For those of you unfamiliar with the Gilded Age, it was a time that began directly after the Civil War and ran until right about the start of World War I. Industry was booming, fortunes were being made at an unprecedented rate, and the Knickerbocker set (the established social families of the day) were up in arms because the nouveau riche were trying to elbow their way into society. It was a time of glitter, progression, and greed. A time when fortunes were won and lost on a whim, and a time when scandal, intrigue, and fashion were simply a part of life for the more fortunate people of the day.
1. Alexander Turney Stewart was the owner of A.T. Stewart & Company, and died in 1876. Three weeks after his death, his body was stolen and held for ransom. What was really disconcerting about the abduction was Mr. Stewart’s body had been buried in the family vault, twelve feet under the ground, in a coffin, but the thieves didn’t take him in his coffin – they merely snatched his decomposing body and disappeared. I can’t even imagine what the stench was like. Negotiations to return his body did not go as planned and his body remained missing for a few years. Then, in 1879, his widow delivered $20,000 to an unknown man, receiving a bag of bones in return – all that was left of A.T. Stewart. The thieves were never caught.
2. Another tidbit about A.T. Stewart is that no matter his extreme wealth, he was not invited into New York high society. The guardian of that society, Caroline Astor, did not believe merchants had any business mingling in high society. She even remarked to friends that while she purchased her carpets from A. T. Stewart & Company, there was absolutely no reason to feel compelled to invite Mr. Stewart into her home to walk on those carpets. In retaliation for the snub, A.T. Stewart built a huge monstrosity of a home, complete with marble statues – directly across the street from Caroline’s sensible and less than attractive brownstone.
4. Because Caroline was such a snob, I was delighted to learn about the lady who thwarted her and changed the dynamics of New York society - Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, the former Alva Smith. William and Alva were not well-suited, but Alva got the fortune she desired through their marriage, while William got a socially ambitious wife. Even though the Vanderbilt family was one of the wealthiest families in the country, Caroline Astor proclaimed they were unfit for polite society, which is why Alva decided to host a costume ball in March of 1883 at her new mansion at 660 Fifth Avenue. Everyone wanted to attend, especially Caroline’s daughter, Carrie. However, because Caroline, the society matron, had never paid a call on Alva, Alva let it be known that, per one of Caroline’s society rules, it would not be socially acceptable to invite the Astor family to her ball. Realizing there was nothing to do but give in, Caroline had her driver whisk her over to Alva’s house, waited in the carriage for her groom to deliver her calling card to the butler, and just like that, Alva was free to invite the Astor family to the ball, and was, from that point forward, considered a member of high society.
5. And while we’re speaking of Alva Vanderbilt, I should mention the troubling notion that she forced her only daughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt, into marriage with the Duke of Marlborough in 1895, even though Consuelo was in love with another gentleman. The duke admitted he was only marrying her for her money because he needed to maintain Blenheim Palace, his palatial home. They did not enjoy a happy marriage. They finally divorced after years of separation in 1920, and one year after that divorce, the Duke of Marlborough married Gladys Deacon.
6. Gladys Deacon was one of the most beautiful women of the times, and she knew it. She decided she wanted the Duke of Marlborough not long after he married Consuelo, and made it a point to befriend Consuelo. That allowed her to get close to the duke, who, unfortunately, fell under her spell. Gladys was so vain she’d spend hours gazing into mirrors, and when she decided there was a small dimple marring the space right above her nose, she had it injected with paraffin in 1900. It was like an archaic form of Botox, and…while it seemed to puff out that dimple for a short amount of time, the paraffin began to melt, settling in clumps around her chin and jaw. She eventually had to have four surgeries to get it removed, which left permanent scars and gave her a rather curious appearance for the rest of her days.
7. The next tidbit concerns Ward McAllister’s successor as social arbiter, Mr. Harry Lehr. Harry was a gentleman who knew how to win over the ladies. He knew how to dress them, entertain them, and make them laugh. He was, however, a man of little fortune. Because he was so well-liked by the ladies, it was decided by society matrons that Harry needed a wife. They chose the widowed Elizabeth Drexel for him, heiress to a large fortune. Harry and Elizabeth were soon married, but unbeknownst to her, Harry was not attracted to ladies. On her wedding night, she ordered a dinner for two to be delivered to her hotel suite, but Harry never arrived to share it with her. She finally sought him out in his suite of rooms, where he informed her that theirs was to be a marriage in name only, he was not attracted to her, and he’d only married her for her money. Because she knew a divorce would kill her mother, Elizabeth stayed married to Harry until he died of a brain tumor in 1929. Her memoir, “King Lehr” and the Gilded Age, never allows the reader to know if she realized Harry was not heterosexual, but after his death, she did remarry, and one must hope it was to a man who loved her.
