Sunday, November 11, 2018

382. Gettiing "in" with the Mystic Rose

            I am currently rereading my deceased partner Bob’s other work of fiction set in Coney Island, The Coney Island Memoirs of Sebastian Strong.  When I finish it, I’ll give my take on it and make it available to readers.  It has some remarkable features. (For my own books, see BROWDERBOOKS below.)
Image result for the coney island memoirs of sebastian strong

      Getting "in" with the Mystic Rose

         Known to her friends as the Mystic Rose, she was the acknowledged queen of the New York social world in the Gilded Age, a position she attained by tactful but ruthless cunning.  There were many Mrs. Astors at the time, but Caroline Schermerhorn Astor succeeded in getting herself known to all and sundry as the Mrs. Astor.  Though as a Schermerhorn she herself was clearly Old Old Money, in her palatial mansion on Fifth Avenue at 34th Street (now the site of the Empire State Building) she welcomed as guests a discreet mix of Old Old and New Old Money.  Those found acceptable had to be free of the taint of toil – at least two generations removed from the work-driven founder of the family fortune, so that the descendants could ease into moneyed idleness and devote their energy to the stressful rituals of (with a capital S) Society.  On this score she herself was safe, for her husband, William Backhouse Astor, Jr., was removed by the requisite two generations from old John Jacob, who had amassed the family fortune in the smelly but profitable fur trade, a fact that the Mystic Rose preferred to ignore.

File:Carolus-Duran - Mrs. William Astor (Caroline Webster Schermerhorn, 1831–1908).jpg
Mrs. Astor, 1890.

         This is a story of the Gilded Age, which can be thought of as extending from the end of the Civil War (1865) to the outbreak of World War I (1914).  Other dates have been proposed, one that I like being 1913, when the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified, giving Congress the right to impose a federal income tax.  That such an atrocity should be imposed upon the nation’s rich – Old Old Money as well as upstarts like Old New Money and those super upstarts, New New Money – struck the affluent as outrageous, but the tax was soon a fact, though for many years not a fact of consequence.

         Whatever the exact dates, during the decades of the Gilded Age a flood of nouveaux riches poured into New York City, forcing the established leaders of Society to decide whom to accept and whom to reject.  There resulted a magnificent spectacle of New New Money fighting to be accepted by, or to outdo, Old New Money, while Old Old Money – the Knickerbockers, old Dutch and English families dating back to the city’s earliest years – quietly distanced themselves from the brouhaha.

         Yes, brouhaha.  To be in Society was a full-time job, fraught with strain and stress.  It took more than money and leisure; it took time, energy, and perseverance.  The moneyed husbands were out of it, leaving the real fight to their wives, whose coveted spoil was an engraved calling card dropped in the silver card receiver placed hopefully on a table by their Fifth Avenue mansion’s front entrance.  The card of a prestigious matron deposited there in the resident’s absence acknowledged that resident as the caller’s social equal; it said, “You may call on me, you may hope to be invited to my exclusive events.”  The more such cards deposited, the higher the recipient’s status in the social world, and the higher her hopes.  And the most coveted card of all was that of the Mrs. Astor, for it was she and her lord chamberlain, Ward McAllister, a displaced Southerner and king of snobs, who decided who should be admitted to their circle.  McAllister’s wife, an antebellum Georgia heiress, was long an invalid, leaving him alone and unfettered, free to impose his arbitrary and imperious dictates.

         The Mystic Rose’s poise was superb.  Well aware that her husband, his balding features graced with a formidable handlebar mustache, was boozing it up and womanizing on his yacht in distant seas, she ignored the resulting rumors with dignity.  If friends were so presumptuous as to bring up the subject, she smiled serenely and explained that sea air was good for her dear William, whereas she, a poor sailor, preferred to stay at home.  With him out of the way, she could entertain like the reigning monarch she was, garbed in regal purple and abundantly diamonded.

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Mrs. Astor (dark dress, center) at one of her balls.  
Look close; is that a crown she's wearing?

         The highlight of the New York social season was the annual Astor ball, when her mansion was ablaze with light, and carriages flocked to the door.  Standing at the entrance to her magnificent ballroom under a life-size portrait of herself, she greeted her guests, the blessed Four Hundred whom she and McAllister declared to be the only socially acceptable persons in the city.  Among those automatically excluded were writers, artists, and actors, whom she and McAllister relegated to the ranks of the servile, only slightly above servants.  Nor were intellectuals of any stripe welcome: they thought and opined too much.  Appropriate topics of conversation were limited to food, wines, horses, country villas, yachts, and marriages, but never anything so subversive as an idea.  Yet for the socially ambitious, to be invited to the ball was the acme of joy, and not to be invited was doom.  

