RCC Honors History Project

How “The Four Hundred” Lives

Posted by nrohr on March 15, 2009

Ward McAllister, 1890

At this time there were not more than one or two men in New York who spent, in living and entertaining, over $60,000 a year. There were not half a dozen chefs in private families in this city. Compare those days to these and see how easily one or two men of fortune could then control, lead, and carry on society, receive or shut out people at their pleasure. If distinguished strangers failed to bring letters to them, they were shut out from everything. Again, if, though charming people, others were not in accord with those powers, they could be passed over and left out of society. All this many of us saw, and saw how it worked, and we resolved to band together the respectable element of the city and by this union make such strength that no individual could withstand us. The motto, we felt, must be nous nous soutenons. This motto we then assumed, and we hold it to this day, and have found that the good and wise men of this community could always control society. This they have done and are still doing. Our first step then in carrying out these views was to arrange for a series of “cotillon dinners.”

I must here explain that behind what I call the “smart set” in society there always stood the old, solid, substantial, and respected people. Families who held great social power as far back as the birth of this country, who were looked up to by society, and who always could, when they so wished, come forward and exercise their power, when, for one reason or another, they would take no active part, joining in it quietly, but not conspicuously. Ordinarily, they preferred, like the gods, to sit upon Olympus. I remember a lady, the head of one of these families, stating to me that she had lived longer in New York society than any other person. This point, however, was not yielded or allowed to go undisputed, for the daughter of a rival house contended that her family had been longer in New York society than any other family, and though she had heard the assertion, as I gave it, she would not admit its correctness.

What I intend to convey is that the heads of these families, feeling secure in their position, knowing that they had great power when they chose to exercise it, took no leading part in society’s daily routine. They gave handsome dinners and perhaps, once a year, a fine ball. I know of one or two families who have scrupulously all their lives avoided display, anything that could make fashionable people of them, holding their own; esteemed and respected; and when they threw open their doors to society, all made a rush to enter. To this day, if one of these old families, even one of its remotest branches, gives a day reception, you will find the street in which they live blockaded with equipages.

For years we have literally had but one salon in this city — a gathering in the evening of all the brilliant and cultivated people, both young and old, embracing the distinguished strangers. A most polished and cultivated Bostonian, a brilliant woman, was the first, in my day, to receive in this way weekly. During her life she held this salon, both here and all through the summer in Newport. “The robe of Elijah fell upon Elisha” in an extremely talented woman of the world, who has most successfully held, and now holds, this salon on the first day of every week during the winter and at Newport in summer.

The mistake made by the world at large is that fashionable people are selfish, frivolous, and indifferent to the welfare of their fellow creatures; all of which is a popular error, arising simply from a want of knowledge of the true state of things. The elegancies of fashionable life nourish and benefit art and artists; they cause the expenditure of money and its distribution; and they really prevent our people and country from settling down into a humdrum rut and becoming merely a money-making and money-saving people, with nothing to brighten up and enliven life; they foster all the fine arts; but for fashion what would become of them? They bring to the front merit of every kind; seek it in the remotest corners, where it modestly shrinks from observation, and force it into notice; adorn their houses with works of art and themselves with all the taste and novelty they can find in any quarter of the globe, calling forth talent and ingenuity.

Fashionable people cultivate and refine themselves, for fashion demands this of them. Progress is fashion’s watchword; it never stands still; it always advances, it values and appreciates beauty in woman and talent and genius in man. It is certainly always most charitable; it surrounds itself with the elegancies of life; it soars, it never crawls. I know the general belief is that all fashionable people are hollow and heartless. My experience is quite the contrary I have found as warm, sympathetic, loving hearts in the garb of fashion as out of it. A thorough acquaintance with the world enables them to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, so that all the good work they do is done with knowledge and effect. The world could not dispense with it. Fashion selects its own votaries. You will see certain members of a family born to it, as it were; others of the same family with none of its attributes. You can give no explanation of this: “One is taken, the other left.” Such and such a man or woman are cited as having been always fashionable. The talent of and for society develops itself just as does the talent for art.

