Haut Monde and Demimonde

In May 1871 the New York Times observed that elaborate preparations for the ball honoring Grand Duke Alexis of Russia had “kept all the aristocracy and respectability of this good city in a fever of expectation for weeks.” Now, as instructed by the Reception Committee (which included John Jacob Astor, William Henry Vanderbilt, August Belmont, and John Pierpont Morgan), workmen at the Academy of Music were hoisting into position the evening’s decorative centerpiece: two huge banners, one portraying Czar Alexander abolishing serfdom, the other Abraham Lincoln holding up the Emancipation Proclamation. Elite New Yorkers would thus proclaim their commitment to human liberty, while at the same time asserting their parity with the aristocratic classes of Europe.

Since the Revolution, Manhattan’s elite had been torn between a lifestyle that befit their sober republican principles and one that displayed their increasing wealth and confidence. In the affluent fifties they had tilted toward public preening; now, in the gilded sixties and seventies, they lurched toward outright ostentation. The adoption of ducal levels of display was driven by tremendous self-assurance—engendered by their victory in war, mastery of the peacetime economy, and unprecedented accumulation of wealth. (After 1873, moreover, their riches would no longer be subject to federal exactions, thanks to successful lobbying and legal challenges by the Anti-Income Tax Association of New York, led by Astor, Belmont, Morgan, and others among the grand duke’s welcoming party.)

The New York haute bourgeoisie’s postwar passion for gilded display also reflected recent shifts in power, wealth, and cultural authority within its ranks. The frenzied industrialization and financial speculation unleashed by combat and reconstruction had weakened those in the elite whose prewar preeminence had come from trade. Sea-based merchants remained numerically superior among their peers—in 1870 38 percent of those whose combined personal and real property was assessed at more than fifteen thousand dollars dealt in commerce or retail trade—but land-and-rail-based industrialists (16 percent) and financiers (6 percent) were often richer, stronger, and more central to the city’s changing economy.

These factions mixed and mingled in their social and business dealings, to be sure, and in some respects an ever more homogenized bourgeois culture was emerging. But important stylistic distinctions remained—with old-monied merchants tending toward the understated, and new monied industrialists and financiers favoring the flamboyant. Given the latter groups’ new resources and the intensely competitive nature of Manhattan’s elite socializing, customary constraints fell rapidly away. Upper-class rituals came to resemble those of European—and especially French—aristocrats, far more than they did those of antebellum American republicans. Nowhere was the penchant for princely display more evident than among those metropolitan millionaires who pursued their city’s long-standing love affair with fine horses with heightened fervor, even as they presided over an industrialization of transportation that would terminate the equestrian age.


After a hard morning fighting Gould, Fisk, and Drew in the Erie War, Cornelius Vanderbilt would harness up his team, drive north of Central Park to Harlem Lane (later St. Nicholas Avenue), and spend the afternoon happily racing heats against other whooping and screaming brokers and lawyers—to the cheers of sightseers on porches of inns along the route. Vanderbilt might well find Robert Bonner of the Ledger awaiting him with his new champion trotter, Dexter (for whom he had paid an incredible thirty-three thousand dollars). Certainly his partner Leonard Jerome would be there, a horse fancier of such intensity that he housed his team in a black walnut-paneled stable complete with wall-to-wall carpeting—lodgings that rivaled Napoleon Ill’s Mews in Paris, where Jerome had attended races with French dandies. August Belmont, when not selling railroad or municipal bonds, would be behind his sulky, urging on his prize horses. The actor Lester Wallack and even the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher were known for their fast teams. Indeed so famous an institution was Harlem Lane that when General Grant first visited New York after the war he immediately asked to be taken uptown to see the spectacle.


Fast Trotters on Harlem Lane N.Y., by Currier & Ives, 1870. (© Museum of the City of New York)

A more sedate type of horse-mania was the carriage promenade through Central Park. In the late afternoon the aristocracy climbed aboard their coaches and entered the park at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street; by four P.M. the miles of drives were alive with carriages, so many that “a stranger would think that the whole of New York was out on a grand trotting spree to see which had the fastest pair of horses or the gayest and most costly equipage.”

This mode of elite socializing—an elaboration of the Broadway promenade of the 1850s—embraced both sexes. While plenty of men were delighted to demonstrate that they could afford to curtail their working day, women were more available for these fashionable parades, especially as Central Park was a thoroughly controlled environment, insulated from the indignities of urban street life. By the 1870s even young unmarried women could drive through the park—with a friend, with a suitor, even alone, albeit not without raising an eyebrow or two. As May King Van Rensselaer later recalled, “When I drove the first pony phaeton ever seen on Fifth Avenue, members of the Union Club, as I passed, shook their heads and feared the young Miss King was rather ‘fast.’”