         Those who knew they would not be invited arranged to be traveling abroad at the time of the ball.  After all, to be educating one’s children through travel, or to be enrolling a daughter in some prestigious private school in Switzerland, so she could learn French and mix socially with the daughters of the continental noblesse, was more important than attending dear Caroline’s ball.  Meanwhile those who were invited went not to enjoy themselves, but to be seen.  And if invited to sit, however briefly, with the hostess on the red velvet sofa from which she surveyed the ballroom, one was lifted to the pinnacle of bliss.

         Those excluded who disdained the option of foreign travel, tried desperately to get in.  Through a third party, matrons of New New Money appealed to McAllister, insisting that they had grandmothers of impeccable lineage, an appeal reinforced by their dinners and dances duly reported in the social columns of the press.  But such appeals rarely succeeded.  More successful were those who went abroad with marriageable daughters and abundant funds, assets sufficient to entice into marriage titled but impecunious European noblemen.  Returning to this country, the family could then besiege the Mystic Rose and her chamberlain with their enhanced prestige, confident that these finicky social arbiters could not deny a newly ordained countess or baroness and her family.

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Cornelius Vanderbilt: too craggy, too unlettered, too rough to be accepted by Society, which bothered him not a bit.  But the grandkids and their wives got in.

         Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt tried a different approach.  Her husband’s family, the Vanderbilts, were socially suspect.  Though separated by two generations from the founder of their fortunes, the immensely wealthy railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, known endearingly as Old Eighty Millions, the old boy was only recently deceased, and well remembered as the oath-prone and unmannerly wharf rat that he was.  So in 1883 Mrs. Alva  announced that she would inaugurate her new-built Fifth Avenue mansion with a luxurious fancy-dress ball such as the city had never seen.  Impressed, the socially elite began ordering elaborate costumes and preparing quadrilles for the occasion, Mrs. Astor’s teen-age daughter and her friends among them.  Since her daughter was a friend of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s daughter, Mrs. Astor assumed that an invitation would come.  She waited and waited, but in vain; her daughter was devastated.  Discreet queries through mutual acquaintances brought an explanation: Mrs. Vanderbilt would be delighted to invite young Miss Astor, but how could she?  She didn’t know Mrs. Astor.  Thus enlightened, and with her daughter’s happiness at stake, the Mrs. Astor announced, “It’s time for the Vanderbilts!”  Summoning her coach, she drove up Fifth Avenue to the Vanderbilt mansion.  There, a liveried Astor footman delivered her engraved calling card to a liveried Vanderbilt servant, and the next day the invitation came.  The Vanderbilts had arrived.

         As a hostess the Mystic Rose could be friendly, but never intimate.   One senses about her a certain coldness masking the vacuum inside her, the emptiness of a life given over to inviting certain people in, so as to keep others, scores of them, out.  Yet by the 1890s she was an American legend, her doings reported throughout the country by a press she professed to despise, and her coveted ballroom achieving a status just short of a national monument.

         One mustn’t think that the wealthy of New York existed in a gilded cage like Louis XIV’s courtiers at Versailles.  One winter morning late in 1896 Mrs. Bradley Martin, a specimen of the “new element” cautiously admitted to the precincts of grace by McAllister, read in her paper that the nation was in the throes of a severe financial depression; trade was paralyzed, and the poor were suffering acutely.  Shocked, she wondered what she could do.  Wouldn’t a grand ball stimulate trade and relieve the suffering of the poor?  Embracing her version of today’s trickle-down economics, she determined to give such a ball, and a spectacular one at that.  Twelve hundred invitations went out for a costume ball on the evening of February 10, 1897, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, a palace of stupefying grandeur.  Guests were to come dressed like courtiers at the court of Louis XV.  Immediately Society was stricken with anticipation, and over twelve hundred people – or at least the seven hundred who attended -- began choosing an appropriate costume.

