What a Swell Party it Was!

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Streetlamp and sunset. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021. The weather outside is your average not freezing but cold with beautiful cloud formations and Sun as well. Upper 30s, lower 40s.

We had another plan for today’s Diary but JH just happened to come up with something old that caught his eye. We’ve run this before. In fact, I wrote it back in the early ’90s for Quest. New York was in a different place head-wise back then.

What inspired me, if you want to call it that, were the illustrations of René Bouët-Willaumez  of New York nightlife in the mid-1930s (mid-Great Depression). The rich were living it up. What’s that lyric — “the rich get rich, and the poor get children” ? But New York was bustling and the world was paying attention. It was a mecca culturally and financially.

It certainly looks like fun when you look at it down on paper. But of course, making it look like fun was part of the objective for us, the audience. So when I looked at this entry from almost three decades ago, I see it differently. It’s gone now; and even in some cases, forgotten. Alas, alack and all that. But: c’est la vie.

Meanwhile, people were getting out and about and around (and around!) …

A nightclub scene as captured by fashion illustrator René Bouët-Willaumez in 1936. New York in the 1930s, the decade of the Great Depression, was also, ironically, the most glamorous decade of the American century. It was the zenith of an era of unbridled, unapologetic and authentic luxury that began with the Gilded Age and ended with the Second World War.

New York was the most exciting city in the world, the cradle of Modern Times, where milk was still delivered daily in horse-drawn wagons to every doorstep while at the same hour socialites and showgirls were being delivered to their doors in shiny new limousines called motor cars or automobiles or machines with names like Pierce-Arrow, Packard, Cadillac and Lincoln. There was no television for the masses. Radio and the movies were the rage as popular entertainment.

But the high life and the nightlife in New York meant theatre, nightclubs and parties, parties, parties. The rich had no embarrassment about being rich, despite the ubiquitous presence of soup kitchens and men selling apples on street corners.

Except for the occasional sensational scandal that hit the tabloids, like the custody case of poor little Gloria Vanderbilt, the public knew very little about the private lives (or lifestyles) of the very privileged although Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt still lived in the mansion her husband’s grandfather built 50 years before, occupying the entire block at 640 Fifth Avenue.

In that way, wealth was more than obvious to those who passed by the many mansions that still lined Fifth Avenue, or to those relatively few who were employed to wait on the well-heeled.

There were jottings in the society columns, like Maury Paul’s “Cholly Knickerbocker” and Walter Winchell’s staccato pronouncements about “Café Society,” (a term invented by Mr. Paul)  in the Hearst papers. There were sleek photographic spreads by Louise Dahl Wolfe, Hoyningen-Huene, Horst, and Baron de Meyer in the fashion magazines.

The child-saga of the decade was the world famous custody trial over little Gloria Vanderbilt whose care was wrested from her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, by her paternal aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Above left: Gloria with her mother. Bottom left: Gloria and her aunt Gertrude after the child’s custody had been awarded to her. Above right: Gloria, now sixteen, reconciled with her mother, in Beverly Hills, 1940. The most famous child custody case of the American 20th century, the child’s life and ordeal was captured brilliantly in Barbara Goldsmith’s best-selling 1980 page-turner of a biography, Little Gloria Happy At Last.

But there were no mass audience programs like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” no tell-all biographies or confessions of a wronged wife or jilted mistress (although there were always plenty of those). Life for the privileged many was still, in the words of the quintessential sophisticate and wit of his age, Cole Porter: “delightful, delicious and de-lovely.” At least on the face of it.

The social season began in October, which is when the Broadway openings were in full force (shows opened all year round). Everyone dressed in evening clothes, which meant long dresses, jewels and furs for the women and black tie or often white tie for the men. Suits and skirts were for the hoi polloi in the balcony and never, ever was there a sweatshirt to be seen in any public place of any kind (except, possibly, by an actor on-stage or in a film).

L. to r.: The original “Cholly Knickerbocker,” Maury Paul, who coined the term “Cafe Society,” being served his breakfast in bed; Society scribe Lucius Beebe and Maury Paul clubbing.

Theatre had a more distinct and stronger connection to society and in cultural life than it does today. Broadway stars were famous in both the city and the country, and they were sought-after. There were openings every week right up through March. There were parties after the openings.

Maggie and Herbert Bayard Swope (the editor of the New York World, later the World Telegram & Sun) employed two shifts of servants, one for day and one for night, so that guests could drop by anytime, especially after the theatre.

“Swope of the World,” the most famous newspaper editor of his day, Herbert Bayard Swope of the New York World.

The Swopes’ weekend house parties at their mansion at King’s Point was thought to be the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (it probably wasn’t). International theatrical producer Gilbert Miller and his wife Kitty often filled the Fifth Avenue of Mrs. Miller’s father, investment banker Jules Bache (the man who created the business deal that became the Chrysler Corporation), with stars of stage and screen mingling with tycoons, dowagers and debutantes.

