Sunday, October 30, 2011

Caroline Astor

“Drew in two bags of corn in shocks this morning and then drew three of stalks before dinner. After dinner we finished drawing the stalks (one load) and then drew in the rest of the corn before night.  We have the corn field cleared.  Froze hard this morning and has been cold all day.”

Portrait of Mrs. Astor by Carolus-Duran, which was placed prominently in her house. She would stand in front of it when receiving guests for receptions.
Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor (September 22, 1830 – October 30, 1908) was a prominent American socialite of the last quarter of the 19th century. Famous for being referred to later in life as "the Mrs. Astor" or simply "Mrs. Astor", she was the wife of real estate heir William Backhouse Astor Jr. Four years after her death her son John Jacob Astor IV was the richest man on the RMS Titanic and perished in the disaster of that ship.
In the decades following the Civil War the population of New York City grew almost exponentially, and immigrants and arrivistes from the Midwest began challenging the dominance of the old New York Establishment of which Lina Astor and her family were part. Her desire to be the unchallenged grande dame of New York society was as much about preserving the heritage and traditions of her native New York, a conflict dramatized by Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence, as it was about excluding those whom she deemed inferior.
Aided by the social arbiter Ward McAllister, whose life work was the codification and maintenance of the rules of social intercourse, Lina Astor attempted to codify proper behavior and etiquette, which had formerly been a lingua franca among the city's Establishment, as well as determine who was acceptable among the arrivistes for an increasingly heterogeneous city. McAllister once stated that, amongst the vastly rich families of Gilded Age New York, there were only 400 people who could be counted as members of Fashionable Society. He did not, as is commonly written, arrive at this number based on the limitations of Mrs. Astor's New York City ballroom. (McAllister, an Astor cousin by marriage, referred to her as the "Mystic Rose".) Her husband's lack of interest, not only in the social whirl but in Lina herself and their marriage, did not stop but instead fueled her burgeoning social activities, which increased in intensity as her children grew older.
Mrs. Astor was the foremost authority on the Aristocracy of New York in the late nineteenth century. She held ornate and elaborate parties for herself and other members of the elite New York socialite crowd. None was permitted to attend these gatherings without an official calling card from Mrs. Astor herself. Mrs. Astor's social groups were dominated by strong-willed aristocratic females. These social gatherings were dependent on overly conspicuous luxury and publicity. Moreso than the gatherings themselves, importance was highly placed upon the group as the upper-crust of New York's elite. Mrs. Astor and her ladies therefore represented the Aristocratic, or the Old Money, whereas the newly wealthy Vanderbilt family would establish a new wave of New Money.
Mrs. Vanderbilt, as a new member of socialite New York through the copious amounts of money that her family had earned rather than inherited, represented a type of wealth that was abhorrent to Mrs. Astor and her group. For this reason, Mrs. Astor was reluctant to call upon the Vanderbilt girls. In 1883, however, Caroline Astor was forced to formally socially acknowledge Alva Vanderbilt, the first wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt, thereby providing the Vanderbilts, the greatest "new" fortune in New York, entrance into the highest rungs of society. An oft-repeated New York legend has it that Alva Vanderbilt had planned an elaborate costume ball with entertainments given by young society figures for her housewarming, but at the last minute notified young Caroline Astor (Lina's youngest daughter) that she could not participate, because Mrs. Astor had never formally called on Mrs. Vanderbilt. Also likely, Mrs. Astor had noted the rising social profile of the Vanderbilt family, led by Alva and Willie, and viewing them as useful allies in her efforts to keep New York society exclusive had called formally on the Vanderbilts prior to Alva's lavish ball which Mrs. Astor herself attended. The Vanderbilts were subsequently invited to Mrs. Astor's annual ball, a formal acknowledgement of their full acceptance into the upper echelon of New York society.

Mrs. Astor would throw lavish parties and receptions at her house on Fifth Avenue

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