Friday, September 3, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Social Graces by Renee Rosen

At the height of the Gilded Age, two women ruled New York High Society: Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt. Their rivalry was legendary. My first introduction to this battle for supremacy was in Gore Vidal’s 1876, though it was only a small part of that novel. A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler was a more focused look at the jockeying for position by obscenely wealthy women of the times. The Social Graces by Renee Rosen (released this year) is another look at the dueling Grand Dames.

Caroline Astor (THE Mrs. Astor) is the reigning queen. Coming from “old money,” Caroline is a Knickerbocker and the defender of the old guard. It is critically important to hold the line against “new money,” those who have made their fortunes in railroads, oil, etc. The worst of the new-money encroachers are the Vanderbilts. 

Mrs. Astor’s claim to fame is as a hostess. The goal of every wealthy woman in New York is to receive an invitation to one of her parties. The surest way to find yourself excluded from her company is to hobnob with the nouveau riche. Mrs. Astor is like a Gilded Age mean girl, and everyone wants to be in her clique.

But it’s lonely at the top. Mr. Astor spends his time on his yacht or at his club. Or pursuing one of his many affairs. Mrs. Astor’s children are grown and have different values: they want to marry for love not for purposes of buttressing the fortress of Knickerbocker society. And her loyal minions are too intrigued by what’s going on over at Alva Vanderbilt’s place.

Alva Vanderbilt has a reasonably good Southern pedigree, but her family has fallen on hard times. When she snares Willie Vanderbilt, one of the multi-millionaire grandsons of the railroad tycoon, she thinks she’s arrived. But no. Wealth alone is not enough to gain the family entrance to the correct parties. Alva refuses to take no for an answer and embarks upon a frontal assault, determined to snatch away Mrs. Astor’s crown.

The novel explores the struggle in chapters that alternate between the points of view of each of the women. There are intervening chapters voiced by “Society,” a Greek chorus of the combined voices of gossipy women on the fringes of the battle. Caroline and Alva are humanized. It’s possible to see why ruling society is so important—they have no other outlet. Men rule the business world, the political world, the financial world, even the sporting world. Men are permitted affairs. Women throw parties. At most, they support charities, but even this seems to be a way to maneuver in society.

The case made by the novel is that these women, by virtue of their high profiles, were able to break new ground. Alva hires Richard Morris Hunt and builds mansions. Caroline builds the Astoria hotel. In her later life, Alva divorced her husband and remarried. In a time when divorce was unheard of and would lead to immediate ostracism (for the wife), Alva was able to reclaim her position. She also became a supporter of women’s suffrage.

The book is engrossing. The life stories of Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt are fascinating. And yet… there is something unsatisfying in reading about the lives of these people of vast wealth who devoted themselves to social climbing or to kicking other climbers off the ladder. The wealth was accumulated through exploitation, but, naturally, they take no notice of this. And their pursuits were largely trivial. Their marriages were unhappy. Their families were dysfunctional. They seem more to be pitied than admired.

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