The next great event in the fashionable world was a Newport ball. A lady who had married a man of cultivation and taste, a member of one of New York’s oldest families, who had inherited from her father an enormous fortune, was at once seized with the ambition to take and hold a brilliant social position, to gratify which she built one of the handsomest houses in this city, importing interiors from Europe for it and such old Spanish tapestries as had never before been introduced into New York; after which she went to Newport and bought a beautiful villa on Bellevue Avenue, and there gave, in the grounds of that villa, the handsomest ball that had ever been given there.

The villa itself was only used to receive and sup the guests in, for a huge tent, capable of holding 1,500 people, had been spread over the entire villa grounds, and in it was built a platform for dancing. The approaches to this tent were admirably designed, and produced a great effect. On entering the villa itself, you were received by the hostess and then directed by liveried servants to the two improvised salons of the tent. The one you first entered was the Japanese room, adorned by every conceivable kind of old Japanese objects of art, couches, hangings of embroideries, cunning cane houses — all illuminated with Japanese lanterns — and the ceiling canopied with Japanese stuffs, producing, with its soft reddish light, a charming effect; then, behind tables scattered in different parts of the room, stood Japanese boys in costume serving fragrant tea. Every possible couch, lounge, and easy chair was there to invite you to sit and indulge yourself in ease and repose.

Leaving this anteroom, you entered still another salon, adorned with modern and Parisian furniture, but furnished with cunningly devised corners and nooks for “flirtation couples”; and from this you were ushered into the gorgeous ballroom itself — an immense open tent, whose ceiling and sides were composed of broad stripes of white and scarlet bunting. Then, for the first time at a ball in this country, the electric light was introduced, with brilliant effect. Two grottoes of immense blocks of ice stood on either side of the ballroom, and a powerful jet of light was thrown through each of them, causing the ice to resemble the prisms of an illuminated cavern, and fairly to dazzle one with their coloring. Then, as the blocks of ice would melt, they would tumble over each other in charming glacierlike confusion, giving you winter in the lap of summer; for every species of plant stood around this immense floor, as a flowering border, creeping quite up to these little improvised glaciers. The light was thrown and spread by these two powerful jets, sufficiently strong to give a brilliant illumination to the ballroom. The only criticism possible was that it made deep shadows.

All Newport was present to give brilliancy to the scene. Everything was to be European, so one supped at small tables as at a ball in Paris, all through the night. Supper was ready at the opening of the ball, and also as complete and as well served at the finish, by daylight. Newport had never seen before, and has never since seen, anything as dazzling and brilliant, as well conceived, and as well carried out in every detail.

Desirous of obtaining an office from the administration of President Arthur, I went to Washington with letters to the President and his attorney general. On my arrival, depositing my luggage in my room at Willard’s, I descended to the modest little barbershop of that hotel, and there, in the hands of a colored barber, I saw our distinguished secretary of state, the Hon. Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, who, on catching sight of me, exclaimed:

“Halloa, my friend! What brings you here?” He had for years been my lawyer in New Jersey.

I replied: “I want an office.”

“Well, what office?”

I told him what I wanted.

“I hope you do not expect me to get it for you!” he exclaimed.

“Not exactly,” I answered. “My man is the attorney general, and I want you to tell me where I can find him.”

“Find him! Why, that’s easy enough; there is not another such man in Washington. Where do you dine?”

“Here, in this house, at seven.”

“He dines here at the same hour. All you have to do is to look about you then, and when you see an old-fashioned, courtly gentleman of the Benjamin Franklin style, you will see Brewster,” said Mr. Frelinghuysen.

