The story of Fifth Avenue in the second half of the nineteenth century is fraught with social wars waged with engraved calling cards dropped in silver card receivers just inside the entrance of palatial free-standing mansions. It was a war waged above all by the ladies, while their spouses competed on Wall Street or at the race track or in fancy gambling dens, or in regattas where they raced their yachts. These wars were fought with fervor and conviction, and for those involved, if not for society at large, the stakes were high. The battlefield was an avenue well built up to the south, but stretching on northward as a rutted lane into a semirural wasteland that a visionary few – mostly real estate developers, one suspects -- had christened the city’s future Axis of Elegance. Confirming their vision in 1853 was the decision by Archbishop John Hughes to build a majestic Catholic cathedral on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st Street, a decision followed by excavations and a sprouting of walls but nothing more, owing to a lack of funds. Still, the promise of a cathedral, albeit Romanist, did seem to foretoken a thoroughfare of taste and distinction.
One citizen who shared this opinion was Charles Lohman, a free-thinking self-appointed physician who in 1857 must have driven north over the rutted course of the avenue through an area given over to stockyards, truck gardens, scattered institutions, a few dispersed houses and shanties, and finally a rocky wasteland of scrub pines and bushes fit only for grazing cattle and goats. Quite possibly he took his wife with him, so he could show her some land that he was tempted to buy. The pending construction of the cathedral, and the city’s plans to begin work on the magnificent new Central Park, seemed certain to enhance the value of the Avenue. What Lohman had in mind were ten lots at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street that the archbishop was said to want for his official residence. Since His Grace had seen fit to denounce Madame Restell, the abortionist, from the pulpit, and since Madame Restell was the nom de guerre of Lohman’s wife, the couple deemed it deliciously appropriate to snatch the property out from under the archiepiscopal nose. On May 1, 1857, Lohman did exactly that, outbidding the archbishop handily. Informed of this, respectable citizens offered Lohman a substantial sum for the property, but he refused to sell. Later that year a panic erupted on Wall Street, sending real estate prices plummeting, and halting construction along Lower Fifth Avenue. Had the Lohmans made a mistake? After a year of “pinching times” the stock market recovered, trade picked up again, and construction along the Avenue resumed. No, the Lohmans had not made a mistake.
|The Lohman residence, a palatial brownstone.|
Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
Respectable society was now venturing farther uptown, building brownstones along the Avenue in the 50s. Then, in 1862, ground was broken on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, where the walls of a handsome new mansion began to rise: the Lohmans were building at last! Horrified by the thought of the town’s most notorious abortionist residing grandly in their midst, adjacent property owners offered Lohman a reputed $100,000 for the property, but he spurned it. The construction took two years but in the end produced a four-story brownstone with a monumental entrance, its recessed doors flanked by pilasters and topped by a protruding ornamental hood, with gardens and stables adjoining: a monument worthy of the Avenue and destined to catch every passing eye.
So Madame had installed herself just two blocks from the rising walls of the unfinished cathedral, and just across 52nd Street from, ironically (given her profession), the spacious grounds of the Catholic Orphan Asylum. “She’ll have no society!” opined the neighbors were certain that she would have no society, but sometime later the windows were ablaze with gaslight to receive a jam of carriages with arriving guests: wealthy merchants, brokers, railroad moguls, physicians, lawyers, and even a few magistrates and legislators, all lured there by the hostess’s charm and notoriety, and the thrill of witnessing her ill-gotten wealth; some of them – unthinkable! – even brought their wives. All four floors were on display: three ground-floor parlors in bronze and gold with frescoes by Italian artists; the second floor with the Lohmans’ sumptuous bedroom; the third floor with servants’ rooms showing Brussels carpets and mahogany; and the fourth with a billiard room, and ballroom whose windows gave a fine view of the Avenue and the Park. Guests danced, played cards, smoked expensive cigars provided by the hosts, feasted at a table laden with delicacies, and gaped at the luxurious furnishings.