Vehicles varied by class clique. The old patriciate of Jays, Livingstons, and Stuyvesants favored stately black broughams, or perhaps a landau, hauled by huge fat horses. The smart set, who relied more on wealth than pedigree to establish their position, adopted the barouches favored by the Empress Eugénie. The avant-garde, taking their cues from Leonard Jerome and August Belmont, piloted coaches with two pairs of fine horses, a feat requiring some skill at four-in-hand driving. Not to be outdone by anyone, Jim Fisk, the King of Flash, would roll out from his stables just behind the Erie’s Opera House headquarters, driving six-in-hand—three pairs of white and black horses—with a coach adorned in front by two black postilions in white livery, and in the rear by two white footmen in black livery.

Jerome and others also organized the more formal Coaching Club, which sponsored semiannual parades organized according to strict protocols. Drivers dressed in bottle-green cutaways with brass buttons and tall white hats and were accompanied by ladies under frilly parasols. When all was ready members would roll four-in-hand up Fifth Avenue, past crowds of gawking onlookers, many clutching The Tally-ho, a pamphlet that identified the heraldic colors of each participant. Gossip columnists reported on the doings for those who couldn’t afford the trip uptown.

The pleasures of coaching, with its opportunities for social primping, and of trotting, with its hard-driving manly competitions, merged neatly in thoroughbred racing. Before the war, as sectional relations curdled, southern horse breeders had refused to send their steeds to northern competitions, and the sport had declined. Now southerners were back at Saratoga, and New York turfmen returned to building up racing stables.

What they lacked, however, was a proper setting, Long Island’s Union Course and Fashion Park having been taken over by the hoi polloi. Leonard Jerome, a familiar of Parisian courses, set out to fill the need. In 1865 he and wealthy horse fanciers August Belmont and William Travers formed the American Jockey Club (AJC). Jerome then purchased a 230-acre Bathgate estate in Fordham and laid out a track, an eightthousand-seat grandstand, and a clubhouse patterned after elaborate European models. With his brother, Lawrence, Jerome had a wide avenue cut from Macomb’s Dam to the track (today at the bottom of Jerome Park Reservoir). Local authorities named it Murphy Avenue, after a local alderman, but Lawrence’s infuriated wife ordered bronze plates bearing the words JEROME AVENUE and had them riveted in place—a fait accompli in which the authorities acquiesced.

Jerome Park opened on September 25, 1866. Everyone was there: old money and new, swells and politicos, Vanderbilt and Fisk, Tweed and Morrissey, sportsmen from around the country, all in white hats and gloves. Grant was guest of honor. Ladies attended too—“ladies of fashion, ladies domestic, ladies professionally literary, ladies of birth and culture” (in the words of a Harper’s reporter). They felt protected in Jerome’s elegant clubhouse, despite the presence of people who arrived via the Harlem Rail Road, and their participation rendered racing both fashionable and respectable.

Too fashionable, some thought. Complaints emerged about the AJC’s “aristocratic” policies. Opponents sniped at its governing clique of fifty life members, calling it the “House of Lords,” and objected to having the main section of the grandstand restricted to members only. The AJC dealt with such adverse press by inducting publishers (Henry Raymond, Man ton Marble, and James Gordon Bennett Jr.) into the ruling group and permitting nonmembers to enter the club section if introduced by a member. But mainly they hung tough: “Racing is for the rich,” Belmont said bluntly.

Racing was also faster than ever. The AJC abandoned four-mile heats in favor of the British system of “dashing” over short distances, an “urban” approach that emphasized speed. In 1867 the Belmont Stakes was inaugurated, named for the AJC’s first president, and the size of prize monies mounted steadily. Soon New York’s purses, largest in the nation, were drawing entrants from around the country, and the metropolis had reemerged as the capital of American thoroughbred racing.

Nonequestrian clubs blossomed too, as bourgeois men refurbished old sanctuaries and created new ones—venues one observer classified as “anti-matrimonial and antidomestic” havens. Merchants and lawyers of impeccable pedigree indulged in the sedentary pleasures of conversation and dining at the Union Club, now resituated at Fifth Avenue and 21st Street. Its ten-year waiting list so grated on blueblood potential applicants that Alexander Hamilton, John J. Astor, and Philip Schuyler formed the Knickerbocker Club in 1871, and gentlemen of the Democratic persuasion turned to August Belmont’s Manhattan Club (1865) in the old Benkard residence on Fifth Avenue.

