Monday, July 30, 2012

House of Mirth's Real Characters

Having just finished Edith Wharton's House of Mirth and in full Newport Dance Week panic mode, I am on a kick for Wharton's world of the New York social elite.  Dancing in the ballrooms of Newport definitely gives you an appreciation for Lily Bart's struggle to stay on the season's invitation list.  The social elite of the late 19th century have become the stuff of legend--have you ever heard the term "keeping up with the Joneses"?  Well, that phrase has been attributed to Mary and Rebecca Jones (incidentally, relations of Wharton) who scandalized mid-century New Yorkers by building their lavish apartments uptown, starting a trend for living in the 50s which became standard by the time new socialites started living around central park.
The fashionable "apartment" of John Jacob Astor an family (including Caroline Astor)
at 65th and 5th, facing central park
Another phrase you may know is "the 400," referring to the 400 families considered the 'inner circle' of New York society.  The list considered to be the original 400 was published in the New York Times by Ward McAllister (satirized as "Mc-A-List-er") circa 1892.  This was also supposed to be the invitation list to Caroline Astor's annual ball.  Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, Jr., later known as "the" Mrs. Astor, was considered the 'queen' of Manhattan society, and her famed annual ball was quite the event.  Until the mid 1890s the William Astors lived at 350 5th Avenue (torn down to become the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel) and the ballroom could 'only' accommodate 400 guests--the rumored origins of the 400 list.  Whether or not this is true is still under debate, but it fits well with the publications put forth by McAllister.

350 5th Avenue, home of Caroline Astor (foreground), 1893
Wharton captures the glamour and strife of living within the upper echelons of New York society quite well, and it's part of what makes her books so entertaining.  It's also what earned her a good amount of criticism from her acquaintances--especially surrounding House of Mirth.  After Newport, I guess my next stop will have to The Mount, Wharton's own estate...

The Mount, Wharton's estate in Lenox, MA

No comments:

Post a Comment