The Social Graces
by Renée Rosen

Published: 2021-04-20T00:0
Paperback : 416 pages
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The author of Park Avenue Summer throws back the curtain on one of the most remarkable feuds in history: Alva Vanderbilt and Mrs. Astor's notorious battle for control of New York society during the Gilded Age.

1876. In the glittering world of Manhattan's upper crust, a woman’s value ...

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The author of Park Avenue Summer throws back the curtain on one of the most remarkable feuds in history: Alva Vanderbilt and Mrs. Astor's notorious battle for control of New York society during the Gilded Age.

1876. In the glittering world of Manhattan's upper crust, a woman’s value comes from her pedigree, dowry, and most importantly, her connections. They have few rights and even less independence—what they do have, is society, and society is paramount. The more celebrated the hostess, the more powerful the woman. And none is more powerful than Caroline Astor—the Mrs. Astor.

But times are changing.

Alva Vanderbilt has recently married into one of America's richest families. But what good is dizzying wealth when society refuses to acknowledge you? Alva, who knows what it is to have nothing, will do whatever it takes to have everything.

Sweeping three decades and based on true events, this is the mesmerizing story of two fascinating, complicated women going head to head, behaving badly, and discovering what’s truly at stake.

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"Pray to God. She will help you."--Alva Vanderbilt




They call us the fairer sex. Something we find flattering and maddening in equal measure. Dainty. Delicate. Weak. Come now, if a man donned a corset, laced so tight as to shave four inches off his waist he'd pass out on the first deep breath. And need we broach the subject of childbirth? The fairer sex, our bustles.

We are the wives and daughters of wealthy men, though our family fortunes are recent. A generation or two ago you would have found our mothers and grandmothers standing over wood-burning stoves and mending socks, knitting woolen blankets. For the most part, our fathers and grandfathers worked hard, in legitimate businesses—although some may have taken advantage of circumstances after the War Between the States. They call it War Profiteering but we like to think of it as seizing the moment.

We are the Nouveau Riche. The New Money. Enemy of New York's old money, those insufferable yet enviable snobs called Knickerbockers.

In our best efforts to emulate the old money, our calendars, like theirs, revolve around two seasons: Winter and Newport. Winter takes place in Manhattan and lasts but twelve weeks. The festivities begin in November and the recent debutantes among us are put on display in hopes of landing husbands. Gentlemen in search of wives do not care if we are fluent in five languages, or none. In fact, some might prefer the latter. They are not impressed that we’ve been educated in France, can play the harp and piano and have studied ballet. These suitors are only concerned with the size of our dowries, the length of our slender necks and our doe-like eyes, which we enhance with Belladonna berry juice. Thankfully, by the start of the first waltz, the tearing and stinging subsides and our vision usually returns to normal.

The married among us feel relieved and perhaps a bit smug. We may not be sitting behind mahogany desks or be holding positions on the boards of big corporations, but we do exercise a different kind of currency. Social currency. It’s our form of gold. Our means of trading—for better invitations, more status and greater influence.

When you first come into money, no one tells you that being rich takes some getting used to. There is a rhythm to a wealthy woman’s day, set routines that leave no room for spontaneity, no room for error. We've come to learn that there's a proper way of doing everything—and we do mean everything. From how we dress to how we sit, how and what we eat, down to how we greet a gentleman on the street. This is the price we pay to keep our influence.

Now lest that sound too dreary, rest assured we do have every comfort we could ask for. Liveried servants and dressing rooms with armoires full of French couture; our wardrobes meticulously organized by our lady's maids who keep the ostrich and osprey feathers faced out on our Lemonnier hats and our morning gowns separate from our tea and afternoon attire. We have cedar closets filled with garment bags guarding the delicate beading and fabrics of our ball gowns, still stuffed with the tissue paper and perfumed sachets they were packed in prior to making their journeys from Paris, arriving to us without a wrinkle.

Of course, not one stitch of clothing, not even a pair of kid gloves belongs to us outright. They are the property of our husbands. As are we. We indulge at the pleasure of these men. And do we ever indulge! We throw ourselves into the fray. We feast on nine-course meals and dance until dawn, still twirling when we return home, or perhaps it's just the room that’s spinning from too much champagne. Our social calendars are full. We attend luncheons, teas and recitals by day, receptions, dinner parties and balls by night. And of course, the most special night of the week is always Monday.

On Monday nights we attend the opera, dressed in our finest gowns and jewels, accompanied by our husbands, fathers or perhaps our beaus, along with a grim-faced chaperone, there to ensure no hand holding or other debauchery takes place.