Many of the newly monied flocked to the New York Yacht Club—though the group drew the line at accepting Jay Gould—and their ever bigger boats, including schooners of over two hundred tons, encouraged millionaire members Jerome, Bennett, and Pierre Lorillard to launch racing on a transatlantic scale. Other vigorous Knickerbockers (including some young Roosevelts and DePeysters) were inspired by the London Athletic Club to open a New York version in 1868, and soon the New York Athletic Club was sponsoring track and field meets. Sporting men also turned to the New York Racquet Club or got caught up in the velocipede (early bicycle) craze of 1868 and formed associations dedicated to its development.

When such wholesome diversions palled, gentlemen could gamble at any of a dozen new luxury casinos, equal to Europe’s finest. Here one could dine in splendor—the sumptuous meals and choice wines were free—and then repair to the glass-domed, velvet-carpeted, rosewood-furnished gaming rooms for high-stakes faro and roulette (Belmont reputedly lost sixty thousand dollars in one night). Old-fashioned Knickerbockers considered even the grandest of these establishments, John Morrissey’s on 24th Street near the Fifth Avenue Hotel, to be somewhat indecent. They had not forgotten Morrissey’s brawler origins or Tammany ties. But the frisson of such connections appealed to sporting men like Vanderbilt, Jerome, and Belmont, who had no hesitations about racing Morrissey’s team up at Harlem Lane or playing at his tables.

New York clubmen seeking new ways to shatter old constraints on conspicuous consumption adopted recreational hunting, that favorite pastime of European aristocrats. The ever energetic Bennett Junior, assisted by his good friend General Phil Sheridan, organized one such expedition in 1871. The party whose sleeping car chugged out of the newly completed Grand Central Depot in mid-September included such members of the “fastest society set” as Leonard Jerome, John G. Hecksher, Carrol Livingston, and J. Schuyler Crosby. Awaiting them at Fort McPherson, Nebraska, was a supply train of sixteen wagons to carry tents and provisions (including ice for the wine), three hundred Fifth Cavalry troopers to ward off Indians, and a guide, gorgeously resplendent in a white buckskin suit and crimson shirt, by the name of William Frederick Cody—better known, since the 1869 New York publication of Ned Buntline’s dime novel about him, as Buffalo Bill. The “dudes” proceeded to “rough it” in style, shooting up behemoths, dining under prairie sunsets on filet of buffalo aux champignons, and leaving behind campsites littered with Mumm’s champagne bottles. Buffalo Bill made such a hit with the New Yorkers that they invited him to the metropolis, where for six weeks he was trotted around town from party to party. Hostesses lionized him, papers reported his every word, and Cody became the smash hit of the social season, the quintessence of western equestrian chic.


The unbuttoned, not to say raucous, sexual hedonism of upper-class males—in marked contrast to the growing prudishness of the merely well-to-do—was yet another way that the haute bourgeoisie pleasurably demarcated itself in the Gilded Age. New peaks of public promiscuity were attained at masked balls (also known as French balls), which began just after the war when the Cercle Français de l’Harmonie started hosting wild parties at the Academy of Music, New York’s sanctum sanctorum of high culture. Nouveau riche Wall Street brokers in fancy dress rubbed elbows and much else with the city’s assembled demimondaines, attired in costumes that exposed much, if not all, of their persons. As the champagne flowed, modesty was abandoned and the parties escalated to Mardi Gras levels. In the words of an amazed World reporter attending one such event, women were caught up and tossed in the air, then fallen on by a “crew of half-drunken ruffians, and mauled, and pulled, and exhibited in the worst possible aspects, amid the jeers and laughter of the other drunken wretches upon the floor.” There was, he recounted, “not a whisper of shame in the crowd,” nor did such press strictures halt the carryings-on. Indeed they expanded, as clubmen and courtesans flocked to the frolics—in 1876 over four thousand attended one event—and they would grow even larger in succeeding decades.

Public theaters too became sites of sexual display, the likes of which had not been seen since “living tableaux” had been suppressed before the war. In 1866 Niblo’s Garden booked The Black Crook, a balletic musical spectacle. The unprecedented display of female flesh by lightly clad “coryphees” packed the house, night after night, until nearly five hundred performances had shattered all box office records in New York City—and the sale of men’s opera glasses had reached an all-time high.

Two years later the Lydia Thompson Burlesque Company arrived at Wood’s Museum (Broadway and 30th Street), four British blondes who sang, danced, winked, leered, and satirized conventional manners with raucous impertinence. These prototypical “showgirls”—voluptuous departures from the ethereal feminine ideal—were soon followed by dancers of the opera bouffe companies, fresh from the boulevards of Paris. Offenbachian events climbed steadily in popularity, capped, during the 1874 winter season, by the triumphant arrival of the cancan. Crowds came to see dancers expose their colorful garters and ruffled drawers.