No gold speculator or thriving war contractor could match Madame’s dazzling debut on the Avenue. But if she and her husband gave receptions regularly thereafter, and they were well attended, it was mostly by gentlemen who didn’t bring their wives. Ann Lohman had all the trappings of wealth – costly millinery, a palatial residence, and five carriages and seven horses – but she waited in vain for calling cards to be dropped in her card receiver, cards that would acknowledge her acceptance by Society, cards that never came. So despite a promising beginning, Madame had lost the war.
Chagrin at her defeat may at in part explain why, in May 1867, a large silver plate bearing the engraved word OFFICE appeared on a gate in the low iron railing at 1 East 52nd Street, informing sharp-eyed neighbors that the mistress of the mansion would henceforth carry on her profitable business in the basement. Soon, closed carriages began arriving and depositing heavily veiled women who descended to the basement and, sometime later, came back up, still heavily veiled, to depart discreetly; the neighbors watched, shocked. Complaints to the authorities proved useless; Madame had arrangements with them. Only she knew which husbands mounted the steep stoop to her receptions, and which of their wives descended to the basement, and her lips were sealed. But this was revenge of a kind. For moralists, the persistence of this shadowy business on the Avenue proclaimed the impotence of justice and the rewards of crime and vice; as for the house itself, they labeled it the House of Death.
Not even an abortionist’s presence on the Avenue could slow down the relentless push uptown of the wealthy. In 1869 Mrs. Mary Mason Jones, a dowager of impeccable pedigree and, incidentally, an aunt of Edith Wharton, shocked everyone by moving to the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, an area still afflicted with slaughterhouses and shantytowns, and charitable institutions that, however noble their purpose, were not deemed fit neighbors for the mansions of the affluent. And once again the pioneer proved right: others followed and the area was soon filled with brownstones topped with a mansard roof.
|Mrs. Astor, as painted by |
Inhabiting these residences, often as not, were fresh waves of parvenus who relied on their vast fortunes to worm their way into Society, and whom others labeled Avenoodles. Determined to be a bulwark against the inroads of these moneyed barbarians was Caroline Astor, the wife of William B. Astor, a wealthy grandson of old John Jacob, whose older brother John Jacob III ran the family business, leaving him to a life of idleness given over to race track attendance, pursuing women other than his wife, and yachting. Unburdened by a usually absent spouse, Caroline, a Schermerhorn who could lay claim to even more illustrious ancestry than the Astors, acquired a court chamberlain in Ward McCallister, a Society-obsessed Southerner who had long since come North, traveled abroad, studied the manners, genealogy, and heraldry of European aristocrats, and married an heiress.
Together, in 1872, this like-minded twosome created the Patriarchs, a group of social eminences including both Old and New Money, who inaugurated the Patriarchs’ Balls, exclusive affairs reserved only for those deemed socially acceptable. Well covered in the press, these affairs made it very clear who was in and who was out, thus imposing a rigorous order on what might otherwise have been a chaotic social flux. Supplementing the balls were private weekly dinner parties at Mrs. Astor’s Fifth Avenue and 34th Street mansion, where conversation was limited to food, wine, horse flesh, yachts, country estates, cotillions, and marriages. Lacking both beauty and charm, Caroline Astor through force of will and cunning quickly established herself as the reigning queen of New York Society – “Society,” be it noted, with a capital S. McCallister christened her “the Mystic Rose,” a reference to the celestial figure in Dante’s Paradise around whom all other figures revolve; she didn’t object.
|The Vanderbilt mansion, flanked by brownstones. Suddenly, palatial brownstones like the Lohman |
residence began to look drab and dated. French chateau style was definitely in.
Into this rarefied world, or at least butting up against its barriers, came the Vanderbilts. Not just one but a whole bunch of them who, between 1878 and 1882, built residences between 51st and 58th Street, a neighborhood redeemed at last from scandal by Madame Restell’s arrest and suicide in 1878. Mrs. Astor was not inclined to let these upstarts into her charmed social circle, even though the Vanderbilts had more money, and the grandchildren, well educated and well traveled, had put a distance between themselves and the founder of their fortune, old Cornelius, a gritty character who never quite shook off the rich profanity and rough ways of a wharf rat. But Alva Vanderbilt, the wife of William K., was determined to make her way socially, and got her husband to commission a new Fifth Avenue residence at 52nd Street, a palatial edifice modeled on Francis I’s sixteenth-century chateau of Blois. The result was an imposing three-story chateau in gray limestone (emphatically not brownstone) with a steep slate roof, like nothing the Avenue had ever seen before; it launched a vogue in French chateau-style residences that changed radically that thoroughfare’s look. In no time the east side of Fifth Avenue above 59th Street would be crowded with such residences facing the Park, earning the Upper Avenue the name Millionaires Row.