         Not everyone was delighted.  Far from being hailed as a philanthropist and savior of the poor, Mrs. Martin was denounced by editors, clergymen, and politicians who cited her ball and herself as examples of the heartless and flagrant extravagance of the rich.  Anarchists were rumored to be planning to plant bombs at her residence, and other radicals to hurl missiles through the windows of the Waldorf.  The hotel’s ground-floor windows were boarded up, and a squad of Pinkerton detectives were hired to scrutinize everyone entering the hotel that day, and to mingle with guests at the ball.  The hostess’s husband duly appeared as Louis XV, but his wife came as Mary Stuart, thus betraying a scandalous ignorance of history, since the Scottish queen had died long before Louis XV.   Still, she sported jewels worth fifty thousand dollars, including a necklace that once adorned Marie Antoinette, and diamonds once worn by Louis XIV.  Other guests came as Pocahontas, knights in armor, and other irrelevant personnages, and the Mrs. Astor (oh yes, she showed up), although garbed like a Van Dyck portrait, looked very much like an aging Mrs. Astor.  Three orchestras provided music, and the guests cavorted and danced and imbibed prodigious quantities of spirits until 6 a.m.  The hotel bill came to nine thousand dollars, which in those days was a prodigious sum. 

The Bradley Martin ball.

         Hailed as a success, the ball continued to be denounced in the press, and was even burlesqued on the stage, to the delight of those not invited.  When the city presumed to double the Bradley Martins’ tax assessment, the abused couple promptly decamped for permanent exile in England, but not before giving a farewell banquet at the Waldorf for a mere 86 guests, whose wealth was estimated at between five and ten million dollars each.  Exeunt the Martins in a flash of splendor and blame.

         Was Mrs. Bradley Martin so woefully uninformed and naïve in her endeavor to help the poor by giving a ball for the diamonded elite?  I argue no.  By the time you add in all the expenditures involved, her ball must indeed have stimulated at least a portion of the local economy.  For instance:

·      The fabulously costly costumes, and the wigs and jewelry to go with them.
·      The 1200 invitations sent out.
·      The coaches that conveyed the guests to the ball.
·      The vast suite at the Waldorf.
·      The supper and liquor provided.
·      The three orchestras hired.

         Those who benefited financially from the affair were dressmakers, seamstresses, and tailors; jewelers and stationers; the guests’ valets, coachmen, and other servants; Waldorf employees; Pinkerton detectives; caterers, florists, and musicians; carpenters or other workmen called in to create the elevated throne on which the hostess graciously received her guests; and who knows who else.   Surely this gave at least a momentary boost to the city’s economy, even if it left the poor as impoverished as ever.  On the other hand, the hosts’ hasty departure for Mother England deprived the city of a useful source of revenue in the form of taxes.

         Not everyone with money played the game of Mrs. Astor and her minions.  Next time we’ll take an imaginary tour of the New York night life in the late 1890s and meet the likes of Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell, who cavorted joyfully without the least regard for the Mystic Rose.

         And the Mystic Rose herself?  In her last days, failing, she was a victim of delusion.  Standing regally in a sumptuous gown, diamonded, at the entrance to her empty ballroom, she greeted guests who existed only in her imagination, and chatted cordially with ghostly presences of the highest rank. She died in 1908.

Coming soon:  Naked Nymphs, Lillian Russell, Blackmail, and the Great White Way.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017 and 2018, and at the Brooklyn Book Festival 2018.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

"To read No Place for Normal: New York is to enter into Cliff Browder’s rich and engaging sixty years of adult life in New York. Yes, he delves back before his time – from the city’s origins to the 19th Century that Ms. Trollope and Mr. Dickens encounter to robber barons and slums that marked highs and lows of the earlier Twentieth Century. But Browder has lived such an engaged and curious life that he can’t help but cross paths with every layer and period of society. There is something Whitmanesque in his outlook."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Michael P. Hartnett.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  What price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?


"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, but women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

5.  Fascinating New Yorkers: Power Freaks, Mobsters, liberated Women, Creators, Queers and Crazies (Black Rose Writing, 2018).  A collection of posts from this blog.  Short biographical sketches of people, some remembered and some forgotten, who lived or died in New York.  All kinds of wild stuff, plus some stuff that isn't quite wild but fascinating.  New York is a mecca for hustlers of every kind, some likable and some horrible, but they are never boring.

Fascinating NYers eimage.jpg


"Fascinating New Yorkers by Clifford Browder was like sitting down with a dear friend and catching up on the latest gossip and stories. Written with a flair to keep the reader turning the pages, I couldn't stop reading it and thinking about the subjects of each New Yorker. I love NYC and this book just added to the list of reasons why, a must read for those who love NYC and the people who have lived there." Five-star NetGalley review by Patty Ramirez, librarian.

"Unputdownable."  Five-star review by Dipali Sen, retired librarian.

"I felt like I was gossiping with a friend when reading this, as the author wrote about New Yorkers who are unique in one way or another. I am hoping for another book featuring more New Yorkers, as I couldn't put this down and read it in one sitting!" Five-star NetGalley review by Cristie Underwood. 

©   2018   Clifford Browder   


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