8. And last, but not least, while reading Elizabeth Lehr’s memoir, I thought I uncovered a real-life Cinderella story. In chapter twelve, I learned about Mary Lily Kenan who spent her time sewing in an attic room that belonged to Mrs. Pembroke Jones in Newport. Mary was described as a plain woman with no one to love until Mr. Henry Flagler paid a visit to Mrs. Jones. He was recently divorced and seemingly disillusioned with the world. But, he took one look at Miss Kenan and fell head over heels in love with her. The story then went on to say that he returned the next day, using the excuse he’d lost a button to have a reason to see Miss Kenan again. While Mary sewed on the button, Henry declared his love for her, then whisked her away to her happily-ever-after.
I should have just left it at that, but no, I decided to look further into their history. Needless to say, what I discovered was no Cinderella story. Mary Kenan met Henry in 1891 when she was 23 and he was 61. She was a beautiful and most sought-after lady, and Henry was smitten. However, he was also married to his second wife, Alice, who was showing signs of insanity and had homicidal tendencies. Alice was institutionalized two years after Henry met Mary, and while he tried to seek a divorce over the ensuing years, he and Mary remained…close. He presented her with a fortune in jewelry on her, gave her a million dollars’ worth of oil stock, and began building her a mansion. He finally secured his divorce in 1901 when the Florida Legislature passed a new law, making incurable insanity grounds for divorce. He and Mary were then married and lived a lovely life until he died in 1913, leaving her a fortune worth over 100,000,000. However, tragedy soon struck when Mary remarried in 1916, and while she and her new husband, Robert Worth Bingham, were celebrating their recent marriage at a party, she fell ill, dying a mere six weeks later. Two months after that, her body was exhumed and it was discovered she’d been poisoned. Robert was suspected of the murder, but he was never arrested, claiming his innocence until the day he died. And that was the end of what certainly turned out to be anything but a Cinderella story.
Now it’s your turn. What is one historical tidbit you’d like to share?
Today Jen is generously giving away five signed copies of Behind the Scenes. Winners announced in the Weekend Edition. So do leave a comment and share your juicy historical tidbits!
Miss Permilia Griswold may have been given the opportunity of a debut into New York high society, but no one warned her she wasn't guaranteed to "take." After spending the last six years banished to the wallflower section of the ballroom, she's finally putting her status on the fringes of society to good use by penning anonymous society gossip columns under the pseudonym "Miss Quill."
Mr. Asher Rutherford has managed to maintain his status as a reputable gentleman of society despite opening his own department store. While pretending it's simply a lark to fill his time, he has quite legitimate reasons for needing to make his store the most successful in the country.
When Permilia overhears a threat against the estimable Mr. Rutherford, she's determined to find and warn the man. Disgruntled at a first meeting that goes quite poorly and results in Asher not believing her, she decides to take matters into her own hands, never realizing she'll end up at risk as well.
As Asher and Permilia are forced to work together and spend time away from the spotlight of society, perhaps there's more going on behind the scenes than they ever could have anticipated. . . .
And don't miss the opportunity to download the delightful novella that starts the series Apart From the Crowd. At Your Request is free for Kindle!
A USA Today Best-Selling Author, Jen Turano is known for penning quirky historical romances set in the Gilded Age. Her novel, Playing the Part, was nominated as a 2016 RT Reviewers’ Choice Award Finalist, while After a Fashion, was nominated as a 2015 RT Reviewers’ Choice Award Finalist, as well as being named a 2015 top ten romance from Booklist. Her book, A Most Peculiar Circumstance, was chosen as a top ten romance by Booklist in 2013. Her latest series, Apart from the Crowd released with a free e-novella, At Your Request in January 2017, with the first full-length novel, Behind the Scenes releasing in April. When she’s not writing, Jen spends her time roaming in and around Denver. She can be found here on Facebook or visit her on the web at www.jenturano.com. She is represented by the Natasha Kern Literary Agency.