American society, as recorded in popular history, began in New York with the Astor family at the end of the 19th century. It started under the faux sovereignty of Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, who was known as Mrs. Astor.
Society. The word, itself, always implies money, as in financial fortunes—and, therefore, the men who created the financial fortunes. The Astors had amassed a very large financial fortune as a result of one man at the end of the 18th century: John Jacob Astor.
Caroline was born in New York in 1830. She was named for her mother’s best friend, who was married to senator Daniel Webster (a very great American statesman in his day). Her father, Abraham Schermerhorn, was in the real-estate business.
The Schermerhorns were a very wealthy, well-known Knickerbocker family descended from the Dutch settlers of New Netherland, or New York. In 1809, Washington Irving popularized the term when he wrote the satirical novel A History of New York, for which he used the nom de plume of “Diedrich Knickerbocker”—which was a term for the elite families of the early days. The Schermerhorns were also related to the Beekmans, the Van Burens, and Van Cortlandts. Their ancestry gave them heft in America’s biggest city, with a population of 202,000 in 1830.
Caroline, the youngest of eight, wasn’t pretty, but she was doted on by her governesses as well as members of her family. She was very spoiled as a child, with a tendency to be on the heavier side, and she grew to be stout and short. But she was curious and determined about the world outside her door. In 1853, the 23-year-old Caroline (who was always known as Lina) was married to the 24-year-old William Backhouse Astor, Jr., the grandson of John Jacob Astor.
William’s middle name was a tribute to a family in England that had been instrumental in the early success of his grandfather, who had created a fur trade that became a monopoly in the New World, extending across the Great Lakes into the Northwest. In China, he did brisk business with his fur hats in the opium trade. However, William’s bride Lina didn’t like the sound of the name Backhouse. She believed it bore a close resemblance to the word for the wooden shack that provided a means of relief for people without indoor plumbing (which was most people).
The marriage between Astor and Schermerhorn was considered a respectable merger of the two families. William’s mother, the former Margaret Armstrong, was a member of the Livingston family of the Hudson River Valley, whose landholdings (which included Clermont Manor and Livingston Manner) was comprised of 160,000 acres that had been granted to Robert Livingston the Elder by King George I of England in 1715.
When William Backhouse Astor, Sr., died in 1875, he left an estate rumored to be worth $100 million (or five times the worth of his father’s estate, which had been $20 million). Most was divided between his two sons: William Backhouse Astor, Jr., and John Jacob Astor III (who was older than William by seven years). John was the eldest, which positioned him as head of the family business known the “Astor Estate.” He was regarded as having the head for business.
Nevertheless, John was distinguished because of his fortune as well as—and especially for—his connections to the Livingstons. He was most interested in his own social position, which included living down his grandfather’s reputation for doing business with William “Boss” Tweed (the notorious head of Tammany Hall, the Democratic organization). After his fall from political power, Tweed (who was believed to be the third-largest landowner in New York) was convicted of stealing as much as $200 million (or billions of dollars in today’s currency) from the city. Tweed died in jail.
John had demonstrated his affinity for aristocracy by marrying well (his bride was from a very good family in Charleston, South Carolina). He also collected paintings by European artists, was well read, and by dressed the part. He and his wife, Charlotte Astor, were also active members of society, hosting dinners and dances. They summered at Beaulieu, their estate in Newport, Rhode Island.
Charlotte is important to the story that tells of the rise of her sister-in-law, Lina, because she had no interest in the social frivolity that would become the hallmark of Lina in 19th-century New York society. Charlotte was interested in the philanthropic opportunities that her husband’s great fortune allowed, so she funded hospitals and organizations that helped the children of the poor as well as the prostitutes of the city.
The marriage of William Backhouse Astor, Jr., and Caroline Schermerhorn produced five children in 10 years: four girls (Emily Astor, Helen Astor, Charlotte Astor, and Caroline “Carrie” Astor) and one boy (John Jacob Astor IV). Their son, known as Jack, would be the father of three children who were to become the most famous Astors of the beginning of the 20th century: William Vincent Astor (who was known as Vincent), Alice Astor, and John Jacob Astor VI (who was born after his father died in 1912, with the sinking of the Titanic).
