Gilded Age in Print


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Aug 29, 2000
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Books abound for Gilded Age culture vultures. The movie thread gave me the thought we should keep books separate. Non fiction and fiction tomes can give great insight into the Age. I have just finished Consuelo
Vanderbilt's The Glitter and the Gold. Poor Connie was coerced into marrying The Duke of Marlborough and was dragged off to Bleimhem Palace to please Mother. "How to Marry an English Lord" which is still in print is a MUST have for Gilded Age afficianados and details the cattle call of American heiresses sold to the high European bidder for his royal title and a run-down stately home (which her funds refurbished!). Riveting stuff. Some great novels as well- some detailing the seamier side of the Gilded Age. Dreiser's Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy show the grit and the glamor- although they can be depressing reads! An American tragedy is 800 pages- but there's lots of great period description. My all-time pageturner fav is Jack Finney's Time and Again- visit Old New York - it will keep you up all night.
 
Mar 20, 2000
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Dear we are both onto books at the same time! You however have cheated and started a new thread!
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I had to dig mine out of the dusty but rich ET attic!
 
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Great minds.... The Edwardian Childhood is delightful indeed as is the well-known An Edwardian Lady's Diary by Holden which spurred a whole industry of cards, notepapers, and other paper novelties about 12 years ago- the delicate watercolor nature scenes are worth the price of the hardcover. It is still easy to find. The companion book to the Scorsese The Age of Innocence is a must-have- sumptuous coffee table volume! Many books have come out on Edith Wharton- we will be passing her fabulous home (Pen Craig) on the Ocean Drive during the Newport Gilded Age convention in April. She chronicles the life of the upper class better than anyone I know. I would also point out online fun at the Victorian and Edwardian Ladies League (anyone may join online) at The Victorian and Edwardian Ladies League
Hours of pleasant reading, fluff and fashions for a cold winter's night.
 

Jim Kalafus

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If you are interested in Gilded Age architecture, interior design and urban planning, go to half.com and pick yourselves up the hardcover versions of New York 1880, and New York 1900 (both by Stern, Mellins, and Fishman) which are huge books filed with literally hundreds of good quality photos of all of the major, and many of the lesser, residences, hotels, theaters, commercal buildings. The premise behind the NY series is to outline the history of urbanism and architecture in NYC at roughly 25 year intervals and there are volumes covering 1880, 1900, 1930 and 1960. At about 1200 pages each they are nothing if not thorough. The 1880 volume has a great detailed cover photo of the William Vanderbilt residence, which is what sucked me into the series to begin with. For a nation wide view of Gilded Age urbanism, check out Grand Avenue, which is the 1000 page catalogue for an exhibit done in the 1980s (easily found on the used book sarch engines) which documented, in photos, the rise and (in most cases) fall of the "Streets of Mansions" in about 15 major American Cities. It is a great blend of scholarly text and nearly 1000 (mostly) unpublished high-quality photos. Consuelo Vanderbilt's mother, Alva, was quite an interesting character wasn't she? From vapid but ambitious social climber to crusading reformer, she certainly blazed a unique trail -although I think things would have worked out better for Consuelo had her mother had her 'liberating moment' a decade or two earlier.
 
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Hi Jim,

Thanks for that! That's a series I've heard about and now, with your recommendation, I'm determined to at least get the 1900 album.

Another reading suggestion I forgot to include is a really great book on the excesses of the American Gilded Age - Lucius Beebe's "The Big Spenders" (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1966). I'm sure you've read it Jim, and I think Shelley has. Beebe was some writer! The book is kind of a snooty read but the material is fun, if overblown, full of the anecdotal stuff we all love.

Randy
 
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As for books on the Gilded Age in print.

Since I haven't seen it here yet I will throw this one out for comment as it is an excellent work on this time period.

"THE GOOD YEARS From 1900 to the First World War"

By none other then the father of all Titanic books and research, the man who got most of us interested in this subject of "Titanic" in the first place Water Lord.

