Named one of 2021’s Most Anticipated Historical Novels by Oprah Daily ∙ SheReads ∙ Frolic ∙ BookReporter ∙ and more...
The author of Park Avenue Summer throws back the curtain on one of the most remarkable feuds in history: Alva Vanderbilt and the 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, women are valued by their pedigree, dowry, and, most importantly, connections. They have few rights and even less independence—what they do have is society. 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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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Caroline let the news sink in, though it didn't have far to travel. A headache was already forming behind her left eye, gathering strength as the pain spread to her chest. Or, more accurately, her heart. She looked at Augusta's handwriting again: Your husband was seen with . . . Her sister-in-law probably thought she was doing the Christian thing. It shouldn't have come as a surprise. And truly it didn't. Caroline's husband did as he pleased, with whom he pleased, while she went mute, tolerating, enduring. What other choice was there? Caroline tore the letter in half and then quarters and eighths and so on until she had reduced William's infidelity to confetti.
Abandoning the scraps, she went out on her bedroom terrace overlooking the cliffs and the Atlantic. Fingers resting atop the marble balustrade, she was bathed in sunlight. Giant swells from the ocean rushed the beach, breaking against the cliffs as blankets of sea foam, left in their wake, were dragged back to the surf. High tide was approaching, and just as the waves gained momentum, rising to full strength, Caroline, too, felt a surge within herself. Not that long ago, William's dalliances had crushed her, sending her into a spiral of self-pity, unable to leave her bed for days on end. But here she was, still standing. Yes, her head throbbed, and her heart ached, but she wasn't crumbling. She'd been here before with him. She'd be here again.
Wisdom was the only benefit of growing older, the trade-off for the faint lines around her eyes and mouth. Like a wave that rises, peaks and breaks, at forty-five Caroline Astor was at the midpoint of her life, having spent all those years harnessing her energy until now, at last, her boldness was cresting. How long could she sustain this before it all collapsed? She couldn't say. She didn't want to think about that, about what came next, when she was no longer vital, no longer so important. It was inevitable. It happened to everyone, sooner or later. The elders, who should have been revered, sought out for their knowledge and experience, instead were pushed into corners, forgotten and invisible to those whose time had come. But for now, surely Caroline was at her peak. No longer riddled with self-doubt, apologizing for who and what she was. She wished she could stop time, stay in this spot forever.
Yes, William had a reputation, and if Augusta knew about his latest lapse, others were already talking. If there was one thing Caroline detested, it was gossip. She imagined the matrons strolling down Bellevue Avenue saying, If it weren't for her pedigree, he never would have married her.
William Backhouse Astor Jr. was still a handsome man. Though slightly balding now, he had large brown eyes and that lovely horseshoe mustache that called attention to his cleft chin. Caroline knew she was no beauty, having inherited her grandfather's square jaw and prominent nose, but what those society ladies didn't know was that no matter how many women caught William's eye, no matter how many he'd take up with, she would be the one he'd come back to. Every time. Always.
She heard footsteps and turned to see Emily standing in her bedroom. She seemed tentative, even skittish. A random noise in the hallway had just made her jump, and that made Caroline forget about her headache and all that had caused it.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," said Emily, her fingers reaching for her necklace, touching each peridot, every emerald. Knowing Emily, she was adding up the number of gemstones in her head. Some people related to the world in terms of words or colors, maybe sounds or music. For Emily it was math. She'd look at a wheel and focus on the number of spokes. A bouquet translated into the number of flowers, sometimes down to the number of petals. Before her second birthday she had learned to count to five-holding up one finger at a time. Numbers never lied, never changed. Their absoluteness had always reassured her.
"I'd like to talk to you about the clambake," Emily said, her shoulders rising with a deep inhale as if conjuring some inner courage. "I would very much like to extend an invitation to Mr. James Van Alen."
"I see." The headache was back. Caroline paused before a curio cabinet and rearranged her bronze garnitures while considering her response. Emily, now twenty-two, was her eldest, and Caroline was eager for her to marry, just so long as she didn't marry James Van Alen.
"I'd like to invite him," Emily repeated.
"Well." Caroline set the figurine down. If she said no, she feared she'd only drive Emily further into Van Alen's arms. "I suppose we could have one more guest."