After the birth of Jack, William and Lina started to lead virtually separate lives. William, who wasn’t permitted to participate in the family business, would spend his time away from his wife. His devotion was to Ferncliff, his estate in Rhinebeck, New York, and to his yachts—first, the Ambassadress, and then, the much larger Nourmahal (which translates to “Light of the Harem”). There, he could be found with a lot of “lights,” which were known to family and friends as “second-rate women,” or prostitutes. There, he found his real solace—along with large amounts of alcoholic beverages.
It was well known that he also had no interest in society and that life. His wife, apparently, had no problem with his long absences. She once remarked, when asked about his whereabouts, that he was off having a “delightful cruise,” saying, “The sea air is so good for him.” She wouldn’t set foot on the yacht, claiming that she didn’t have sea legs, and she was glad to have her husband out of the house when she was entertaining, since he would drink whatever was in sight.
Lina was never indiscreet about her husband’s long meanderings, for she had the ability to look away from anything she didn’t want to see: “Dear William is so good to me; I have been so fortunate in my marriage.” As Elizabeth Drexel Lehr wrote in her memoirs about the lives for the women during the Gilded Age, Lina “was always dignified, always reserved […] She gave friendship but never intimacy […] No one ever knew what thoughts passed behind the calm repose of her face.”
Lina had a plan. Power. She would never have characterized her actions as a quest for power, but that’s what they were. She was from a Knickerbocker family—which was more than could be said for the Astors, whose wealth was accompanied by the association with the corrupt Tweed. Lina’s experience with the aristocracy of Europe meant a familiarity with wealth untainted that could shape taste and fashion. She would become the arbiter.
In 1872, with the death of her mother-in-law, Margaret, Lina bid for her place as matriarch of the Astor clan (and without hesitation). The position should have gone to her sister-in-law, Charlotte, but—fortunately for Lina—she had no interest in what she referred to as “social frivolity.”
Now, Lina had daughters to marry off. The Civil War had changed everything in the world of the Knickerbockers. They were old news. They were yesterday. The population of the city was growing, nearing 1 million people. The wealth generated by the Civil War invited the success stories from around the country, including many from the South and the West. They were industrialists, profiteers—people on the make that were succeeding.
Among them was a man from a wealthy family in Savannah, Georgia, a cousin (through marriage) of Emily: Ward McAllister. McAllister was married to a Savannah heiress who had no interest in society but didn’t mind his spending her money to pursue his intense interest in it. He would become Lina’s amanuensis, which was a very early version of a public relations and marketing adviser.
McAllister had educated himself in the ways and means of the European aristocrats. He urged Lina to play the role of aristocrat. He understood she had the financial means to do it, given her access to the Astor fortune. A student of that style, they set out to create a new society in New York.
This new society would be the most exclusive and fashionable, consisting of what McAllister named the “Nobs” and the “Swells.” The Nobs were members of the old Knickerbocker families. The Swells were the new money, who often had a lot more money than the fortunes of the older families, so they could not be overlooked. The latter, now flushed with cash and aspiring, would be blended with the old (and, perhaps, not as rich). They were happy to be there to rub elbows.
McAllister advised his “client” to invest in fashions from Paris; paintings from European artists that could be hung in her large, private ballroom at the Astor brownstone on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue; and uniforms for the staff (Astor servants wore dark blue liveries with gold piping, which were not unlike those worn by the palace staff of Queen Victoria’s households). She hired a French chef for their 10-course meals. Guests would be served on the finest China from France and Germany and on gold plates. Musicians (singers and pianists) would grace her drawing rooms to entertain her guests.
McAllister was her tutor and she was his star (and only) student. They would create an atmosphere that was democratic (Nobs and Swells) while introducing the European model that evoked the finer instincts and promoted culture. The Europeans of that time looked down on Americans as “rough and ready” but coarse and vulgar with their wealth. Lina would show them what noblesse oblige was, and how beautifully it played out.
