Chicago author Renee Rosen is again taking us on a trip to the past. In her previous novels, she’s explored the city’s jazz roots (Windy City Blues), the Chicago Fire and the founding of the city’s iconic department stores (What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age), and Prohibition-era Chicago (Dollface). Now, in The Social Graces we meet two mega-wealthy women—Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Astor who starting in the 1870s vied to become the leader of high society.
If that meant spending $10 million in today’s money to stage a ball at the Waldorf Hotel, so be it.
“Think the original ‘Real Housewives of New York City’ but in Worth gowns,” says Rosen about the competition which in many ways also sounds like middle school. “They had plenty of balls such as the circus ball with a live elephant. Entertaining was the only arena where women could exert some influence. After all they had few rights, they couldn’t even vote, so they literally created this high society where they made the rules and determined who belonged and who didn’t.”
At first Caroline Astor ruled New York and Newport, Rhode Island society. She was old money while Vanderbilt was one of the nouveau riche and after all, no matter how much new money you had it wasn’t as good as the old.
“Mrs. Astor was the gate keeper, the reigning queen, she decided who was invited to her annual ball,” says Rosen, noting that only 400, the number her ball room could hold, were invited to this ball and thus they were deemed to be the elitist of the elite. “If you weren’t invited, you either left town or turned off all your lights and pretended you were out of town.”
Determined to replace Caroline, Alva hosted her famous Masquerade Ball at her Fifth Avenue mansion, inviting 1200 though not Caroline who finally was able to get an invitation. It was so excessive, it helped catapult her to the top.
Rosen didn’t want to just write about these women, she wanted to know them.
“I admired both Caroline and Alva for several reasons and I disliked them for several reasons,” she says. “Alva certainly wouldn’t have been mother of the year.”
And yes, it is true. Alva locked her daughter Consuelo in her room so she couldn’t marry the man she loved and instead forced her to wed the impoverished Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. He in turned just wanted her vast fortune to restore his very outdated palace which didn’t even have central heating or hot water. The marriage, by the way, made Consuelo a relative of Winston Churchill and the yet-to-be-born Princess Diana.
“Alva was such a trail blazer,” says Rosen. “This was a time when so many men had mistresses and women had to put up with it. But when Alva’s husband Willie K. started canoodling with other women, she put her foot down and divorced him. She became a suffragette. She wasn’t a licensed architect, but she knew all about building. There was something really vulnerable about Caroline. I think she was very lonely. She was at the top of society but at some level she knew that none of it really mattered. There was a whole lot of wealth but very little substance.”
Renee Rosen Virtual Events
April 27 6PM CST / 7PM EST
A virtual evening at the Newport Mansions & the Newport Preservation Society
Hosted by An Unlikely Story. Register Here
April 29 12PM CST / 1PM EST Hosted by Bookends and Beginnings
Literary Lunch Break with Karen White. Register Here
May 5 4PM CST / 6PM EST A Special Virtual Gilded Age Event
Featuring Chanel Cleeton, Marie Benedict & Renee Rosen Hosted by InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel & Berkley Publishing. Signature cocktail recipe & special VIP raffle gift, courtesy of Pomp & Whimsy! General & VIP tickets Register Here
May 10 7PM CST / 8PM EST Hosted by Blue Willow Bookshop
In Conversation with Chanel Cleeton. Register Here
June 22 7PM CST Literature Lovers’ Night Out
Please check back for details & registration.
This story previously appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times.