Inside the true stories that inspired HBO's hit drama The Gilded Age10/29/2023
A war of wealth: How New York’s richest dynasties were almost ripped apart by a bitter battle between old money and new – as HBO’s The Gilded Age gets set to lay bare the socialite families’ petty feuds and extravagant spending in season two of hit show
- The Vanderbilts were considered new money arrivistes who used their enormous wealth build mansions and launch themselves into New York society
- The series will portray a dramatized version of how the Vanderbilts founded the Metropolitan Opera after being shunned from the Academy of Music
- It will also feature the story of Ward McAllister, a Southern gadfly who colonized Gilded Age society alongside its reigning queen, Caroline Astor
The torrid lives of America’s wealthiest dynasties are once again set to be laid bare in dramatic fashion as they take center stage in season two of HBO’s hit series, The Gilded Age.
Created by Julian Fellowes, the show charts the tug-of-war between old money and new in 1880s New York.
Those with generational wealth like Agnes van Rhijn (played by Christine Baranski) and Caroline Astor (played by Donna Murphy) are desperate to keep the railroad-rich interlopers, George and Bertha Russell out of their cloistered circle.
Based on true events, season two of the series will hit a dramatic tenor as it will retell the true story of dueling operas houses in a colorfully attired portrayal of money and manners.
At the height of the Gilded Age in New York City, nothing signified a person’s good breeding, wealth and societal rank quite like a box seat at the famed Academy of Music.
Passed down from generation to generation, the 18 boxes were closely guarded by society’s oldest and most distinguished families: the Astors, the Livingstons, the Schermerhorns, and the Roosevelts.
Meanwhile, the nouveau riche —which included the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Rockefellers — were persona non grata.
When William Henry Vanderbilt, arguably the richest man in the world at the time, tried to purchase a box at the Academy for the lavish sum of $30,000, he was swiftly denied.
Frustrated by the exclusionary culture, the new money arrivistes banded together to build a new Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and 39th Street that outshined the old Academy in everyway.
Today, the Met remains a beloved institution in the New York City performing arts scene at Lincoln Center. But if it weren’t for this little known feud among American aristocrats, the famed music box would not exist.
Here’s a look at the operatic clashes, salacious secrets and scandalous American dynasties that inspired season two of the HBO series, premiering on October 29.
HOW A POWER STRUGGLE OVER THE OPERA WOULD CHANGE THE TRAJECTORY OF NEW YORK SOCIETY
The clash between Caroline Astor and Bertha Russell (a fictionalized version of Alva Vanderbilt, wife of a railroad tycoon) reaches fever pitch when Russell is denied a seat at the illustrious Academy of Music in season two of HBO’s The Gilded Age. Above, George and Bertha Russell are played by Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon
The HBO series is set to retell of an early skirmish in the social war between the houses of Vanderbilt and Astor who refused to allow the new money industrialists a box seat in the Academy of Music. In response, Vanderbilt spearheaded the building of a new opera house that eclipsed the old Academy in size, relevance and grandeur. The Metropolitan Opera opened to great fanfare in 1883 and remains a hallmark of New York City (above, the Met pictured at its old location on 39th Street)
At the height of the Gilded Age, there was no greater emblem of status than owning a box at the Academy of Music, which stood on the corner of 14th Street and Irving Place (left). Passed down from generation to generation, the 18 box seats were closely guarded by society’s oldest and most distinguished families: the Astors, Livingstons, Schermerhorns, and Roosevelts
In season two, the clash between Caroline Astor and Bertha Russell (a fictionalized version of Alva Vanderbilt, wife of a railroad tycoon) reaches fever pitch when Russell is denied a seat at the illustrious Academy of Music.
According to Vanity Fair, Bertha lays it plain in an early episode of season two: ‘The opera is where society puts itself on display, where the elite meet each other and their children court each other and where the wheels of society turn.’
Indeed the Academy was the epicenter of social life for America’s wealthy gentry, the city’s only venue for grand opera performances, and the scene of many balls—including a reception for the Prince of Wales in 1860.