With the showgirl came the man-about-town, as wealthy, famous, and often married men vied with one another for the attentions of dancers or singers. The richest—the Belmonts and Jeromes—openly “sponsored” singers, showering them with flowers and jewelry, investing their money for them, and driving them around town, while their wives looked the other way or, as in Jerome’s case, were packed off to Paris. Jim Fisk, whose wife languished in Boston, did things in his usual spectacular way. Apart from his many liaisons, culminating in a soon-to-be-fatal affair with Josie Mansfield, Fisk set up entire companies in his Grand Opera House, becoming the city’s first “angel.” Soon the playboy-showgirl nexus was as prevalent in Manhattan as it was in Paris.


“Paris in New York,” from Van Every, Sins of New York. “The shameless antics and contortions indulged in by the lively damsels of la Belle France, at the Cercle de l’Orpheon masquerade ball at the Academy of Music—free champagne and Offenbachian music puts life and mettle in feminine heels.” (General Research. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Churchmen fulminated against “French indecencies” and attempted to suppress the “leg shows,” but they flourished, ironically, in response to the successful prewar crackdown on immorality in conventional theaters, with “disreputable” women expelled from audiences now popping up onstage.1 An equally unintended consequence of suppressing “third tier” prostitution was the birth of the concert saloon, forerunner of the New York nightclub. These boozy and licentious variety halls thrived on the patronage of civil War soldiers on furlough, prompting moralists to persuade the city to require in 1862 that all theatrical and musical performing spaces be licensed and that the sale of liquor and employment of “waitresses” be banned wherever a curtain separated performers from customers. Entrepreneurs of leisure promptly dove through this loophole by inaugurating nightspots that featured a raised platform in the rear, a piano, and an open dance floor surrounded by tables and chairs. In larger establishments, balconies overlooked the floor and “stage” and were ringed with private rooms.

By 1872 there were roughly eighty of these concert saloons in New York City, many of them with names—Cremorne, Strand, and Buckingham Palace—that evoked the London scene. They featured traditional entertainment turns drawn from French vaudeville, Italian opera, and German beer gardens—and a novel form of audience participation, encouraged by the legally mandated absence of curtains. Patrons sang along with the chorus, singers sat at tables between acts or danced with customers, and “waiter-girls” with low bodices, short skirts, and high tasseled red boots took orders for drinks at the tables. They often sold sex as well, and waiter-girls, many of whom had been camp followers during the war, might accompany a guest to one of the upstairs rooms or arrange an assignation in a nearby brothel.

Concert saloons appealed to males of all classes but tended to be segregated by social rank. Some fast young gentlemen liked to go slumming, dropping in at workingclass haunts like Billy McGlory’s Armory Hall on Hester Street, a thrilling but potentially dangerous experience. At McGlory’s, parties of uptown visitors could sit in a special balcony above the dance floor and gaze in fascination at brawls between gangsters and thugs, but they might also be robbed on leaving.

Most gentlemen, therefore, stuck to concert saloons like the Gaiety, on Broadway near Houston, which advertised its audience as “respectable, though by no means stilted in manners,” or the Louvre, on Broadway and 23rd, a marble-columned establishment with an ornate mirrored bar, where rich men could more safely meet beautiful demimondaines or waiter-girls. But the most popular spot—famous throughout the country—was Harry Hill’s, on Houston just east of Broadway.

Hill, born in Epsom, England, had been working there as a jockey and horse trainer when in 1850 a visiting American turfman invited him to manage a model horse farm in Astoria. Hill did so for two years, then moved to Manhattan and opened his own sporting house. After the war Hill’s place drew “judges, lawyers, merchants, members of Congress and the State Legislature, doctors and other professional men” who liked to mingle with pugilists, politicians, and the racetrack crowd and to dance and drink with fast women (not all of them professionals). Harry’s prominent patrons were reassured by the proprietor’s tight surveillance—a prominent sign warned that “no one violating decency, will be permitted to remain in the room”—and his provision of a private room in which to sober up, lest they be waylaid by thugs outdoors.


It was getting ever harder to “violate decency,” however, as the continuing relaxation of standards helped expand the commercial sex industry rapidly. After the Civil War, brothels traipsed north along with the department stores and theaters, pursuing their upwardly mobile clientele and fleeing a SoHo now overrun with factories and warehouses. Scores of whorehouses remained behind on Crosby, Howard, and Grand to service the arriving working class, but others overleaped the Rialto to the area above Madison Square, where a raft of new hotel construction was in progress. By the early 1870s the Fifth Avenue Hotel, which had once been a venturesome frontier outpost, found competitors springing up north of it along Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Visiting congressmen, military officers, coal mine operators, and railroad magnates could take their pick among the Hoffman House on 24th Street, the Brunswick (favorite of the horsey set) on 26th, the Victoria at 27th, the Gilsey House at 29th, the Grand at 31st, and—just opposite Vanderbilt’s Grand Central Depot on 42nd Street—the Grand Union Hotel.

