The Evolution of Society

 

In 1960, Cleveland Amory published what became a best-selling book: Who Killed Society? Amory was an expert on the subject. Born in the second decade of the 20th century into a Boston Brahmin family, and a prolific writer, he penned a total of three entertaining and informative books on the mores and folkways of what was then considered “Society.” (The Proper Bostonians and The Last Resorts were the other two.)

They were called Society not so much by their members, but by journalists and the hoi polloi. Amory’s history was a compendium of who was who and how they got that way, going back to the late 18th and 19th centuries, when Society in America was regarded as those “good families” of Boston and Philadelphia.

These families also defined power; they were closely associated with industry and with the banks they owned and the lands they possessed. New Yorkers, to them, were still the upstarts, despite New York’s mid-19th-century Knickerbocker families, beginning with Peter Stuyvesant 200 years before the English. Then, in the last quarter of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution ushered in a lot of new wealth, by which New York grew into a mecca for banking and manufacturing. Power was in transition.

The Mrs. Astor—“Lina” to her friends—was descended from the early Dutch settlers who “bought” the island of Mannahatta from the natives for $24. When she married William Backhouse Astor, Jr., whose family was already third-generation real estate owners thanks to his grandfather, John Jacob Astor, Lina was marrying serious money, and he was marrying a “good” name.

Lina had a naturally powerful personality. She was a strong and durable woman living in a world where women had limited opportunities for their natural ambition. Bearing a family was one. Marrying rich was another, if she could handle the price.

Lina and William B. Astor—she had him drop the middle name—had five children: four daughters and a son, John Jacob Astor IV, who is remembered historically for going down on the Titanic and being the father of Vincent Astor, whose last wife was Brooke Marshall.

William Astor was a second son in a world where primogeniture was practiced à la the British and the French. The eldest ran the family business and the younger had time to spare. William B. killed a lot of his time on his world-traveling yacht with friends and a coterie of lovely young women. If he wasn’t on his boat, he was up at Ferncliff, the family’s 3,000-acre estate Rhinebeck.

There was nothing Lina could do about the situation. She hated the yacht (claiming seasickness) and hated Ferncliff. For all we know she hated her husband, too, and vice versa. She spent part of her year in Paris, with summers in Newport, and the rest of the time in New York, where she was the Queen of Society. Her “400” list established that. The number was said to be the capacity of her ballroom—“select.” Time has revealed that was a made-up number (it was more like 369). But 400 had legs, as we have learned more than a century later. For Mrs. Astor, it was one of the first Society marketing tools.

Lina Astor died in 1908 at the age of 78. During the last decade of her life, she slowly faded into deluding memory, relinquishing her position to younger women, all upstarts in her mind. None, unlike Lina Astor, was a native New Yorker: Alva Vanderbilt, Mamie Fish, and Tessie Oelrichs. They came on the social scene as the country and the city were moving into the Modern Age, the age of feminist revolution.

What is notable about that social triumvirate was their newer sense of freedom and power, which they acted on openly. They built big houses for themselves—especially Vanderbilt and Oelrichs. Alva also became a very prominent supporter of the women’s suffrage movement in America, marching in protest for the right to vote. It was the beginning of what was called women’s liberation movement in the 1960s. And it changed the world, along with women’s roles.

The industrial progress of the 20th century provided faster transportation (automobiles and planes), communication, and messaging (telegraph and telephones). The world was getting smaller and brighter. The next generation of Society, as well as the masses, enjoyed these conveniences, all of which led to greater women’s independence. They were radical at their time: short skirts (after centuries of to-the-floor, an almost overnight transformation to exposed leg above the knee), makeup (once considered only acceptable on “painted ladies,” or hookers), cigarette smoking, jazz, the radio, sex, and the Roaring Twenties, and all accompanied by Prohibition. It was the beginning of a major cultural transformation, and of Café Society.

Society now was defined in the public mind by the Social Register, a directory started by a newspaper columnist who was probably inspired by Lina Astor’s 400 list and Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage. It soon became the official arbiter of who was who in Society, with names of the rich and well-connected families. The acronym WASP (for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) defined its basic limits, flaunting bigotry as it were. Nevertheless, Society was the public face of the power structure.

