“The Golden Age”: what is reality and what is fiction?

A scene from this week’s episode of “The Gilded Age,” Julian Fellowes’ frothy period drama on HBO, takes us to Central Park in the late 19th century. Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), young, rebellious and newly arrived from the darkness of Pennsylvania, rides in a carriage with her two blue-blooded aunts when talking about Caroline Astor, the fearsome dean of New York society.

“Do you like Mrs. Astor?” asks Marianne.

“It’s like saying, ‘Do you like the rain?'” replies her aunt Agnès (a wasp Christine Baranski). “She is a fact of life that we have to live with.”

It’s one of many nods to New York City history that appears in “The Gilded Age.” Set in a time of dramatic change, the series chronicles a time when the city’s center of gravity shifted upwards, when the rules of society were rewritten as quickly as new European-inspired mansions were sprung up along Fifth Avenue, and where old families like the Astors and the Schermerhorns were challenged socially and financially by upstarts named Vanderbilt, Gould and Rockefeller.

The era name, taken from a book co-authored by Mark Twain, indicates that the glitter was on the surface. “Gilded means covered in gold, not gold,” said Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a history professor at Rutgers University who was “The Gilded Age’s” lead historical consultant and a co-executive producer. “It was a time when economic inequality, racial segregation, violence and nativism coexisted with luxury and opulence.”

Carl Raymond, a social historian whose podcast, “The Gilded Gentleman,” focuses on the era, said cultural shifts were largely driven by “tremendous changes in business infrastructure, when money crazy was pouring in and that old New York was being challenged by new ones.”

“That’s when the new society was created and everyone was fighting for power,” he said.

The HBO series is mostly about the golden age of our imagination, full of big families, lavish furnishings, lavish entertainment, strict social rules, massive fortunes, and boundless ambitions.

About halfway through its first season, which ends March 21, “The Gilded Age” mixed fictional melodrama with real historical stories, like the importance of the black press, the influx of stratospherically wealthy railroads in the city and a society simmering dispute over fashionable opera’s inhospitability to newcomers.

Events unfolded between some characters who were entirely made up and others who were clearly inspired by real people – Bertha Russell, who strives for Carrie Coon, for example, channels Alva Vanderbilt, who also has eyes on the prize – as well as a few that are depictions of actual historical figures. These include Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy), the queen of Gilded Age society; Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), a snobby elite social arbiter; Clara Barton (Linda Emond), the founder of the American Red Cross; and T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones), the black writer, orator, civil rights leader and editor.

Part of the fun of watching “The Gilded Age,” which was recently renewed for a second season, is disentangling fact from fiction. To help you out, here are the back stories of some of the series’ world-shaping elements.

In the first episode, the chef who works for the new, highly ambitious and ambitious Russell family notes with approval that the family has moved to elegant 61st Street, about 30 blocks north of their old home. “30th Street is out of style,” he says.

Indeed, the story of Manhattan’s early upper class is the story of migration north from Bowling Green to Washington Square to Murray Hill in the 1950s and then straight on to Fifth Avenue. in the 1880s.

“All of a sudden, people who you think are inferior to you, people you didn’t want to associate with, are suddenly in your neighborhood,” said Esther Crain, author of “The Gilded Age in New York.” and founder of the Ephemeral New website. York, which explores interesting aspects of the city.

She described it as a time when corruption, exploitation and corruption were rampant, but also when the city’s culture, way of life and institutions began to take shape, cementing New York’s sense of to be the center of everything.

“New York was the microcosm of the time – the financial capital of the country, the industrial base of many large corporations,” she said. “There was culture, the capital, theater, shopping and fashion, and anyone who was anyone wanted to be here.”

“The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton’s exquisite dissection of Gilded Age New York, opens with the main characters preparing to see “Faust” at the Academy of Music, the opera house adored by the old New York guard. “Conservatives liked it because it was small and impractical, and thus kept out the ‘new people’ that New York was beginning to dread and yet attracted,” Wharton writes.

Indeed, although Bertha Russell, the wealthiest and cheekiest upstart of “The Gilded Age”, attends the opera as a guest, she discovers to her dismay that all her wealth cannot buy her a coveted private box. The Academy numbered less than two dozen, belonging to prominent New York families and passed on to their heirs.

“Going to the opera in those days was a social battleground,” Raymond said. “It was about where you were sitting, what you were wearing – and most importantly, who saw you doing it.” The layout lent itself to the social peacock, he said, with “boxes on one side of the stage looking at boxes on the other side”.

In New York, the wealthy bored of being left out tend to create their own fancier alternatives. In this case, a group of new intruders pooled their money and built a bigger and better building. (A character from “The Gilded Age” describes them as “JP Morgans, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts – all New York opportunists.”) The result, the first Metropolitan Opera House, opened in 1883 on Broadway and 39th Street. (Unable to compete, the Academy attempted to reinvent itself as a vaudeville venue but closed several years later.)

Dunbar said the ease with which the wealthy could buy their way into society during this period reflected and reinforced one of America’s founding myths: that it was a place where anything was possible, as long as you did it. work and earn money. .

“It may seem like it’s just a case of ‘old’ rich and ‘new’ rich fighting each other, and who cares,” Dunbar said. “But it’s about the changing of the guard and the changing of traditions, and how this nation has always dealt with change.”

America was still a young country in its Golden Age, barely 100 years old and forged by a revolution that ostensibly repudiated the old ways. But despite everything, Manhattan’s high society seemed determined to imitate European customs.

In “The Gilded Age”, Mrs. Russell reflects the tastes of the times by boasting that her new chef is French. His extravagant new home was designed to emulate grand European homes, much like the mansions built by real New York upstarts of the time. (The interiors were also usually filled with materials purchased from European castles and imported at great expense.) The new opera house was modeled on its European counterparts. Social customs too – the elaborate codes of dress, manners and decorum, dictating who could be presented to whom – were also very European, perhaps as a response from a nervous upper class to the exciting but menacing notion of American social mobility.

“Caroline Astor’s model was Europe; she wanted to create a European American court,” Raymond said. “One of the funniest ironies about the Gilded Age is that you have a society desperately trying to emulate the courts of Europe and the aristocracy of Britain.”

For many years, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor was the leader of New York society and the epitome of Manhattan’s old guard. With the help of her friend Ward McAllister, she decided who and what was or was not worthy. It was said that his parties were limited to 400 guests from just 25 “old” families.

But she met her match in the incredibly wealthy Alva Vanderbilt, who swept through New York and in 1882 moved into the most over-the-top new mansion the city had ever seen, at 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Designed under Vanderbilt’s watchful eye by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt and known as “The Little Castle”, it was huge, made of limestone and done in a French Renaissance and Gothic style. It did indeed look like a castle, in that you can have a castle in the middle of an American city. Astor herself had two houses, one in the increasingly dated 1930s and one in the 1950s. But neither was as nice as the Vanderbilt mansion.

In 1883, Vanderbilt hosted a lavish masquerade ball in front of over 1,000 guests. Everyone clamored to be invited, but Astor and his daughter Carrie (who desperately wanted to attend) were left off the guest list. The story goes that after Vanderbilt remarked to McAllister that she had never been introduced to Astor, Astor quickly called Vanderbilt – and soon received an invite to the party.

Alas, like virtually all Golden Age mansions, the Vanderbilts’ “Little Castle” eventually became too expensive for the family to maintain. In 1926, the Vanderbilt heirs sold it to developers for $3.75 million, and it was destroyed. An office building now sits on the site.

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