Home > The Social Graces

The Social Graces
Author: Renee Rosen




   NEW YORK, 1876

   They call us the fairer sex. Something we find flattering and maddening in equal measure. Dainty. Delicate. Weak. Come now, if a man donned a corset, laced so tight as to shave four inches off his waist, he’d pass out on the first deep breath. And need we broach the subject of childbirth? The fairer sex, our bustles.

   We are the wives and daughters of wealthy men, though our family fortunes are recent. A generation or two ago you would have found our mothers and grandmothers standing over wood-burning stoves and mending socks, knitting woolen blankets. For the most part, our fathers and grandfathers worked hard, in legitimate businesses—although some may have taken advantage of circumstances after the War Between the States. They call it war profiteering but we like to think of it as seizing the moment.

   We are the nouveau riche. The new money. Enemy of New York’s old money, those insufferable yet enviable snobs called Knickerbockers.

   In our best efforts to emulate the old money, our calendars, like theirs, revolve around two seasons: winter and Newport. Winter takes place in Manhattan and lasts but twelve weeks. The festivities begin in November, and the recent debutantes among us are put on display in hopes of landing husbands. Gentlemen in search of wives do not care if we are fluent in five languages, or none. In fact, some might prefer the latter. They are not impressed that we’ve been educated in France, can play the harp and piano and have studied ballet. These suitors are only concerned with the size of our dowries, the length of our slender necks, and our doe-like eyes, which we enhance with belladonna-berry juice. Thankfully, by the start of the first waltz, the tearing and stinging subsides, and our vision usually returns to normal.

   The married among us feel relieved and perhaps a bit smug. We may not be sitting behind mahogany desks or holding positions on the boards of big corporations, but we do exercise a different kind of currency. Social currency. It’s our form of gold. Our means of trading—for better invitations, more status and greater influence.

   When you first come into money, no one tells you that being rich takes some getting used to. There is a rhythm to a wealthy woman’s day, set routines that leave no room for spontaneity, no room for error. We’ve come to learn that there’s a proper way of doing everything—and we do mean everything. From how we dress to how we sit, how and what we eat, down to how we greet a gentleman on the street. This is the price we pay to keep our influence.

   Now lest that sounds too dreary, rest assured we do have every comfort we could ask for. Liveried servants, dressing rooms with armoires of French couture meticulously organized by our lady’s maids, whose chores include keeping the ostrich and osprey feathers faced out on our Reboux hats. We have cedar closets filled with garment bags guarding the delicate beading and fabrics of our ball gowns, still stuffed with the tissue paper and perfumed sachets they were packed in prior to making their journeys from Paris, arriving to us without a wrinkle.

   Of course, not one stitch of clothing, not even a pair of kid gloves, belongs to us outright. They are the property of our husbands. As are we. We indulge at the pleasure of these men. And do we ever indulge! We throw ourselves into the fray. We feast on nine-course meals and dance until dawn, still twirling when we return home, or perhaps it’s just the room that’s spinning from too much champagne. Our social calendars are full. We attend luncheons, teas and recitals by day, receptions, dinner parties and balls by night. And of course, the most special night of the week is always Monday.

   On Monday nights we attend the opera, dressed in our finest gowns and jewels, accompanied by our husbands, fathers or perhaps our wooers, along with a grim-faced chaperone, there to ensure no hand-holding or other debauchery takes place.

   In the snow, peppered with coal dust and soot, we make our way to our horse-drawn carriages bound for the Academy of Music. The doors open at half past eight, and we arrive precisely ten minutes after that. The orchestra is already playing the overture, but that is of no concern. We are not there for the music. Heavens no. Most of us don’t particularly like opera, and yet, we faithfully attend because this is what society does, and being there, being seen there is all part of the game. And we aim to play. We aim to be victorious. Eventually.

   Our seats are on the main floor, where anyone who can afford a ticket sits. At first blush the red and gilded auditorium appears the very essence of splendor. It’s only upon closer examination that we notice the threadbare carpets, the cracking plaster and peeling paint. The theater holds 4,000, and by the end of the second act, rest assured, every seat will be taken just in time for the arrival of the Academy’s most honored guest. As if perfectly planned with an orchestral crescendo, she steps into her velvet box in the balcony, high above us all. In kind, we turn to her like flowers to the sun.

   There she is—Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor. Mrs. Astor.

   While our ancestors were biding their time in Europe, hers were already walking these very streets—the first Dutch settlers to arrive in New York. That makes Mrs. Astor a Knickerbocker, American royalty.

   We always yearn for intermission, our bottoms aching from the aging springs in our seats. While the smart set lines up outside Mrs. Astor’s box, waiting to pay homage to their reigning queen, we congregate in the lobby to stretch our legs and mingle. Creatures of habit, we will have the same conversations we had the Monday before and the Monday before that. Penelope Easton will comment that if this were Wagner, we’d still be stuck in the second act, and Mamie Fish will tell us her favorite musical instrument is the comb. There are never any surprises.

   But tonight, just after Faust has seduced Marguerite in the third act, our lorgnettes rise in unison. Across the way, rustling in gold lamé, trimmed in silver tulle, is Alva Smith. No, pardon us, Alva Vanderbilt. The new Mrs. Vanderbilt is accompanied by her handsome husband. Her vibrant red hair is crowned with a tiara, and she wears a thick rope of pearls rumored to have once belonged to Catherine the Great. She’s also adorned with a diamond stomacher, sparkling earrings and half a dozen bracelets riding atop her supple gloves. If there were such a thing as being overdressed for the opera, this would be it.

   Finding the performers more engaging, most eyes return to the stage, but for those of us still paying attention to Alva Vanderbilt, we see—but for a moment—that she does the most outrageous thing. She turns toward the balcony where Mrs. Astor is sitting, looks directly at the Grande Dame. And smiles. Suddenly the cymbals clash, the kettledrums thunder and for an instant we fear this is Mrs. Astor’s wrath. But then the flutes, the violins and other instruments join in, and our attention is lulled back to the stage as we settle in for the final act.

   It’s only much later, while the moon slips out from behind the clouds, sending predawn shadows through our bedroom windows overlooking Fifth Avenue, that we sense some infinitesimal shift has occurred. This is the start of something. We just don’t know what that something is yet.



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