Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mrs. Astor and the FIRST FOUR HUNDRED

A long time ago, well maybe not that long ago, there was the age in which women were often overlooked and the idea of equality with men was thought of by men as absurd and out of the question. Most women even went along with this. 
Enter Caroline Astor who knew this was not entirely true. In the age only men voted and women therefore had no political power, but women like Caroline Astor found other channels to obtain political power. The story of how she became such a social giant would take forever to explain but two basic qualities really helped out: She had great wealth behind her (which never hurts) and also had a natural fortitude (probably was enhanced by her husband’s lack of interest in her and mostly in wealth and money.) 
A woman like Caroline Astor today would be a dominant figure in either government or business on one level or another. She knew how to create and use power. And I guess what better way than to be a snobby bitch?
SIDENOTE: When she was finally vanquished from her throne which she had retained for decades, it was by another woman, Alva Vanderbilt who snubber her by not inviting her to THE social event of the year and therefore dethroning the then queen who was forced to go against her own will just to save face. Alva Vanderbilt was equally as awesome. She was naturally fresh and feisty and had a husband even richer than Astor’s.

Most importantly, she later abandoned her role as social queen and went on to become a force in the Suffragette Movement. But that was long after she had broken Mrs. Astor's rule and established her own as a social matron in New York.
Alva Vanderbilt.Caroline Astor.
Back to the FOUR HUNDRED. 

The men in the Astor family made the money. The women, however, made the rules. That has applied down through two centuries. The money made the men powerful in their business and club worlds. By the third generation, the women made them wusses and showed them up. I mean just look at the beautiful play houses these women had to make use of:

The Astor double mansion at 65th and Fifth which occupied fully one quarter of the entire block between the avenues and 65th and 66th Street. The young Astors occupied the corner section and Mrs. Astor occupied the northern half. Sharing an entrance gallery and the grand ballroom, the two houses were otherwise entirely separate. It was demolished and replaced by Temple Emanu-El.
The Astor art gallery/ballroom in the new mansion on 65th Street and Fifth Avenue, a double mansion for Mrs. Astor and her son and his wife and family. Vincent Astor grew up in this house.

Mrs. Astor herself was the self crowned queen of New York (and Newport) Society, who set herself the task, to regulate society and keep the new rich of the Gilded Age out. The Four Hundred was a supposed list, devised by Mrs. Astor and her questionable friend Ward McAllister and basically was THE deciding factor of who is who in society and who would be acceptable to be invited WHERE. It was and old fashioned bitch book if you as me. 

This reminds me of a modern Regina George. "you can't sit with us!"

These people had to be carefully examined to see if they were eligible to socialize with the old money from NYC. The list was allegedly derived from the capacity of Mrs Astor’s ballroom, the “Four Hundred” represented the epitome of New York Society during the last quarter of the 19th century.

Ladies at Mrs. Astor's Society Tableaux

In addition to the thereby convened 250 people, an undefined number of visiting guests, prominent people from other cities, and debutantes would be invited directly by Mrs Astor. 
The woman in the front of this sketch is supposed to be Mrs. Astor

However, there was something very fishy about this supposed list that no one knew existed but supposedly did. Although, during the last few decades of the 19th century, “The Four Hundred” became synonymous with the cream of New York City society oddly enough the phrase was coined before the list actually existed…

Apparently Ward McAllister (who seems to get sketcher and sketchier) It’s said “the Four Hundred” term came about when he was asked by a reporter how many people would be at the next Patriarch’s (Mr.s Astor's) Ball. McAllister said, “I supposed about as many as the ballroom at Delmonico’s will hold.” The reporter asked for more details. McAllister looked to his wife, who said, “About 400”. The newspapers ran with the idea that there were only 400 in New York City society and coined the phrase “the Four Hundred.” But there was no list.  
Delmonico's Restaurant in the late 1800's
McAllister—always eager to be in the public eye—ran with the idea and started talking about “the Four Hundred” as if it was a real entity. Sometimes he’d say that was the number of people who would fit into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom, and added that 400 was the number of people comfortable there. Not physically. Socially, as in, “If you go outside that number, you strike those who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.” Otherwise, you're out. 
Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt in the 1900's
These kind of statements got everyone talking about who was in and who was out. The pressure to reveal the list was so strong, that in 1892, three years later, McAllister chose the date of Mrs. Astor’s annual ball to reveal the list—which only held 319 names, from only 169 families. The list contained a lot of inaccuracies. Names were misspelled, spouses were missing—or included even though they were dead (more on Caroline Astor next week.) And McAllister wasn’t consistent with his own requirement of “birth, background, and breeding.” Most of the old guard, the “Knickerbocker” families who had run New York from the seventeenth century, were on the list, but not all. There were some newly-rich, and some who just seemed to be there because they were McAllister’s favorites. Even families were divided: some family members on the list, and some not. The only common link was money. Old, new, inherited or earned, everyone on the list passed the test of being wealthy—and so were the prime candidates for the prime parties. The Four Hundred received the attention that we now give to music and movie stars. The press and the public loved hearing about their extravagances—and their troubles.

A copy of the list can be found here: THE FIRST FOUR HUNDRED

And yet, amid all their pretension, the members of The Four Hundred were often unsophisticated, obsessed with pretension and rules, not known for their brilliant table-talk, and could be quite prudish. One woman had a party in her new home and was proud of all the classical statues that graced its foyer. But the Four Hundred were appalled at their . . . nakedness. So next time, she covered the offensive parts with handkerchiefs. 
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