Mrs. Frances Wellman, now long forgotten, was another hostess famous in New York for her opening night parties in her Park Avenue apartment. Conde Nast, the man, kept two floors at 1040 Park Avenue (northwest corner of 86th Street).

Mr. Nast threw lavish parties, often for hundreds of guests of different stripes, talents and ages all together, in the penthouse. His daughter Natica (who later married Gerald Warburg) occupied the floor below. Lady Mendl (nee Elsie de Wolfe), decorated the penthouse’s enormous reception room, the smaller library and the dining room. Buffets were set up on the terraces, which were covered for use during the winter months. Live orchestras were the standard entertainment fare there and everywhere else. Everybody danced, danced, danced.

The Terrace of Conde Nast’s Park Avenue penthouse, scene of some of the most celebrated parties of the decade, as decorated by Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl.

The Nast parties usually began about ten or ten-thirty and ran until two or later. Broadway met Hollywood, European royalty, Social Registerites, artists, and other denizens of the Conde Nast publications. Both Cole Porter and George Gershwin were frequently present at these affairs where the orchestra filled the rooms with their music.

George Gershwin, the darling of the society hostesses who could get him to accept their invitations.

Porter, who was somewhat shy, was not wont to play or perform for large groups, but Gershwin, in the words of one old friend, “would play at the drop of a piano.” The composer had great admiration for himself. He could play his music for hours, which was fair enough as far as everyone else was concerned.

The women had great admiration for him too, and a few other thoughts to go along with it. A great egotist but never obnoxious, he was always very nice with people. Manners were very much intrinsic to the style of the time.

Ballet barely existed. Monday night was the big night at the Opera at the old Met on 39th and Seventh Avenue, where the private boxes in the “Diamond Horseshoe” still saw its share of Vanderbilts, Astors, Whitneys, Goelets resplendent with their ancient lorgnettes, glittering tiaras and ermine capes. Thursdays night were for the Symphony, which was also broadcast on Sundays (although the Smart Set was still away for the weekend).

Left: Mrs. Hamilton McKown Twombly, the last surviving granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (who died in 1877), arriving in her maroon Rolls with her chauffeur in maroon livery, at the Opera on a Monday night. Florence Twombly kept up the style of her Gilded Age youth right to the time of her death at 98 in 1952. The staff at her Florham, New Jersey estate numbered 126 including 30 gardeners, 4 footmen, and 8 housemaids.
Right: Grace, the last Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, arriving at the opera in November 1939, wearing her famous three trademarks: the bandeau, on her forehead, her diamond stomacher, and her silver fox wrap. Grace Wilson Vanderbilt’s husband was disinherited by his father because of the marriage to her whose family was regarded as “arriviste” although her siblings married Astors and Goelets as well.

Nightclubs, such as the Embassy on 57th Street and El Morocco (then on 54th), got started about eleven and were jammed until four. The Casino in the Park, decorated by set designer Joseph Urban (Ziegfeld Follies), got going at five in the afternoon with tea dancing.

After eight, many gave dinner parties at the Casino for 12 or 14 or 20 or 40 under the vaulted dark blue celing painted with flowers that ran continguously down the walls and across the dance floor. Leo Reisman’s orchestra played with Eddie Duchin at the piano.

The interior of the original El Morocco with its famous blue zebra stripe banquettes. That’s   Eddie Duchin, Peter’s father, at the piano.
A bachelor party held at “21” in 1935 for George Vanderbilt with guests including William Randolph Hearst Jr., and songwriter (“Stardust”) Hoagy Carmichael (bottom right).
The Central Park Casino ballroom.

Over at the Waldorf (newly opened in 1931), the be-jowled and bovine and very unbeautiful Elsa Maxwell was making a stellar name for herself and the hotel by giving parties for one hundred or two hundred and fifty people. The hostess, who lived high on the cuff, was in the business of showing the swells a good time and she did it famously and brilliantly. The Waldorf put her up, and very well, thank you; on the house, in one of its Towers apartments whose residents included the Cole Porters and later the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Wealthy pals would supply infinite cases of champagne and tins of caviar with the hotel kicking in the service and the rest of the food and the liquor.

Elsa Maxwell and one of boosters (and neighbors at the Waldorf Towers) Cole Porter, who celebrated her party-giving and entertainments in the lyrics of his songs.

Elsa Maxwell promoted entertainers and musicians by getting them to perform gratis and the day after a party (and for years afterwards), the hotel was awash in publicity in the newspapers and magazines. One of  Maxwell’s friends and supporters, Mrs. Millicent Hearst, the left-alone wife of the legendary newspaper publisher who by then had taken up full time residence in California with his mistress Marion Davies, gave dinner dances for sixty or a hundred in her enormous triplex on Riverside Drive overlooking the Hudson, and then later at a suitably sprawling apartment on Park Avenue.

