Rich People in Society

Brian Ahern

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Dec 19, 2002
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I didn't know about these people, but needless to say, I will enjoy finding out about them the next time I have an idle hour.

Thanks, Martin!
 
Mar 20, 2007
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You're very welcome, Brian. You've given me a very great deal of pleasure with your own contributions and insights so it is nice to be able to return the favour!

The best book about the Sassoons is 'Philip and Sybil' by Peter Stansky. They were an extraordinary pair - the English aristocracy has seldom in its history produced individuals of such elegance and style.
 
Mar 20, 2007
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I find myself captivated by a gem of a book I've just discovered on-line: 'The Ultra-Fashionable Peerage of America' by the magnificently named Charles Wilbur de Lyon Nicholls. First published around 1905, this is really a comprehensive survey of the premier 'social' families of the Gilded Age, based not just on their pedigrees but on their fashionability - the author magisterially holding that 'birth and hereditary rank...(are)...mere accidents not belonging to the essence of smartness'. As such, it is probably the nearest thing we will ever have to a 'definitive' answer to the question of who in first class was REALLY considered to be 'in Society' at the turn-of-the-century.

Most helpfully, Nicholls commences by subdividing his survey into five sections, explaining that, just as the British peerage is arranged by rank, from duke to baron, so the American elite can be classified into separate tiers like so:

1. The Ultra-Smart '150'

2. The '400', supplemented by regional equivalents from cities other than New York

3. The Outer Fringe of the '400'

4. The Colonial and Knickerbocker Families

5. The wealthy upper-middle class, or 'Society in the crude'

Which 'Titanic' personalities, we might then wonder, make the cut? Unsurprisingly, Caroline Astor really tops the list, her name appearing in capital letters as the undisputed Queen of American Society, hotly followed by her 'vice-regents', Mrs Ogden Mills, Mrs Ogden Goelet, Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt and Mrs John Jacob Astor (the Colonel's first wife, the former Ava Willing of Philadelphia and the future Lady Ribblesdale). We then move alphabetically through the ranks of the great, the good and the glamorous, taking in a slew of Vanderbilts, Drexels, Oelrichs, Stuyvesants and Fishes as we go. I was pleased to encounter the names of Mr and Mrs Philip Lydig among the Ultra-Smart '150', Mrs Lydig being the extraordinary Rita d'Acosta Lydig, a creature of almost mystical elegance who was painted by Boldini and immortalised by Cecil Beaton in his 'Glass of Fashion'. Naturally, less space is devoted by Nicholls to the 'provinces' (only four entries under Boston, three for Chicago and a mere one for Pittsburgh - Harry K. Thaw, who was shortly to shoot Stanford White, J. Clinch Smith's brother-in-law) but the George D. Wideners and the William E. Carters are firmly identified by him as belonging to the very highest echelons of Philadelphian Society.

It is interesting to note that, by 1905, Nicholls could dismiss out-of-hand the overwhelming majority of those 'Colonial' families who might, thirty or forty years previously, have laid legitimate claim to status as the American aristocracy - just as Wharton chronicled in 'The Custom of the Country' of 1913, the likes of the Dagonets and the Van der Lydens had been supplanted by colossally rich industrialists and property magnates of questionable lineage and ferocious social ambition.

Using fashion as his criteria, Nicholls names those members of Society distinguished for their stylishness and chic. Again, the John Jacob Astors (both him and her) come out tops but the Henry Siegels (father and stepmother to Julia Cavendish) also rate honorary mentions. Mr Siegel (thanks to Brian Ahern's research, we know that here was ONE social star soon to take a dramatic tumble) is held up as a 'particularly well-groomed man with a penchant for foot-gear, often having stowed away in his wardrobe as many as forty pairs of new shoes of superior quality and workmanship.' Mrs Siegel, too, is praised as being 'of national repute in the world of fashion...combining good dressing with personal beauty to a noticeable degree'. The contents of her jewellery case are also described in some detail, with baubles once belonging to the Empress Josephine, Marie Antoinette and the Duchess of Cambridge now noted as being in her possession. Mrs Siegel took a house on Park Lane for the London Season of 1903 or 1904 which was apparently 'much frequented by peers and peeresses of the realm'. Perhaps this is where the lovely Julia (formally presented at Court in 1906) met her future husband, although it is worth noting that Tyrell Cavendish was reported to have visited Newport and registered at the Casino there as early as 1900.