Lord, Walter, "The Good Years", Harper & Brothers, Publishers, New York, NY, 1960 LOC CCNO: 59-10585
 
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Run to buy The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Never has non-fiction read more like a novel. The White City is of course the World's Fair(Columbian Exposition) , Chicago 1893. The book opens on the Olympic, April 14, 1912 with famous architect Daniel Burnham receiving news that his telegran to his friend Francis Millet cannot be sent as the Titanic's operator was refusing to accept wireless traffic. Well -what a grabber! The second page contains a photo of Millet and the other architects who built the White City which I have never seen before. Burnham said, "Make no little plans; they have no power to stir men's blood"- he should know as builder of the Flatiron Bldg.in NYC and Union Station in Washington D.C. The book tells parallel tales of 2 men- Burnham, the good guy in the White City, and famous serial killer Harry H. Holmes who lured scores of women to their deaths in his "World's Fair Hotel". If you have never heard of the case- turn on the light, pour out a glass, and settle in for the night!
 
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shelley harris

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I wanted to add a few books too. I am working on All this and Heaven too by Rachel Field. It's a true story about the author's aunt Henriette Desportes who was a governess for a french royal family, later accused of conspiracy to murder and then went on to marry American Henry Field and became part of the New York society. Also, I've read Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt but was left wondering what happened to her after she came to america. So I emailed Blenheim Palace and they advised me to get a copy of Consuelo, Portrait of an American Heiress by James Brough. It was out of print so I got it used thru Amazon.com. Great read and it was neat to reference it with Consuelo's book. A fiction novel was recently written using Consuelo, the duke, and Churchill as characters called, " Weekend at Blenheim." It was an amusing mystery.
 
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Bob Cruise

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No appreciation of the Gilded Age can come without learning what happened as those legendary mega-inheritances were eventually dragged kicking and screaming into the "modern age".

No book captures this "syndrome" better than "Little Gloria Happy At Last" by Barbara Goldsmith (1980), which details how the last of the truly rich Vanderbilt clan paid a dear price for her inheritance.

For that matter, any book on the Vanderbilts (who, more than any other Gilded Age family, exemplified the term "excess") helps one understand the reality of life at the top of the food chain during the Gilded Age.

Other Vanderbilt tomes:

The Biography of Commodore Vanderbilt by W. J. Lane (1942)
The Vanderbilt Legend (1941) by W. Andrews
The Vanderbilts and Their Fortunes (1962) by E. P. Hoyt
Man of the World; My Life on Five Continents by C. Vanderbilt, Jr. (1959)

Read and you will learn how even privileged lives are not immune to ironic tragedy.
 
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Shelley ( now there are two of us!) Have you seen the movie version of All This and Heaven Too with Bette Davis? It is on VCR- and is FABULOUS. Yes, poor Connie got happy at last with her handsome Jacques. One may see her bedroom in the Newport mansion still intact as it was when Momma shipped her off to become Duchess of Marlborough. She had the most exquisite swanlike neck and glorious features. If you have not read How To Marry an English Lord- do run right out for it- all of our Gilded Gals and their ultra-gilded nuptials are in it! I visited Blenheim in 2000 and saw amazing portraits of Consuelo there- the place is extraordinary but not worth life with Sunny!
 
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shelley harris

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This is to Bob, I actually did read the story of Little Gloria years ago. And now that I think about it, it is what got me interested in the Vanderbilts in the first place. I also read her second biography about when she got older and married. The message really is that Money doesn't buy happiness, isn't it? To Shelley: I want to see that movie All this and Heaven too, but I want to finish the book first. I got the copy of How to marry an English Lord last year and read it all the time! It is a must have for sure. It is great to use as a reference book to put in place all the people and try to figure out who knew who. I have a question to put out there. Does anyone know about the Spedden family that was on the Titanic? I have a book called Polar about the little bear that survived the titanic and I know the family lived at Wee Wha lodge in Tuxedo park. I was looking to see if there was a picture of their house there or if it even still existed.
 
