the invention of the "four hundred" -- 2/25/19

Today's selection -- from The Husband Hunters by Anne de Courcy. The invention of the "Four Hundred," the preeminent members of New York society in the Gilded Age:

"Yet at that very moment, as the Gilded Age began, a new social format was being created that would give shape and structure to the fashionable world for the next few decades -- and launch those daughters of the newly rich, the real-life 'buccaneers', across the Atlantic. At the heart of the stratagem designed to create what would become known variously as 'Society' and the 'Four Hun­dred' was one man, a Southerner named Ward McAllister. ... Even in an age of social striving, he was known as a snob.

"Connected by birth to some of the old New York families, in 1852 he had married an heiress and a few years later had settled in Newport, where his style of entertaining soon began to be copied. ... He had ... travelled extensively in Europe, where he soaked up everything he could about court and aristocratic customs. On his return to America he determined to become the self-appointed arbiter of its society and the customs it should follow.

"He had already been successful in shaping the society of New­port. Now, he decided, it was time to tackle the one city in America pre-eminent in wealth, drawing power, sophistication and general glitter: New York. A man might have made a fortune by planting a Midwest prairie with wheat -- but it was to New York that his wife, avid to spend this new wealth, now insisted they move.

"McAllister's cleverness lay in realising that the newly rich were there to stay; more and more millionaires appeared each year and the relentless tide of wealth would soon flood the passive Knickerbockers completely -- unless something were done about it (not for nothing were these newcomers known as 'the Bounc­ers'). He also recognised that any society had to have a leader, whom everyone would accept without question -- if not, it would degenerate into a formless mass riven by bitter internal struggles.

Samuel Ward McAllister

"There was only one person fit for this position and she, al­though beleaguered by the strivings of 'Bouncer money', as parvenu wealth was called, already occupied it. Caroline Astor would continue to be the queen.

"He decided to use the most desirable members of both old and new as the foundation stones of the new order. To select these, he formed a small committee ('there is one rule in life I invariably carry out -- never to rely wholly on my own judgment'); a little band that met every day for a month or two at McAllister's house, making lists, adding, whittling down, forming judgements.

"Eventually, twenty-five men, all wealthy, some from old fam­ilies, some from the new rich but all considered to be men of integrity, were chosen and invited to become 'Patriarchs', as they would in future be known. They would give two and sometimes three balls a season, as exquisite as possible, with each Patri­arch in return for his subscription of $125 having the right to invite to each ball four ladies and five gentlemen, this number to include himself and his family; all distinguished strangers (up to the number of fifty) would also be asked, their names to be run past McAllister. Everyone asked to be a Patriarch accepted immediately.

"As McAllister had rightly foreseen, the exclusiveness of these balls was what gave them their magnetic power. 'We knew ... that the whole secret of the success of these Patriarch Balls lay in making them select ... in making it extremely difficult to obtain an invitation to them, and to make such invitations of great value [so that] one might be sure that anyone repeatedly invited to them had a secure social position.'

"The first of the balls was given in the winter of 1872. With them, McAllister achieved absolute social power.

"Applications to be made a Patriarch poured in, the great ma­jority turned down but often with the door left tantalizingly ajar."


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author:

Anne De Courcy

title:

The Husband Hunters

publisher:

St Martin's Press

date:

Copyright 2017 by Anne de Courcy

pages:

19-23
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