I find it satisfying to observe that Nicholls does allow a place in American Society for the upper-middle class - a position they might not have occupied quite so comfortably across the Atlantic. Of late, I've carried out some research among newspaper archives of the 1900s and 1910s and the names of many 'Titanic' passengers missed by Nicholls but known to be both wealthy and socially active appear with some frequency in 'The New York Times'. I can't list them all here but the likes of Frederick Spedden (presenting a prize at the Tuxedo Yacht Club Dinner), Colonel Gracie (bringing out his daughter at the Gotham only months before his death), the Smiths (Mrs J. Clinch, opening the Newport Season of 1902 with a 'Harvest Dance'), the debutante Mary Farquharson (later Marvin, also yachting at Newport) and Margaret Hays (as a bridesmaid) make fairly regular appearances and their parties, weddings and eventual deaths were certainly deemed to be worthy of interest to a wide readership.
 
Mar 20, 2007
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I've recently been perusing the Society columns of 'The New York Times' (now available in their entirety on-line - an invaluable resource for anybody with even a passing interest in the lives and activities of the first-class passengers) and have turned up all manner of fascinating nuggets of information on the contingents from New York and Philadelphia.

John B. Thayer was, as I believe has been mooted on the board before, something in the way of a top-flight amateur cricketer and his achievements in the field have even secured him a Wikipedia entry of his own. He was the son of Mr and Mrs John B. Thayer of Haverford, Pennsylvania, and it was in the Merion Cricket Club that his reputation was made during the mid-1880s, with seven fabulous performances on the pitch.

In November, 1901, 'The Times' noted the engagement of John's brother, George Chapman Thayer, to Miss Gertrude M. Wheeler of Philadelphia. This fascinates me, since a family connection was thus forged with the international beau monde at the highest levels. John's new sister-in-law was herself the sister of the Countess Pappenheim, who lead a glittering career in Society before the Great War. More of her later. As an aside, the William E. Carters of future 'Titanic' fame are recorded in the same column as having arrived in New York for the Horse Show whilst, in Virginia, Nancy Astor's sister, Phyllis Langhorne, is marrying her first husband, Reginald Brooks, with considerable pomp and ceremony.

Meanwhile, on 18 April, 1900, the marriage had taken place at St. Thomas's Church (which I assume is in New York) of a Miss Lillian Longstreth, 'a connection of the old Longstreth family of Philadelphia'. Again, I'm taking a risk and placing the bride as some sort of cousin of Marian Longstreth Morris Thayer. Interestingly, the groom was one Charles N. Carter and the William E. Carters were numbered among the wedding guests. Which leads me to speculate that there may have been a relationship, albeit distant, between the two families. Marian's own pedigree appears to have been impeccable but I've yet to run her, her parents or her siblings to earth...a Dr and Mrs Morris Longstreth were entertaining a party at their cottage in Newport in the summer of 1899 but where they fit into the picture (if at all) I can't yet say with confidence. Brian - for I know you're out there - can you possibly shed any light?

Fast-forwarding a few years and the Countess Pappenheim, George Chapman Thayer's sister-in-law, is having a blast during the London Season of 1909. 'Looking handsome in green velvet', she hosted a dinner-party for forty at the Ritz, followed by a 'boy-and-girl' dance for her young daughter. This column, dated 16 May, is particularly heavy with 'Titanic' connections, since P.A.B. Widener, 'in feeble health' and accompanied by both his sons and their own families, is noted as having left the Ritz to return to the States, whilst Ava Willing Astor is said to be expected in town any day, where she would keep a relatively low social profile until the period of mourning for her late mother-in-law, Caroline Astor, had expired.

The John B. Thayers were back in Philadelphia during the winter of 1911/1912 and attended a ball at the Bellevue-Stratford, where Marian's glorious gown lead her to be acclaimed as 'the most splendidly fashionable woman' in town. They then sailed to Europe, where they visited acquaintances in Germany, before returning home - with tragic consequences - on the 'Titanic', along with their old friends, the George D. Wideners, the Arthur L. Ryersons and the William E. Carters.

