Monday, October 13, 2008

A Season of Splendor [Review]

Title: A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York

Author: Greg King

Copyright: 2009, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken NJ. ISBN 9780470185698

Genre: History

Length: 508 pages including 50 pages of notes, bibliography and index. (PDF excerpts available on this page)

Summary: Between roughly 1870 and the outbreak of the first World War, the class structure of American society was dominated by Caroline Astor and her famous four hundred. Motivated by a certain idealism, author Greg King suggests that Caroline Astor thought to "endow American society with tradition and a sense of noblesse oblige...imposing on them a sense of responsibility to establish taste for the enrichment of the nation as a whole". In an attempt to position American wealth and breeding on a par with that found in major European capitals, Caroline Astor forged a new understanding of social rank which bridged old New York Knickerbocker society and that of the industrial nouveau riche. King embarks on a thoroughly footnoted tour of the various elements that were used to display that breeding -- clothing, architecture, jewelry, transportation, etc. He notes that the real excesses of the Gilded Age were spawned during the latter half of that time period, by those possessed of more wealth than intellect. The spectrum of excess and extravagance is breathtaking, even as one recognizes that, over time, the wealth of these families has been distributed throughout the country to modern museums and philanthropic organizations. King offers detail that both exemplifies and illuminates the Gilded Age. This book both educates and entertains, making it a worthwhile and fascinating read. The New York Social Diary found it to be equally worthwhile during a recent October weekend in New York.

Extract: A few of the older, socially secure, and traditionally minded hostesses still clung to the soirees common in the first years of the Gilded Age. Soirees were considered exceptionally difficult affairs to manage; they existed in a separate category and could not stray into hte territory reserved for a dinner or a ball, yet had to offer both entertainment and substantial refreshment. Held in the early evening, a soiree was generally artistic in nature, focusig on a literary reading, a chorale, or a small concert, often accompanied by a small buffet supper. Such an entertainment called for both foresight and diplomacy. In an era of increasingly opulent parties, a quiet circle listening to arias or somber chamber music offered little excitement, and there were few potential guest unlikely to be bored by such proceedings. Eventually, given the problems presented, most ladies abandoned the soiree entirely. (page 343)

Also relevant: Let's face it. The elegance of the gilded age is fascinating. I loved to watch the series, America's Castles, on A&E a few years ago as much because it gave me a glimpse into another way of life as because of the introduction to the architecture. While it isn't unheard of to encounter debutante balls in this day and age, such events have nowhere near the economic significance that they had for young women a hundred years ago. Back then, a young woman's introduction to society was the starting gate to a wealthy marriage and lifelong financial security, regardless of compatibility. The extract selected above gives a sense of how carefully social events were scheduled and orchestrated. One had to display a level of cultural taste and understanding while avoiding boring one's guests. Greg King does a spectacular job of conveying all of this to a modern reader.

So successful is he in covering this period that I find myself going on a reading binge of related titles. Wharton's The House of Mirth is on the top of one TBR pile and a coffee table book with photos of the famous 'four hundred' is en route from a used book store even as you read this. My lifestyle doesn't support any need for a parure of diamonds or other precious gems, but the documentation of a social environment that insisted upon such a set (tiara, matching necklace, earrings, and brooch) as a wedding or anniversary gift set me all agog with vicarious enjoyment. A Season of Splendor is a surprisingly engaging read.

Bonus link: I feel confident in saying that Caroline Astor is likely twirling in her grave at being included in this particular list of top twenty socialites of all time.