The order of business

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The Met is open for business. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020. Temps yesterday in New York were in the mid-70s mainly and cooler by mid-evening. The weather has been a comfortable transition/tease to early Autumn. When it gets darker earlier.  

Growing up, this was the moment when you were aware that everything was changing in your life. First, it meant school. And all kinds of issues in your life.  But every year was the New Year. And a growing up and that excitement of being on the road to independence. 

As we grew older we looked forward to the transitions because it meant The New. Whatever that was. And now I am older, and have gone through those schools and learned a lot, and in some cases very little. Autumn is now the season that leads into our Winter. We are all included in this reality and process.  All of us, no matter our birth, skin color, intelligence, physicality or even wealth. This is a very difficult subject to comprehend even though it sounds easy.

The NYSD was founded on existence of what is/was called Society in New York. Society in America has a more than 200-year history. Although the 17th century was already working on it. It was the affirmation of Progress in a community.  In a very real way, by the latter part of the 19th century when Caroline Schermerhorn Astor crowned herself monarch of all New York and its subsidiary environments, it was established as part of the culture. Visible.

“Monarch of all New York,” Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.

From the little I’ve learned about her, Lina, as Mrs. Astor was called, was a woman of her time – which began in the first half of the 19th century. By the end of the last half, her work was pretty much done. There was a Society. There was a List. There were Rules. Yes they could be excused but only to those who played by the rules. Society was run by Woman, assisted by Males, such as Ward McAllister who was with Mrs. A. and the brains behind her public emergence. The 400 List was one of the great promos of a century of American life. It was early marketing and represented a kind of imagined prominence. The term became common in American parlance well into the latter part of the 20th century good, defining people who made a lot of money and lived with more “grandeur.”

The generation coming up behind Lina Astor, however, especially that Southern belle (when she wanted to be) from Alabam, Mrs. Alva Smith Vanderbilt (known as Grannie Smith to her oldest friends in the circle), had a “different attitude” and New York was the “different place” for it. It was on its way to becoming the center of the world financially — not quite there, but well on its way. And its magnetism attracted more brains, more ambition, and more differences. 

Alva was one of them.  She was ambitiou and had experienced — often from a distance including the Atlantic Ocean — the catastrophe of the Civil War with our Southern neighbors. She and her family moved to Europe. She followed the socially acceptable path in those days — Paris first, and then New York. A Southern belle who became a New York entrepreneur. She married for money. So? Who didn’t if they could? It’s an age old habit. Divorce, however, was brand new in the acceptability department. That took guts. 

Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough. Alva Vanderbilt had a “different attitude” than her predecessor, Mrs. Astor, and it started with her daughter Consuelo’s future.

She then forced her teenage daughter to marry a bankrupt duke living in one of the greatest private castles in all of merry ole England. Consuelo was 18 when married. Alva who was forty at the time had already divorced Vanderbilt, the bankroll. She soon after moved across Bellevue Avenue, Newport to the castle of her neighbor Mr. Belmont, a new husband.  She and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and a California mining heiress (19th century prospectors achieving) named Tessie Oelrichs took over as leaders of Society. Mrs. Astor was now old. Her presence was a respected memory but otherwise irrelevant. 

Those names were only a few of the prominent (and not wealthy but rich) women who were the next generation of  Society, and experienced the changes in the culture and the economy.  Society by then existed in many American cities and communities. It was often religiously divided too, with the power social basically going to the Protestants. Prejudice was always part of its ingredients. Time, besides wealth, became a measure of its worth.

The 20th century saw it change again into something more cornucopian with the then-called Liberation of Women. Two generations later, Women occupy many professions as well as reputations on elevated and more equal terms with men. Just like the rest of the animal world.

“Society” today, in America, and especially in the key cities is simply a description of someone’s bank account and assets. There are many exceptions to that particular description. Great wealth and riches do raise its possessors to a “higher” elevation among the rest of us. It does infer power. Yesterday there was a headline that Elon Musk’s stock holdings added ten more billion (in a day), making him the second or third richest man in America. On Paper.

Alva Vanderbilt, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, and Tessie Oelrichs took over as leaders of Society from Mrs. Astor.

All of this comes to mind at this moment in our “history” when so much of this great dynamic city — and country — is stagnating under the guise of a virus. I had dinner at Sette Mezzo with a friend last night.  It was a good night weather-wise, and the business — which is all entirely on the walk and a lane of the roadway — was busy, as it was at Bella Blu next door and Cognac next to that. The exterior business can handle maybe 25% of the business they do inside. If they’re lucky. Manpower cut also; no need.

Yesterday was about the weather, looking for the sunnier side.  Very temperate, almost cool but not. Soothing. The Mayor, it was reported, has implied that the “virus” may require not allowing people in public places (restaurants) until maybe after they’ve found a vaccine.

This lockdown has killed small business. Not all of it but enough of it to affect the city, citylife, and the safety of us inhabitants. This is not wise. Furthermore it is profoundly affecting many lives very negatively — millions even — far more numerous than the effects of the virus.

Meanwhile, it was a good night. We both ordered the same: Lobster Salad with frisee, avocado, and corn; followed by the linguine primavera with a touch of pesto. And a heaping order of fried zucchini. It was a beautiful night and great to be in New York to take it all in.

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