Gilded City: Scandal and Sensation in Turn-of-the-Century New York


The dark side of the Gilded Age is revealed in this vivid new view of turn-of-the-century New York. Scholar of American culture M. H. Dunlop penetrates the psyche of New York City in the pivotal years made famous by Edith Wharton, the Vanderbilts, and the Rockefellers, unveiling an age that was not genteel and proper but dangerous and predatory.

Drawing on rare primary sources, Dunlop showcases the sensational and surreal events of the times — from a wealthy society wedding ...

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The dark side of the Gilded Age is revealed in this vivid new view of turn-of-the-century New York. Scholar of American culture M. H. Dunlop penetrates the psyche of New York City in the pivotal years made famous by Edith Wharton, the Vanderbilts, and the Rockefellers, unveiling an age that was not genteel and proper but dangerous and predatory.

Drawing on rare primary sources, Dunlop showcases the sensational and surreal events of the times — from a wealthy society wedding where locals were trampled in their frenzy to watch, to the harrowing nine-hour execution of a zoo elephant diagnosed with sexual frustration, and more. Spiced with cameos of such characters as Stanford White, William Merritt Chase, the Midnight Band of Mercy, and exotic dancer Little Egypt, Gilded City brings to life a key era that saw the city rise to dominance in America.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It's unclear whether Dunlop (Sixty Miles from Contentment), who teaches 19th-century American literature and culture at Iowa State University, believes she is shocking her readers with tales of greed, excess and debauchery based on her close reading of period big-city newspapers, especially the New York Herald. Certainly, readers are well aware that even beneath the veneer of Victorian propriety lay the seamier side of the human condition. Nevertheless, she demonstrates that in the years between 1880 and 1910--an age of "big new money" where "more and larger" were important achievements--in New York City, "there was more wealth in private hands, more stuff available to buy, more opportunity to get ahead, and more densely packed poverty than anywhere else on the face of the earth." The wealthy flaunted their jewels, held elaborate social affairs and aspired to connections with European royalty. The general public was fascinated by such conspicuous consumption, in particular by "what other Americans could be made to do in their service" in exchange for money: "rich and not so rich men [set] out to discover how many girls--at fifteen dollars apiece--would drop their undergarments in front of a group of men." But this same public (rich and otherwise) was constantly on the lookout for the wealthy's errors in judgment and action; a New York Herald reporter, for instance, described how Giulia Morosini, who had invited him to view her diamond-encrusted wardrobe for the upcoming social season, had the gall to suggest that, in compiling such a wardrobe, she was serving as a benefactress of social welfare and a promoter of the arts.. Dunlop has perfectly timed for what has been called a "new gilded age" her captivating and enlightening work on Americans' obsession with money and privilege. Agent, John Ware. (Nov. 28; publication of this review was delayed due to a production error) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
At the end of the 19th century, more wealth was privately owned in New York City than anywhere on Earth, notes Dunlop (American literature and culture, Iowa State Univ.; Sixty Miles from Contentment). Daily newspapers covered an acquisitive, unrestrained upper class that, with their glittering events and lavish wardrobes, demanded to be noticed. For her social portrait, the author explored books and eight city dailies, singling out the New York Herald for its informed coverage and style. With wry eloquence, Dunlop draws from an opulent Edith Wharton world, where wealth might buy status through a daughter's alliance with an impoverished British nobleman. Appearances mattered in 1897, when a plumber was denied admission to the Metropolitan Museum because he wore overalls. Diamond tiaras, rare skins, frenzied decorating, police-escorted slumming tours, and men's private pastimes occupied the moneyed class along with drug addiction and jarred nerves. Those without power and money who protested intolerable conditions were deemed cranks or worse. With chapters on art collecting, interior design, the depression of 1893, and even the widespread passion for diamonds, this entertaining book is filled with the immediacy and irreverence of its era's press coverage. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Elaine Machleder, Bronx, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
new leaf press
Whether anatomizing a sociey wedding, plumbing the demimonde, or relating the grotesque execution of a male zoo elephant, Dunlop furnishes not only vivid narrative but also historical context; the wedding chapter, for example, contains marvellous digressions on the roles of diamonds and flowers in high society.
Kirkus Reviews
Entertaining if insubstantial look at the goings-on among late—19th-century New York's upper classes. Dunlop (Sixty Miles from Contentment, not reviewed) paints an unflattering picture of life among the social elite of turn-of-the-century Manhattan. He draws from a number of contemporary secondary sources (and a smattering of surviving primary ones) and begins by relating tales of the social excesses of the Bradley Martins, a preeminent and trend-setting family of the time. Then he roams through considerations of the bizarrely fashionable clothing styles and artistic tastes of the period, offers a brief discussion of rapidly increasing class tensions, and moves on to an overview of the sexual dysfunctions of both humans and elephants (yes, that's right) of those days. The spectacularly insensitive behavior of New York's prominent people (from all eras), of course, will never cease to amaze. But while the eccentricities of Gotham's 19th-century denizens make for an amusing read, the author relies almost exclusively on contemporary newspaper accounts (from publications that invented the practice of"yellow journalism"). These accounts provide endless anecdotal diversions, but are hardly reliable in their veracity. Dunlop has two simple claims to establish. First, she maintains that there are many historical parallels between the late-19th century and our own day. Fair enough. Second, she believes that the ills of that time were caused by a hurried, overworked, male-dominated, sexist, and racist society unwilling to tolerate social criticism of any kind. As valid as this argument may be, it needs more in the way of evidence than a seemingly never-endinglitanyof New York Herald snippets and headlines. An agreeable snapshot of an interesting time and class in New York—but a less-than-satisfying historical critique. (b&w illustrations throughout, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060937720
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/1/2001
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