In the snow, peppered with coal dust and soot, we make our way to our horse-drawn carriages bound for the Academy of Music. The doors open at half past eight and we arrive precisely ten minutes after that. The orchestra is already playing the overture, but that is of no concern. We are not there for the music. Heavens no. Most of us don't particularly like opera and yet, we faithfully attend because this is what society does and being there, being seen there is all part of the game. And we aim to play. We aim to be victorious. Eventually.

Our seats are on the main floor, where anyone who can afford a ticket sits. At first blush the red and gilded auditorium appears the very essence of splendor. It’s only upon closer examination that we notice the threadbare carpets, the cracking plaster and peeling paint. The theatre holds 4,000 and by the end of the second act, rest assured, every seat will be taken just in time for the arrival of the Academy's most honored guest. As if perfectly planned with an orchestral crescendo, she steps into her velvet box in the balcony, high above us all. In kind, we turn to her like flowers to the sun.

There she is—Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor. Mrs. Astor.

While our ancestors were biding their time in Europe, hers were already walking these very streets; the first Dutch settlers to arrive in New York. That makes Mrs. Astor a Knickerbocker, American royalty.

We always yearn for intermission, our bottoms aching from the aging springs in our seats. While the Smart Set lines up outside of Mrs. Astor's box, waiting to pay homage to their reigning queen, we congregate in the lobby to stretch our legs and mingle. Creatures of habit, we will have the same conversations we had the Monday before and the Monday before that. Penelope Easton will comment that if this was Wagner we'd still be stuck in the second act and Mamie Fish will tell us her favorite musical instrument is the comb. There are never any surprises.

But tonight, just after Faust has seduced Marguerite in the third act, our lorgnettes rise in unison. Across the way, rustling in gold lame, trimmed in silver tulle, is Alva Smith. No, pardon us, Alva Vanderbilt. The new Mrs. Vanderbilt is accompanied by her handsome husband. Her vibrant red hair is crowned with a tiara and she wears a thick rope of pearls rumored to have once belonged to Catherine the Great. She’s also adorned with a diamond stomacher, sparkling earrings and half a dozen bracelets riding overtop her supple gloves. If there were such a thing as being overdressed for the opera, this would be it.

Finding the performers more engaging, most eyes return to the stage, but for those of us still paying attention to Alva Vanderbilt, we see—but for a moment—that she does the most outrageous thing. She turns toward the balcony where Mrs. Astor is sitting, looks directly at the Grand Dame, and she smiles. Suddenly the cymbals clash, the kettle drums thunder and for an instant we fear this is Mrs. Astor’s wrath. But then the flutes, the violins and other instruments join in and our attention is lulled back to the stage as we settle in for the final act.

It’s only much later that, while the moon slips out from behind the clouds, sending predawn shadows through our bedroom windows overlooking Fifth Avenue, we senses that some infinitesimal shift has occurred. This is the start of something. We just don't know what that something is yet. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Mother-daughter relationships play a large role in The Social Graces. What did you think of the various mother-daughter dynamics in the novel? Do you think mothers still exercise as much influence over their daughters today as they did in the Gilded Age? Do you think that in today’s world daughters are more outspoken with their mothers?

2. Alva’s best friend and her daughter’s godmother, Consuelo Yznaga, the Duchess of Manchester, has an affair with Alva’s husband. In the book, Alva says she feels her friend’s betrayal is worse than her husband’s. How do you feel about that? Is there a so-called Girl Code between friends? Do you think Alva should have forgiven Duchy?

3. Because women in the 1800s had few opportunities outside the home, they sought positions in society and took these roles very seriously. Do you find this frivolous or an act of survival? Is it fair that the opinion of one society matron could make or break some- one’s reputation?

4. When Caroline found out that her daughter Carrie had not been invited to Alva’s masquerade ball—the event of the season— Caroline was forced to pay the social call that thereby let the Vanderbilts into society. Do you think Caroline did the right thing for her daughter, or should she have stood her ground? What were your thoughts on the weight of this one gesture made by Mrs. Astor?

5. If you suddenly inherited millions of dollars, how do you think it would change your life, and what would you do with a windfall like the one Willie K. and Alva received?

6. The society pages and gossip columns were a new phenomenon in the 1880s. How do you think the press affected the behavior of the society matrons?

7. A secondary theme of this book is the relationships between sisters. We see it with Alva and her siblings as well as the Astor girls. Whether it was a matter of comradery or rivalry, how do you think these relationships influenced the characters?

8. The Gilded Age was definitely a time of the “haves and have-nots.” The divide between rich and poor was vast back in the 1800s. Do you think we’re still living in a world of “haves and have-nots”? To what extent are things different now? How are they the same?

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