What happened in mid-Atlantic on the night of 14/15 April is too well-known to be repeated here. Suffice to say that, after the disaster, the bereaved Marian entertained Captain Rostron and Dr McGee of the 'Carpathia' at her home in Haverford, having accompanied both men from New York, where they had all dined with Madeleine Astor on Fifth Avenue. Florence Cummings, the widow of John Bradley Cummings, also attended. During their stay in Pennsylvania, Marian and Rostron went for a motor drive with Eleanor Widener (who had been too unwell to attend the Astor party) and dined at home with, among others, George C. Thayer and fellow 'Titanic' survivor Mrs Walter B. Stephenson.

Moving forward again to the summer of 1913, Jack Thayer and his brother Frederick are recorded as having arrived in Newport, where they remained as the guests of Mrs A. J. Cassatt - who, I assume, is the mother of Lois Cassatt, Jack's future wife. Madeleine Astor, fresh out of mourning, is also in town and is seen watching the tennis tournament in a 'gown of sky blue figured chiffon voile, draped with a flowing veil of the same colour and a blue hat partially covered with a chocolate veil'. Come the winter of 1917, the engagement of Jack and Lois is announced in 'The New York Times' directly above the notice of the engagement of the late Colonel Gracie's daughter, Edith, to Dunbar B. Adams.

The web of 'Titanic' connections is tangled indeed!
 

Brian Ahern

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Dec 19, 2002
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Thank you so much for this, Martin. As you may remember, last week was a holiday States-side so I've been too busy to visit ET. Isn't the NY Times archive a treasure trove? I finally sprung for a membership shortly before the archives were opened. Should have done it years ago. I could go on forever about the topics you've touched on here, but I've got a busy day ahead. I better log off while I still can and come back later.

Regards...
 
Mar 20, 2007
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A pleasure, Brian. There's plenty more where that came from! I'm busy unearthing a veritable treasure-trove of information about the likes of the Lucile Carters, the Thayers, Eleanor Widener, Florence Cumings, Madeleine Astor, Archibald Gracie, Thomas Cardeza, Dorothy Harder, Mary Marvin, Clarence Moore and J. Clinch Smith...it is just a question of having the time to write it all up!
 
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Reverting to the question of the status of Jews in American Society at the turn-of-the-century. I appreciate that this is potentially an incendiary topic and I don't what to court controversy. However, as I've perused the columns of the period press, I've noticed that the social activities of the Guggenheims, Strauses and families like them received far less coverage than those of the Astors, Wideners and Carters etc. True, I've discovered a report of a Guggenheim daughter's coming out dance, held a few months after the 'Titanic' disaster (I think it was Peggy G's sister, making her debut at the Plaza - I'll need to recheck the source) but, even in this instance, the party seems to have been attended almost solely by representatives of other wealthy Jewish families - including, interestingly, various Strauses. The term 'Our Crowd' has been applied, I believe, to an alternative Jewish social elite which evolved in New York in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - I even think that Benjamin Guggenheim's wife, Florence Seligman, had reason to look down on her husband's family who, despite their great wealth, didn't belong to it. Am I correct in assuming that there WAS some kind of 'faith divide' in American Society during this period? It seems that, if an individual of Jewish extraction really wanted to 'get on', then they might have been advised to change their religion. I'd refer to Julia Cavendish's decidedly Christian marriage ceremony in her father's house on Boxing Day, 1906, as a case in point.
 
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Easley South Carolina
>>Am I correct in assuming that there WAS some kind of 'faith divide' in American Society during this period?<<

I would just about take that as a given on a lot of levels. It wasn't just Jews versus Christians either, but divisions within communities among verious Christian denominations as well. Not just Protestant versus Catholic, but Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, etc versus each other, with each group being certain they had some sort of divinely inspired lock on "The Truth."

Ecumenical councils which we don't even give a second thought to these days were just about unheard of.
 

Brian Ahern

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Dec 19, 2002
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I remember writing a paper in high school about the Irish in America. One book I used in my research (the title and author long forgotten) posited the Irish attitude to assimilation against that of the Jews, contrasting the way the Jews deliberately held aloof from mainstream society with the way the Irish "banged at the door for admittance".

I think it's a given that New York's upper class Jews largely kept a deliberate distance from their gentile counterparts. This was probably motivated more than anything by the desire to see their offspring marry appropriately.