M.H. Dunlop holds a Ph.D. in American literature from George Washington University. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in nineteenth century American literature and culture at Iowa State University and has published widely on those topics. She is the author of Sixty Miles from Contentment: Traveling the Nineteenth-Century American Interior. She lives in Ames, Iows.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Diamonds on the Mind

To the Waldorf Hotel, January 31, 1897. Dear Gentlemen--Let me say in a very few words that there is a great scheme being contemplated of dynamite destruction in your hotel on the night of the Bradley Martin affair, and by a person whom you least expect. I dare not say too much now as I think I am being watched by the gang, but keep your eyes wide open till you hear from me again. I will not dare to disclose my name at this moment. Bye-bye. In earnest.

At one in the afternoon of Tuesday, April 18, 1893, at Grace Church in Manhattan, sixteen-year-old Cornelia Martin was married to twenty-five-year-old William George Robert, fourth Earl of Craven and Viscount of Uffington. She was the only daughter of Bradley Martin and Cornelia Sherman Martin, and he was a heavily tattooed English country boy, rumored to be impoverished, who appeared at the church with his trousers rolled up above his boots. His contribution to the union was his tide, while the Bradley Martins, Americans living in Scotland, contributed to his future well-being the equivalent of eleven million dollars. Perhaps in an effort to raise Cornelia Martin above the mere countess that she would become, the Bradley Martins described the wedding presents as "fit for a royal princess." With a show of reluctance, they released to the New York newspapers a short list of gifts said to "exceed anything ever given at a wedding in this country," including "a diamond tiara, a bracelet set with alternate diamonds and sapphires, a collarette of superb Indian stones, old mine diamonds, set in silver, a vinaigrette of Louis XV style set at thetop with a precious topaz surrounded by diamonds, a globular watch encrusted in diamonds attached to a diamond coronet, a dagger of pearls and diamonds, a ring set with three solitaire diamonds, a sapphire and diamond dagger, a hat pin set with diamonds and sapphires, and a brooch composed of a wreath of diamonds."