They created the Patriarch’s Balls, which consisted of 25 gentlemen chosen by Lina, mixing the Knickerbocker families with the new money (plus their choices of partners). The Patriarch’s Balls would be held in Dodsworth’s Dancing Academy, Delmonico’s (the restaurant), and in Lina’s ballroom. With the Patriarch’s Balls came the creation of the “junior” Patriarch’s Balls, which—again—melded the old money with the new, for the scions and the eligible daughters. Everything was to be decided by Lina (with McAllister coaching). The obvious exclusivity of these made them the lure of both sets. Guests were invited to Lina’s ballroom, where she would be draped in diamonds like a chandelier, seated in a chair—a throne, really—on a platform to greet her guests like a queen. It was theater, a well-designed and well-directed production.
Writing about it in his book, Society As I Have Found It, McAllister explained: “[…] in making them selected; in making them the most brilliant balls of each winter; in making it extremely difficult to obtain an invitation, and to make such invitations of great value; to make then the stepping-stone to the best New York society.”
It became known—thanks, again, to McAllister and the New York press (there were a dozen dailies in need of news to fill their columns)—that the ballroom had a limit to the number it could hold. That number was publicized to be 400. (In reality, the capacity was something like 369, but the even and larger number had more impact.) Roosevelts, Rutherfurds, Fishes, and Stuyvesants were more than happy to be present with the “new.” (That said, the “nouveaux” Vanderbilts were excluded until the young and feisty Alva Vanderbilt came along to challenge the list.)
The success is reflected in history. McAllister’s “400” became part of the American language referring to the rich. “The 400” is a phrase which could be and was adapted to every town and city across the nation—a reference to the awe of wealth. It would come to pass that Lina’s position in New York was such that, by the beginning of the 20th century, the New York Times described her as “a landmark of New York.” Her mentor McAllister wrote about her that she was, “in every sense, society’s queen. She had the power that all women should strive to obtain, the power of attaching men to her and keeping them attached; calling forth a loyalty of devotion such as one imagines one yields to a sovereign, whose subjects are only too happy to be subjects.”
Twenty years ago—more than a century after Mrs. Astor and McAllister drew up their “400” list—Quest introduced a “400” list, here, in the magazine. In 2015, when reviewing the “400 list” we introduced in 1995, it was interesting to note the differences between then and now. We had no private ballrooms like Mrs. Astor’s to reference, and no hostess sitting like a monarch on a throne to greet her guests. The social scene had expanded commensurately with the population of New York. Society had become much more democratic in the long run—and has become even more so in the past two decades. Our method of identifying those individuals and families for the earlier list was non-scientific. It was not totally dissimilar to the original in the sense that it was based mainly on how often people were seen at social events, as well as their prominence in the community. Quest’s “400” list even had a “Mrs. Astor,” or Brooke Astor: the only “Mrs. Astor” of the time, she was among the most prominent as the widow of Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor’s grandson, Vincent Astor.
But, in 1995, there were no social arbiters, by anyone’s agreement. Modern life was more complicated, including the state of modern marriage. Brooke, for example, had been Vincent’s third wife, preceded by Helen Huntington (whom he married in his early twenties). The marriage between Vincent and Helen, which lasted for 20 years, was more like the marriage of his grandmother and grandfather—except it was the wife who wanted to get away from the husband.
Then there was Minnie Cushing, who became the second wife of Vincent. For about 10 years, Minnie was “the mistress” (it was not a secret) while Vincent remained married. Finally, Minnie’s mother shamed Vincent into making Minnie respectable. After a decade of marriage, it was Minnie who wanted out. She was often credited with having “found” Brooke to succeed her, as Vincent didn’t want a divorce until he had a replacement. The task wasn’t so easy, since Vincent had a heavy, lackluster, somewhat lugubrious personality and was known to be “hard to live with.”
Minnie was famous as the eldest of the three sisters, daughters of the country’s first neurosurgeon: Dr. Harvey Cushing. The Cushing sisters were famous for their marriages to rich, eligible men. The youngest, Barbara Cushing (who was known as Babe) married Stanley Mortimer (heir to Standard Oil) before marrying William Paley (founder of CBS) to become Babe Paley. Babe and Minnie both died in 1978.
The middle sister, Betsey Cushing, was first married to James Roosevelt, the eldest son of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. They divorced after 10 years, and she married John Hay Whitney (who was known as Jock). Jock one of the richest men in the United States.
