A Boring Page of the Gilded AgeOn March 2, 2022 by Elyse
One who reads this book through will have as rough a mental journey as his physical nature would undergo in riding over a corduroy road in an old stage-coach. It makes no pretension to either scholarship or elegant diction.– Ward McAllister, Society as I Have Found It, 1890
No, dear readers, that is not a disclaimer for my blog, although you can be forgiven for asking the question.
Is anyone surprised that I’m one of the millions of people enjoying “The Gilded Age” on HBO? I didn’t think so. I was particularly delighted by actor Nathan Lane’s recent appearance as Ward McAllister, gatekeeper of 19th-century high society.
Naturally, I wanted to know more about a man contemporary sources describe as:
. . . a lawyer without practice, a free-luncher by instinct and a dancer by occupation.– The New York Star, quoted in the New Zealand Mail, June 7, 1889
Here was a historical figure ripe for a blog post. Imagine my delight when I discovered he wrote a digitized, text searchable, freely available memoir called Society as I have Found It! Imagine my disappointment when I realized it’s not so much a memoir as a how-to guide for social climbers and a lengthy account of every successful party he ever threw and/or attended.
In between racist and sexist commentary, he writes rapturous descriptions of the meals he ate. Let’s all take a moment to be grateful he was born in an era before Instagram. He’s also the worst namedropper I’ve come across since Madame Palatine—and he doesn’t even have the decency to gossip about them. Instead, it’s one fawning anecdote after another.
However, I can confirm he lives up to his reputation as a character. If any of you are still reading after a buildup like that, I present Ward McAllister as I Have Found Him.
I well remember my first fancy ball. . . A legacy of a thousand dollars paid me by the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company I expended in a fancy dress, which I flattered myself was the handsomest and richest at the ball.– Ward McAllister, Society as I Have Found It, 1890
♪ You’re so vain.
♪ You probably think this ball is about you.
John Van Buren. . . insisted on my dining with him that day at the Union Club, to meet Lord Hartington, and his brother, Lord Edward Cavendish. . . I declined, as I had no dress-suit in the city, but he would not take no for an answer.
Rookie mistake. You need a more convincing excuse to wiggle out of social plans. Personally, I suggest “a pandemic.”
“My dear man,” he said, “it will be an event in your life to meet these distinguished men. Jump in the first train, return to your country home, and get your dress-coat. By all means you must not miss my dinner.”
As. . . no one could send me my spike-tail coat as they call it at the South, I took a way train and consumed the entire day getting the necessary outfit, and returning with it to the city.– Ward McAllister, Society as I Have Found It, 1890
However, I admit that fashion expertise occasionally comes in handy.
American society is agitated over the great question whether the Earl of Craven, on his wedding day, did or did not wear his trousers turned up. In order to relieve the public mind, a prominent newspaper sent a representative to Ward McAllister, the great authority on social matters, and this eminent person has given it as his opinion that the earl did not intend to go through the ceremony with his trousers turned up, but simply forgot to turn them down when he arrived at the church.– The Aberdare Times, August 19, 1893
Who says Ward isn’t a contributing member of society? (Besides me.)
After my marriage I took up my residence in Newport, buying a farm on Narragansett Bay and turning farmer in good earnest. I planted out 10,000 trees on that farm and then went to Europe to let them grow, expecting a forest on my return, but I found only one of them struggling for existence three years later.– Ward McAllister, Society as I Have Found It, 1890
Finally, someone has a worse gardening track record than I do!
At that period I worshiped doctors; my theory then was that you owed your existence to them, that they kept you in the world, and not to have a doctor within call was to place yourself in danger of immediate and sudden death. . .
This doctor made a new man of me. “Throw physic to the dogs,” was his motto; “you will never die: you will in the end have to be shot to get you out of the world; air and exercise is all you want: eat slowly and do not deluge yourself with water at dinner.” Of water he had a holy horror. “Drink what good wine you wish and let water alone.”– Ward McAllister, Society as I Have Found It, 1890
Since the book details practically every glass of wine Ward ever drank, I can affirm he followed this advice to the letter.
The next great social event that I recall was the great fancy ball given by the Schermerhorns. . . All the guests were asked to appear in the costume of the period of Louis XV. . .
The men in tights and silk stockings, for the first time in their lives, became jealous of each other’s calves, and in one instance, a friend of mine, on gazing at the superb development in this line of a guest, doubted nature’s having bestowed such generous gifts on him; so, to satisfy himself, he pricked his neighbor’s calf with his sword, actually drawing blood, but the possessor of the fine limbs never winced; later on he expressed forcibly his opinion of the assault. By not wincing the impression that he had aided nature was confirmed.– Ward McAllister, Society as I Have Found It, 1890
Some things never change. If they’d had cell phones and dating apps, I bet these guys would’ve sent women unsolicited pictures of their calves.
Obnoxious Name Dropper
An incomplete list of people Ward claims to be friends with:
- Business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt;
- British politician Lord Frederick Cavendish;
- British politician Evelyn Ashley;
- Hong Kong Governor Sir George William Des Vœux;
- Unnamed governor of the Bahamas;
- The California, New York and Southern delegations;
- U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Brewster;
- General Winfield Scott Hancock;
- Unnamed U.S. Supreme Court Justice; and
- U.S. President Chester Arthur.
I’m not the only one who noticed Ward’s penchant for bragging about his besties:
His only regret upon leaving this life probably was that he could not take his cardcase with him and would be under the painful necessity of entering heaven unintroduced.– The Buffalo Enquirer, quoted in the Madisonian, March 16, 1895
I’m also not the only one who’s sick of it:
Ward McAllister (says a Yankee paper) rather approves of hoopskirts. Let Ward have any kind of monkey cage he prefers if It will stop him from chattering.– The Cardiff Times, April 22, 1893
As prestigious as it would be, if Ward sends me a dinner invitation, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. After all, I have nothing decent to wear. However, I’ll gladly watch him on the next episode of “The Gilded Age”—just as long as the camera cuts away when he starts talking about his famous friends.
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.