Thursday, August 23, 2018

They were called “Society”

The Astor Cross in the Trinity Churchyard — In 1911, three years after the death of Mrs. Astor, her daughter Carrie (Mrs. Thornton) Wilson commissioned architect Thomas Nash to design a churchyard cross as a memorial to the queen of New York society and a monument for the Trinity Churchyard where it was dedicated to an adoring mother. 2:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, August 23, 2018. It was sunny and slightly humid yesterday noontime. By mid-afternoon it felt hotter on my way home, after lunch, There were also massive cloud formations that were moving in. Big, cumulus puffs of whites and greys. Commanding, majestic.

Their frequency this month has captured my attention. And imagination. By six in the afternoon, however, the Sun was beaming again.

Today we’re running a piece I wrote for Quest’s August 2018 issue which features the annual Quest 400 list. People love lists. They’re brainless and stimulating at the same time. The Quest 400 is an approximate, partial list of the many of the creatures representing a cross section who have prominence in the social world of the city. It is not scientific and it relies greatly on its past lists.

To give you an idea of how scientific it is, the original list — which I put together some twenty-odd years ago with Heather Cohane who founded the magazine — relied almost entirely on the photos she had taken over the previous year (which she stored in shoe boxes on shelves in her office – this was pre-digital), plus the obvious old line names along with the obvious famous-in-New Yorkers including celebrities who got around.

When the first one was published, John F. Kennedy Jr.’s name was at the top of the list. Readers interpreted that to mean we believed he was the Number One socialite in New York. Actually we hadn’t, although at that moment (mid-1990s) he was New York’s version of a world class movie star. And the guy really got around. You might see him anywhere and everywhere.

Caroline Astor dressed for a ball in 1875. She was 45, motherhood mainly behind her; she was establishing her presence in her city. Already she had begun to actualize her ambition as a woman. She would become a center of things, an influence, and a power source. Collection of the New York Public Library
Everybody loved him just from the photos the tabloids often published of him around town morning, noon or night. Everyone who knew him loved him too. He exhibited joie-de-vivre authentically, and he was the only son, and a handsome one, of his late lamented father. His memory retains that youthful charm forever.

The historically famous 400 list come from the social presence of Caroline Astor in the last quarter of the 19th century. Mrs. Astor’s list was “exclusive.” If you weren’t on it you were persona non grata to some people.

However, Mrs. Astor’s 400 list — which was really the work of a PR guy she acquired (before they were called PR guys) — basically reflected a bid for power that was acknowledged as hers and nobody else’s.

Social power was one of the few avenues available to a woman of her era. Mrs. Astor’s “ambition” (often derided as “social ambition”) was an example of a woman asserting her power and being recognized for possessing it. Today we call that Women’s Rights, and it has changed the way we see ourselves, to the benefit of everyone.
In 1960, Cleveland Amory published what became a best-selling book Who Killed Society? Amory was an expert on the subject.  Born in the second decade of the 20th century into a Boston Brahmin family, and a prolific writer, he wrote three entertaining and informative books on the mores and folkways of what was then considered “Society” (The Proper Bostonians and The Last Resorts).

They were called “Society” not so much by its members, but by journalists and the hoi polloi. Amory’s history was a compendium of who was who and how they got that way, going back to the late 18th and 19th centuries when Society in America was regarded as those “good families” of Boston and Philadelphia.

The existence of these families defined Power. They were closely associated with industry and with the banks which they owned, and lands which they possessed. New Yorkers, to them, were still the upstarts, despite New York’s mid-19th century Knickerbocker families, beginning with Peter Stuyvesant two hundred years before the English.

In the last quarter of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution had resulted in a lot of new wealth, New York grew into a mecca for banking and manufacturing. Power was in transition.

The Mrs. Astor, Lina to her friends, was descended from the early Dutch settlers who “bought” the island of Mannahatta from the natives for $24. When she married William Backhouse Astor Jr. whose family was already third generation real estate owners, thanks to his grandfather, JJ I, Lina was marrying serious money, and he was marrying a “good” name.

Lina had a naturally powerful personality. She was a strong and durable woman living in a world where women had limited opportunities for their natural ambition. Bearing a family was one. Marrying rich was another, if she could handle the price.