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Bob Cruise

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As we speak - er... "post" - a new book has just come out detailing yet another instance of Gilded Age "excess" and the consequences it wrought.

The book is "After The Ball" by Patricia Beard.

It relates the turn-of-the-century story of James Hazen Hyde, the only surviving son of Henry Baldwin yde, founder and major stockholder of the Equitable Life Assurance Society.

Sonny Boy - who had virtually no business insight (unlike his father) - spent some of the company's reserves on an extremely lavish ball in January of '05.

When the truth became known, the New York state pols reacted with legislation.

Yet another example of how people with too much money can never get their hands on enough money.
 
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shelley harris

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I don't know if this is really under the title of gilded age in print but definetly gilded age in photographs. I stumbled upon a great website last night I couldn't wait to share with you. It's http://pro.corbis.com. It is a site that has historical archives of photographs. I typed in Vanderbilt under search and it came up with 660 pictures. Astor had about 550 pictures. Next I will look up Titanic pictures. Check it out, let me know what you think.
 
Mar 20, 2007
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I'll gladly second many of the recommendations made above but I'm happy to add some of my own!

As far as fictional treatments go, I'd put a fair number of Edith Wharton's novels at the top of the list. Her most famous work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'The Age of Innocence', is set in the Old New York of the 1870s and Wharton continued to write until the end of her life, sometimes setting her stories in the modern day (that is, in the inter-war years), but the action of the majority of her novels takes place in the 1900s and early 1910s. The exquisite and agonising 'The House of Mirth' hit the shelves around 1905 and is by far my personal favourite - it certainly secured Wharton's reputation as the 'grande dame' of American literature. 'The Custom of the Country', telling of the havoc wreaked in high society by the beautiful and unscrupulous Undine Spragg, was a best-seller in 1913. Wharton was a meticulous chronicler of the manners and mores of her peers and often portrayed the devastating impact of social pressures on the 'inner lives' of her protagonists. Her last work, 'The Buccaneers', is the only one to deal at length with the experience of newly-moneyed American beauties marrying into the English aristocracy of the 1870s and 1880s, but it is none the less wonderful for being unfinished at the time of Wharton's death. It has recently been completed by at least two separate authors - I've read both versions and the one produced to accompany the BBC dramatisation of 1995 is vastly superior to the other.

Wharton's partial (in the sense that she wrote it in middle age) autobiography, 'A Backward Glance', reads just as well as one of her novels and is filled with luscious details about fashionable and intellectual life at the turn-of-the-century.

Henry James, Wharton's close friend and compatriot who, like her, moved in the higher ranks of sophisticated Anglo-American Society, still commands more respect from students and critics of English literature but the prose style of some of his later works is particularly ponderous - even painfully so. You'll need a very clear head and no distractions before embarking on 'The Wings of the Dove' (1902) or 'The Golden Bowl' (1904)! Both Wharton and James wrote about life in precisely the kind of cultivated, cosmopolitan milieu inhabited by 'Titanic' passenger Frank Millet - I always think of him whenever I read one of their novels.

More recent works set in the Edwardian Era include L.P. Hartley's 'The Go-Between' of 1953, which brilliantly evokes the sun-drenched summer of 1900, and the sexual and social tensions smouldering between the classes, and Isabel Colegate's 'The Shooting Party', which takes place on a country estate in the autumn of 1913. Both books are firm favourites of mine and have been adapted for the big-screen. The 1970 version of 'The Go-Between', starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie, is a rare example of a film that is every bit as good as the book which inspired it. 'The Shooting Party', dating from the mid-Eighties, has an all-star cast and the book has recently been re-published in the UK with a foreword by professional toff, Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his screen-play for the Robert Altman film, 'Gosford Park'.

Although he is chiefly associated with the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 1930s, it is worth noting that F. Scott Fitzgerald's earlier works are set in the America of the 1910s. I was very much struck by this as I read 'The Beautiful and Damned', which makes many detailed references to the fads and fashions galvanising New York Society in the period leading up to and during World War One.

