Mrs. Astor's New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age / Edition 1

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Mrs. Astor, undisputed queen of New York society in the decades before the First World War, created a social aristocracy of unparalleled extravagance and exclusivity. This lively account of her life and the era over which she presided sheds new light on the origins and lifestyle of this aristocracy.
“An immensely interesting tale, and Homberger tells it well.”—Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World
“In his elegant and extensive account Eric Homberger . . . recounts the details of real estate transactions, fancy-dress balls, upwardly mobile marriages, and exclusive enclaves . . . [incorporating] delightful bits of cultural information along the way.”—Marjorie Garber, Boston Sunday Globe
“Homberger’s narrative has the verve and resonance of a novel by Edith Wharton.”—Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
“A rollicking, illuminating book.”—Clive Aslet, Country Life

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A fascinating new academic study."—James Reginato, W Magazine

"This history is a rare find—a book of sophisticated scholarship that also makes for entertaining reading. . . . Solidly researched and a delight to read, this book is recommended for public libraries and for academic libraries with collections in New York history."—Library Journal

The New Yorker
Although nineteenth-century New York was home to an established upper class, the absence of a hereditary gentry and the relative ease with which new fortunes were being made kept erstwhile aristocrats busy patrolling the boundaries of "society." This lively, if disjointed, history shows just how much energy was devoted to resisting the invasions of the nouveaux riches, and examines the complicated relationship between the upper class and the city it imagined it ruled. The book's real strength lies in its analysis of the post-Civil War era, when a flood of new money forced New York's more established families to look to the public arena as a place to assert their distinctiveness. Beginning in the eighteen-eighties, the members of the upper class chose to court the press, becoming stars of the "society page." Ironically, their increased fame served to weaken their independence, as they, like all celebrities, became subject to the vagaries of public interest.
Publishers Weekly
New York scholar Homberger (Scenes from the Life of a City: Corruption and Conscience in Old New York) gathers a dog's breakfast of research into his latest exploration of the Big Apple. The result is an intriguing and curious volume that can't seem to decide whether it's a coffee table book or a study of the psychology of late 19th- and early 20th- century American aristocrats. The idea of an aristocracy emerging from a fervently democratic society is oxymoronic, as Homberger points out, but for over half a century New York's upper class was peculiarly concerned with such a hierarchy. Ward McAllister's "Patriarchs," considered to be the elite of New York society, and Mrs. Astor's list of "Four Hundred" were the bread and butter of this era's snobbery; the latter half of Homberger's book delves into McAllister's and Astor's lives, chronicling their cotillions, lunches, amusements and affairs with considerable relish. The slightly whimsical last chapter, "Being Mrs. Astor," which begins with a description of that lady's last years (spent planning parties that her doctors had instructed her servants not to hold, and making purchases merchants knew not to send to her house), may be the best part of Homberger's book. His skill for bringing to life characters of a century ago saves the book from the occasionally tedious specificity of earlier chapters, which seem to have gotten bogged down by admittedly impressive research in newspapers and other contemporary records. Illus. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This history is a rare find-a book of sophisticated scholarship that also makes for entertaining reading. Homberger's (The Historical Atlas of New York City) descriptive account of aristocratic life in late 19th- and early 20th-century America is an attempt to deal in nonfiction with a subject he feels is mostly understood through novels. New York's aristocracy may have been newer and more fluid than that of other cities, but it was still "a great lumbering elephant of a social presence." Paradoxically, the wealth and power of the social elites resulted not in a sense of freedom but a strangling anxiety to conform to the narrow rules of correct behavior. Mrs. William Astor, a central player in New York's world of aristocratic excess, was an arbiter of social acceptability while also working to keep the undesirables in their place. Homberger takes us to the extravagant balls that defined the social season, develops the rise of the media involved with social life, and describes the elites' tony neighborhoods. All this occurs against the backdrop of a city teeming with poverty, as illustrated by Jacob Riis's influential pictorial, How the Other Half Lives (1890). Solidly researched and a delight to read, this book is recommended for public libraries and for academic libraries with collections in New York history.-Bonnie Collier, Yale Law Lib. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300105155
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/18/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 371,638
  • Product dimensions: 7.44 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Homberger is reader in English and American Studies at the University of East Anglia.

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