If one had stood at the corner of New York’s 34th Street and 5th Avenue at eight o’clock on a given night in the 1870s, one might have seen a string of stately carriages arrive at Number 350 on 34th. There the creme de la crème of New York Society would descend in a glitter of diamonds and swish of silk, poised, self-righteous, and urbane.
These were the elite, critically judged for birth, background, and breeding, wealth alone was certainly insufficient, who had won the honor of dining with Caroline Astor, the commanding leader and arbiter of high society. The guests were greeted by Mrs. Astor herself, regally stationed beneath an immense portrait of herself in a velvet gown trimmed with lace and diamonds.
In the oak-paneled dining hall, an army of servants circulated for three or four hours, serving a ten-course feast on gold plates, reputedly worth $400 apiece. The tables moaned beneath a profusion of roses and orchids spilling from their golden bowls.
Fine French chefs were imported to concoct the most lavish gastronomical delights, soup of the rare tortue, beef larded with truffles, a confection of sweetbreads, pâté de foie gras, the essential canvasback duck, sorbets, French cheese, bonbons, and gateaux.
This was the Gilded Age, the years of Patriarch Balls and dinner after the opera at Delmonico’s. Junior dancing classes afforded an opportunity for the proper young to meet and so perpetuate the purity of the aristocracy. Nothing in life could be more significant than high society, and those who were a part spent millions to stay there.
Caroline Astor (née Schermerhorn) was born into a wealthy mercantile family, which claimed descent from noble Dutch patroons. At 22 she married William Backhouse Astor, Jr., second grandson of the original John Jacob Astor, who arrived in this country a ragged German immigrant in 1784 and by 1841 was the richest man in America.
Although William was bright and well educated, primogeniture held sway in the Astor household, and he always took the back seat to his brother, John Jacob III. Caroline’s domineering character was a further cause of William’s dismay—she even made him drop his ignoble middle name—and, after fathering four daughters and a son, he took to the seas as a peripatetic millionaire playboy on his extravagant yacht, leaving Caroline free to carry on at home.
Carry on Mrs. Astor did, with the loftiest ambitions. Whether to ensure the most proper marriages for her children or for the sheer love of power, prestige, and the exercise of them, she deliberately set about becoming Queen of Society. No one ever knew what passed through Caroline Astor’s mind. She maintained a forceful yet inscrutable presence amid her exclusive entourage of bluebloods. But Caroline had some assistance in her ascendancy; her majotdomo and guide on everything from pave de boeuf to guest lists was a paunchy, pompous fellow with a scraggly Van Dyke beard. Ward McAllister, a southern lawyer, found far more interest in champagne and balls than in the law. He aspired to a place in New York Society and wanted nothing less than to commandeer it.
Beginning in the 1850s he gave the most magnificent gourmet dinners, which rapidly drew the attention of wealthy gentlemen. He organized balls and cotillions; he studied family trees, and pronounced New York Society a bit too amorphous.
By the late 1860s McAllister decided it was he who would trim and shape it. He approached the most snobbish and wealthiest men in New York and together they decided “to band together the respectable elements of the city (so that) the good and wise men could easily control Society.” McAllister composed a list of 25 so-called Patriarchs, gentlemen with a requisite four quality generations behind them. Their purpose was to give balls; each man took on the grave responsibility of inviting four suitable ladies and five suitable gentlemen. McAllister’s successes were many, but the pinnacle of bliss came when Caroline Astor, the Mrs. Astor, sought his guidance.
Together these two formulated fashions and carved in gold just who and what was accepted, for over 20 years. Despite Mrs. Astor’s stout physique, bulbous nose, and homely looks, McAllister called her Mystic Rose in the troubadour tradition of courtly love. And McAllister—dubbed Makea-Lister—was creator of the term “Four Hundred” and critical judge of who got on that list.
It began one day in the early 1890s, when McAllister casually remarked to the press that there were only about 400 people in fashionable New York Society. “If you go outside that number,” affirmed Ward, “you strike people who are either not at ease in the ballroom or else make other people ill at ease.” And when in 1892 Mrs. Astor gave a final ball in her mansion on 34th Street, McAllister asserted that the ballroom could accommodate no more than 400.
Given the enormous hoop skirts then in fashion, he was undoubtedly right. He and Mrs. Astor then undertook the delicate and dangerous task of trimming the list of possible guests. Their touch could make or ruin. McAllister did not let his list be known all at once; rather, he taunted the public by revealing pertinent information a little at a time and terrified society by classifying even the privileged Four Hundred. The Original Inner Circle, of which he was one, comprised 150; there followed 19 in the Contingent Inner Circle Margin, 26 Star Members Inner Circle Fringe, 49 called Plain Inner Circle Fringe, and 156 designated Fringe to Plain Inner Circle Fringe.
How were the selections made? First, Mrs. Astor had to know each member personally, and this excluded many who were quite eligible. McAllister perused his family trees, finding descendants of the old colonists as well as families who had achieved social prominence a bit more recently.
The entire charade was particularly controversial since Mrs. Astor’s own position derived from comparatively recent wealth. The list included such Old Guard names as Livingston, Cushing, Jay, Cruger, Chanler, and Fish, and some later additions, Vanderbilt and Mills. There were some novel and very puzzling inclusions on the guest list, too: the Mayor of New York City, an editor of the New York Sun, two architects, and a sculptor.
On the evening of Mrs. Astor’s gala event in 1892, the mansion was ablaze and the hostess as usual “borne down by a terrible weight of precious stones.” Mrs. Astor had a seemingly limitless collection of gems and her philosophy was to wear as many as possible at one time. With diamonds dripping down her back and glittering from pompadour to midriff, she sat on a large divan on a dais and surveyed the scene, calling a lucky few to chat with her.
This was her apotheosis, and Ward McAllister was made a celebrity as well. Melville Publishing Company decided to publish his list, McAllister’s Four Hundred: Officially Supervised, with a curious introduction by the social leader himself: “Our catalogue has been prepared with much care, the names having been well sifted and weighed, and only those admitted who are now prominently to the front, who have the means to maintain their position, either by gold, brains, or beauty, gold being always the most potent `open sesame,’ beauty the next in importance, while brains and ancestors count for very little.”
Whether he was being glib or had been converted to the ever more powerful influence of the dollar is uncertain. But he had made his mark and left the general public believing that the size of the Astor ballroom determined the composition of society.