Aside from Edith Wharton's 'Backward Glance', my favourite memoir of the Gilded Age is, most fittingly, our very own Lady Duff Gordon's 'Discretions and Indiscretions' (1932). Second-hand copies are very hard to find, and prohibitively expensive, but I would advise anybody with more than a passing interest in late-Victorian and Edwardian fashion and Society to make the investment - you won't regret it! Consuelo Balsan's 'The Glitter and the Gold' is easily obtainable and is deservedly popular. Consuelo was the wealthiest and most celebrated of the Dollar Princess sold into marriage with titled Englishmen and her story contains splendour and sorrow in roughly equal measure. The antics of her cousin-by-marriage, the pathologically social Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, who assumed leadership of 'the Four Hundred' upon the death of Caroline Astor in 1908, are detailed, not entirely sympathetically, by her son in his book, 'Queen of the Gilded Age' (or alternatively 'Queen of the Golden Age' - I'm afraid I haven't got my copy to hand to check the exact title!)

Lady Diana Cooper (nee Manners), the most famous beauty of her day, writes of her childhood and youth among the Edwardian elite in 'The Rainbow Comes and Goes' but I find her style to be a little too precious and smug for my taste...she includes far too many of the frankly tedious love-letters she exchanged during the Great War with her future husband, Duff!

Anita Leslie's 'Edwardians in Love' is a never less than delightful exploration of the amorous adventures (and misadventures) of the Souls and Marlborough House Set, from the 1860s until 1910. The author was the great-niece of Lady Randolph Churchill and benefitted immeasurably from the family gossip passed on down the generations.
 
Jun 11, 2000
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Undine Spragg!!!

Only read Scott Fitzgerald and Anita Leslie out of your list, Martin. The Spencers, Churchills and Leslies have the most complicated interconnections I've come across, and her book just made them more difficult to understand. Enjoyable, though. How they suffered for their place in society, what with Jenny Churchill's poor little sister putting up with the Duke of Connaught's infatuation all those years. Must read Diana Cooper's memoir, though, if it's precious and smug, just to find out why Granny (Duff's nursemaid) said disparagingly, "Diana - humph!"

Never knew until this week that William Deedes was Waugh's model for the incomparable Boot of the Beast in Scoop. But who was Lord Copper? So many candidates ....
 

Inger Sheil

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A great list, Martin. One of many reasons I so enjoy Fitzgerald's work is because he choronicles the immediate pre-20s era as well as the Jazz Age itself - so much of what we think of as exclusvely 1920s had its origins in the teens. Diana Cooper first interested me because of her appearance as the inspiration for a flapper character in Fitzgerald's 1922 collection of short stories Tales of the Jazz Age in "The Jelly-Bean":

http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/f/fitzgerald/f_scott/jazz/chapter2.html

Anita Leslie's father, Shane Leslie, is another figure of the period who interests me - I was delighted to come across him recently while reading a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. Shane Leslie had connections with Michael Collins, and was part of the Lavery's circle.
 
Mar 20, 2007
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Angela Lambert's 'Unquiet Souls: The Indian Summer of the British Aristocracy' should really be added to my list above. It is a superb account of the social, political and romantic activities of the more artistic and intellectual members of late Victorian and Edwardian Society. The careers of Balfour, Curzon, Harry Cust, Ettie Desborough, Margot Asquith, Violet Rutland and Mary Elcho are all thoroughly documented in this wonderful book. Particular interest for me lies in Lambert's exploration of the way in which the older generation reacted to the whole-sale slaughter of their sons and heirs in the holocaust of the Great War. Magnificent and moving reading.
 
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A few more suggestions from me - I'll keep adding to my list as titles occur to me!

Vita Sackville-West's 'The Edwardians' (1930) is the very best fictional treatment of life in high society at the turn-of-the-century. Sackville-West had the immeasurable advantage of actually having been born and raised at Knole, one of England's grandest and most historic houses, and it makes the transition to the pages of her novel as the ducal seat of Chevron more or less intact. It is fun to try and identify some of the characters who were obviously inspired by real-life grandees. Romola Cheyne, for example, is unquestionably royal mistress Alice Keppel, the mother of Sackville-West's lover, Violet Trefusis. The final scene is set at the Coronation of George V in Westminster Abbey in the summer of 1911 and other set-pieces include a state ball at Buckingham Palace, a country-house weekend and a gala performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Great stuff!