While quietly taking my soup, I saw an apparition! In walked a stately, handsome woman, by her side an old-fashioned, courtly gentleman in a black velvet sack coat, ruffled shirt, and ruffled wristbands, accompanied by a small boy, evidently their son. “There he is,” I said to myself. Now, I make it a rule never to disturb anyone until they have taken off the edge of their appetite. I stealthily viewed the man on whom my hopes hinged. Remarkable to look at he was. A thoroughly well-dressed man, with the unmistakable air of a gentleman and a man of culture. As he spoke he gesticulated, and even with his family, he seemingly kept up the liveliest of conversations. No sooner had he reached his coffee than I reached him. In five minutes I was as much at home with him as if I had known him for five years.

“Well, my dear sir,” he said, “what made you go first to Frelinghuysen? Why did you not come at once to me? I know all about you; my friends are your friends. I know what you want. The office you wish, I will see that you get. Our good President will sanction what I do. The office is yours. Say no more about it.” From that hour this glorious old man and myself were sworn friends; I was here simply carrying out the axiom to keep one’s friendships in repair; and, as he had done so much for me, I resolved, in turn, to do all I could for him, and I know I made the evening of his life, at least, one of pleasurable and quiet enjoyment.

He came to me that summer at Newport, and the life he there led among fashionable people seemed to be a new awakening to him of cultivated and refined enjoyment. He found himself among people there who appreciated his well-stored mind and his great learning. He was the brightest and best conversationalist I have ever met with. His memory was marvelous; every little incident of everyday life would bring forth some poetical illustrations from his mental storehouse.

At a large dinner I gave him, to which I had invited General Hancock and one of the judges of the Supreme Court of the United States, the question of precedence presented itself. I sent in the judge before the general, and being criticized for this, I appealed to the general himself. “In Washington,” he said, “I have been sent in to dinner on many occasions before our Supreme Court judges, and again on other occasions they have preceded me. There is no fixed rule; but I am inclined to think I have precedence.”

During this summer, a young friend of mine was so charmed with the attorney general that he advised with me about giving him an exceptionally handsome entertainment. This idea took shape the following winter, when he came and asked me to assist him in getting up for him a superb banquet at Delmonico’s. He wanted the brilliant people of society to be invited to it and no pains or expense to be spared to make it the affair of the winter. I felt that our distinguished citizen, the ex-secretary of state and ex-governor, who had so long held political as well as social power, and his wife, should be asked to preside over it, and thus expressed myself to him, and was requested to ask them to do so. I presented myself to this most affable and courtly lady in her sunshiny drawing room on Second Avenue and proffered my request. She graciously accepted the invitation, saying she well knew the gentleman and his family as old New Yorkers, and to preside over a dinner given to her old friend Mr. Brewster would really give her the greatest pleasure.

Great care was taken in the selection of the guests. New York sent to this feast the brilliant men and women of that day, and the feast was worthy of them. The “I” table (shape of letter I) was literally a garden of superb roses; a border of heartsease, the width of one’s hand, encircled it, and was most artistic. Delmonico’s ballroom, where we dined, had never been so elaborately decorated. The mural decorations were superb; plaques of lilies of the valley, of tulips, and of azaleas adorned the walls; and the dinner itself was pronounced the best effort of Delmonico’s chefs. What added much to the general effect was, on leaving the table for a short half hour, to find the same dining room, in that short space of time, converted into a brilliant ballroom, all full of the guests of the patriarchs, and a ball under full headway.

We here reach a period when New York society turned over a new leaf. Up to this time, for one to be worth $1 million was to be rated as a man of fortune, but now, bygones must be bygones. New York’s ideas as to values, when fortune was named, leaped boldly up to $10 million, $50 million, $100 million, and the necessities and luxuries followed suit. One was no longer content with a dinner of a dozen or more to be served by a couple of servants. Fashion demanded that you be received in the hall of the house in which you were to dine by from five to six servants, who, with the butler, were to serve the repast. The butler, on such occasions, to do alone the headwork, and under him he had these men in livery to serve the dinner — he to guide and direct them. Soft strains of music were introduced between the courses, and in some houses gold replaced silver in the way of plate, and everything that skill and art could suggest was added to make the dinners not a vulgar display but a great gastronomic effort, evidencing the possession by the host of both money and taste.