His grandfather, William C. Whitney, could have been among the “Swells” in the days of Mrs. Astor, as part of his self-made fortune was the result of investments in the early days of motorized public transportation in New York. Also, he served as Secretary of the Navy in the first administration of president Grover Cleveland. William was a New Englander, hailing from the little town of Conway, Massachusetts. His New York connection was his Yale schoolmate Oliver Payne, who was an early “partner” of John D. Rockefeller. William married Oliver’s sister, Flora Payne. A later feud developed between the two men after Flora died at an early age and William took up with Edith Randolph, who had been a mistress of J. Pierpont Morgan. This created a schism between William and Oliver that remained to the end of their lives, with Oliver offering William children his great fortune in his will—if they would separate themselves from their father. One of William’s sons, Harry Payne Whitney, sided with his father. His other son, William Payne Whitney (who was known as Payne) sided with his uncle, Oliver. Payne thus inherited his uncle’s fortune, which was larger than his father’s fortune.
I recount this family feud because, when Payne died at the young age of 50 in 1927, he left the largest private fortune in America at the time to his son, Jock, and his daughter, Joan Whitney Payson (who was a founder of the New York Mets). Jock died in 1977, leaving his widow, Betsey, and her two daughters by Roosevelt the bulk of his fortune.
Jock had been Dwight Eisenhower’s ambassador to the Court of St. James. He was also an early investor in Technicolor as well as partner in film production with David O. Selznick. It was Jock who actually bought the film rights to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Among his many investments, he was the last owner of the New York Herald-Tribune. Also, he invented the term “venture capital” (which was modified from “adventure capital) after founding such a firm, J.H. Whitney & Company, after World War II.
At the time of Quest’s first “400” list, Betsey Whitney was still with us—probably the last living grande dame in the city, living in a style that evoked the title. She resided in a kind of splendor, in homes including: a townhouse on East 63rd Street; a huge apartment on Beekman Place; a huge estate called Greentree in Manhasset, Long Island; and a shooting plantation in Georgia. And she possessed one of the best privately held art collections in the country. Her contemporary, Brooke Astor (who was six years her senior), could have been categorized as a grande dame as well, but Betsey was socially far more active, relishing her public role as a philanthropist and curious to know and meet the creative talent in the city.
Another member of Quest’s “400” list, a potential grande dame—and a contemporary of Brooke and Betsey—was Dorothy Hart Hearst Paley Hirshon (who would have hated the classification). Dorothy was a California girl, born in 1908 (which was the same year as Betsey Whitney). She was considered by many to be the most beautiful girl in Southern California. She married Jack Hearst, one of the five sons of William and Millicent Randolph Hearst, when she was 19. They moved to New York, where Hearst worked for his father.
Three years later, in 1931, she left Hearst for William Paley, then a budding radio broadcasting tycoon. That marriage lasted until 1947, when Paley left her for the recently divorced Babe. A few years later, Dorothy married Walter Hirshon, a specialist on the New York Stock Exchange.
Dorothy was active philanthropically in areas of health and education from the time she was in her early twenties. In the early 1940s, she and a black reverend from Harlem joined together and canvassed New York hospitals (where the medical staffs were segregated). Finally, they persuaded one to integrate their staff. That started the ball rolling until it became an entire fait accompli. She also started the first day care center in Harlem.
Dorothy, who died in 1998, was highly sociable and interested in politics. She knew personally every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. She was a major supporter of the United Nations at its founding, as well as an advocate of culture and human rights. In the early 1930s, when Adolf Hitler was coming to power, she was active in organizing the New School’s University in Exile for many Jewish academics escaping from Germany.
An inveterate reader, playgoer, and filmgoer, she was drawn to intellectuals, writers, and artists. It was she who persuaded her Paley husband to collect art, advising him on acquisition of much of what is, today, the William S. Paley Collection at the Museum of Modern Art. She was a charter member of Eleanor Lambert’s International Best-Dressed List. She was also a strongly committed rescuer of animals. At the time of her death, she had three canines and seven felines living in residence at her house in Glen Cove, Long Island.
Of the aforementioned grande dames on Quest’s “400” list, none was a committed social arbiter and only Brooke Astor agreeably participated in the daily social and charity life of New York.