|Alva Vanderbilt, costumed for her ball.|
Alva filled her new residence with Renaissance and medieval furniture, tapestries, and armor, and announced a costume ball for March 1883 that the city’s elite, seeing it as the most spectacular event of the season, decided they simply must attend. Dressmakers toiled day and night for weeks, and groups of young ladies of the appropriate status practiced complex quadrilles to be performed on the magical night. Among them was Caroline Astor’s daughter Carrie, a school acquaintance and friend of one of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s daughters. But no invitation for Carrie came.
Puzzled as others received invitations, and well aware that her daughter had her heart set on performing in the quadrille, Caroline Astor put out cautious feelers: why no invitation? Through third parties, the word came back: Mrs. Vanderbilt would love to invite dear Carrie, but how could she, when she didn’t know Mrs. Astor? So there it was: the Vanderbilts might be upstarts, but her daughter’s happiness was at stake. “It’s time for Vanderbilts!” declared Mrs. Astor. Going up the Avenue in her carriage, she sent a footman in Astor-blue livery to deliver an engraved calling card to a servant in Vanderbilt-maroon livery at 660 Fifth Avenue, who dropped it in his mistress’s card receiver. Mrs. Astor hadn’t even entered the Vanderbilt chateau, but the calling card sufficed; the invitation came. With this simple act, the Vanderbilts were “in.”
The ball itself was the grandest event to date in the city’s history. Outside, police held back a dense crowd of onlookers as guests, their costumes masked, stepped down from their carriages and entered the brilliantly lit mansion, while other carriages drove slowly past so their uncostumed occupants could peer though the windows. Inside, palms and ferns, and orchids of every hue, had transformed the mansion into a tropical forest. In the oak-paneled ballroom the young ladies performed their quadrilles to the satisfaction of the other guests, who were costumed splendidly as knights, brigands, monks, bullfighters, Music, Fire, Summer, Louis the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth, Bo Peep, and the Electric Light. What Mrs. Astor wore I haven’t been able to ascertain.
|Mr. Roland Redmond, whose costume |
I haven't been able to decipher.
|Mrs. John C. Mallory, well garbed,|
The affair was amply recorded in the newspapers, and guests were encouraged to visit a designated photographer, lest their magnificence be lost to posterity. Many did, and the photographs have been preserved, showing the elite of the day posing very seriously in white satin with gold embroidery, black velvet with puffed sleeves, gauze wings when appropriate, gold-trimmed velvet and gray tights, flowered chintz, and a hundred other materials, all taking themselves very seriously, sublimely unaware that viewers of a later age might find them just a mite pretentious, if not downright silly. Among the guests were ex-President Grant and his wife, who hopefully were not required to wear costumes.
Despite the advent of the Vanderbilts, Caroline Astor extended her sway for years. To show her distinction, she announced that she would simply be known as “Mrs. Astor,” and had her calling cards printed accordingly. In 1888 Ward McCallister explained to a Tribune reporter that there were only 400 people in New York society, a group small enough to fit comfortably into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom; outside that group were people who wouldn’t be at ease in a ballroom or would make others ill at ease. So appeared the term “the Four Hundred,” which occasioned much comment and criticism. And his Mystic Rose had thorns; for the socially ambitious, not to be invited to the annual Astor Ball was calamitous. But in 1887 the Social Register appeared, a list of two thousand socially prominent names with ample information about each: a challenge to Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred.