But only the oldest and most illustrious families could own private boxes in the theatre which became an emblem of social prominence that was passed down between generations.
Famously immortalized in ‘The Age of Innocence,’ Edith Wharton writes: ‘Conservatives cherished it [the Academy] for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the ‘new people’ whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to.’
After being shunned from the Academy, William Vanderbilt and his fellow industrialists pooled their cash to build a new opera house that would eclipse the Academy in influence, relevance, and grandeur.
With great fanfare, the Metropolitan Opera opened its doors in October 1883. The colossal edifice stood on the corner of Broadway and 39th Street, a location selected to be closer to their uptown faux-chateaus and villas on Fifth Avenue.
Inside was a gilded treasure box of gas-lit crystal and sumptuous red velvet that made the old Academy of Music look staid and shabby.
The new venue offered the three levels of box seats to buy into. The ‘Diamond Horseshoe’ was reserved for those with the fattest checkbooks, and was designed to display the occupants dripping in diamonds and the latest in European fashions.
William Vanderbilt purchased three boxes, one for himself and the other two for his sons.
Though it was considered a triumph, one newspaper critiqued: ‘The Goulds and Vanderbilts and people of that ilk perfumed the air with the odor of crisp greenbacks. The tiers of boxes looked like cages in a menagerie of monopolists.’
Caroline Astor was notably out of town when the Met had its opening day, waiting to see which way the social cards would fall. But it didn’t take long for her old money friends to cave in and move over to the Met.
Within two years of its opening, the Academy of Music permanently closed its doors.
It was an early win for Alva Vanderbilt in the long war for social dominance but it would take years before she dethroned Caroline Astor as Queen of New York society.
Today the Metropolitan Opera lives on at its new location in Lincoln Center. The old Gilded Age building was torn down in 1966.
ALVA VANDERBILT’S QUEST TO DOMINATE CAROLINE ASTOR’S GRIP ON AMERICAN ARISTOCRACY
Season one of the HBO series follows Bertha Russell (a fictionalized version of Alva Vanderbilt) lay siege on New York Society despite her personal power struggle with Caroline Astor
Caroline Astor (played by Donna Murphy, left) was the reigning queen of New York society, who despised new money arrivistes like the Vanderbilts and Morgans. She maintained the infamous ‘Four Hundred’ list, which tallied the few hundred people she felt belonged in a high society ballroom
Amy Forsyth (left) plays Carrie Astor, the handsome daughter of Caroline Astor. Inspired by real events, season one of The Gilded Age reveals how Alva Vanderbilt forced Caroline Astor to accept her into New York society, when she disinvited Carrie from her much anticipated ball
Much like the real Vanderbilts, the Russells in HBO’s ‘The Gilded Age’ are an upstart family that have made a fortune in railroads.
Season one of the series sees Bertha Russell putting the finishing touches on a Fifth Avenue palace designed to look like a French chateau.
It follows her attempt to ‘old worldify’ herself by mimicking their habits with liveried servants, and hiring a French chef, and purchased furniture, tapestries and carpets from European castles.
Third generation Vanderbilts were keen to use their inheritance to infiltrate the gilded gates of New York Society. Until that point, they were considered nouveau riche vulgarians by the old guard. It would be their astonishing life of excess for which the family would become famous.
The show retells the tale of how Willie Kissam Vanderbilt (grandson of ‘the Commodore’) and his socially ambitious wife, Alva, would use their considerable wealth to lay siege to the cloistered parlor rooms of old money despite Alva’s personal power struggle with Caroline Astor, (the closest thing America had to landed aristocracy at the time).
No one was willing to ‘take them on,’ as it were, before Mrs. Astor indicated that she was ready for them to be included.
Alva’s opening gambit was a grandiose masquerade costume ball to celebrate the completion of a garish gothic-style mansion on Fifth Avenue.
She invited 1,200 of New York’s crème de la crème to her ‘housewarming’ party, which forced Caroline Astor to take notice.