If there were a potential social arbiter on Quest’s early “400” list, it would have been Aileen Mehle, the society columnist who wrote for more than four decades under the name “Suzy” (and, later, under the name “Suzie Knickerbocker” as her star rose and she succeeded from the New York Daily Mirror to the afternoon daily, the New York Journal-American). A little girl from El Paso, Texas, who grew up to become internationally famous for her wit and sophistication, Aileen possessed movie star beauty and glamour. She was the darling of international society for decades because of that wit and the discretion with which she used it. Her presence at any gala or opening added luster to its prominence and importance. There are more than a few prominent New Yorkers who owed their prominence to blessings provided by her pen.
Also on our list: the aforementioned Eleanor Lambert, who came to New York from Crawfordsville, Indiana, in her twenties to be a writer. During the Great Depression, she turned her need for work into a publicity and public relations business that would become a major influence in the growth of the American fashion industry. Eleanor worked up until two months before her death at age 100. Until the very end, when she needed to talk to someone about a project, she called herself. I will never forget seeing her at lunchtime in Swifty’s, a few days after her centennial, waiting for someone who was late for his or her appointment.
Another potential grande dame who devoted her life to her interests was Kitty Carlisle Hart, the widow of playwright Moss Hart. A film and stage performer and singer from her youth, Kitty was still working well into her eighties, also active as a spokeswoman for the arts in New York.
If there were a male social arbiter on this list, it might have been a title worn by John Fairchild, the longtime editor-in-chief of Women’s Wear Daily and the creator of W, the society magazine read all over the world. John, who was feared and admired at the same time, was less of a social arbiter and more of a professional newsman who built his father’s industry newspaper into a nationally read, daily publication.
His was the greatest influence in changing the public profile of the American garment industry into the American fashion industry, turning fashion designers into full-fledged celebrities often with businesses that became small industries themselves. With his editorial direction, he melded the fashion industry with contemporary society in a way that changed the definition of both that remains to this day. He also, like Andy Warhol (with his Interview magazine), transformed the editorial direction of the magazine business to reflect the great changes in society that began occurring in the 1960s.
Another man on the list who was potentially a social arbiter was restaurateur Glenn Birnbaum, the proprietor of Mortimer’s on Lexington Avenue at 75th Street. The restaurant was patronized by almost everyone on our list—provided that Glenn would have them. He could be nettlesome and cranky. I was once sitting at the bar in his restaurant chatting with him before the lunch hour, when none of the tables had yet been occupied. A couple came in who looked perfectly presentable, with the man neatly dressed in a suit and tie and the woman well turned out in a lovely dress. They had the expression of “tourist” on their faces, however. “Yes?” Glenn gruffly inquired from across the room, as if he didn’t know why they had came through the door of a public restaurant. The man asked if they could get a table for lunch. “Sorry, we’re fully booked!” he said, turning back to his conversation with me. I expressed surprise that he was fully booked since it was a warm summer day when business could be very quiet (which it was). “No,” he answered with no explanation. He just didn’t like their looks.
He could be just as gruff with his favorite customers too. One day, one of his fashionable ladies—a woman known for her chic and her taste—was seated waiting for her lunch partner when Glenn passed by. Without stopping, and in his typical grumbling tone, he commented: “I don’t like the color of your lipstick.” Without skipping a beat, the lady rejoined: “Well, darling, you shouldn’t wear it then.”
Nevertheless, everyone went to Mortimer’s. Jackie Onassis was a regular, and so were Beverly Sills; international party-giver Ludovic Autet; Anne Ford Johnson; acid-tongued but highly popular Jerry Zipkin; Pat Kennedy Lawford; Anne Slater (the dazzling blonde whose signature was her blue glasses); man-about-town John Galliher; Liz Fondaras; interior decorator Albert Hadley; Oscar and Annette de la Renta; Evelyn and Leonard Lauder; John F. Kennedy, Jr.; David and Helen Gurley Brown; Joan Rivers; Betty Sherrill and her husband, Virgil Sherrill (the investment banker); Kay Meehan; Diego Del Vayo; the crisply chic and gentle Lee Thaw (whose name the bitchy Jerry Zipkin liked to pronounce as“Lee-thul”); Chessy Rayner and her business partner, Mica Ertegun, with her husband, Ahmet Ertegun (the record impresario); the most worldly gentleman of pianissimo and the American Songbook, Bobby Short; Poppi Thomas; C.Z. Guest; Nan Kempner (who lunched there every day, all snazzed up because she never left her apartment at 79th Street and Park Avenue without looking smashing); and Pat Buckley, Nan’s “partner in chic,” who staged the annual Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (when all the Swells—and the Nobs—turned out looking glam).