Not all the Astor clan acquiesced in her assumption of the title “Mrs. Astor.” Her nephew Waldorf Astor particularly resented it, thinking his wife just as deserving of the title, and moved to England to insinuate himself into the British aristocracy. By way of revenge on his aunt, he tore down his residence adjoining hers and in 1893 opened on the site the luxurious thirteen-story Waldorf Hotel. Caroline Astor was, to put it mildly, chagrinned, remarking sourly, “There’s a glorified tavern next door.” Her son John Jacob Astor IV now finally persuaded her to join the exodus northward, and in 1893, having leapfrogged the Vanderbilts just as they had leapfrogged her, she settled into a magnificent French chateau-style residence at Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, really a double residence housing her on one side and her son and his family on the other. In 1897 the son then built the seventeen-story Astoria Hotel next to the Waldorf Hotel, and later the two were joined to become the first Waldorf Astoria, whose successor is now on Park Avenue.
Mrs. Astor's new residence at 65th Street.
Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
In her palatial new residence the Mystic Rose, now a widow, continued to stage the Astor Ball, exclusion from which banished one to the depths of social degradation. The art gallery featured a massive marble fireplace at one end, and satin-paneled walls with a vast array of gilt-framed paintings under a ceiling of elaborate molding with huge crystal chandeliers. This was the scene of the annual event, and many other receptions as well, where the hostess greeted her guests under a painting of her by the French artist Carolus-Duran, her very real fleshly presence rivaling the likeness above her in formal dignity and chilling authority. Yet this social dominatrix now spent five months of the year in France, three in her palatial summer home at Newport, and only four in New York. Even in her absence, her authority was felt.
|Mrs. Astor's new art gallery/ballroom. It could hold twelve hundred guests.|
But it was not to last. The Mystic Rose was fading, and McCallister departed this earth in 1895, his funeral well attended by the socially elite. By now many were questioning the relevance of the Four Hundred, or even the Social Register’s Two Thousand, including some who might reasonably aspire to inclusion. Such feelings were intensified by the publication of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives in 1890, a pioneering work of photojournalism that documented the squalid living conditions of the city’s poor, which he blamed on the greed and neglect of the wealthy. As the new social awareness grew, Mrs. Astor’s balls came to an end, and her last years were ravaged by periodic dementia. But she didn’t give up easily: at times she was seen standing pathetically at the entrance to her empty ballroom, greeting throngs of imagined guests. She died in 1906, spared the news of her son’s death in the Titanic disaster of 1912, and her expatriate nephew Waldorf’s becoming the 1st Viscount Astor in Britain in 1917.
Me and junk mail: I hate it. It comes every day in huge batches, appeals from worthy causes who got my name and address from the other worthy causes to whom, in weak moments, I give modest but reliable donations. They try every conceivable ploy to get me to open the envelope: fake or real handwritten addresses; URGENT; RUSH RUSH RUSH; 2 FOR 1 GIFT OFFER; FREE GIFT INSIDE; PETITION ENCLOSED; no return address; CHECK ENCLOSED. If there is no return address, I discard the envelope unopened along with all the others. CHECK ENCLOSED / DO NOT MUTILATE OR TEAR ENVELOPE is a new gimmick perpetrated recently by the National Cancer Research Center. God knows I’m in favor of the war against cancer, being a cancer survivor, but how much can you do? Still, I opened it and there, sure enough, was a genuine check for the princely sum of $2.50. They invited me to accept the check, but suggested that I donate that amount or a larger one to the fight against cancer instead. Any decent, right-minded person would have at once made a substantial donation. So what did I do? I cashed the check. Gleefully, without a smidgen of embarrassment or shame. In the war against junk mail, I give no quarter. And if they phone me, you can imagine my response: “I don’t take solicitations by phone!” and then I immediately hang up. In the war against junk mail and junk phone calls – made even in the name of compassion, health, and a better world – I am ruthless. “Scrooge!” some may cry. “Skinflint!” “A grinch who’d steal Christmas!” Guilty, guilty, guilty as charged. But it’s me or them, my sanity and serenity versus their relentless attacks. And I intend to win.
Coming soon: Who really runs America? A look at conspiracy theories and the alleged existence of a permanent unelected government, with emphasis on the prime suspect, a multimillionaire and lord of think tanks who grew up with the Unicorn Tapestries in his bedroom, and who knew everyone in the world who counted.
© 2013 Clifford Browder