In HBO’s The Gilded Age, Mrs Russell – played by Carrie Coon – is dead set on one goal: becoming accepted by New York society. It’s no easy feat. Russell, you see, has heaps of money, but the new (and therefore wrong) kind. This does little to impress the old guard of New York City, who takes their orders from de facto queen Mrs Astor. And Mrs Astor prefers the company of the old guard families, who have held the top powerful positions in the city since the American revolution.
Again and again, Mrs Russell is snubbed. She throws a party that almost no one attends. She is not invited to sit on the boards of the fashionable charities. And when she offers up her grand ballroom – for free – for an event, she is turned down for a far inferior venue requiring payment. At one point, when leaving her calling card at the Mrs Astor’s mansion, the societal matriarch tosses it into the fire.The show’s creator Julian Fellowes didn’t bother to conceal the identity of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, known more colloquially at the time as Mrs Astor. After the Civil War, which saw immigrants and fortune-seeking Midwesterners flock to New York, Astor and her friend Ward McAllister curated a list of 400 fashionable New Yorkers they dubbed to be relevant in society. (400, by the way, was the number of people that could be held in Mrs Astor’s Newport ballroom.) Supported by her husband’s fur trading fortune, as well as her own background (Astor was a Knickerbocker, or a descendent of the wealthy Dutch aristocracy that settled in New York), she became the ultimate decider of who was in and who was out in the early decades of The Gilded Age. To even attend one of her parties, you needed to be a holder of her “calling card.”
And the people who did not have that card? They were the nouveau riche, including WK Vanderbilt and his wife, Alva. The couple bears an uncanny resemblance to The Gilded Age’s fictional Russells: The Vanderbilt family, at the time, owned and ran the New York Central railroad, which had catapulted them to extreme wealth, just like the Russells. The Vanderbilts, too, built a grand yet garish mansion, modelled after Louis XII’s Château de Blois, in midtown during the early 1880s (Alva was a Francophile to the extreme). Yet despite all of this, the Astors and their social group held the Vanderbilts “aloof,” The New York Times noted in WK Vanderbilt’s 1920 obituary. WK and Alva, however, knew that one thing would change everyone’s mind: money.