"I-I would like Mr. James Van Alen to be seated at our table." She nodded-There, I said it-and reached down, touching her necklace once again.
Caroline laughed though she didn't find it funny. "Oh, I'm afraid that would be most inappropriate. Seating Mr. Van Alen at our table would send the wrong message. Everyone will assume you're already spoken for."
"But I am spoken for, Mother. I am."
"Oh, please don't let your grandmother hear you say that. You'll give her heart failure." Caroline's own heart clenched at the thought. James Van Alen was altogether wrong for Emily just as Horace Wellsby had been wrong for Caroline when she was a young girl. Back then, Caroline's mother had forbidden her to see him, and that was that. No protest, no questions asked. Going against her mother's wishes would have been akin to breaking the law. But Emily wasn't quite as dutiful, and Caroline could picture her sneaking off to meet Van Alen, secretly writing him love letters. Caroline didn't want to put Emily in a position to have to lie. She didn't want Emily tempted by Van Alen in the first place.
"Oh, Emily," Caroline sighed. James Van Alen was a widower. He should have been mourning his wife, who had passed less than a year ago, rather than courting another woman. She wanted to say that James Van Alen did not come from good stock. That despite his father being a brigadier general, James Van Alen Sr. had invested heavily in the Illinois Central Railroad and had taken advantage of his workers. She wanted to say that James Van Alen Jr. was a laughingstock, that after attending Oxford for a year, he had returned to the States with a phony British accent and a fake monocle.
She wanted to say all that and more, but instead she took Emily's hand and coaxed her to the side of the bed and sat beside her. "My darling girl, don't be in such a rush. James Van Alen is only one man. There are others, I assure you."
"Oh, but he's wonderful. He's handsome and intelligent and kind."
"Don't underestimate yourself, Emily. You have beauty and breeding. You can have your pick of eligible gentlemen."
"But he's the one I want."
"I know you think that now, but there are several fine bachelors coming to the clambake. I invited them specifically for you."
"Can't you introduce them to Helen and Charlotte instead?"
"I've invited other gentlemen for your sisters."
"What about Carrie? She's fifteen. She's old enough for a beau."
Caroline stood up and reached for Emily's chin, tilting her face until their eyes met. "Right now, I'm more concerned about you. Now I'll agree to invite your Mr. Van Alen to the clambake, provided you don't allow him to monopolize all your time."
Emily was about to say something else when Caroline's butler, Hade, interrupted, announcing that Mr. Ward McAllister was there to see her.
"Mother, can we finish talking about this after you meet with Mr. McAllister?"
"I'm sorry, Emily, but having James Van Alen at our table is out of the question."
Emily's brow crinkled; her lips trembled ever so slightly. She was on the verge of tears, which she knew better than to shed in front of Caroline. Just as her own mother had done, Caroline raised her daughters to be strong, disapproving of any show of weakness. Emily brushed past Caroline, muttering, "You don't understand . . ."
Caroline smoothed the front of her gown. She would deal with her own heartache and her daughter's disappointment later. She could do that-push unpleasantness aside whenever needed. Some mistook that trait of hers for being cold and callous when really it was all about efficiency and the ordering of one's thoughts. And so, for now, she was Mrs. Astor and society awaited. She followed Hade down the grand staircase, moving in her usual slow manner, as if she carried the weight of her Dutch ancestors on her back.
Ward McAllister was in the sitting room, a short and stout man with a noticeable paunch and a slightly unkempt goatee. Despite his elfin appearance, he had somehow become the leading authority on style and etiquette, the expert on wine, food and entertaining. Together, Ward and Caroline had organized society and ran it in much the same way the Astor men ran their real estate empire.
Caroline had met Ward years ago when he was a lawyer. And not a particularly successful one. He had recently returned from England and France, eager to put what he'd learned about etiquette and all things fashionable to work in America. Caroline had been at a lawn party in Newport when she'd spotted a young Ward pouring his drink into the hostess's flower bed.
"Do you disapprove of the champagne, or are you merely assisting the gardener?" she'd asked.
"Actually, the former. One should never scrimp when it comes to champagne," he said with mock horror that had made her laugh.
"Might I remind you," she said, knowing that he himself could not have afforded much better, "not everyone has the means not to scrimp."