Anywhere that hotels went, the whores were sure to follow. On West 25th Street, the so-called Seven Sisters opened seven adjacent brothels in a residential brownstone neighborhood. The Sisters sent engraved invitations to sojourners whose arrival was announced in the press. Guests, often attired in formal evening clothes, were received by girls as well versed in society etiquette as in the tricks of their trade; some were accomplished pianists or singers. Josie Woods, proprietor of an exquisite brothel, donned elegant dresses, wore magnificent diamonds, went to Saratoga in the summers, rode in the Central Park carriage promenades, and kept open house on New Year’s Day to receive her aristocratic neighbors (and clients).

The police accommodated the spread of prostitution, for a price. By 1876 the system of payoffs was so notorious that when police captain Alexander S. “Clubber” Williams was transferred to the 29th Precinct, he almost drooled with delight: “I’ve been having chuck steak ever since I’ve been on the force,” said Clubber, “and now I’m going to have a bit of tenderloin.” His bon mot, then most applicable to the mid-20s between Sixth and Seventh, would come to characterize the entire area between Fifth and Eighth avenues from 23rd to 57th streets—known for the next two generations as the Tenderloin or, alternatively, as Satan’s Circus.


The new fascination with aristocratic French taste, architecture, and costume also pervaded the sumptuous residences and lavish private entertainments of Manhattan’s haute bourgeoisie, whose precincts were once again in motion. The commercial invasion of Union Square, and the transformation of elegant row houses on Fifth Avenue’s side streets into boardinghouses for the merely middle class, squeezed the rich northward. Soon even Madison Square began to give way on its western edge to shops, clubhouses, and boardinghouses willing to pay tremendous rents, though the square’s eastern side remained lined with fancy residences. Murray Hill remained a secure haven for the moment, and the fashionable quarter between 23rd and 34th quickly filled with well-appointed town houses. Increasingly, however, the rich migrated to the area between Sixth and Third, from the 30s through the 50s, particularly along the vertical axes of Madison, Park, and above all Fifth Avenue.

The latest luxury area’s upper boundary was staked out in 1869 by an unlikely pioneer, Mrs. Mary Mason Jones. This seventy-year-old dowager of impeccable pedigree—Edith Wharton, her niece, would use her as the model for Mrs. Manson Mingot in The House of Mirth—abandoned her venerable Waverly Place establishment and moved to the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. The locale, despite its proximity to the new Central Park, was still undeveloped and filled with shantytowns, slaughterhouses, charitable institutions, the unfinished Catholic cathedral, and, at Fifth and 52nd, the home of abortionist Mme. Restell, now known as the “wickedest woman in New York.” Nevertheless, Mrs. Jones’s mansion, and the new Grand Army Plaza the Tweed regime thoughtfully provided in 1870, were soon surrounded by fine homes of fashionable Fifth Avenoodles (as the irreverent called them).

Fine homes, as before the war, meant three-or four-story Italianate structures (at $75,000 to $150,000 each), only now they had to be topped with a mansard (or “French”) roof. As one commentator noted in 1868, “no man who wants a fashionable house, will be without it,” and some now hopelessly passé Federal, Greek, and Gothic houses were accordingly recapped.

A few pathbreakers built urban chateaux. Leonard Jerome’s flamboyant six-story mansion at 32 East 26th Street included a six-hundred-seat theater (for performances by his protégées), a breakfast room seating seventy, and a white and gold ballroom with fountains that spouted champagne and eau de cologne. A. T. Stewart’s white marble Parisian hôtel, when finished in 1869, was the largest dwelling in New York City and featured a seventy-five-foot-long art gallery for his superb collection. Most wealthy Manhattanites still preferred comfortingly monolithic streetscapes to individualistic architectural statements, though their plain brownstone fronts masked increasingly extravagant interiors. Gilt-covered walls, marble, mirrors, frescoes, bric-a-brac, cabinets of porcelain curiosities, and ponderous furniture upholstered with opulent fabrics became standard issue along the avenue.