The butler from getting a salary of $40 a month received then from $60 to $75 a month. The second man jumped up from $20 to $35 and $40; and the extra men, at the dinner of a dozen people or more, would cost $24. Then the orchids, being the most costly of all flowers, were introduced in profusion. The canvasback, that we could buy at $2.50 a pair, went up to $8 a pair; the terrapin were $4 apiece. Our forefathers would have been staggered at the cost of the hospitality of these days. …

The six quadrilles were really the event of the ball, consisting of “The Hobby-horse Quadrille,” the men who danced in it being dressed in “pink,” and the ladies wearing red hunting coats and white satin skirts, all of the period of Louis XIV. In the “Mother Goose Quadrille” were “Jack and Jill,” “Little Red Riding-Hood,” “Bo-Peep,” “Goody Two-Shoes,” “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” and “My Pretty Maid.” The “Opera Bouffe Quadrille” was most successful; but of all of them, “The Star Quadrille,” containing the youth and beauty of the city, was the most brilliant. The ladies in it were arrayed as twin stars, in four different colors — yellow, blue, mauve, and white. Above the forehead of each lady, in her hair, was worn an electric light, giving a fairy- and elflike appearance to each of them. “The Dresden Quadrille,” in which the ladies wore white satin, with powdered hair, and the gentlemen, white satin knee breeches and powdered wigs, with the Dresden mark, crossed swords, on each of them, was effective.

The hostess appeared as a Venetian princess, with a superb jeweled peacock in her hair. The host was the Duke de Guise for that evening. The host’s eldest brother wore a costume of Louis XVI. His wife appeared as “The Electric Light,” in white satin, trimmed with diamonds, and her head one blaze of diamonds. The most remarkable costume, and one spoken of to this day, was that of a cat; the dress being of cats’ tails and white cats’ heads, and a bell with “Puss” on it in large letters. A distinguished beauty, dressed as a Phoenix, adorned with diamonds and rubies, was superb, and the Capuchin Monk, with hood and sandals, inimitable; but to name the most striking would be to name all.

The great social revolution that had occurred in New York this winter, like most revolutionary waves, reached Newport. Our distinguished New York journalist then made Newport his summer home, buying the fine granite house that for years had been first known as “The Middleton Mansion,” afterwards the “Sidney Brooks residence,” and filling it with distinguished Europeans. His activity and energy gave new life to the place.

One fine summer morning, one of his guests, an officer in the English Army, a bright spirit and admirable horseman, riding on his polo pony up to the Newport Reading Room, where all the fossils of the place, the nobs, and the swells daily gossiped, he was challenged to ride the pony into the hall of this revered old club, and, being bantered to do it, he actually did ride the pony across the narrow piazza and into the hall of the club itself. This was enough to set Newport agog. What sacrilege! An Englishman to ride in upon us, not respecting the sanctity of the place! It aroused the old patriots who were members of that Institution with the spirit of ’76, and a summary note was sent to the great journalist withdrawing the invitation the club had previously given his guest. The latter, in turn, felt aggrieved and retaliated with this result: building for Newport a superb casino, embracing a club, a ballroom, and a restaurant, opposite his own residence. All this evidencing that agitation of any kind is as beneficial in social circles as to the atmosphere we breathe.

Then our journalist conceived and gave a handsome Domino ball. All the ladies in Domino, much after the pattern of the one previously given by the Duchess de Dino, and in many respects resembling it, having a huge tent spread behind the house, and all the rooms on the first floor converted into a series of charming supper rooms, each table decorated most elaborately with beautiful flowers — as handsome a ball as one could give. I took the wife of the attorney general to it in Domino, who, after her life in Washington, was amazed at the beauty of the scene. The grounds, which were very handsome, were all, even the plants themselves, illuminated with electric lights — that is, streams of electric light were cunningly thrown under the plants, giving an illumination à giorno, and producing the most beautiful effect.