Walter Lord's 'The Good Years' has been mentioned above and is an excellent work, which naturally makes reference to the 'Titanic' and some of her more prominent passengers in the chapter devoted to the cosmopolitan society of the day. Lord's eye for the idiosyncratic details of daily life in America - not just for the rich but for the masses too - makes for thoroughly engaging reading.

I have two books on my shelves which chronicle the evolution of American Society from the early nineteenth-century onward - 'Mrs Astor's New York' by Eric Homberger and 'The First Four Hundred' by Jerry E. Patterson. The former work, although very scholarly and containing much interesting and essential information, is rather misleadingly titled. Caroline Astor only makes her appearance in one of the final chapters and the greater part of the book is concerned with life in the upper echelons of society in the early to mid-Victorian Era. Look elsewhere if you want to read of the antics of the flamboyant Mamie Fish and Harry Lehr. Patterson's 'First Four Hundred', although slightly marred by sloppy editing (which is regrettable in an otherwise lively and well-illustrated book), provides a complete listing of the eponymous 'Four Hundred', as compiled by Ward McAllister in the 1890s, and does much to dispel the idea that New York Society was a waste-land barren of all cultural or intellectual interest. There are a few choice nuggets relating to the John Jacob Astors (Ava, not Madeleine) and J. Clinch Smith, although - like Homberger - Patterson doesn't deal which much that took place after 1900.

Thinking once more of the famous 'Dollar Princesses' of the era, the sweet-natured and beautiful Mary Curzon (nee Leiter), who became the Vicereine of India and so one of the highest-ranking women in the British Empire, has been sympathetically dealt with by Nigel Nicolson in his prize-winning biography called, simply, 'Mary Curzon'. The story of Lady Randolph Churchill (nee Jennie Jerome), another American lovely who married into the aristocracy to become the mother of the great Winston, is told by her great niece, Anita Leslie, in a style as chatty and engaging as she employs in her delightful 'Edwardians in Love'. James Fox chronicles the lives of the Langhorne Sisters of Virginia in an eponymous work that takes in a vast amount of terrain - nothing less than a social and political history of the English and American elite, from the Civil War in the 1860s to the aftermath of World War II, nearly a century later. Nancy Astor's voice tends to drown out those of her siblings but that is perhaps to be expected!

Any of the novels of E.M. Forster - most particularly 'A Room with a View' (1908) and 'Howard's End' (1910) - detail in fictional form life among the English middle classes during the first decade of the twentieth century. This could be a challenging era, a fact that tends to get lost in our nostalgic haze, and Forster brilliantly portrays the tensions between the progressive and the conservative members of the bourgeoisie. Vera Brittain's 'Testament of Youth' is the nearest 'real life' equivalent I can think of and could be used as valuable source material for anybody researching the lives of 'Titanic' passengers like Thomas and Edith Pears, Elsie Bowerman and Edith Chibnall.

Ranging further afield from the confines of Mayfair or Fifth Avenue, Flora Thompson's much-loved classic, 'Larkrise to Candleford', is an exquisite, compassionate and honest account of life for agricultural labourers in an Oxfordshire village of the 1870s and 1880s. The gentry and middle-classes make occasional appearances throughout the book but, by and large, Thompson concerns herself with the activities of the poor cottagers among whom she was raised. We might imagine that this would be a grinding account of filth, squalor and deprivation but the author shows us that the village house-wives strove to make their homes and their families as respectable, clean, comfortable and well-fed as possible and, in spite of the hardships, that country life had many compensations. 'Larkrise to Candleford' is a book very dear to my heart and I would urge anybody with an interest in social history to seek it out at their local library or bookshop.
 
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