Steppin’ in Society, Part II

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The Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn Heights.

Thursday, January 6, 2022. Not as cold in New York yesterday midweek, with temps in the mid- to high-40s. Another sometimes sunny day with another day of that pinkish orange sunset. But: the weatherman has been forecasting 4 to 6 inches of snow beginning late in the afternoon and snowing through the night.

Otherwise we are still living in no-one’s-home New York. At least by day. Last night, however, I noticed when walking the dogs in the early evening, looking up at the apartment towers on the avenue it seemed like almost every window was lit! hundreds of them. I’m not a window watcher but many buildings have been mainly dark during the past few months.

Today we are running the second installment on a part of our actual history of Cole Porter’s lyrics; the history of Society in 20th Century America in the 1950s. This is an intended distraction from the present while we await the excitement of a snowstorm.

In the meantime, I know readers enjoy the “old stories” because they tell us so. I enjoy the stories myself. Now, however, I can see we’re getting a face-to-face look at ourselves, particularly those of us who acquire the power of money. I’ve always looked at these lives I write about with curiosity and movement. Now, however, I can see history setting them, a portrait of another world.


By the 1950s, many who had once been known as socialites (as opposed to “real” society) had become “real” society also. And when the scion of a wealthy families like William Woodward or Winthrop Rockefeller married blonde showgirls/actresses, their wives were immediately embraced by their social peers.

The world was beginning to become a smaller, more democratic place. “Socialites” had become the new society. And so when William Woodward Jr., son of the founder of the Hanover Bank (later absorbed after several mergers into what is now called Citicorp) was shot to death by his former-showgirl wife (as he was taking a shower) in what was reported to be an “accident,” and decades later revealed (through Truman Capote) to be cold-blooded murder, his social dowager mother Elsie Woodward took her murderous daughter-in-law under wing (“for the sake of the children”) — as if to let-bygones be bygones. Almost 25 years after the murder, the widow Woodward committed suicide to be followed eventually by both sons (deaths by leap) whose grandmother had tried to create a “normal” life for them.


L. to r.: Winthrop Rockefeller and Barbara Sears Rockefeller at their wedding ceremony in Palm Beach, Florida; February 14, 1948; William and Ann Woodward footloose and fancy-free.

By the 1960s with the rise of the Kennedys to national prominence and power, the term “socialite” became something of a relic. Heirs and Heiresses, members of fine old families, tycoons and scoundrels all drank and danced together (the “Twist” and the “Frug”), and occasionally drugged under the same rooftops on the High Road or the Low. President John F. Kennedy, while in office for what turned out to be a short time, was rumored to have had an affair with the sex symbol of her age, Marilyn Monroe while fathering children with his legal wife, the beautiful New York socialite Jacqueline Bouvier.

Although it was passed over even by the well-informed members of the press, it was well known amongst his “social” peers. We had entered the Age of Excessive Behavior where mores fell by the wayside and manners were about to make a swift exit.



By the end of the ’60s, with the advent of Women’s Liberation and the ubiquitous television screen witnessing the very public murders of both John Kennedy and his brother Bobby, as well as a real American hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the turbulence of Vietnam in everyday American life slammed into and obliterated “society” and Mrs. Astor’s 400 of the late 19th century New York. From it emerged the proletarianization of society in America.

It was the dawn of the artist/bohemian/hedonist as social arbiter in the person of an unprepossessing-looking former shoe illustrator, Andy Warhol. The artist, who was born the son of poor Polish immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928, about the same time Brit Hadden coined the term “socialite” was becoming one of its most influential leaders.

Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick on the set of one of his films. (Photo by Walter Daran/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Warhol was imbued with the American working class fascination with all things rich and powerful, including “socialites.” He created a mock society with a cast of characters delivered up from the psycho-bowels of American life, including a young woman from an authentic Old Society New England family, Edie Sedgwick. Sedgwick briefly symbolized the shedding of all things prim and proper that once defined the image of polite society as well as its socialite antecedents. She died young of a drug overdose, symbolizing tragic darkness on the notion of “socialite.”

Finally, during that era, Viet Nam fostered an American national scandal now known in history as “Watergate.” President Richard Nixon resigned from office for the first time in American history, and Andy Warhol became a magazine publisher and contemporary artist of enormous wealth and unquestioned social position.

