Posted by: shrewspeaks | July 30, 2008

The Mrs. Astor

If you have seen The Age of Innocence, you have seen the world ‘Lina’ Astor created.

The Mrs. Astor was the gatekeeper of refined New York society.  She with the help of Ward McAllister would determine who would make the list of 400 deemed acceptable in high society circles.  This was the precursor to Fortunes 500 list.  There was only allowance for 400, no more, no less.  So if one aspired to be on the list, and everyone who was anyone aspired to that, then you needed to pray for a scandal involving a current 400 place holder or acceptance into company of current members of the fashionable 400. 

Each summer, Lina and entourage would descended on Newport for eight short weeks making the city the epi-center of American fashionable society.  Beechwood Mansion was at the heart of this Epi-Center.

Lina and Ward would pore of the lists of invitees declaring who is in and who is out with a simple swoosh of a pen.  Then they would plan…party after party; each more outrageous than the next culminating in the Annual Summer Ball.  

Now, blogger Stacey Asip, from Bill Stubb’s A Moment of Luxury site,  has created the perfect little scenario depicting what it would be like to be in Newport, be filthy rich and NOT be on Lina’s good side…

Let’s say, you find yourself married to a railroad magnate. It’s 1894. Your husband is worth a cool $100 million. His father is worth even more. Naturally, you “summer” in Newport. In fact, you take over the family’s stately three-story mansion and get set to commence with hostessing duties. However, a few days into your first season, you find you’re being snubbed. Mrs. Astor is having her annual “Summer Ball” and not only were you not invited; no one (who’s anyone) has accepted your repeated invitations to afternoon tea.

“How could this be happening to me?!” you scream at your handsome, filthy-rich husband, the second he steps off the Fall River Line Steamer from Manhattan, looking forward to a restful weekend with his new bride. He sighs. He’s never given a hoot about such nonsense. Since birth, he’s simply taken these snubs in stride. You do not find this comforting. You grow more alarmed upon learning, no one in his family has ever been invited to Mrs. Astor’s ball. 

“But, we’re richer than they are!” you point out, looking for an angle. Your husband sighs again. Apparently, Mrs. Astor does not like the nouveau riche and she considers your husband’s family (not to mention the Vanderbilt’s, the richest family in America) arrivistes. The Astors especially frown upon your loveablefather-in-law. I know it doesn’t bother you that Dad chews tobacco and sometimes misses the spittoon, or that he peppers his speech with the occasional swear word. In fact, you’ve always found his salty stories colorful and charming, but I hate to tell to you, if you ever want to cross Mrs. Astor’s Beechwood threshold, it’s time you and your own Captain of Industry put a little distance between yourselves and his family of origin. 

For starters, move out of that 20,000-square-foot dwelling on Perry Street. It’s too small. Its wood shingles and Queen Anne-style, though understated and beautiful, are just too Charles Bevins, too 1880s, too American. Buy something immediatelyon Bellevue Avenue. Whatever house is there, knock it down. This is the age of conspicuous consumption! Build something in the ballpark of 90,000 square feet. Tell your adoring husband to arrange a dinner with your Newport neighbor, architect Richard Morris Hunt. One of his Beaux Arts designs will suit you nicely. Just tell him to use lots of marble – you want something along the lines of Versailles. The ballroom must be big — bigger than Mrs. Astor’s — with more chandeliers and more mirrors. Moreover, not one fixture, not one stick of furnitureTell him, money is no object. (Only save dough when it comes to hiring staff, but not just any staff. It is English upward mobility, you’re striving for, so that means English butlers, Irish maids, English and Irish nannies and French governesses. Pay no one more than $20 per month.) Nevertheless, by all means, blow $70,000 on your first party. Invite everyone, but the Astors. And, since your husband has never given a hoot about this kind of nonsense, suggest he put the new castle in your name only. He can make it a first anniversary present.