Having a good butler was very important in those days and no great hostess would be without one. Mona, Mrs. Harrison Williams (later Countess Bismarck), had one of the great butlers, a man named Philip who was not only goodlooking, charming with guests and ran things beautifully, but in the words of one frequent visitor, “knew everything about everything including the guests.”

Elsa Maxwell in costume for a party skit with actor Reginald Gardener (to her immediate left), comedian Bert Lahr (on the right), and stripper Della Carroll (far left).

A good butler set the tone of the household. Jules Bache’s butler was well known for robbing his employer blind but also for running the banker’s house beautifully and supervising the wonderful service at the table. Guests never sat and lingered over an empty plate at a Bache dinner or worried where their sable was after the party was over.

American’s original “rich-bitch,” dime store heiress Barbara Hutton made her debut at the Ritz in 1933 at beautiful party that set her trustees back $50,000 which was like $5 million those hard-up times. “Sweet, pleasant, and nothing,” in the words of one who knew her well (and liked her). Miss Hutton endured severe public criticism.

Dime store heiress Barbara Hutton at her 1931 debutante party at the Ritz Carlton. The extravagance of Barbara Hutton’s party (cost: $50,000, the equivalent of a million today) caused such public outrage that she was openly referred to as the “rich-bitch” and she fled to Europe. But rich she was: approximately three quarters of a billion in today’s dollars. None of it added up to happiness, however. After decades of drugs, husbands (eight), and legendary extravagant spending, she died in her suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills with less than $3,000 in her bank account.

A chubbette with an absolutely beautiful face, and a mother who committed suicide when the girl was 12, Hutton was devoid of personality yet stunning just sitting around in her spectacular jewelry (which she knew a great deal about), such as her earrings of three marquise diamonds each. 

Much of Hutton’s jewelry was bought from Jules Glaenzer, the supersalesman of Cartier and another party giver of the first order. Hutton’s aunt Jessie Donahue was his biggest customer.

Tiffany was in the business of course, but Cartier was the outstanding jeweler when it came to the big stuff. Harry Winston was in the business of selling stones and Fulco, the duc di Verdura, enchanted the chic young women with his colorful and witty creations, which today are collector’s items. Women had lots of jewelry – the real thing – and wore it all the time, day and night – and wore it without any fear of being accosted and maybe killed on the street for it.

Fashion designers had NO social status whatsoever. Zero. Nobody paid any attention to them except for what they had to say about the way a dress fit. Women got their clothes from Europe, mainly Paris.

Hattie Carnegie imported clothes, as did Bergdorf’s and Saks. Women such as Mona Williams, Barbara Hutton, Dorothy (Mrs. William) Paley, Millicent Rogers, Thelma (Chrysler) Foy, Janet (Mrs. William Rhinelander) Stewart and Linda Porter went to them to have their clothes made. Sophie Gimbel also designed under her own label, Sophie of Saks. Hattie Carnegie employed designers as well, including Norman Norell at the beginning of his career, and Jean Louis, who later made his name in Hollywood; and much later, at the suggestion of Dorothy Paley, Hattie Carnegie hired Pauline Potter who later married Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The brilliant but wildly eccentric Charles James was on the scene but on a very small scale.

The most famous debutante of the 1930s, Brenda Frazier, at her coming-out party at the Waldorf in 1938. Frazier’s life was at its peak at this time.

Museums were also for the rich. They had very little influence in the art world and were never used for dinner dances or wedding receptions. Pictures were for the rich to enjoy in the privacy of their own palaces, although they did support the museums. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s museum down on Eighth Street was considered very Greenwich Village, although it was very important because the Met wasn’t paying any attention to the American painters. Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Museum of Modern Art caused much excitement but was just getting started. The big, highly respected dealers were Knoedler’s and Duveen Brothers who had supplied Frick, Hearst, Bache, Morgan, Huntington and Mellon with pictures, mainly Old Masters.

Lord Duveen, a dark haired, moustachioed man, was another with a supersalesman personality. He very persuasively played the role of the expert but was so deferential to the customers’ taste that the skeptics often mistrusted his authority.

Two fashionable hostesses of the decade: Dorothy (Mrs. William) Paley in her Beekman Place townhouse (left), and Mona (Mrs. Harrison) Williams (right).
The Harrison Williams house at 94th and Fifth Avenue, designed and built by Delano and Aldrich for the Willard Straights (Mrs. Straight was Dorothy Whitney) in 1904; now owned by investor Bruce Kovner.