By the time of Warhol’s death by medical accident at age 59 in 1987, society and “socialite” had morphed into one conception — the ones with the money (or friends of the ones with the money). Tycoons and their beautiful wives (now known as “trophy wives”) became the arbiters of society, as it were, women and men who re-created the sensibilities of forty and fifty years hence. These wives, the new generation of “liberated women,” often encouraged by their husbands raced each other toward publicity and social prominence, competing in the corridors of fund-raising and fancy private entertainment. They were the rocket age version of the New York women of a century before — the Alva Vanderbilts and Lina Astors.


Alva Vanderbilt at the costume ball she threw in 1883.

By the 1990s, however, positions insecure, marriages coming undone, children growing up and leaving gilded nests, it seemed as if the activist wife, woman of independent means, philanthropic, art-collecting individuals had forever shed the title “socialite.” And who cares, for it was irrelevant. Except for the unique exception of Brooke Astor, granddaughter-in-law of the Mrs. Astor of the 400, the late 19th century definition of society in New York.

A young Vincent Astor.

A woman of advancing age, she married Vincent Astor, the grandson of the Mrs. Astor, and the former husband of Minnie Cushing. It was the third marriage for both. Six years later he died, leaving his immense American Astor family fortune, the majority of which he had assigned to philanthropy, to his wife’s direction (and personal wealth). She became the prima philanthropist of the city.

A child of the Edwardian age, she was herself a modern woman, adapted to the new ways of the age of Liberations, adding to her presentation the style of society that preceded the age of the Socialite. With her philanthropy, she set an example of public conduct — the actions of a “lady” — that briefly resurrected the defunct notion of society.

Brooke Astor at the NYPL in 1988. Photo: Mary Hilliard.

Mrs. Astor’s activities inspired and enlisted many men and women of her succeeding generation who now make up the world of philanthropy in New York today. These men and women raise hundreds of millions annually for all kinds of causes — cultural, educational, medical, civic — that provide the heart of life in the city.

Ironically, at the end of the “reign” of Mrs Astor (who died in her 105th year in 2007, also came the emergence of a young teenager from a wealthy hotel-owning family, Paris Hilton.

Hilton, a great-granddaughter of Conrad Hilton who started hotel chain that bore his name, achieved world celebrity from the direct and exclusive result of her tirelessly posing before camera lenses beginning with a much publicized video of sexual activity (that brought her instant fame rather than the public notoriety that would have come to her in a previous generation). That subsequent celebrity earned her millions in fees from entertainment and sales projects over the past two decades in the 21st century.

Ms. Hilton’s footsteps in posing for the camera (video and still) spawned an army of young men and women by the SUV-load who have re-defined the term Brit Hadden coined eight decades before in his telegraphic-styled reference to the rich and leisure class.


Paris Hilton’s newest endeavor.

Young men and women today — mainly women — like their recent forebear Paris Hilton, have become omnipresent models for the camera lens, supplying the reams of social edit/copy/ photo images dominating the consumer fashion scene. One family of sisters by the name of Kardashian have completely eliminated the “social” aspect of their image. It has made all of them multi-millionairesses selling their wares and ideas via tech media with their endless in-your-face self-images modeling all of their garments and pigments from top to (big) bottom.

The Kardashians are now regarded in the popular parlance of the media as “socialites” — if they are even aware of the term — people who seek public attention in clubs and stores which cater to 21st century contemporary life. Unlike those generations who came before them, they seek not good times or fun times, but rather seemingly endless media attention that congratulates and “rewards” them with an endless stream of promoting stuff — clothing, shoes, accessories.


From season one to a sea change.

More than a century after Lina Astor conducted Society with her social baton, at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, the Kardashians’ technique (or industry which is what it is financially) have encouraged mass competition by a new phenomenon called Social Media.

“Social” is now a concept for an ever-changing space in the consciousness of a benumbed public. Media fame is for a public audience whose curiosity and sensibility has been hijacked by a polymorphous concept of the life on the planet Earth. Lina Astor in the 19th century America had an ambition for power with her party lists. It was a time when a proper woman, if she didn’t have to go out and get a job, was expected to stay at home as the little wife and raise the family. Lina went beyond that with her husband’s wealth and her own sense of power with her exclusive social lists of the rich bowing to her presence.

Today that intellect and personality would seek real financial and political power running a major corporation or sitting behind the President’s desk in the White House rather than leisurely cavorting with “kings” and tooling around in private jets, Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis. Where’s that camera?


Still, the Mrs. Astor.

Click here for Part I

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