A scene in this week’s episode of The Gilded Age, Julian Fellowes’ bubbly period drama on HBO, takes us to Central Park in the late 19th century. Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), young, rebellious and newly arrived from the darkness of Pennsylvania, is in a carriage with her two blue-blooded aunts when the topic of conversation turns to Caroline Astor, the fearsome doyenne of New York society.
“Do you like Mrs. Astor?” asks Marian.
“It’s like saying, ‘Do you like rain?'” replies her aunt Agnes (a scathing Christine Baranski). “It’s a fact of life that we have to live with.”
It’s one of many references to New York history that appears in The Gilded Age. Set in a time of dramatic change, the series chronicles a moment when the city’s focus shifted upwards, as society’s rules were being rewritten at a rapid pace, as new European-inspired mansions sprang up along Fifth Avenue, and as old families grew like the Astors and the Schermerhorns were challenged socially and financially by arrivists named Vanderbilt, Gould and Rockefeller.
The name of the era, from a book co-written by Mark Twain, indicating that the glitter was on the surface. “Gilded means gilded, not gold,” said Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a history professor at Rutgers University who served as historical consultant and co-executive producer on The Gilded Age. “It was a time when economic inequality, segregation, violence and nativism lived side by side with luxury and opulence.”
Carl Raymond, a social historian its podcastFocusing on the era, The Gilded Gentleman said the cultural shifts were largely driven by “huge shifts in commercial infrastructure as crazy money poured in and old New York was challenged by new.”
“That was when the new society was being created and everyone was jostling for power,” he said.
The HBO series primarily addresses the gilded age of our imagination, full of extended families, sumptuous furnishings, lavish entertainment, strict social rules, vast fortunes, and boundless ambition.
About halfway through its first season, which ends March 21, “The Gilded Age” has blended fictional melodrama with actual historical storylines, such as the importance of the black press, the influx of stratospherically wealthy railroad tycoons into the city, and a seething civil dispute over who Inhospitableness of the fashionable opera house to newcomers.
Events have played out between some characters who are entirely fictional and others who are clearly inspired by real people – Carrie Coon’s ambitious Bertha Russell, for example, channels the similarly ambitious Alva Vanderbilt – as well as a few who are depictions of actual historical figures. These include the aforementioned Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy), queen of Gilded Age society; Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), snobby elite social umpire; Clara Barton (Linda Emond), the founder of the American Red Cross; and T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones), the black writer, orator, civil rights activist and newspaper editor.
Tearing the real out of the fictional is part of the fun of watching The Gilded Age, which recently got renewed for a second season. To help you along, here are the backstories of some of the elements that make up the world of the series.
Uptown vs. Downtown
In the first episode, the chef, who works for the greedy, ambitious New Money Russell family, notes with appreciation that the family has moved to elegant 61st Street, about 30 blocks north of their previous home. “Thirtieth Street is out of fashion,” he explains.
In fact, the early history of upper-class Manhattan is the history of migration north, from Bowling Green to Washington Square to Murray Hill through the 1950s and then straight up Fifth Avenue into the 1880s.
“All of a sudden, people you thought were below you, people you didn’t want anything to do with, are standing on your block,” said Esther Crain, author of The Gilded Age in New York and founder of the site Ephemeral New Yorkwhich explores interesting aspects of the city.
She described it as a time when corruption, exploitation and bribery were rampant, but also when the city’s culture, lifestyle and institutions began to take shape and cemented New York’s self-image as the center of everything.
“New York was the microcosm of that era — the financial capital of the country, the industrial base for many big companies,” she said. “It had the culture, the capital, the theater and shopping and fashion, and everybody who was anybody wanted to be here.”
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s exquisite analysis of Gilded Age New York, begins with the main characters preparing to see Faust at the Academy of Music, the opera house loved by New York’s old guard. “Conservatives liked it because it was small and impractical, keeping out the ‘new people’ who were beginning to fear and yet were drawn to New York,” writes Wharton.
Although Bertha Russell, the wealthiest and boldest upstart in The Gilded Age, attends the opera as a guest, she is dismayed to discover that all her wealth cannot buy her a coveted private box. The academy had fewer than two dozen, which were owned and passed on to their heirs by prominent New York families.
“Going to the opera during that time was a social battleground,” Raymond said. “It was all about where you sit, what you’re wearing — and most importantly, who saw you doing it.” The layout lent itself to social peacock hunting, he said, with “boxes on one side of the stage listening to boxes on the look the other side”.
In New York, rich people who resent being left out of things tend to build their own fancier alternatives. In this case, a group of new money invaders pooled their money and built a bigger and better building. (A character in The Gilded Age describes them as “JP Morgan, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts — all the opportunists in New York.”) The result, the first Metropolitan Opera House, opened on Broadway and 39th Street in 1883. (Failing to keep up, the Academy attempted to reinvent itself as a vaudeville hall, but closed a few years later.)
Dunbar said the ease with which the wealthy could buy into society during this era reflected and reinforced one of America’s founding myths: that it was a place where anything was possible, as long as you did the work and made the money .
“It may seem like this is just a case of an argument between ‘old’ rich people and ‘new’ rich people, and who cares,” Dunbar said. “But it speaks to the changing of the guard and the changing of traditions and the way this nation has always dealt with change.”
America was still a young country during the Golden Age, barely 100 years old and forged by a revolution that supposedly discarded the old ways. But for all that, Manhattan’s upper class seemed determined to emulate European ways.
In The Gilded Age, Mrs. Russell reflects the taste of the times by boasting that her new chef is French. Her extravagant new home was designed to emulate grand European homes, as were the mansions built by true New Yorkers of the era. (Interiors, too, were generally full of materials bought from European castles and imported at enormous expense.) The new opera house was modeled after its European counterparts. Societal customs—the elaborate codes of dress, manners, and propriety that dictated who could be introduced to whom—were also very European, perhaps as a response from a nervous upper class to the exciting but menacing notion of American social mobility.
“Caroline Astor’s role model was Europe; She wanted to create a European-American dish,” Raymond said. “One of the funniest ironies of the Golden Age is that there is a society desperate to emulate the courts of Europe and the British aristocracy.”
Mrs. Astor vs. Mrs. Vanderbilt
For many years, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor was the ruler of New York society and the epitome of old-guard Manhattan. With the help of her friend Ward McAllister, she decreed who and what was worthy or not. It was said that their parties were limited to 400 guests from just 25 “old” families.
But she met her master in the incredibly wealthy Alva Vanderbilt, who stormed to New York and settled in 1882 the most over-the-top new mansion the city had ever seen, at 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Designed under Vanderbilt’s watchful eye by renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt and known as the “Petit Chateau,” it was huge, made of limestone, and decorated in French Renaissance and Gothic styles. It actually looked like a castle, as far as one can have a castle in the middle of an American city. Astor himself had two houses, one in the increasingly outdated 1930’s and one in the 1950’s. But none was as beautiful as the Vanderbilt mansion.
1883 Van derbilt threw a lavish masked ball for more than 1,000 guests. Everyone was keen to be invited, but Astor and her daughter Carrie (who was reportedly keen to attend) were both removed from the guest list. The story goes that after Vanderbilt pointed out to McAllister that she had never been introduced to Astor, Astor promptly called Vanderbilt — and quickly got an invite to the party.
Unfortunately, like virtually all Gilded Age mansions, the Vanderbilts’ “Petit Chateau” eventually became too expensive for the family to maintain. In 1926, Vanderbilt heirs sold it to developers for $3.75 million and it was destroyed. A office building sits on the site now.