The social events held in these mansions grew ever more elaborate and competitive. The season just after the war featured six hundred balls, for which seven million dollars was laid out for dresses and jewelry. The ultimate arbiters of fashion were still European monarchs, though less Victoria now (since her beloved Albert died in 1861, she had taken to mourning clothes) than the Empress Eugénie. Her every move was monitored and interpreted by Mme. Demorest, the reigning monarch of New York fashion, in her Demorest’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine and Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions (as well as in, after 1867, the new Harper’s Bazaar). Madame’s correspondents reported instantly on every new Worth gown the empress wore to a Tuileries ball, and in New York the imperial styles were reproduced, exhibited in semiannual shows, and sold as finished garments or as patterns for seamstresses to follow. (Mme. Demorest’s 14th Street workshops generated tons of these multicolored tissue-paper patterns and distributed them throughout the country via three hundred agents and by catalog mailings). The more daring fashions of the Parisian demimondaines received similar treatment, though modulated appropriately for American women (in Mme. Demorest’s words, stripped of “coarseness or exaggerations” so as not “to vitiate and deprave the public taste”). In fashion, as in finance, New York remained Europe’s gateway to the American continent.

Fashion dictated the demise of the crinoline and the birth of the bustle. Dresses (both day and evening) gradually flattened in front while gathering at the back, assisted by the bustle, a half-cage or puff filled with horsehair or stiffened gauze and net. (This was not a new invention, having been favored in the eighteenth century, when it was known more forthrightly as a “false bum.”) Dresses cascaded down over this precipice to flow out (by the mid-1870s) into a trailing train. This appendage proved something of a safety hazard as, in an age of open fireplaces, it tended to catch fire while the wearer was dancing. Ladies’ advice books urged fireproofing trams with a mixture of whitening and starch.

While it was acceptable to flaunt wealth by having diamonds sown into one’s dress, moralists did raise alarms at the way 1870s fashions—and their underlying corsets, bustles, and breast-heavers—created a voluptuous display of propped-up bosoms. In 1868 Harriet Beecher Stowe launched a violent attack on “outré unnatural fashion,” claiming that despite all Demorest’s modifications, trends were being set by “the most dissipated foreign circles”—those immoral Parisian demimondaines who “live[d] only for the senses,” lacked “family ties,” and adorned themselves “to attract men and hide the ravages of dissipation.” Such admonitions got nowhere. Indeed, very rich women began buying some of the forty gowns they would need each Season directly from Worth in Paris, at twenty-five hundred dollars a dress.

Dresses like these were too good to waste on small private parties, and social events increasingly switched to more public spaces. In the early 1870s Archibald Grade King gave a debutante ball for his daughter at Delmonico’s; Belmont threw one there in 1875 for his daughter that was reportedly “more splendid than the famous one given the previous year in London by the Prince of Wales.” The only thing better than outdoing European aristocrats was marrying them. The first “dollar princesses” appeared as cash-poor Eurocrats lined up to wed Manhattan’s daughters: among the first was Leonard Jerome’s Jennie, who, after lengthy negotiations over her dowry, was married off to Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874.

Substantial wardrobes were de rigueur as well for appearances at theater and concert hall. Wealthy New Yorkers mingled with other classes in the Union Square Rialto. They would take in an opera there at the Academy of Music, which in addition to offering luscious music—the hall hosted the American premieres of Aida (1873), Lohengrin (1874), Die Walküre (1877), and Carmen (1878)—provided a place for debutante daughters to meet eligible gentlemen during the intervals. Boxes at the Academy were as eagerly sought after as seats on the Stock Exchange.

Stalls at Wallack’s, the nation’s leading playhouse, were in equal demand, and first nights in particular brought out the aristocracy of wealth in full plumage. Concerts similarly drew the wealthy to Union Square. At Irving Hall, designed (in 1860) for “miscellaneous entertainments of a high character,” one could hear both the Philharmonic Society—the old German co-op—and Theodore Thomas’s new orchestra. Thomas had been brought to America in 1845, at the age of ten, by his German parents. During the Civil War the young man, with the aid of wealthy backers, founded and trained his own orchestra, paying the musicians a regular salary rather than sharing box office takings as the Philharmonic’s members did. This stable income allowed Thomas’s artists to rehearse and play together on a full-time basis, and the well-drilled performers soon surpassed their part-time competitors. The new group also felt freer to go beyond the Philharmonic’s more old-fashioned (but crowd-pleasing) repertoire: it was the Thomas Orchestra that introduced Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to America in 1867.

Both orchestras soon deserted Irving Hall in favor of the new Steinway Hall (1866), an exceptionally comfortable three-thousand-seat theater the piano manufacturer opened at the rear of his showroom on 14th Street. It also became the favorite stage for touring opera singers (Christine Nilsson made her American concert debut there in 1870), instrumentalists (such as Anton Rubinstein, the legendary Russian pianist), and lecturers (Dickens, on his 1867 visit, read selections from Christmas Sketches, Pickwick Papers, and Nicholas Nickkby).


