in the flagrante delictu of snobbishness and hanging on by the eyebrows. If, on the other hand, a titled European is comfortably wealthy and persona grata at the houses of the highest fashion, do not waste much time and effort over him, for in all probability he will front you as soon as he has ascertained your exact social status. With reference to your own countrymen all along, give a wide berth to certain soi disant society folk of the upper West Side, who will get your name in the newspapers morning, noon and night and three times on Sunday, until it becomes case-hardened on the lists of the socially impossible.

And, above all, be philanthropic with your purse, although, perchance, the heart responds but feebly.

Do not, I beg of you, make a national onenight stand theatre comique of yourself and family by making the grand tour of hiring cottages at Newport, Lenox and the other ultra-smart resorts before society has given the slightest recognition to your claims. Invoke the aid of old Father Neptune; secure a yacht, as sumptuous a one as you please, and, socially speaking, if your bark sink, ’tis to another sea. If ignored or snubbed at Newport, spread sail for Narragansett Pier or Bar Harbor, felicitating yourself that the social thud is not barbed with the added poignancy of one’s having been a cottager in a place and not being received.

If you cannot master the art of war of the ultra-smart at home, study it abroad, but do not suffer yourself to be deluded into the belief that the entree into America’s exclusive set is to be secured through European social alliances or meeting fashionable Americans abroad. All such finessing, like forming ocean steamship acquaintances, is a thing of the past; but contact with the great world of Europe will ennoble your manners, imparting an air of distinction and greater confidence in approaching the fin fieur of your own countrymen’s society. Go abroad early and stay late, in the London season, stopping at the Carlton or at Claridge’s, at all events, dining and supping frequently at the Carlton. Secure the services of a high-class social promoter; such a person can be corralled by judicious advertising from the ranks of the nobility for a sufficient price.

Study the doings of society closely and which Knickerbockers are enjoying any fashionable vogue or lead up to any, will be readily apparent. Be wary and sly about it, but be willing to invest hundreds of dollars if need be in having every nook and cranny of your own and your husband’s pedigrees searched, and if you should light upon any presentable ancestry, you could confide the find as old-time history, known for generations by your family, to an occasional Knickerbocker acquaintance; but I beg of you, do not go to the extreme of hanging the walls of your dining-room with counterfeit presentments of assumed ” ancestors.” Also, do not unmuzzle yourself on the forefather claim to any member of the smart set, unless desirous of being made a laughing-stock. In general, few conversational faux pas lay bare one’s bourgeoisie social origin more glaringly than talking of one’s lineage on short acquaintance with a person, or under any circumstances with an Englishman to whom all Americans alike are commoners.

Suffer the horse, too, to help you along up the social hill of difficulty. Invest in a string of racehorses and be an exhibitor at the various fashionable horse shows, provided yourself or your husband have a genuine and unaffected love of the horse.

The Ultra-fashionable Peerage of America

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About Evangeline Holland

Author of Edwardian/WWI historicals. Likes cooking, the smell and collecting of old books, various artsy hobbies, travel, classic cinema, period dramas, the fusty areas of history, and all things French (though is terrible with maintaining fluency in the language). Read more about her novels and non-fiction here

2 Thoughts on “How to Get into New York’s Four Hundred

  1. Peerage of America? *snork*

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