They were all there all the time. All of these people were on Quest’s “400” list, including the literary chronicler Dominick Dunne, who was often strategically seated within earshot. He gathered so much for his best-selling novels, including People Like Us, from those lunches and dinners. The food—comfort food—was excellent and, despite the platinum clientele, the price was right. In fact, it was even very reasonable. (Glenn’s chef, Stephen Attoe, and his maître d’, Robert Caravaggi, are now proprietors of Swifty’s—which was named for Glenn’s pug—which is two blocks south of where Mortimer’s was on Lexington Avenue.)
Glenn had no desire to push steep prices on his customers. He wasn’t generous as much as he was shrewd. He knew very well that his prices were a strong part of his draw. He had his own philanthropy. He started an annual block party called “Fête de Famille,” which made money for AIDS care. When Glenn died, he left his $11 million estate to an AIDS care division of a New York hospital.
Another would-be arbiter was George Trescher, the public relations man who first saw New York from a United States Navy ship docked in New Jersey right after World War II. The sight of the city thrilled him so much that he said to himself: That’s where I’m going to be someday. George worked for years for Henry Luce’s Time magazine as a kind of public relations event director. After his retirement, he opened his own firm and handled many prestigious institutional accounts.
He also had the ear of Brooke Astor, who was a client. It was said that, in the early days of widowhood—when she was just beginning her ascent as Mrs. Astor (instead of the wife of Vincent Astor, who never liked her to socialize or even talk to friends on the phone)—Brooke was advised every step of the way by George, right down to the seating at her dinner parties. Once, after looking over her seating plan for a dinner, he told her to change the placement of one particular man and one particular woman because, although both were married, it was quietly well known, sotto voce, that they were having an affair. Mrs. Astor was fascinated and much amused. George knew everything. She also relied on his advice on all levels of public appearance including fashion, for which his client was forever grateful.
Then there was the top dinner hostess of the time, Alice Mason. Alice was New York’s premier private residence real estate broker. Canny and shrewd, she was a women who knew her business the way a scientist knows his research. Alice, in her long career, actually changed the rules of the co-ops in Manhattan by melting, even dissolving, the restrictions that turned so many people away in previous generations because of their religion, nationality, or race. Highly political, she raised more money for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign than any other individual—and she repeated the feat for the first Clinton-Gore campaign. In both instances, she did so at dinner parties in her apartment.
Her dinner parties were held once a month and 10 times per year (excluding July and August). They were the most sought-after private invitations in New York for years. Her guest list—which included socialites, financiers, authors, media executives, journalists, political figures of both sides of the aisle, film stars, and international diplomats—were always for 60 people. Her guests were seated at tables of eight in her living room, dining room, and library.
Alice mixed them all together, serving a menu that came to be provided by chef Daniel Boulud. Guests enjoyed the conversation with and introduction to the people who were making New York into New York. Her seating arrangements were her real secret, because everyone talked to everyone at her tables.
Alice drew from a list of several hundred, which she cultivated with care and sensitivity in order to make an interesting mix for her guests. Her dinners began with cocktails at 7:30 p.m. (sharp) and guests were finished and departing by 11 p.m., fully pleased by the pleasure of her company and that of her guests. It was a unique experience, even for New York, and there has never been anything quite like it since. (And from the looks of it, there probably never will be.) Alice is now in her early nineties, having begun her career in real estate in the 1950s (Marilyn Monroe was one of her very first clients, as was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt). She has retired from party-giving and is now pleased to sit back and observe the fray from the peace and quiet of that apartment that the world came to gladly for so many years.
This, Quest’s “400” list, continues.