The big collections were still in private hands. Utitlities tycoon George Blumenthal, for example, lived in an enormous house on the corner of 70th and Park that had  a pool and a famous indoor courtyard that now resides at the Met. Chester and Maude Dale had a huge collection of 20th century paintings in their house. Art Deco, after the 1920s, dominated the art of the modern world. By the ’30s, it appealed to the young and the daring who were also rich enough to adpat it to their daily lives.

Taste had begun to change in 1913 with the Armory Show where Marcel Duchamp shocked the world and the so-called Impressionists gained acceptance with forward-thinking moneyed collectors. But Mr. Havemeyer was still buying Old Masters through Duveen, while his wife, under the guidance of Mary Cassatt, was buying Impressionists.

The ladies who lunched went to Voisin or the Colony and everybody saw everybody they knew. Clara, who ran the ladies room at the Colony, kept everybody’s dog while they lunched. The dogs were very happy which made customers happy because women in those days took their dogs everywhere.

Jewelry designer Fulco Verdura and Scottie poolside at Kiluna Farm, the Manhasset estate of Dorothy and William Paley.

Men and women also smoked their heads off throughout their meals with nary a complaint in the house. They also drank a cocktail or three … or four.

Men who didn’t lunch often kept bankers’ hours and visited their clubs by mid-afternoon for camaraderie as well as exercise that frequently consisted solely of elbow bending. Some never bothered even with the bankers’ hours. William Rhinelander Stewart rarely rose before noon. When friends called before rousing time, his butler was instructed  to tell them that master was busy having a run around the Park. Others, such as Vincent Astor and Willie K. Vanderbilt Jr., deserted New York as much as possible for long voyages on their huge oceangoing yachts (the Nourmahal and the Alva).

Grace (Mrs. Cornelius) Vanderbilt in the drawing room of her 640 Fifth Avenue mansion at 52nd Street, where she entertained en masse (one year she had 30,000 guests).

It was the age of the hostess. Mona Williams held forth at the Williams mansion, the former Willard Straight house on 94th and Fifth (now the residence of hedge fund owner Bruce Kovner). Mrs. Williams, husband number three, 23 years his wife’s senior, was known as the “utilities king” and was said to be one of the world’s richest men with an estimated $800 million fortune (many billions in today’s currency).

He was a man of many prejudices, particularly towards those who fell into his category of “useless.” Blind people, for example, seemed “useless” to Mr. Williams, as were the disabled. All considerations were shunted aside in considering the value of his wife, who managed to make herself useful by being absolutely beautiful, always on the best-dressed list, as well as sweet and warm and friendly.

Another great hostess was Thelma Foy, whose father, Walter P. Chrysler, gave Ford and General Motors a run for their money. A woman devoted to fashion, Mrs. Foy lived in a large apartment with English furniture. Then when Birdie (the first Mrs. William K.) Vanderbilt died, Mrs. Foy bought her mansion on East 91 Street. English had ceased to be fashionable and so Mrs. Foy went to French and Company and installed all French furniture (18th century, that is). Best dressed with beautiful clothes and beautiful jewels, Thelma Foy entertained big.

In the 1940s, the big house at 640 was sold and Mrs. Vanderbilt moved to what she referred to as “the gardener’s cottage,” a 28-room mansion at 1048 Fifth at 86th Street (now the Neue Galerie). With a staff of 18 she continued to entertain in large numbers. Interesting and attractive men were, in her opinion, the key to a successful party. She kept a list of 138 eligible men broken up into categories like: “men who will dance,” “men who can lunch,” and “men who will go to the theatre but not the opera.”

Her dining room table was always decorated with long stemmed roses in flat bowls that caused guests to complain (among themselves) that they couldn’t see the person across the table. Although they could see their hostess who was always quite stunning to look at.

For the most part, the platinum privileged class hated Roosevelt (whom they often referred to as Rosen-velt or “that man”), whom they considered a class traitor.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in her studio. Although she was famous in the 1930s for her pressing the custody battle of her niece Gloria, Mrs. Whitney’s passion was her art and she is remembered for founding the Whitney Museum of American Art which flourishes almost a century later.

His wife was beyond that, something even worse in the consensus of these people, for she consorted with blacks and was a communist as far as they were concerned. All the Roosevelts meant to them was taxes, taxes and more taxes, which of course could put a strain on the monthly bill from Cartier.

Then Hitler turned out to be no joke and the War came. Men went off to Europe. No more Paris frocks. The decade ended. Mrs. Vanderbilt sold the big house at 640 and moved up the avenue to 86th Street (now the Neue Galerie), little Gloria Vanderbilt “Happy at Last” moved to Hollywood and in with her mother until she married her first husband (she was 16; he was 31). Vincent Astor gave his yacht to the U.S. Navy.

American women went to work in the wartime factories, as did the former butlers and scullery maids. When the War was over, television came into the mainstream and nightlife died, marriages ended, manners went out the window, they raced into the space age and it’s never been the same since.

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