“The Gilded Age”: what is truth and what is fiction?

A scene in this week’s episode of The Gilded Age, Julian Fellowes’ frothy drama on HBO, takes us to Central Park in the late 1800s. Marianne Brooke (Luisa Jacobson), a young rebellious and newly arrived from the mystery of Pennsylvania, rides a wagon with her two blue-blooded aunts when the conversation turns to the subject of Carolyn Astor, the fearsome New York community mayor.

“Do you like Mrs. Astor?” asks Marianne.

Her Aunt Agnes (The Hornet Christine Baransky) replied, “That’s like saying ‘Do you like rain?'” “It is a fact of life that we have to live with.”

It’s one of the many nods to New York’s history that appears in the “golden age.” Set during a period of dramatic change, the series chronicles the moment when the city’s center of gravity shifted higher up the city, when the rules of society were quickly rewritten as new European-inspired mansions popped up along Fifth Avenue, and when old families like the Astors and The Schermerhorns were challenged socially and financially by arrivistes named Vanderbilt, Gould, and Rockefeller.

The era’s name, taken from a book co-authored by Mark Twain, suggests that gloss was on the surface. “Golden means covered with gold, not gold,” said Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a professor of history at Rutgers University who was the principal historical advisor for “Golden Age” and co-executive producer. “It was a time when economic inequality, apartheid, violence, and patriotism lived side by side with luxury and luxury.”

Carl Raymond, a social historian who focuses on the era’s “The Gilded Gentleman” podcast, said the cultural shifts were largely driven by “massive changes in business infrastructure, when crazy money was pouring in and old New York faced new challenges.”

“That was when the new society was created and everyone was vying for power,” he said.

The HBO series is mostly about the golden age of our imagination, filled with large families, sumptuous furnishings, lavish entertainment, strict social rules, colossal fortunes, and boundless sky ambitions.

Roughly halfway through its first season, which ends March 21, “The Gilded Age” blended fantasy melodrama with actual historical story lines, such as the importance of the black press, the influx of wealthy stratospheric railroad magnates into town and an active community feuding over the opera house’s trendy hospitality for expats. the new ones.

The events have played out between some wholly invented characters and others who are clearly inspired by real people—for example, Carrie Coon’s hardworking Bertha Russell handed the same award to Alpha Vanderbilt—as well as a few who are depictions of actual historical figures. These include the aforementioned Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy), the Queen of the Guild Edge Society; Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), the arrogant social arbiter of the elite; Clara Barton (Linda Emond), founder of the American Red Cross; Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones), black writer, orator, civil rights leader, and newspaper editor.

Making fact out of fiction is part of the fun of watching “The Gilded Age,” which was recently renewed for a second season. To help you out, here are the back stories of some of the elements that make up the series’ universe.

In the first episode, the chef who works for the ambitious new-money Russell family notes with applause that the family has moved to elegant 61st Street, about 30 blocks north of their former home. He declared “30th Street out of fashion”.

Indeed, the early history of upper-class Manhattan is the history of emigration to the North, from Bowling Green to Washington Square to Murray Hill into the 1950s, and then directly on Fifth Avenue by the 1880s.

said Esther Crane, author of “The Gilded Age in New York” and founder of the website Ephemeral New York, which explores interesting aspects of the city.

She described it as a time when corruption, exploitation, and graft were rampant, but also when the city’s culture, lifestyle, and institutions began to take shape, cementing New York’s sense of itself as the center of everything.

“New York was a microcosm of the era – the country’s financial capital, and the industrial base for a lot of big companies,” she said. “It had the culture, the metropolis, the theatre, the shopping, the fashion, everyone who wanted to be here.”

Edith Wharton’s brilliant autopsy opens the ‘Age of Innocence’ to New York’s Gilded Age, with the main characters preparing to see Faust at the Academy of Music, the opera venue beloved by New York’s Old Guard. “Conservatives cherished him for being small and inconvenient, and thus distanced him from the ‘new people’ with whom New York began to fear and yet gravitate,” Wharton wrote.

Indeed, although Bertha Russell, the richest and most daring of The Gilded Age, attends the opera as a guest, she discovers to her dismay that all her fortune cannot buy a coveted private chest. The academy has less than twenty, owned by prominent New York families and passed on to their heirs.

“Going to the opera in this period was a social battleground,” Raymond said. “It was about where you sat, what you were wearing — and most importantly, who saw you doing it.” He said the design gave way to the social peacock, with “the squares on one side of the stage looking into the boxes on the other”.

In New York, the wealthy, disturbed by their exclusion from things, tend to create their own alternatives. In this case, a group of new hackers pooled their money and built a bigger and better building. (A character in the “Golden Age” describes them as “JP Morgan and the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts–every opportunist in New York.”) The result, the first Metropolitan Opera House, opened in 1883 on Broadway and 39th Street. (Uncompetitive, the academy attempted to reinvent itself as a vaudeville hall but closed after several years.)

Dunbar said the ease with which the wealthy could make their way into society during this period reflected and reinforced one of America’s founding myths: that it is a place where anything is possible, as long as you work and make money. .

“This might just seem to be a case of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ rich people fighting, and who cares,” Dunbar said. “But he’s talking about the changing of the guard, the changing of traditions, the way this nation has always grappled with change.”

America was still a young country during the Golden Age, barely 100 years old and shaped by a revolution that allegedly repudiated the old ways. But even so, Manhattan’s upper crust seemed bent on emulating European customs.

In “The Gilded Age,” Mrs. Russell reflects the tastes of the time by boasting that her new chef is French. Her stately new home was designed to mimic the grandeur of European homes, as well as the mansions built by real New Yorkers of the era. (The interiors were also generally filled with items purchased from the European palace and imported at great cost.) The new opera house was modeled after its European counterparts. Social customs, too—dress codes, morals, and decency, which dictate who could be served to whom—were very European, perhaps as a reaction by the nervous upper class to the exciting but threatening idea of ​​American social mobility.

Caroline Astor’s model was Europe; “She wanted to create a European-American court,” Raymond said. “One of the most funny ironies about the Golden Age is that you have a society that is desperately trying to emulate the courts of Europe and the British aristocracy.”

For many years, Carolyn Shermerhorn Astor was the governor of the New York community and the squad of the Old Guard in Manhattan. With the help of her friend Ward McAllister, she decides who and what is worth or not. Her parties were said to have been limited to 400 guests from only 25 “old” families.

But she met her counterpart in the stunningly wealthy Alva Vanderbilt, who swept through New York and in 1882 installed herself in the most new mansion the city had ever seen, at 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Designed under Vanderbilt’s watchful eye by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt and better known as the Petit Chateau, it was massive, made of limestone, and built in the French Renaissance and Gothic style. It really looked like a castle, to the point where you could have a castle in the middle of an American city. Astor herself had two homes, one in the increasingly unfashionable 1930s and one in the 1950s. But neither of them were as nice as Vanderbilt Palace.

In 1883, Vanderbilt threw a hooded ball of fancy to over 1,000 guests. Everyone shouted to be invited, but Astor and her daughter Carrie (who was said to be desperate to attend) were left off the guest list. The story goes that after Vanderbilt makes it clear to Macalister that she never recognized Astor, Astor immediately calls Vanderbilt – and he quickly receives an invitation to the party.

Sadly, like almost all gilded mansions, the Vanderbilts’ “Petit Chateau” eventually became too expensive for the family. In 1926, Vanderbilt’s heirs sold it to developers for $3.75 million, and it was destroyed. There is now an administration building on the site.