There were of course exceptions. It's been written that Dorothy Parker's Jewish grandparents - the parents of Titanic passenger Martin Rothschild - not only allowed their children to marry Christians, but actively encouraged it. The fact that they felt such a step necessary indicates that Jews who might happily have mixed outside their faith would have encountered barriers. They apparently took the same tack as The House of Mirth's Rosedale, who seeks to gain a firmer footing among the Trenor-Dorset crowd by making Lily Bart something of a WASP trophy wife.

Then there is the interesting 1908 Times piece on Ben Guggenheim's rumored change of faith.
https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/item/4481/
While it was just a rumor, the fact that it was started at all indicates (to me, at least) that there were those before him who did take the step.

I'm trying to think of high-profile American interfaith marriages of the time where the offspring were raised Jewish. UK-side, there was the Honourable Venetia Stanley, Clementine Churchill's cousin who converted when she married the Honourable Edwin Samuel Montagu, MP, younger son of the 1st Baron Swaythling. Montagu had to marry a Jewish woman to avoid being disinherited.
 
Mar 20, 2007
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Inevitable, perhaps, that two of the greatest Jewish dynasties in New York should end by being united in marriage. In early 1914, Roger W. Straus (the son of Isidor's brother, Oscar) married Gladys E. Guggenheim (the daughter of Benjamin's brother, Daniel).

During a week off work, I've been re-reading the 1915-1918 diaries of Lady Cynthia Asquith - a daughter-in-law of British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, who has on various occasions been mistaken for a 'Titanic' survivor. That, she most certainly wasn't - but it is interesting to note that, during her career in London Society, her paths crossed regularly with figures who had 'Titanic' connections of their own.

First among them would be Ava Willing Astor, the late Colonel's first wife, who had been so acrimoniously divorced by him six or seven years previously, and who subsequently went on to enjoy a glittering social life on the other side of the pond (eventually marrying Lord Ribblesdale, the first husband of Margot Asquith's late sister, Charlotte, and so a distant relation of sorts of Lady Cynthia herself).

No matter where she was, or what her circumstances, Ava Astor (as she was still known) was a never less than glamorous figure - one can easily imagine that she exerted a Rebecca-like spell over the younger, plainer and altogether less self-assured Madeleine. Described by one writer as 'magnificently selfish and spoiled, sharp-tongued, fearless in her pursuit of pleasure, furiously social and permanently dissatisfied', Ava nevertheless made an altogether better impression on Lady Cynthia - certainly a shrewd judge of character - who wrote in her diary for 16th April, 1915:

'...had tea with Lady Essex, Kitty Somerset and Ava Astor. Conversation mainly war gossip. Ava exquisitely dressed and looking very lamoyante. She is very beautiful in a decorative, Sevres-china way, but it is an applique, unventilated face, and she doesn't look out of it and one cannot look in...I believe that she is a very nice woman, but I'm sure that she is hopelessly unwhimsical, and I think it was a very good thing that Basil (Lord Basil Blackwood) didn't marry her. I think one might get to want to untidy her face'.

In spite of 'wanting to untidy' Mrs Astor's face, Lady Cynthia continued to see her throughout the war years. Indeed, it seems that her sumptuous hospitality came as something of a release from the mood of grey and unremitting gloom that otherwise prevailed in London at this time: 'huge dinners, quite prehistoric...and no nonsense about rations'. On another occasion, in the ghastly autumn of 1917, Ava hosted a 'huge, pre-war Belshazzer', attended by everyone from the late Edward VII's mistress Alice Keppel to artist Sir John Lavery.

There are other 'Titanic' connections in the diaries too. Earlier in the war, Lady Cynthia had been co-opted by the Countess of Essex into appearing in a charity matinee at the Gaiety Theatre, with a cast composed of 'Society lydies' and professional actresses. Reluctantly, Lady Cynthia and the incandescent Lady Diana Manners (who one imagines was a rather less reluctant participant in the venture) trundled off to seek costumes for the show in the dressmakers' shops of London:

'we didn't find one model at Reville's which we would have been seen dead in; we went on to Lucile's, but there they had only two 'big girl' dresses, neither of them very amusing'.

In the eventuality, the show went off without a hitch, despite a 'somewhat chilly' audience. Among the professionals involved were Ethel Levy, the brassy American music-hall star who had scored hits before the war with 'Hullo, Ragtime!' in 1912 and 'Hullo, Tango!' in 1913. And I was interested to see that another of the Society 'lydies' in the cast was Countess Pappenheim - the sister-in-law of John B. Thayer's brother, George.