The Bradley Martins experienced life as a series of dollar amounts and a stream of goods, each with its price tag. The experience was not entirely satisfactory. Especially in America, land of property-tax assessors and social critics, life for the Bradley Martins lacked the comfort of entitlement. In their yearning for settled and predictable public homage, the Bradley Martins sought to anglicize and royalize themselves while masking that effort as entertainment for others. In their struggle, they had the advantage of being exquisitely attuned to the great consumer icons of their time, to the visible and desirable objects of agreed-upon value: they knew what to select from the enormous repertoire of urban consumer goods, and they knew how to transform clusters of those goods into a social event. Moreover, they knew how to elaborate the pleasures of consuming: they displayed more of the desirable stuff than other persons did, they persuaded their guests to give them the same icons they displayed as hosts, they teased the multitudes into wishing for a look at their goods, and they exacted homage to themselves in the form of publicity. They had no psychology; they were, to steal a phrase from Henry James, persons of "bottomless superficiality." It is as Americans that they matter. Even when they moved to England and hinted that their name might be hyphenated as Bradley-Martin, they remained Americans, and they were never more American than when, under the pressure of American laughter, they backed away from hyphenation and claimed that it had been a newspaper error and none of their doing.

At the top of Mrs. Bradley Martin's list were jewels, objects whose desirability was unquestioned and accepted across American society. Mrs. Bradley Martin owned jewels in "every conceivable form," and indeed had amazed Scottish locals when she turned up at county events in Inverness-shire wearing her tiara of solitaire diamonds, orher Marie Antoinette rubies, or her diamond sun. Because local reac-tion to her in Inverness-shire had been mixed, she had sought out richexpatriates like herself and had taken to tossing parties at which shecould be seen by no fewer than forty people who really understood diamonds. Across the class levels of the Bradley Martins' circle, everyone was called upon to affirm her values, including the servants: the butler, two footmen, and Mrs. and Miss Martin's maids together gave Cornelia Martin a bracelet set with "a beautiful pearl surrounded bydiamonds' " piously pronounced by the Bradley Martins to be "one of the most valued wedding presents of all." The groom gave diamond lace pins and scarf pins to the members of the wedding party, and quite a few other jewels changed hands when numerous guests and onlookers were robbed of their jewelry in the crush at Grace Church.

New Yorkers had been primed for Cornelia Martin's wedding by intense daily newspaper coverage of gifts, tides, and floral decorations; publicity engineered by the Bradley Martins had teased the locals into wanting to see not only the bridal couple but also the twelve hundred fashionable guests expected out of the three thousand invited. Three hours before the event a crowd began to gather for the show. Broadway strollers joined the throng, and street cleaners and bootblacks abandoned their work and were swallowed up in the crowd. The stretch of Broadway between Tenth Street and Thirteenth Street was transformed into a human mass, and in each window of the St. Denis Hotel opposite Grace Church stood persons equipped with binoculars and opera glasses. Because no accommodation had been made for the uninvited onlookers, they created their own viewing protocols. As each carriage approached from the north, a thick and jostling crowd halted it and settled six deep around it while they examined its contents, discussed with each other the looks and the lace of its occupants, and assessed the quality of their diamonds. The uninvited freely questioned carriage occupants about the bride's millions and the heraldic tattoos reported to cover the chest, back, and biceps of the groom.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2001

    The Gilded City's Rotted Underside

    When I picked up this book, I expected it to be a chronicle of the decadence and debauchery of turn-of-the-century New York ('Scandal and Sensation' are in the subtitle, after all). As I read along, it became clear that the author had a specific thesis in mind, and that the book was more a study of class/sexual/social relations during this economically volatile era than a scandal sheet. Fine. But as a study, I found the evidence to be slim. While the author's diligent research is evident, what she presents as support for her theory (newspaper accounts) is questionable. Imagine future generations trying to figure us out based on what the New York Post says! Still... I enjoyed the dozens upon dozens of anecdotes, and Dunlop's style is very engaging. Even the footnotes were enjoyable! While I wasn't satisfied with her attempt to neatly tie together all the chapters at the end of the book, I was satisified that I had gotten a better understanding of a decadent, turbulent, and fascinating society.

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