Welcome to Cara Lynn James who posts an awesome blog today on the Gilded Age as part of my “Salute to America: the Northeast.” Cara has thoroughly researched the turn-of-the-century super-wealthy as part of her series, The Ladies of Summerhill, and does an outstanding job of painting the backdrop for her stories about people in the High Society.America’s Gilded Age began after the Civil War and extended into the early twentieth century. This was the era of rapid and enormous economic and population growth. The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain and refers to the gilding of something with a superficial layer of gold. The phrase makes fun of the ostentatious display of wealth that characterized high society. These millionaires were industrialists, financiers and entrepreneurs whose names still ring with the sound of wealth—or former riches. Who hasn’t heard the names Rockefeller, Carnegie, Astor and Vanderbilt? These so-called “robber barons” were sometimes admired and sometimes reviled by the common folk. But they and their life style fascinated their generation and ours as well.
During most of the year a lot of the super rich resided in New York or other East coast cities. But for the short summer season they flocked to places like Bar Harbor, Maine or Saratoga Springs, New York or the Berkshires or Adirondacks.
But the seacoast town of Newport, Rhode Island claimed the title of premier resort during the Gilded Age because of its pleasant climate and glorious scenery. Along Bellevue Avenue and the Ocean Drive, the millionaires built hundred room palaces of limestone or marble, rambling Queen Anne’s, villas, castles, chateaux and chalets. Despite their huge size, they were all called cottages. And they took an army of servants to run them properly.
The most famous social leader of high society was Caroline Astor, wife of real estate heir, William Backhouse Astor, head of one of the richest families in America. With the help of Ward McAllister Caroline decided who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ of society. You needed more than a fortune to meet her rigid standards, but dozens of social climbing, nouveau riche wives tried their best to win her approval.
After she faded from the society due to advancing age, a triumvirate replaced her as social arbiters who ruled Newport. The acerbic Mamie Fish, strong-willed Alva Vanderbilt Belmont (mother of Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlboro) and Tessie Oelrichs appeared on the scene.
A few of the requirements for acceptance were wealth, pedigree, property, servants and a fashionable wardrobe made in Paris, preferably by Frederick Worth. The husbands provided the means for this extravagant life, but the women ran the show. Creative in their own right with unlimited funds, they spent an enormous amount on entertaining and amusing each other. They showed off their wealth without any restraint or sense of understatement.
The cost of maintaining a summer estate was high and it was common for a family to spend as much as $70,000 on one event. Imagine what it would cost in our dollars today! The ladies did their best to out do each other. For one evening’s entertainment, Tessie Oelrichs decorated her beautiful estate, Rosecliff, with swans and white flowers. She even had a fleet of white ships constructed to float off shore. Grace Wilson Vanderbilt brought in a popular Broadway show to play at a specially built theatre at Beaulieu. And Mamie Fish, with the assistance of Harry Lehr, loved to give parties which were unusual, to say the least. At one party, the guests of honor were dogs. At another party Mrs. Fish honored Prince del Drago who turned out to be a monkey in evening dress. The guests thought this was a wonderful joke, but the press and the public thought otherwise.
The heyday of Newport conspicuous consumption and outlandish entertainment lasted until after World War 1. Many of these grand mansions (oops, cottages) are now museums and tourist attractions.
While Charlotte is focusing on uncovering sordid information on columnist Daniel Wilmot, her heart leads her into uncharted territory. During the summer of 1900 Charlotte Hale, a native Newporter and secretary for the Rhode Island Reporter, accepts an undercover assignment as temporary governess to Daniel Wilmont’s children in order to secretly gather evidence against him. As he helps her rediscover God, Charlotte learns that Daniel is an honorable man. They unexpectedly fall in love despite their different backgrounds and social positions. Charlotte soon realizes she must defend Daniel against the forces set against him—a willful student with a romantic crush and the newspaper editor determined to destroy his reputation.