Violet Asquith, Lady Cynthia's own sister-in-law, had come across Ava Astor herself when she travelled to the States three years earlier. She was not at all impressed by New York Society - as she termed it, 'a lot of dull, saltless, desoeuvre, overfed, overdressed, overexcited people'. But, having encountered the very recently orphaned Vincent Astor the previous September in Venice, she had kinder words, finding him 'very odd...but rather nice and touching...6ft 4 with an extraordinary accent, shy, farouche, uneducated, glum and boorish-looking...but I think solitary, at sea and fundamentally sound...it makes one's brain reel to think how rich he is...'
 

Brian Ahern

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Dec 19, 2002
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Thanks for sharing this, Martin. Lady Cynthia certainly had a way with words - I'm going to have to look up the words 'lamoyante' and 'desoeuvre'. I especially like your insights on how Madeleine might have felt about the formidable Ava.
 

Brian Ahern

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Oh, and as for Lady Cynthia's impressions of NYC's social life - ouch!!! Well, in New York's defense, she might have been hanging with the kind of brassy upstarts who would fall all over themselves to associate with titled personages. Wharton makes an interesting distinction between the sort of New Yorkers who would push the boat out (to use a Britishicism) for titles, and those who would've remained more aloof. Of course, she was writing about a different time, and there were those who would have argued that, by 1912, all of New York Society was comprised of brassy upstarts.
 
Mar 20, 2007
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Hi Brian

Thanks for your comments. Besides the French words and phrases so beloved of the Edwardian upper-crust, the diaries of both Cynthia and Violet Asquith are littered with the peculiar jargon used by 'the Souls' - that is, the arty Society clique frequented by their parents in the closing years of the nineteenth century. As might be expected from a group that spent so long simply talking, many of the terms relate to the art of conversation. To 'have a dentist' meant a long and involved chat; 'washing the block' was changing the subject. A 'dewdrop' was a compliment (Cynthia, in particular, received many of those). And 'false flash' - a good one, this - referred to somebody who made a better impression initially than closer acquaintance supported.

Regarding Ava Willing Astor and the shoes she left behind for Madeleine to fill. I've been doing some background reading and I think that we might have an exaggerated idea of just how prejudiced New York Society was against the Colonel's second wife. True, she would have found herself very much in the shadow of the ravishing Ava - to say nothing of the only recently deceased Caroline - but contemporary press reports from the time of the couple's engagement in 1911 suggest that the Newport set made all the proper gestures in welcoming Madeleine and the Force family into their midst; there is no question that either she or the Colonel were ostracised outright. Of course, it might be that she was found timid or gauche ('Titanic' stewardess Violet Jessop recorded something along these lines in her memoirs) but confidence would naturally have come with age and, prior to her second marriage, the widowed Madeleine was invited to participate in many of the smartest Society functions.

'...there were those who would have argued that, by 1912, all of New York Society was comprised of brassy upstarts'.

I wonder? I've been flicking through 'A Backward Glance', the autobiography of Edith Wharton, and considering how her observations of 'Society' life in the 1870s might still have had relevance forty years later. In her opening chapter, Wharton is explicit on the subject:

'Not until the successive upheavals which culminated in the catastrophe of 1914 had 'cut all likeness from the name' of my old New York, did I see its pathetic picturesqueness. The first change came in the 'eighties, with the earliest detachment of big money-makers from the West, soon to be followed by the lords of Pittsburgh. But their infiltration did not greatly affect old manners and customs, since the dearest ambition of the new-comers was to assimilate existing traditions. Social life, with us as in the rest of the world, went on with hardly perceptible changes, until the war abruptly tore down the old frame-work...'

Of course, Wharton, writing in 1920, was bound to see the Great War as the primary cause of the upheavals which obliterated the 'Old New York' of her youth - from our more distant perspective, we can see that the winds of change had been in the air for twenty years or more. But I do think that, even as late as 1912, many first-class passengers would have recognised elements of that more discreet and gracious society which had survived virtually unchanged; marriage among their own kind, modest but elegant entertaining, quiet philantrophy and the occasional, leisurely trip to the Europe. The Lamson sisters, for example, and even Edith Evans, seem to me to have stepped straight from the pages of 'The Age of Innocence'.