At this ball there appeared a Blue Domino that set all the men wild. Coming to the ball in her own carriage (her servants she felt she could trust not to betray her), she dashed into the merry throng and, gliding from one to the other, whispered airy nothings into men’s ears. But they contained enough to excite the most intense curiosity as to who she was. She was the belle of the evening; she became bold and daring at times, attacking men of and about the inmost secrets of their hearts, so as to alarm them; and when she had worked them all up to a fever heat, she came to me to take her to the door that she might make good her escape. A dozen men barricaded the way, but with the rapidity of a deer she dashed through them, reached the sidewalk, and her footman literally threw her into the carriage. Her coachman, well drilled, dashed off at a furious rate, and to this day no one has ever found out who the fair creature was. …

Hearing that President Arthur would visit Newport, as I felt greatly in his debt I resolved to do my share in making his visit pleasant and agreeable. He was to be the guest of Governor Morgan, whom I at once buttonholed and to him gave the above views. I found, like all these great political magnates, that he preferred to have the President to himself, and rather threw cold water on my attempting anything in my humble way at entertaining him. “Why, my dear sir,” he replied, “the President will not go to one of your country picnics. It is preposterous to think of getting up such a rural thing for him. I shall, of course, dine him and give him a fete, and have already sent to New York for my Madeira.”

“Sent for your Madeira!” I exclaimed. “Why, my dear Governor, it will not be fit to drink when it reaches you.”

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because it will be so shaken up, it will be like tasting bad drugs. Madeira of any age, if once moved, cannot be tasted until it has had at least a month’s repose. President Arthur is a good judge of Madeira, and he would not drink your wine.”

“Well, what am I to do?” said he.

“Why, my dear Governor, I will myself carry to your house for him a couple of bottles of my very best Madeira.” This I did, sitting in the middle of the carriage, one bottle in each hand (it having been first carefully decanted), and into the governor’s parlor I was ushered, and then placed my offering before the President, telling him that I well knew he loved women, as well as song and wine; prayed him to honor me with his presence at a Newport picnic, promising to cull a bouquet of such exotics as are only grown in a Newport hothouse.

The invitation he at once accepted, much, I thought, to the chagrin of the governor, who, accompanying me to his front door, said: “My dear sir, one must remember that he is the President of the United States, ruling over 60 million people. He is here as my guest, and now to go off and dine on Sunday with a leader of fashion, and then to follow this up by attending one of your open-air lunches, seems to me not right.” (I must here say in his defense that the governor had never been to one of my “open-air lunches” and knew not of what he spoke.)

I then resolved to make this picnic worthy of our great ruler, and at once invited to it a beautiful woman, one who might have been selected for a Madonna. This is the first time I have made mention of her; she possessed that richness of nature you only see in Southern climes; one of the most beautiful women in America. She promised to go to this country party and bring her court with her.

I selected the loveliest spot on Newport Island, known as “The Balch Place,” near “The Paradise and Purgatory Rocks,” for this fete. The Atlantic Ocean, calm and unruffled, lay before us; all the noise it made was the gentle ripple of the waves as they kissed the rocky shore. Giving the President our great beauty, he led the way to the collation, partaken of at little tables under the sparse trees that the rough winter barely permitted to live, and then we had a merry dance on the green, on an excellent platform fringed with plants.

At a subsequent breakfast, I was intensely gratified to have the President say to me, before the whole company, “McAllister, you did indeed redeem your promise. The beauty of the women at your picnic, the beauty of the place, and its admirable arrangement made it the pleasantest party I have had at Newport” — and this was said before my friend the governor. Grand, elaborate entertainments are ofttimes not as enjoyable as country frolics.

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