The Vanderbilt Era: Profiles of a Gilded Age

Louis Auchincloss, Author Scribner Book Company $19.95 (0p) ISBN 978-0-684-19112-6
In the felicitous style of his many novels and other nonfiction titles, Auchincloss examines the lives of New York's ``acceptable'' families, the privileged wealthy, in the period 1880-1920. His close connections to their descendants--and his wide reading--inform these lively anecdotal histories of business-dominated, pseudo-aristocracy in democratic America. Dubbed The Four Hundred (the number of guests accommodated in Mrs. William Astor's ballroom), the ``elite'' were heirs of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt or merchant John Jacob Astor, among others. As Auchincloss reveals, the newly rich husbands excelled in amassing millions and their wives, in unrestrained spending. The families' aims were self-indulgence and to outdo each other in building magnificent dwellings where they threw parties incredible in cost and absurdity. In certain instances, these profiles mitigate unsavory reputations, but the author condemns outright certain irredeemable characters. He says of Jay Gould that ``he would have felt quite comfortable on our Wall Street of 1989.'' And he relates the story of Alva Smith Vanderbilt who beat her children viciously and sold her 17-year-old daughter Consuelo to the money-grubbing Duke of Marlborough. With more pleasure one reads about the shining lights of the belle epoque : Edith Wharton, Henry James, the Adams brothers (kin of the Presidents); artists John Singer Sargent, Louis Tiffany, Sanford White et al. It's nicer still to find diamond-studded Mrs. Astor smiling at the remark, ``You look like a chandelier.'' She was amused but must have known: ``It was the beginning of a new era. And the end of hers.'' Illustrated. (May)
Reviewed on: 04/30/1989
Release date: 05/01/1989
Paperback - 214 pages - 978-0-02-030310-7
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