Recreated in the first season of The Gilded Age, Alva (Bertha Russell) invites Caroline Astor’s daughter Carrie, to dance the quadrille in her much anticipated ball of the season.
‘Willie’ Kissam Vanderbilt (left) and his wife, Alva would use their considerable wealth to lay siege to the cloistered parlor rooms of old money. Alva was brilliant and ‘utterly ruthless’ in her quest to challenge Caroline Astor’s iron rule over New York’s aristocracy. Her opening gambit was a lavish masquerade costume ball to celebrate the completion of a grandiose gothic-style mansion on Fifth Avenue. Dressed as a Venetian princess, Alva received her guests wearing a rope of pearls that belonged to Catherine the Great wrapped around her waist (right)
But much to the dismay of Carrie, Alva later revokes her invitation after her mother refused to leave ‘a calling card’ at the Vanderbilt home.
The practice of leaving ‘calling cards’ on the doorsteps of polite society was one of the more arcane instances of social theatre during the Gilded Age.
Bluebloods paid each other short visits as a way of showing respect and reaffirming their own power in society.
As dramatized in the HBO series, Caroline Astor refused to address Bertha Russell, which in turn meant that she was allowed to snub young Carrie from the ball.
Forcing Caroline Astor to acknowledge her presence in society meant that Alva Vanderbilt won, and New York Society was never the same.
HOW A SOUTHERN GADFLY NAMED WARD MCALLISTER COLONIZED GILDED AGE SOCIETY ALONGSIDE CAROLINE ASTOR
In real life, Ward McAllister (played by Nathan Lane), was an imperious and fussy Southerner who helped define the rules that governed New York’s Gilded Age high society. One newspaper dubbed him ‘the most complete dandy in America,’ but thanks to his close friendship with Caroline Astor, he became known as ‘the King of New York society’
Ward McAllister who was well versed in Old World mannerisms and etiquette served as Astor’s unofficial advisor. Astor determined that for acceptance into society, one must be at least three generations removed from whoever’s hands had been dirtied in the making of money. Together they ruled as the gatekeepers to society
McAllister defined the rules of what made an aristocratic gentleman. (Above, a cartoon pokes fun at his snobbery). McAllister founded an organization known as ‘the Society of Patriarchs.’ that consisted of 25 members that were ‘representative men of worth, respectability, and responsibility.’ They were handpicked by him and Astor from old money families like the Schermerhorns and Lorillards, and the new money clans, like the Goelets and Rockefellers
In the first season of HBO’s period drama, audience members are introduced to a eccentric mustachioed character named Ward McAllister (played by Nathan Lane).
In real life, Ward McAllister, was an imperious and fussy Southerner who helped define the rules that governed New York’s Gilded Age high society.
Born in Georgia, McAllister was a trainer lawyer who went West during the Gold Rush before he quit his life to tour Europe.
He came back to America and established himself in New York City as a professional snob, that rubbed shoulders with the elite.
In reality, McAllister was a fraud who aped habits of his socialite friends.
As a young man, he moved in with a wealthy relative hoping to inherit her money. But upon her death, she left him a paltry $1,000 in her will which he used entirely on an evening suit to attend an important ball with aristocrats who assumed he was the inheritor of a massive fortune.
One newspaper dubbed him ‘the most complete dandy in America,’ but thanks to his close friendship with Caroline Astor, he became known as ‘the King of New York society.’
McAllister was the first and greatest of what would later be called a ‘walker,’ a gentleman friend who offers an arm to escort society ladies in lieu of their busy husbands.
Despite the fact that he was married with three children, his wife was rumored to be an invalid and never seen in public.
As Caroline Astor looked to consolidate her hold over the beau monde, she needed an elegant cooperator and unofficial advisor who was well versed in Old World mannerisms and knew the rules of etiquette.
The twin leaders of New York City sought to organize rank and hierarchy among the ruling class.