Cleveland Amory once told me that when he was in prep school, his roommate, who was from New York, invited him to visit during school vacation. When his mother heard of it, she lamented her boy’s mixing with those “awful New Yorkers” whose only interest” was money.

Amory went on to become a commentator of the social elite. By the time he wrote his book Who Killed Society?, he’d concluded that what the first Mrs. Astor had wrought was now dead and gone. But not because of money: because of publicity. He cited three sisters who grew up in Boston, where their father, Dr. Harvey Cushing, was America’s premier brain surgeon. The three young women all married twice, to men with the names Roosevelt, Whitney, Astor, Fosburgh, Mortimer, and Paley. Their mother, it was said, propelled her girls to marry well. And high. And rich. And indeed they did. They became the darlings of Society propelled by Publicity—be it the society or tabloid columns or the fashion magazines. Amory coined a new word for them (which didn’t stick): Publiciety.

The success of the Cushing sisters in that area of life, suffused with tabloidal information, gave the public a good old-fashioned impression of what defined a woman’s success: marrying well. The notion still remains, but those same women today would also be actively involved in some aspect of the community and culture in a way that would portray them as individuals rather than as someone’s wife or accessory.

To many women, it is no longer enough to be someone’s arm candy or reputation elevator. A woman of Society today may use her position and assets to make a difference. The late Evelyn Lauder is a good example. The wife of a man who ran the cosmetics empire started by his mother and father, Evelyn was inspired by her own experience to start a foundation to fund breast cancer research for a cure. In her lifetime (Evelyn died in 2011), she and her associates raised hundreds of millions for funding research. Her achievement was immense, and the assistance to the future community was immeasurable. And her prominence as a woman exuded power and grace equal to that of any man.

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Social Register’s position was changing with the times. It was now famous in the tabloids for who was “dropped” due to family scandals, such as a divorce, or a marriage outside of one’s “class.” A number of prominent social names also requested that they not be included. It was a badge of sorts.

In today’s New York, there remains a community that, while not defined as Society, nevertheless reflects the tendency to assume a position that is social yet also philanthropic. It is also more diverse than ever, and continues along that path. New York is open—the center of immense and immensely varied philanthropy, greater than any other city or country in the world. Much of it is run and even created by women who a century or more ago would have been confined to their kitchens or their mansions, physically concealed almost entirely from what was “a man’s world.”

What now makes up “Society” is a world of men and women engaged in some way, even if only financially, in assisting, improving, or enhancing our world, our culture—and assisting those of us in need.

The personal pleasure of philanthropy is irrelevant to all but the giver. Its results, however, are the real prize for the community. If the giver is in it just to expand his or her social horizons, that’s still good for everyone else. Mr. Frick had a museum. It was good for his personal life, and for artists’ legacies. Now, almost a century later, it is good for the city and the city’s culture. And there was something else in it for him.

Some people give out of passion for the art form; Sybil Harrington, for example, was the Metropolitan Opera’s major patron of the ’80s and ’90s. But there are other motivations beyond passion for an art form or belief in a cause—including self-creation and image management. New York is a place where Society and its cultural institutions are hardly irrelevant. They provide a playing field for moneyed people to achieve a lasting effect and also to enhance their public profile.

John D. Rockefeller did just this when, at the end of his active career, Ida M. Tarbell, a leading muckraker, exposed the history of his business practices that portrayed him as a robber baron. Mr. Rockefeller’s response to the dark cloud it brought over his reputation was not to “defend” himself, but to give—to the community. One of his first “amends” was to finance and build the Rockefeller University Hospital, which, a century later, is benefiting the whole world. Over the decades, the Rockefeller philanthropies have totaled in the billions, reaped trillions of benefits for the world, and transformed Mr. Rockefeller’s reputation in history.

The world that was Society is now what we now call diverse. It can easily accommodate people whose money may be newer and who are seeking personal recognition and new connections. Arts institutions, which once relied on wealthy individuals of lofty reputations, are making a point of cultivating a much more diverse group of donors—and with few connections to previous generations of New York Society. Everyone wins. Many do it with their own reasons and to their own ends. For better or for worse, these people make the show go on, and some will even make a difference, even if coincidentally—and maybe even a big difference in the lives of many. Society today.