The trouble with the torrent of competitive postwar socializing was that it dissolved society into a welter of competing epicenters, none of which seemed to hold. Its innermost precincts—swollen but manageable in the 1850s—were now (as May King Van Rensselaer recalled) “assailed from every side by persons who sought to climb boldly over the walls of social exclusiveness.” Arriviste hostesses, backed by their husbands’ cash, threw ever more lavish and unorthodox affairs. Mrs. Paran Stevens (her husband a real estate tycoon) held parties on Sunday nights! Scandalized matrons ostracized her, but gentlemen flocked to her parlor. Mrs. William Colford Schermerhorn, a still more disturbing renegade, drew guests to her Madison Square drawing room with musicales.

Men were equally combative. Jerome, Belmont, and wealthy clubman William R. Travers each engaged Lorenzo Delmonico to offer the most perfect dinner, at any cost. His Silver, Gold, and Diamond affairs were so equally magnificent that Jerome, to win the race, gave each lady in attendance a gold bracelet. Still worse was the way a social unknown like millionaire importer Edward Luckemeyer could barge his way into society with a coup de table. Luckemeyer simply gave Charles Delmonico free rein (and ten thousand dollars), and voilá. Seventy-two distinguished guests turned out to boggle at the gigantic oval dining table, of virtually ballroom size, landscaped with flowers, with a thirty-foot lake at its center, upon which paddled four swans from the new Prospect Park.

In the 1870s only one family had the financial and social resources to bring some order to this chaos: the Astors. John Jacob had passed on his land and liquid assets to William Backhouse Astor, who during his lifetime had doubled his inheritance by assiduous extraction of rents from his acres and tenements. When he died in the mid-1870s, he in turn bequeathed roughly forty million dollars to his two heirs, John Jacob III and William. John Jacob (elder of the two) received two-thirds of the estate, but neither he nor his wife was willing to take on the role of social dictator. Nor was William—a playboy who spent his days at the track, or pursuing women, or yachting in distant waters. It was his frustrated and furious wife, Caroline, possessed of wealth and status too (she was a Schermerhorn), who set out to impose her authority on New York society.

As her chamberlain she chose Ward McCallister, a man who became known as the “Autocrat of Drawing Rooms” but was really more a steward of the elite, on the order of Isaac Brown. McCallister’s own pedigree was most unaristocratic; the son of a Savannah attorney, he had moved to New York in the 1840s and worked as a bookkeeper. Society-struck, and desperate to break into the inner circles, McCallister found he lacked the economic wherewithal or social cachet to sustain a position among the smart set. Resolved to correct both deficiencies, he went to California, made a modest fortune, and married an heiress. Then he traveled extensively in Europe, memorizing the manners of the great courts and studying heraldry, genealogy, and cookery.

After the war, McCallister came to Caroline’s attention through his elaborate Newport parties and his revival, in the winter of 1866-67, of cotillion suppers—an old New York tradition dating back to the colonial-era Dancing Assembly. The metropolitan patriciate was delighted at the idea of a secure space in which its daughters could meet eligible men. In the winter of 1872-73, McCallister, with Caroline Astor as special adviser, executed his masterstroke, the creation of the Patriarchs. He selected a group of twenty-five men, headed by the Astor brothers, that included both Old Knickerbockers and newly monied—a group that collectively commanded unrivaled respect. Each Patriarch was invested with the right and responsibility of inviting four ladies and five gentlemen to periodic Patriarch’s Balls. Fastidious exclusion soon made these affairs the city’s cultural pinnacle, the goal of every social climber. They were also—along with balls given by the Assembly, the old guard, and the Cercle de l’Harmonie—attended by representatives of the press. Reporters wrote up the parties for the society pages, and artists sketched the scenes for Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s, or Ballous’s Pictorial, making it a matter of public record as to who was in, and who was out. The city’s facilities for creating celebrities were now applied to the social elite.

Grand public spectacles were complemented by more private weekly dinner parties at Mrs. Astor’s Fifth Avenue and 34th Street mansion. These elaborate rituals further helped to discipline the chaos of social life, especially as practiced by playboys like her husband. They began and ended at precise times. Exact gastronomic rules were enforced. Topics tolerated in other mansions were banished; food, wine, horses, yachts, cotillions, and marriages were the only acceptable subjects.


Though art was not on Mrs. Astor’s list of approved topics, for many in the elite world the amassing of great collections had long been an important tactic in the struggle for social preeminence. But the galleries established before the war by mercantile men had been chiefly for private consumption. Now industrial and financial elites decided to marry their pursuit of personal collections with a new emphasis on creating museums in which to display their treasures publicly. By providing the city with cultural institutions more lavish than any the old elites had created—merging connoisseurship with civic stewardship—they would exalt their own status while enhancing the city’s reputation.