McAllister coined the word ‘nob’ to define those that hailed from old money and pedigree, like Caroline Astor. In contrast, ‘swells’ were the louche nouveau riche like the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rockefellers.
Astor and McAllister served as the gatekeepers to the infamous ‘Four Hundred’ list—a number derived at the amount of people she could fit in her ballroom. Together, they wielded their social influence as a kingmakers and arbiter of tastes.
In HBO’s The Gilded Age, a meeting with Ward McAllister was key to helping Bertha Russell gain entry into New York Society. True to the real life story, McAllister is credited with paving the way for Vanderbilt’s acceptance into the silk-stocking set.
Eventually, McAllister fell out of favor with socialites when he published a tell-all memoir in 1890. He died five years later from a sudden attack of the flu- penniless, divorced from his former glamorous life and completely irrelevant.
THE TRUE STORY T. THOMAS FORTUNE, A FORMER SLAVE THAT OWNED THE NEW YORK GLOBE NEWSPAPER
According to Deadline.com season two of The Gilded Age will see Peggy Scott (played by Denée Benton, left) tap ‘ into her activist spirit through her work with T. Thomas Fortune (played Sullivan Jones) at the New York Globe. While Fortune is a real figure in history, Peggy’s character inspired by a number of female black pioneers of the time
As seen in season one, Peggy Scott (played by Denée Benton) is a young ambitious black writer from Brooklyn who refuses to write for the white newspaper, the Christian Advocate, because its editor wants her to write under a pen name
Born into slavery, T. Thomas Fortune was a close associate of Booker T. Washington who founded the New York Globe, a publication that would become one of the most influential black newspapers in the country. Peggy Scott is loosely based on Ida B. Wells (RIGHT), an author and activist who founded the NAACP
As seen in season one, Peggy Scott (played by Denée Benton) is a young ambitious black writer from Brooklyn who refuses to write for the white newspaper, the Christian Advocate, because its editor wants her to write under a pen name.
According to Deadline.com season two of The Gilded Age will see Peggy tap ‘into her activist spirit through her work with T. Thomas Fortune at the New York Globe.’
Played by Sullivan Jones, T. Thomas Fortune is a real historical figure who is often referred to as the dean of black journalism.
Born into slavery, Fortune was a close associate of Booker T. Washington who founded the New York Globe — a publication that would become one of the most influential black newspapers in the country.
According to the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, Peggy’s character isn’t based on one single historical figure but inspired by a number of real pioneers of the time.
One of which is Ida B. Wells, and author and activist who documented lynchings across the country and became one of the founders of the NAACP.
THE BLOODY UNION STRIKE AT PITTSBURGH STEEL PLANT THAT RUINED ANDREW CARNEGIE’S REPUTATION
Season two is set to relive another infamous event in American history, known as ‘the Homestead Strike.’ Inspired by the true story of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie; the railroad tycoon George Russell (played by Morgan Spector) will face off union workers at his steel plant in Pittsburgh
Season two is set to relive another infamous event in American history, known as ‘the Homestead Strike.’
Inspired by the true story of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie; the railroad tycoon George Russell (played by Morgan Spector) will face off union workers at his steel plant in Pittsburgh.
The Homestead Strike of 1892 was a pivotal labor conflict that unfolded in Homestead, Pennsylvania.
It was a clash between the powerful Carnegie Steel Company and a labor union representing steelworkers over the company’s decision to cut wages and break the union.
Carnegie decided to lock workers out of the plant, overnight installing three miles of fencing with barbed wire, and watch towers to allow non-union workers into the plant.
He hired 300 armed Pinkerton guards to escort the scabs past the strike protestors. But tensions escalated, leading to intense fighting, gunfire and seven fatalities.
The state militia was eventually called in to restore order and support the company’s interests.
In the end, the union workers were forced to take a 60 per cent pay cut, but Andrew Carnegie’s ‘pro-worker reputation’ would never be the same.
The strike highlighted their struggles and contributed to the evolution of labor rights and union movements in the United States.
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