Lina and William B. Astor — she had him drop the middle name — had five children, four daughters, and a son John Jacob Astor IV, who is remembered historically for going down on the Titanic, and being the father of Vincent Astor whose last wife was Brooke Marshall.

William Astor was a second son in a world where primogeniture was practiced a la the British and the French. The eldest ran the family business and the younger had time to kill. William B. killed a lot of his time on his world-traveling yacht with friends and a coterie of lovely young women. If he weren’t on his boat, he was up at Ferncliff, the family 3000 acre estate Rhinebeck.

Mrs. Astor (c. 1890) would stand in front of this portrait of her when receiving guests for receptions. Inset: Lina was marrying serious money in William Backhouse Astor Jr. and he was marrying a “good” name.
There was nothing Lina could do about the situation. She hated the yacht (claiming seasickness) and hated Ferncliff. For all we know she hated her husband also, and vice versa. She spent part of her year in Paris, with summers in Newport, and the rest of the time in New York where she was the Queen of Society.

Her 400 list established that. The number was said to be the capacity of her ballroom; select. Time has revealed that to be was a made up number. (It was more like 369). 400 hundred had legs, as we have learned more than a century later. For Mrs. Astor it was one of the first Society marketing tools.

Lina Astor died in 1908 at age 78. During the last decade of her life, she slowly faded into deluding memory, relinquishing her position to younger women, (all upstarts in her mind). None, unlike Lina Astor, were native New Yorkers — Alva Vanderbilt, Mamie Fish, and Tessie Oelreichs.  They came on the social scene as the country and the city were moving into the Modern Age — the age of feminist revolution.

What is notable about that social triumvirate was their newer sense of freedom and power which they acted on openly. They built big houses for themselves — especially Vanderbilt and Oelrichs. Alva also became a very prominent supporter of the Women’s Suffrage movement  in America, marching in protest for the Right to Vote. It was the beginning of what was called Women’s Liberation movement in the 1960s. And it changed the world, along with women’s roles.

The industrial progress of the new (20th) century provided faster Transportation (automobiles, planes), Communication, Messaging (telegraph and telephones). The world was getting smaller and brighter. The next generation of Society, as well as the masses, enjoyed these conveniences all of which led to greater women’s independence. They were radical at their time — short skirts (after centuries of to-the-floor to almost overnight exposed leg above the knee.

Makeup, once considered only acceptable on “painted ladies” (hookers); cigarette smoking, jazz, the radio, sex, and the Roaring Twenties — all accompanied by Prohibition. It was the beginning of a major cultural transformation, and of Café Society.
It was followed by the Great Depression and the Second World War. By the end of the War, America had grown rich and brilliantly productive. Women had now worked in the factories (immortalized by “Rosie the Riveter”) while their men were overseas serving in the military. It marked the beginning of women assuming jobs once performed only by men.

Society now was defined in the public mind
by the Social Register — a directory started by a newspaper columnist who was probably inspired by Lina Astor’s 400 list and Debretts Peerage and Baronetcy.  It soon became the official arbiter of who was who in Society, with names of the rich, and well-connected families. The acronym WASP (for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) defined its basic limits flaunting bigotry as it were. Nevertheless, Society was the public face of the power structure.

Cleveland Amory once told me that when he was in prep school, his roommate who was from New York invited him to visit during school vacation. When his mother heard of it, she lamented her boy’s mixing with those “awful New Yorkers whose only interest” was “money.”

Amory went on to become a commentator of the social elite. By the time he wrote his book “Who Killed ...?” he’d concluded that what the first Mrs. Astor had wrought was now dead and gone. But not because of money: but because of publicity.

He cited three sisters who grew up in Boston, where their father was America’s premier brain surgeon, Dr. Harvey Cushing. The three young woman, all married twice, to men with the names Roosevelt, Whitney, Astor, Fosburgh, Mortimer, and Paley. Their mother, it was said, propelled her girls to marry well. And high. And rich. And indeed they did. They became the darlings of “Society” propelled by Publicity be it the society or tabloid columns or the fashion magazines. Amory coined a new word for them (which didn’t stick): Publiciety.