"Then one should acquire the means." His eyes widened as he playfully twisted the tip of his mustache.
Years later, he had done just that-acquired the means-by marrying a wealthy woman. Unfortunately, soon after, an illness left her bedridden, which meant Ward was on his own to navigate society's amusements. William had never cared for Ward and used to joke, calling him an invert. The man sits around with you hens all day discussing centerpieces and dance steps.
"Apologies for the intrusion," Ward said, rising with his walking stick in hand, "but we are in the midst of a crisis."
"Oh?" Caroline detected a slight thrill beneath his alarm, knowing that her friend liked nothing more than to be in the center of a societal storm.
"Mamie Fish is hosting a fish fry."
"Well, that's certainly one fish too many for me." Caroline waved her hand, brushing it aside. Mamie Fish was new money, and Caroline had no use for her or the other members of the nouveau riche.
"But don't you know," said Ward, the buttons on his vest straining as he breathed heavily, "she's deliberately having it on the same night as your clambake."
"Is that so?" Caroline actually welcomed this minor hitch. It gave her something to work on, and correcting anything always restored her sense of control. She might not have been able to do a thing about her husband's most recent affair, or Emily's poor taste in men, but society still looked to her, and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish was not about to challenge that.
"Mamie's fish fry is all people are talking about, don't you know," Ward said, repeating his favorite catchphrase.
"Really?" Caroline crossed the room to straighten a calla lily leaning too far left in its delft blue vase. It had been bothering her since she'd entered the room.
"They say she's having a chamber orchestra!"
"Hmmm." Caroline paused, her hand on the stem. "Only a chamber?" She positioned the lily back in the vase. "We're having a symphony."
"A symphony orchestra?" His left eyebrow arched.
Reaching for the pull cord, Caroline rang for Maria de Baril, her social secretary, who immediately appeared, as if she'd been perched outside the door, waiting. She was a petite woman with very dark hair and an olive complexion. She always wore a fanciful array of beads about her neck.
"Maria, we're going to be making some changes to our clambake."
"Very well, madam." She produced a pen and small leather-bound tablet, her hands poised for dictation.
"Send word to the Academy of Music. Tell them I'm requesting that their orchestra perform for my guests along with Christine Nilsson."
Ward gave her an admiring nod, which she returned with a look-What did you expect? She was on the opera's board-as was Ward-and was well acquainted with Miss Nilsson, the star Swedish soprano.
"Also," she said to Maria, "inform the chef that we'll be adding a few more courses to our menu." She began ticking items off her fingers. "Lobster croquettes, truite ˆ la meunire and crevettes au beurre blanc. Instead of the Riesling, we'll be serving Chassagne-Montrachet, and see to it that an additional case of the 1860 Mo‘t et Chandon is chilled."
This time, Ward gave her a conspiratorial yet all-impressed look, as if he hadn't anticipated her going to such lengths, sparing no expense. This was what she did. It was what made her Mrs. Astor. Not just any hostess, and certainly not Mamie Fish, could entertain the way Caroline did. She had it down to a science. Off the top of her head she was able to put together an exquisite French menu, paired with the perfect wines. She could envision the table settings down to the centerpieces.
"Will there be anything else?" asked Maria, still taking notes.
"Yes. See to it that Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish receives an invitation."
"You're inviting Mamie?" Ward was aghast, leaning forward on his walking stick. "But Stuyvesant Fish is railroad money. If you extend that invitation to Mamie, there's no going back. You'll be officially welcoming her into society."
"It's better to have her in society than on the outside. I don't wish to hire the Academy's symphony and their leading soprano every time Mamie Fish decides to throw a party."
The first annual Stuyvesant Fish fish fry has been canceled until further notice. Alva sat at the table in the morning room and studied the ornate calligraphy, the raised black ink on the thick vellum, turning it over as if expecting an explanation on the back. Her only worthwhile invitation of the Newport season had just been revoked.
She plunked Mamie's note down, pushed away from the table and wandered down a long corridor lined with portraits, three generations of stern-looking, mustached and muttonchopped Vanderbilt men. Alva thought Willie K., whose portrait hung at the end, was the handsomest of them all, perhaps the most handsome man she'd ever seen.
Reading Group Guide
The Social Graces by Renée Rosen
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 someone’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?