Secondly, stop swimming at Easton’s Beach. I know, I know, it’s Newport’s nicest. It’s big and there’s no seaweed, but from here on in, you can’t be caught dead there — which isn’t too far of a stretch, given how far you venture in, wearing your bathing suit of black pantaloons, full skirt, long sleeve blouse, stockings and shoes. You’re lucky you haven’t drowned yet. Since $100 million in 1895 is nothing to sneeze at, tell Mr. Not-Concerned- With-Status to get with the program. It’s time to pull out all the stops, and land a membership at The Spouting Rock Beach Association at Bailey’s Beach. Who cares if Bailey’s is small and cramped and the heavy growth of seaweed offshore is annoying, it’s private. It’s located at the end of the Cliff Walk, a short stroll from your new palace. This time if you sink to the bottom of Davy Jones’ Locker, at least you’ll do it in front of the right people.

Next, stop begging those vicious, conniving snobs you want for your new best friends over for tea. There’s plenty of time for that, later. Instead, start courting Harry Lehr, then stay in his good favor. This is relatively easy. Harry’s father lost his wealth, and Harry never lost his taste for it. Just become one of his benefactors. Don’t worry, not a single Newport tongue will wag. Trust me, Harry will never make a pass at you. Everyone’s accustomed to seeing Mr. Lehr squiring rich Newport wives around town. In fact, once you start getting more invites than you can handle, your husband will be grateful to have him around. 
Jorge Del Mar: He’s already a favorite of Mamie Fish and he’s currently cozying up to your supreme snubber, Caroline Astor. So, get on this immediately. He’ll be a goldmine of gossip and advice. Just don’t tell him anything too personal. In fact, avoid scandal of any kind. I recommend obtaining an advance copy of Edith Wharton’s novel of manners, The House of Mirth. If you ever find yourself in heroine Lily Bart’s predicament, expose Bertha Dorset’s letters without hesitation.

We acknowledge that until Mrs. Astor — the undisputed Grande Dame of Society –receives you, you are not officially in Society. It is as simple as that, no matter how rich, or distinguished you may be. Therefore, it is crucial that you nail down that precious invite as soon as possible. First, absorb this all-important information: Since her husband dislikes socializing, Mrs. Astor, found herself an escort in Ward McAllister — a Southern Gentleman and a terrible snob, (who, unlike Harry Lehr, has money of his own). 

McAllister has divided America’s rich into the “Nobs” (old money) and the “Swells” (new money) and together, with Mrs. Astor, they have defined Society. They decreed who was in and who was out, via “The 400” which was published in The New York Times, two years prior to your nuptials. With the help of Mr. McAllister, Mrs. Astor created a list that contained the names of those deemed worthy of her invites. (It is believed the “400” was the number of “Nobs” who could fit inside her ballroom). Inclusion on the list required one’s lineage to date back three generations. Its publication caused quite a stir. Just so you know, her parties are b-o-r-i-n-g. She shuns intellectuals and lively raconteurs like your father-in-law.

The food is good, but the conversation is limited to fashion, dancing, the weather, and who is marrying whom. All in attendance slavishly follow Mrs. Astor’s etiquette mandates. (If you want to have fun, get invited to Tessie Oelrich’s. A recent party featured Harry Houdini.) Nevertheless, to infiltrate Mrs. Astor’s, I recommend you take your cue from another Bellevue Avenue matron, Alva Vanderbilt. When she was left off “The 400,” she made sure that no Astor was invited to any of her shindigs, which she promoted heavily, with the help of the press. Once Mrs. Astor’s daughter was bereft over not being asked to a much-publicized masquerade ball, Mrs. Astor was forced to invite Alva to all her affairs.

From Advice for Social Climbing “Swells” in Newport’s Guilded Age – Stacey Asip

Like most of the Guilded Age Mansions, Beechwood is open to the public for tours…bu Beechwood is different.  Unlike the Vanderbilt’s Breakers, the demeanor of the tour at Beechwood is high spirited complete with living history tour guides who assume butler and maid persona and are more than glad to dish the facts and gossip of the day.  I am sure Lina and Ward are not amused.



  1. Sounds like a must-see stop!

  2. Man, what a prune face.

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