The success of the Cushing sisters in that area of life, suffused with tabloidal information, gave a public a good old fashioned impression of a woman’s success. Marrying well. The notion still remains curious, but those same women today would also be actively involved in some aspect of the community and culture in a way that portrayed them as individuals, rather than someone’s wife or accessory.
The Cushings at their Summer Cottage, 1921. Front row: Henry, Kate Cushing, Barbara. Back row: William, Betsey, Mary, Harvey Cushing. Standing: Mrs. Crowell.
To many women it is no longer enough to be someone’s arm candy or reputation elevator. A woman of “Society” today now may use her position and assets to make a difference. The late Evelyn Lauder is a good example. The wife of a man who ran the cosmetics empire started by his mother and father, was inspired by her own experience to start a foundation to fund breast cancer research for a cure.

In her lifetime (Evelyn died in 2011) of this foundation, she and her associates raised hundreds of millions for funding research. Her achievement was immense, and the assistance to the future community is immeasurable. And her prominence as a woman exuded power and grace equal to that of any man.

By the late 1940s, early 1950s, the Social Register’s position was changing with the times. It was now famous in the tabloids for who was “dropped” due to family scandals, such as a divorce, or a marriage outside of one’s “class.” A number of prominent social names also requested that they not be included. It was a badge of sorts.

By the 1960s, the Social Register was a book for the tabloids and a telephone book for real estate brokers selling large residences. In 1976 Malcolm Forbes added it to his stable of publications, and revived it as an address and phone book for the elite in all the major cities and American resorts. The mores and folkways of the general population had moved on with the rest of the world.
Today in New York, there remains a community that while not definable as Society, nevertheless reflects  the tendency to assume a position that is social yet also philanthropic. It is also more diverse than ever, and continuing along that path. New York is open, the center of immense and immensely varied philanthropy, greater than any other city or country in the world. Much of it is run and even created by women who a century or more ago would have been confined to their kitchens or their mansions, concealed almost entirely physically from what was “a man’s world.”

What now makes up “Society” is a world of men and women engaged in some way, even if only financially, in assisting, improving, enhancing our world, our culture, and assisting those of us in need. You have people who acquire money and then acquire the accoutrements — the material things one might desire — houses, cars, planes, yachts, high living who develop and interest or apparent interest a philanthropy, or in culture. For many it is simply expanding their own worlds, be they social or otherwise.

The first issue from McClure's magazine of Ida Tarbell's exposé on the Standard Oil Company.
The personal pleasure of the philanthropy is irrelevant to all but the giver. Its results, however, are the real prize for the community. If the giver is in it just to expand his or her social horizons, that’s still good for everyone. Mr. Frick had a museum. It was good for his personal life, and for the artists’ legacies. Now almost a century later, it is good for the city and the culture. And there was something else in it for him.

Some give out of passion for the art form — Sybil Harrington, for example, was the Metropolitan Opera’s major patron of the ’80s and ’90s.  More than genuine passion, there are also other motivations — including self-creation and image management. New York is a place where “Society” and its cultural institutions are hardly irrelevant. They provide a playing field for moneyed people to achieve a lasting effect and also enhance their public profile.

John D. Rockefeller did just this when at the end of his active career Ida M. Tarbell, a leading muckraker, exposed the history of his business practices that portrayed him as a Robber Baron. Mr. Rockefeller’s response to the dark cloud it brought over his reputation was not to “defend” himself, but to give, give to the community. One of his first “amends” was to finance and build the Rockefeller University Hospital which a century later is benefiting the whole world. Over the decades the Rockefeller philanthropies have totaled in the billions, reaped trillions of benefits for the world, and transformed Mr. Rockefeller’s reputation in history.
John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Jr.
The world that was Society now is what we now call diverse. It can easily accommodate people whose money maybe newer and who are seeking personal recognition and new connections. Arts institutions which once relied on wealthy individuals of lofty reputations are making a point of cultivating a much more diverse group of donors — and with few connections to previous generations of New York society.  Everyone wins. Many do it with their own reasons and to their own ends. For better or worse, though, these people also make the show go on, and some will even make a difference even if coincidentally, maybe even possibly a big difference in the lives of many. Society today.

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