The Hudson River painters remained popular in the city—Asher Durand still sold well—but chroniclers of the Catskills were now surpassed by those who captured the glories of the great West. In 1859 Albert Bierstadt had explored the Rockies. After his return he moved to New York City and took a room in the Richard Morris Huntdesigned Tenth Street Studio Building—the first structure in the United States or Europe designed as a place for artists to live, work, and exhibit. Bierstadt’s heroic canvasses, like A Storm in the Rocky Mountains (1866), generated a host of private commissions (at from five to thirty-five thousand dollars each) from fashionable men of means.

Bierstadt’s work could be seen at the National Academy of Design, now in a new and highly praised Venetian Gothic building at Fourth Avenue and 23rd Street, but that building, indeed all current artistic showplaces, seemed insufficient to wealthy New Yorkers determined to match the best that Europe could offer. John Jay, descendant of the governor and chief justice, convinced the Union League Club that the city needed a permanent public art gallery. The club’s Art Committee, headed by George Palmer Putnam, included Samuel P. Avery, the respected art dealer then helping William Vanderbilt and other millionaires form their private collections. The committee convoked a public meeting in late 1869, out of which in January 1870 came the Metropolitan Museum of Art—a title no other city would have assumed. Its trustees and officers commingled prominent businessmen and lawyers with leading artists like poet-editor Bryant, architect Hunt, and landscaper Olmsted.

The Metropolitan’s new president, John Taylor Johnston, set out to obtain for the institution a “more or less complete collection of objects illustrative of the History of Art from the earliest beginnings to the present time.” He made some early headway by buying up the private collections of Europeans made desperate for funds by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (rather as Tiffany had done with jewels). He exhibited these prizes in rented quarters on the Rialto—the former Douglas Cruger mansion at 128 West 14th Street—preserving its elite status by remaining closed on evenings and Sundays, the only times most working people could attend.

The influential trustees next set their sights on a permanent home. As so often, they found in Tweed a helpful associate. Tweed prevailed on the state legislature to assign the museum a portion of Central Park, in the low 80s off Fifth Avenue—far from the downtown rabble and close to other new cultural institutions. Among these was the Lenox Library (1875), at Fifth Avenue and 71st Street, which Richard Morris Hunt had designed for the scholarly book collector and millionaire rentier James Lenox. Up till then Lenox had piled his volumes in a carelessly kept-up town house that appalled his wealthy neighbors. Now he made his eighty-five thousand books accessible (providing a half-million-dollar endowment to care for them), though only to scholars. Ground was broken in 1874 for the Metropolitan Museum—an institution built on municipal land, supported with public funds, but controlled by private trustees—and it would move into its new quarters in 1880.

Across Central Park, a group of prominent men set out to build an American Museum of Natural History, modeled on European institutions and inspired by the Museum of Comparative Zoology that Louis Agassiz had created at Harvard in 1860. Albert Bickmore, an Agassiz student, proposed to wealthy amateur members of the Lyceum of Natural Sciences that they purchase two large private natural history collections then up for sale and use them as the core of a new establishment. Theodore Roosevelt Sr., a leading glass importer and amateur naturalist, agreed to help; he got J. P. Morgan and corporate attorney Joseph Choate involved, and the enterprise was launched.

The founders were prominent men—A. T. Stewart, James Brown, and William Dodge, in addition to Roosevelt, Morgan, and Choate—though not yet of the highest rank in New York society, not quite on a par with Rhinelanders, Livingstons, or Stuyvesants. Creating a natural history museum would strengthen their social position while underscoring their commitment to newly prized scientific values. It would also, as they stressed in their fund-raising appeals, rectify the disgraceful situation that “nearly all the capitals of Europe and more important cities in our own land” had natural history museums, “while New York, notwithstanding its metropolitan position, is still destitute of such an institution.” Again, public assistance proved crucial. Samuel Tilden was dispatched to broach the idea to Tweed, who quickly secured a charter in 1869. The operation established temporary quarters in the Central Park Arsenal and opened to the public in 1871.

The trustees encouraged other-than-wealthy visitors, but with little success, so they too pressed the city for land on which to build an attractive permanent home. After they presented Tweed with a petition signed by men who collectively owned over half the taxable real estate in New York City, the museum was given the use of Manhattan Square, a rocky patch on the wild West Side covered with rocks and stagnant pools. Convinced (correctly) that the municipality would pick up the bill, the trustees forged ahead, got Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould to design a huge structure, and pressed on with its construction. By 1874 the enterprise was far enough along for President Grant to come up from Washington and preside over laying the cornerstone. In haute culture, as well as in more frivolous enterprises, the haute bourgeoisie was making its mark on Manhattan.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!